International shows on Netflix began as nothing but a novelty.
When the streaming service first began, anime, foreign-language dramas, and other international series were scooped up purely to fill out the then-sparse catalog of titles.
Then, the original content started. While American shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black dominated the streaming bandwidth, Netflix began expanding its coverage to the 119 countries it covers today, and each of those countries posed unique interests. The answer? International original series.
In Germany, it started with Dark, which premiered on December 1, 2017. This time-traveling, uber-complicated metaphysical sci-fi series was a smash hit, and after three seasons, writer Ronny Schalk moved on to Netflix’s latest international release, Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood.
Simply put, this is what the last five years of Netflix developing international series was building to: a series so vast in its scale, so exotic in its setting, and yet so inherently sympathetic and intriguing it defies the language barrier.
Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood is the story of Curt Prank, an ambitious brewer who sets out to do the impossible: build a beer tent in the Munich Oktoberfest to seat 6,000. He’ll stop at nothing to get his way, be it blackmailing allies, paying his way into society, or even murdering the competition.
Each episode begins with a disclaimer stating the series is based on true historical events, but the truth is a little less gruesome. Prank’s inspiration, Georg Lang, was just as ambitious, known as “Nuremberg crocodile Lang” because of his crocodile skin boots, but the bloodshed is strictly fictional.
The writers did pull many true historical connections, however. “We found a lot of great historical figures, characters, founders, and inventors,” head writer Ronny Schalk tells Inverse. “Einsteins' father equipped the Oktoberfest with electric light. Lenin was there at the time, and we have bohemians like Kandinsky.”
These bohemians are part of the subplot that brings Oktoberfest from historical intrigue to epochal drama. While their parents fight over land and reputations, small brewery heir Roman and Prank’s daughter Clara escape to Munich’s seedy underbelly of gender experimentation, absinthe, and radical ideas. Their story adds a Romeo and Juliet twist to the already Shakespearean tale.
Oktoberfest doesn’t shy away from depicting every aspect of life in 1900 Germany. When Clara feels ill after a night with Roman, her streetwise chaperone knows exactly what to do, and, in a heartbreakingly gruesome scene, attempts to induce a miscarriage with vinegar.
This would be a risky topic to broach in the most intimate prestige drama, but Oktoberfest treats it with respect, horror, and, in a heartfelt way, pity.
“I remember we had a woman in the writer's room who told us that at the turn of the century young women in German cities increasingly went to so-called engelmacher, which means angel maker, when they became pregnant,” Schalk says. “We researched and we decided to kind of lift this black veil from history.”
There’s an impressive range of topics covered, from sexuality to liberalism to industrialization. However, one aspect of the series does stand out. Oktoberfest opens with a group of “Real South Sea Cannibals from German Samoa” who feature in the series heavily. This group is treated with period-typical stigma, reflecting the uncomfortable colonialism that permeates this entire chapter of history.
It’s not just the topics that are ambitious. The presentation is beyond any other international series Netflix has produced so far. The opening depicting the Samoans is a sweeping aerial shot. Other moments centered around the “Beer and Blood” symbolism are so cinematic they would feel more at home in a Spielberg movie.
Then there’s the Oktoberfest itself. Director Hannu Salonen had quite the tall task in portraying this revolutionary new style of beerfest for the small screen.
“Most of my work was really planning, planning, planning, planning before we actually went into the shooting because we didn't have the means to just build the whole thing there,” Salonen says. “And still we had like 4,000 extras all in historical costume, so it’s really huge.”
Every aspect seems to be drenched in Oktoberfest history. Even the score borrows heavily from the “Ein Prozit” drinking song Prank’s inspiration popularized.
The story couldn’t be more German, but Schalk and Salonen hope it’ll translate to American audiences. Schalk likens the series to another German cultural export. “I think it's maybe a strange comparison, but, for me it's a bit like the band Rammstein. It has this very dark humor and brutality in it,” Schalk said, “but also it has a lot of respect for the characters and their inner abysses and demons.”
Salonen expanded the comparison: “Most Germans don't understand Rammstein, it's really funny. I'm starting to think they may be more beloved abroad than in Germany. It might happen to us too.”
That global appeal is what puts Oktoberfest head and shoulders above its competitors, both on German broadcast television and Netflix streaming. Ronny Schalk witnessed this firsthand through the success of Dark.
“In Germany, we didn't have that before, it's new for us. Dark was the first one,” he says. “We used to have quite conventional entertainment television with fictional programming before, and we had cinema, but now we can make stuff like a series about time traveling or a superhero film. It was not possible even in cinema before, and that’s crazy.”
Now that Netflix has reached prestige TV levels in a non-English series, what’s next? Well, considering the state of production in Hollywood right now, we may be seeing more and more international series take center stage. For Schalk and Salonen, that means coming up with ideas for a possible Season 2.
Despite not being officially renewed, plenty of ideas have been proposed for Season 2.
“We have a couple of huge conflicts left unsolved,” Schalk says. “Prank kicked something off and he doesn't really know what it triggered. It’s like Dostoyevsky says: ‘The brighter the stars, the darker the night, and the deeper the grief.’”
While it’s unclear whether or not Netflix will let them explore that dark night, it’s hard not to see this as the start of a shift in the conversation surrounding television.
“We bring you a new world and open up a new place that you can enter and study and feel,” Salonen says. “That's something that the classical TV broadcasting stations didn't really manage to do. It's really a revolution that they actually started and that won't be stopped.”
Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood is now streaming on Netflix.