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SERIES / REVIEWS Germany / Belgium

Series review: The Swarm


- Although the “deep-sea monster” trope is nothing new, directors Luke Watson, Barbara Eder and Philipp Stölzl deliver an entertaining and visually stunning first season of their sci-fi drama

Series review: The Swarm

When German author Frank Schätzing’s sci-fi page-turner The Swarm was published in 2004, it sold more than 4.5 million copies worldwide. Thus, it came as no surprise when Germany’s pubcaster ZDF announced the production of a television adaptation in 2021. And the producers spared no expense: with a budget of €40 million, The Swarm [+see also:
interview: Leonie Benesch
series profile
is the most expensive German television show made to date, and is also one of the most expensive ever shot in Europe.

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This is a surprise, given that public broadcasters in Europe are not generally known for producing blockbuster shows geared towards a younger audience. In its home country of Germany, ZDF is mostly renowned for its easy-to-digest adaptations of Rosamunde Pilcher’s Cornish-set romance novels.

And this is the main criticism that Schätzing levels at the television version of The Swarm. In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit from 15 February (click here), he highlighted the fact that The Swarm was too “Pilchered-down”. But is he really right?

The show premiered as part of this year’s Berlinale Series, and its international premiere took place in Brussels on 1 March. This was a fitting choice because the series is truly international: the actors come from all kinds of different backgrounds: Leonie Benesch (Germany), Cécile de France (Belgium), Rosabell Laurenti Sellers (Italy/USA), Joshua Odjick (Canada), Krista Kosonen (Finland), Takuya Kimura (Japan) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (UK), to name but a few. Moreover, most of the shooting took place in Italy and, for the underwater scenes, at the Lites Water Stage and Film Studios in Belgium.

After the screening in Brussels, Uta Leonhardt, one of the executive producers, explained that what makes this production special is that said diversity was not forced upon it, but came about naturally. However, maybe because of its US showrunner Frank Doelger (Game of Thrones), at times, the series feels overly American – which is unnecessary, as it has enough potential to stand on its own two feet.

With an ensemble cast, there is no one star of the show to be singled out in particular. “Science is the real star,” as Alexander Karim, who plays marine biologist Dr Sigur Johanson, said during the post-premiere interview – and this is also the case in Schätzing’s novel. The show really pulls off the delicate balancing act of being scientifically accurate without being boring.

But viewers not only need facts; they also need feelings in order to be able to empathise with the characters on screen. To this end, throwing in a bit of extra Pilcher-esque romantic drama was not a bad move at all. However, the true empathy kicks in only in the middle part, directed by Barbara Eder (episodes 3-6). While the acting is excellent throughout all of the episodes, the first two, directed by Luke Watson, are dedicated mostly to exposition and could easily have been pared down. The involvement of a trio of directors (Philipp Stölzl helmed episodes 7 and 8) also means that each part has a different tone and pace to it. The underwater scenes are especially beautiful and cinematic: think Free Willy meets Avatar: The Way of Water.

One of the show’s major weak points is not having brought things all the way into the 2020s. The main premise centres on a global disaster, an unknown organism from the ocean revolting against humanity. This part of the story feels real after three years of a pandemic. But the series leaves out the social-media element that every massive disaster brings with it nowadays. Furthermore, as stated above, the pace of the show feels a little slow for an eight-episode event series. But it is certainly a good start, if there is more to come.

The Swarm was produced by Doelger-led Intaglio Films (Germany), a joint venture between ZDF Studios and Beta Film, which also handles the distribution. It is a European Alliance co-production, with ZDF, France Télévisions, Italy’s RAI, Austria’s ORF, Switzerland’s SRF, Sweden’s Nordic Entertainment Group and Hulu Japan all on board.

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