Panoramic views of the city, surveillance at great heights, a shooting in the streets — starting the series in thrilling style, the opening moments of Berlin Station have it all.
When CIA agent Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) heads up to the Panoramapunkt observation deck to peer out over Berlin, he’s in the thick of a mission to find the person leaking classified information to a Julian Assange-like whistleblower. And he’s also in the best possible place to kick off a tense, twist-filled journey through American espionage operations in Germany.
Three decades ago, the Berlin Wall ran through Potsdamer Platz immediately below the observation deck. Remnants still exist today. Mere footsteps away sits the German Spy Museum Berlin, the city’s own exploration of its divided history — and the spying that went along with it.
Indeed, with its past paying no small part, Berlin has become a favourite location for on-screen espionage. There’s more to its secretive allure, however. Ever wondered why every great spy effort from Torn Curtain to Homeland to Atomic Blonde features the city’s streets? Beyond the shadows of the Second World War and the Cold War, here are a few reasons.
The iconic locations
From the Fernsehturm globe towering over Alexanderplatz to the commanding sight of the Brandenburg Gate in the centre of the city to the Glienicke Bridge (or Bridge of Spies, as it’s also known), Berlin is littered with iconic locations. And from The Bourne’s Supremacy’s tense events under the former to Steven Spielberg’s dramatisation of the story around the latter, so are Berlin-based spy films and TV shows.
In both period and modern espionage efforts, the sight of these recognisable sites doesn’t just remind viewers that they’re watching a movie or series. More than that, they act as shorthand, nodding to the city’s past both on- and off-screen. When viewers catch a glimpse of the area around Checkpoint Charlie in the 2015 film adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., for example, they’re reminded of its history as a crossing point through the then-split nation — and also its role in the opening of Octopussy and its importance to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
The everyday architecture
Beyond the obvious famous towers and locations, Berlin’s everyday structures boast a specific look. Even when they don’t particularly stand out or catch the eye, they add to an overall vision of a city pieced together from an eventful past. Here, Prussian, Weimar, Cold War-era and contemporary buildings sit side-by-side, wearing the city’s mélange of architectural styles both as evidence of its scars and as a badge of honour.
The fact that grey and brown prove the prevailing colours, and that stone and concrete feature heavily help Berlin’s intriguing historic-meets-industrial aesthetic. Although, the appeal of the city as a spy setting can be seen in something as simple as a lengthy, cement-heavy apartment block. Plenty of them can be found around town, after all. As rows of windows peer out on communal walkways, courtyards and gardens, it’s easy to imagine untold stories unravelling behind their walls. Voila, the perfect espionage backdrop, as Atomic Blonde’s speedy chase through the Mitte streets illustrates.
In Victoria, a woman wanders around Berlin with a group of German men she’s just met. They’re about to get immersed in a heist, but as they traverse the empty urban spaces as night turns to day, possibility awaits at every corner. In Wetlands, a teenager careens through the city, piecing together her messy life, which remains every bit as busy as her hometown. And in Run Lola Run, the film that clearly provided inspiration for both, Berlin proves both vibrant and chaotic, a place where a flame-haired woman can run through the streets only drawing a small amount of attention.
None of the above are spy films — but especially for efforts set long after the wall was torn down, they demonstrate just why Berlin is perfect for espionage antics, as Homeland’s fifth season also showed. Hustle and bustle might be a part of every city, but the mood in Germany’s capital is equal parts upbeat, urgent, enigmatic and intriguing, like anything could happen at any moment.
One of the best songs of all time references the Berlin Wall. Berlin Station doesn’t feature David Bowie’s "Heroes" but it takes its theme song from another of his tracks, "I’m Afraid of Americans". And the sounds of his "Soul Love" can also be heard in the series’ first episode. With the legendary singer famously spending a creatively fulfilling period of his life in the city, his tunes have become synonymous with Berlin — and indicative of the kind of soundtracks that accompany such tales. In a nutshell: think music that matches the aforementioned mood.
Atomic Blonde went with Bowie as well, featuring "Under Pressure" and "Cat People (Putting out Fire)". Given its '80s setting, it also gave Nena’s "99 Luftballoons" a spin, too. If that sounds familiar, that’s because Deutschland 83 paired its own espionage hijinks to a similar pop soundtrack, including that very song and a shared use of New Order’s "Blue Monday".
And, if Berlin spy tales didn’t already boast a common sound, the original scores for both Berlin Station and Deutschland 83 are the work of German-born composer Reinhold Heil.
Watch Berlin Station on Wednesday nights at 10:30pm on SBS. The first two seasons of the show are streaming now at SBS On Demand.