Drama Quarterly: Hack race
From a fantasy world ruled by dragons, former Game of Thrones executive producer Frank Doelger has moved to a utopian town of the near future – one ruled by AI – with his new sci-fi thriller Concordia.
“I’ve always been fascinated by utopian communities, as well as the kind of people who make them,” says Doelger, referring to those who were considered the pioneering entrepreneurs of their day and have inspired the series.
In 1909, Milton Hershey founded a vocational school and a surrounding town that he believed created an “educated, healthy and happy workforce.” Fellow chocolatier John Cadbury built Bourneville in the UK in 1906 in the hope of “proving that good-quality housing in a natural, green environment was a necessity for the greater good of society.”
In Germany a few years later, Carl Friedrich von Siemens built Siemensstadt to “combine workspace, living space and nature harmoniously.” These were all created at the beginning of the 20th century – a period that, like today, was marked by profound cultural and financial disruption. Now we hear stories of billionaire entrepreneurs who have bought their own islands, run their own hospitals and have even hired private armies.
“Given the upheavals of the last few years, I’ve always wondered what a 21st century utopian society would look like,” explains Doelger, who also worked on HBO classics such as John Adams and Rome, as well as The Swarm, which like Concordia comes from his production company Intaglio Films, a joint venture between Germany’s Beta Film and ZDF Studios.
The series centres on Concordia’s founder and CEO, Juliane Ericksen, played by the celebrated German actor Christiane Paul. Juliane left East Germany for Sweden after the Berlin Wall came down, and it was there that she met her husband, who shared her belief that technology was the key to a better world.
They moved to his dilapidated hometown with the hope of turning it into an AI-powered community. Following a horrific shooting, he never lived to see that vision come true. But Juliane convinced the residents that AI and cameras could prevent such a tragedy ever happening again.
In Concordia, rather than being seen as insidious or sinister, surveillance and personal data collection are considered forces for good and appear to have solved the problems of our digital age. There’s racial harmony and a sense of community and personal identity among citizens; and there is little crime but high levels of happiness and mental and physical wellbeing.
The level of educational equality Concordia has achieved is also reflected in a scene when a cleaner corrects a resident on how she pronounces ancient Greek. People are walking and cycling and there’s a notable absence of cars, showing that Concordia is an environmentally sustainable environment too.
“In Concordia you have the same rights if you come in to clean the offices or if you’re the CEO. You get the same education for your children and the same healthcare,” says Doelger, who is the showrunner and executive producer.
The six-part series starts 20 years after Concordia was first built, when a new Concordia is on the verge of being constructed in Germany. However, two crimes take place that shake the community to its core: the supposedly impenetrable firewall is hacked and one of the inhabitants is murdered.
Thea Ryan, a crisis-containment specialist from London (played by British/Irish actor Ruth Bradley), is brought in to help deal with the fallout. “Thea plays the role of the audience,” says Bradley. “She sees Concordia with fresh eyes.”
Her co-investigator is Isabelle Larsson, a committed citizen of Concordia played by Swedish-Ghanaian actor Nanna Blondell (House of the Dragon). Isabelle is a former community officer who gave up her career in law enforcement to work in the town, hoping AI surveillance could prevent crime altogether.
Despite Thea’s job title, her private life is in chaos. She is trying to sustain relationships with her husband, son and mother (who has dementia) back in London via video calls. “Nothing fazes her in her professional life, but she’s not really on top of it at home,” says Bradley, who was most recently seen starring in Slow Horses on Apple TV+.
Other characters reflect the multiple nationalities of the cast and the contemporary issues in which Doelger, and co-creators Nicholas Racz and Mike Walden, are interested. Thea’s husband is French and he used to feel welcome in England. But after Brexit, he’s thinking “maybe they don’t want us here,” says Doelger.
“What makes the story of Concordia so exciting for me is the characters within it,” says director Barbara Eder. “They are not one-sided, not divisible into simply good and evil. As the plot progresses, the question arises as to whom one can trust. More and more, our protagonists get caught in a web of concealment, mistrust and suspicion.”
Notably, the series is set in 2024, and all the technological infrastructure behind Concordia exists today. “We wanted to shoot as much on camera as possible; there’s very little VFX,” says Doelger. “This is not a dystopian vision. It’s not grey and moody, it’s not a town that’s dying or dead. It’s a place of transparency. It’s completely light-filled – we shot against windows a lot,” he says of how Eder (who also directed four episodes of The Swarm) approached her job.
“The camera is not looking at the city, but rather gliding through it and experiencing it with the protagonists, removing any distance in order to not create a futuristic utopia, but a world that could actually exist in the present,” adds Eder.
Like Intaglio Films’s previous production for ZDF, eco-thriller The Swarm, Concordia is also a coproduction. MBC, France Télévisions and Hulu Japan are partners on the series, which is distributed by Beta Film and ZDF Studios. In a challenging economic climate, this model can not only provide premium budgets but also enable creator-driven shows.
“Because we have all of these partners, they’re smart enough to know they can trust the production team to make the right decisions. You get notes from very intelligent people but ultimately they’re leaving it to us. We have final cut, which is really nice,” says Doelger, speaking at Cannes TV market Mipcom, where Concordia had its world premiere last month.
The series was three-and-a-half years in development. “There were a lot of drafts. A lot of writing was done in pre-production, but I think some of the most interesting things happen once you find the right actors – they can change completely change the characters,” the showrunner notes.
Bradley found collaborating with actors from all over the world a great experience. “The different styles of acting, the different ways of working. We were all so open to how each other works. Everyone was very open to listening and learning from each other,” she says.
Having started acting at 11 years old, Bradley got an agent when she was 16 and moved to London from Dublin when she was 18. She has worked on everything from art house films (she has just finished working on an independent film) to big American network series. But before Concordia, “I’d never had that level of collaboration with a showrunner,” she says.
Over the course of the series, Thea and Isabelle’s perspectives switch. While Isabelle becomes more and more disillusioned with Concordia, Thea starts to think maybe Concordia could be the solution to the chaos in her personal life.
But rather than being didactic, Doelger wanted to explore the issues Concordia raises in a measured fashion. “Ultimately the show doesn’t take a POV on AI,” he says. “People often approach these issues with fixed preconceptions, but why does it have to be that AI is bad? Why is embracing this technology necessarily a bad thing?”
The desire to remake society has been with us since Plato first proposed it in The Republic, 2,500 years ago. Judging by Concordia, the subject may well inspire great TV shows for many years to come.