Uprooting History

Project: Storm Over Europe - The Wandering Tribes
October 1, 2001

Project: Storm Over Europe – The Wandering Tribes

Description: A 4 x 1-hour series that looks back to the period – from 100 BC to AD 800 – when Europe was formed, following mass migration by such groups as the Cimbrians, Teutons, Goths, Huns and Merovingians.

Executive Producers: Uwe Kersken, Gruppe 5 Filmproduktion; Peter Arens, ZDF

Director: Christian Feyerabend

Coproducers: ZDF and ZDF Enterprises (Germany), ORF (Austria), ARTE (France/Germany)

Budget: Over US$300,000 per hour

Few of us stop to dispute history when it is first taught to us as children. The past is simply the past. But over time, new discoveries and perspectives bring ‘the facts’ into question. For years, the tendency was to view the birth of Europe as the work of a few great individuals, not least of whom was Charlemagne. Now, however, historians are proposing that the founding of the continent is more the consequence of a collective process of mass migration in the first centuries after the birth of Christ.

This idea fascinated Peter Arens, head of the history and society department for Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, and Uwe Kersken, head of Cologne-based Gruppe 5 Filmproduktion, partly because it dispels some of the long-held stereotypes about the Germanic and Celtic tribes. Recent studies hold that a tribe’s identity was much more marked by social, rather than racial or ethnic attributes. As a tribe trekked across Europe, it generally permitted anyone who submitted to the social rules to join; therefore, not all Huns had Mongol features and not all Teutons were blond and blue-eyed. The new theory also recasts these tribes as builders instead of destroyers.

Arens and Kersken understand the appeal of communicating history in a language younger viewers can relate to – television. In recalling his own schooling, Arens says, ‘In European history books, we all remember these maps of AD 300, when all the tribes were moving. There were lots of arrows on these maps, which is quite a horror for pupils.’

In his opinion, it’s also time to discuss the past again. ‘After the Second World War, people were not very interested in Germans, because they had been abused by the Third Reich. The older generation [of Germans] were always scared of this topic. But, nowadays I think it would be a good idea to [produce the series], especially for younger audiences.’

February 1999: ZDF’s Peter Arens and Gruppe 5′s Uwe Kersken toss around the idea of a project about the German migration, which lasted from 100 BC to AD 800. Says Arens, ‘Normally people are afraid of this topic because it’s such a vast time, and the historic movement of the German tribes pushing towards the Roman Empire is very complicated.’ Still, both men are intrigued at the thought of using television to illustrate the story they learned in history books.

Late 1999: Gruppe 5 and ZDF sign a contract to produce a project that suggests the roots of Europe harken back to a time before Charlemagne in AD 799. Kersken and Arens agree on a rough script, which includes a mixture of reenactments, documentary presentations, expeditions and computer animation. The four parts are: ‘From the Mists of the North – The Germanic Tribes’; ‘Furor Teutonicus – Pax Romana’; ‘Storm over Europe: The Huns are Coming’; and ‘The End of Rome – The Heirs of the Empire’.

Christian Feyerabend is asked to join as director. Feyerabend recently filmed a two-part series about the history of forensics for Gruppe 5, ZDF and S4C in Wales, and they were happy with his work. ZDF commits to financing 60% to 70% of the production budget.

April 2000: ZDF and Gruppe 5 pitch the project at the MIPDOC pitching simulation.

Summer 2000: Kristina Hollstein, ZDF Enterprises’ director of documentary productions, oversees the coproduction inquiries. Austrian pubcaster ORF is one of the first to express interest in the project. Its one concern is the amount of Austrian content. Arens assures ORF that some of the tribes’ migratory paths, and even battles, crossed over modern-day Austria. In addition, an Austrian history professor appears in the film. ORF signs on as a coproduction partner, committing to about 15% of the budget.

Around the same time, arte also expresses interest. The French/German broadcaster agrees to become a partner and secures the program premiere. Arens explains: ‘ARTE only gives money to a production if they can show it first. If not, they wouldn’t have the temptation of putting money into it. I always agree because arte does not have a big enough audience to spoil ZDF’s first broadcast. This is an arrangement we’ve had with ARTE going back many years.’ ARTE kicks in about 10% of the budget.

Australian broadcaster SBS comes on board shortly after, as a pre-sale.

October 2000: Feyerabend and his crew head to Spain for two weeks to begin shooting, even though not a single page of the script has yet been written.

Says Feyerabend, ‘It was very exciting when we started out, because we didn’t know what we would find out about the mass migration.’ They shoot at the excavation site of the submerged west gothic city of Reccopolis, near Madrid. It is unique in Europe, as the only city founded by the Germanic Visigoth tribe (in the sixth century).

‘We found a magic place where no tourists ever get to, and filmed the impressive search for trails by the archaeologists.’

February 2001: While filming in northern Germany and Denmark, the production crew comes across bog bodies – corpses that remain well preserved courtesy of their swampy resting place. Almost all have dark skin and red hair because of acids in the bog. One in particular is a special find – a 2,200-year-old ‘Tollund man’ whose beard is still intact and eyes are naturally closed. A leather rope hangs around his neck. According to Feyerabend, he was likely sacrificed to the fertility goddess to ensure a good harvest.

March 2001: Filming continues in the reconstructed Cimbrian village of Leire, in Denmark. Suddenly, winter returns and everyone is stuck in snow measuring 40 centimeters (15 inches) high. The shooting schedule has to be changed, since the plan was to depict the Cimbrians’ move to the sunny south in 120 BC. The crew waits for local residents to dig them out.

Staging the reenactments requires hundreds of authentic costumes, pieces of jewelry and weapons created for the series. Over 1,000 individuals are employed to depict the mass migration, but Feyerabend uses a graphic trick called step frame printing to give the appearance of tens of thousands. Arens is impressed with the results. ‘I never thought it would look so good.’

April 2001: Irish pubcaster RTE signs on as a pre-sale. Several Scandinavian broadcasters also express interest.

May 2001: The shoot moves south to Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. While in Morocco, Feyerabend plans to stage another recreation, but hits a snag. None of the actors look even remotely like Vandals [German tribesmen]. The question of where to find blue-eyed blonds in Morocco confronts them until the production manager, Miriam Bruhl, heads for the nearest tourist area. There, she finds appropriate actors among visitors from the U.S., U.K. and New Zealand.

The camels for the Vandals’ caravans arrive late that night. Bedouins inform the crew that camels need eight hours of sleep, otherwise they are ill-tempered. The crew manages to sleep for three hours.

The next morning, Feyerabend films a pan shot – 15 camels and 47 actors turn into hundreds of Vandals, again through the technique of step frame printing.

June 2001: In Prague, actors are called upon to recreate a Hun tribe attacking on horseback. In their time, Huns were the most feared warriors, with the ability to fire 30 arrows in one minute. The actors manage about two per minute, until an arrow lands in the leg of one of the team members. First aid training comes in handy.

To shoot the next scenes – a mass track of the Goths – the production team searches for a portion of landscape that looks as it would have 2,000 years ago. Old Soviet military grounds appear to be the perfect setting, until an old plastic mine is found lying in the grass. A demolition crew removes the mine – a live one no less.

July 2001: Now in Vienna, Feyerabend employs Agnes Kustar, a specialist in plaster facial reconstructions. The crew spends four days filming her as Germanics get their faces back after 1,500 years.

The director wants to give viewers the sense of travelling through a time tunnel to the past and back again to present day. He employs a filming technique in which the plaster facial reconstruction ‘morphs’ into an actor.

August 2001: The shoot moves on to Italy. On August 24, 410, King Alaric and his west Gothic followers conquered Rome. In August 2001, says Feyerabend, ‘the Japanese have conquered Rome. We shout, ‘Back! Back!’ But, the Japanese tourists are not to be stopped. We are able to continue our work only after pictures have been taken of Alaric and his followers.’

In Carinthia, the crew gets lucky. Shortly before they arrived, archaeologists discovered an artificially deformed longhead Teuton skull. As the production team had arranged to film in this area months before, the archaeologists waited before continuing with the dig.

Observes Feyerabend, ‘Sometimes people are very helpful and offer any kind of support, sometimes they are reluctant. The greatest challenge is always to convince the scientists and conservators to show us their treasures and let us film them without any restrictions.’

September/October 2001: Filming winds down, but not before stopping in the Ukraine and Romania, and finally the U.K. In the end, they spend 120 days shooting in 15 countries across Europe. The project is scheduled to air on ARTE in January and on ZDF in March. ZDF, with its copro partners, presents Storm Over Europe – The Wandering Tribes at MIPCOM.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.