World War I spy drama “Davos 1917” was inspired by real stories, says head writer and creative producer Adrian Illien. As well as real women.
“There were all these Swiss nurses who would go abroad during the war. When you read their diaries, there is a sense of adventure. They could finally get away. I don’t think these female characters have been portrayed before. Until now.”
In the six-part show, unmarried nurse Johanna Gabathuler (“Sisi” star Dominique Devenport) gives birth to her daughter. When the child is taken away, Johanna finds herself stuck in the resort town of Davos. But soon, the German secret service comes knocking.
“Women actually held prominent positions there. With my co-writers [Julia Penner, Thomas Hess and Michael Sauter] we stumbled across one who was a handler of Mata Hari. We always talk about Mata Hari, but I found the spy behind her much more interesting,” he says.
World premiering at the Zurich Film Festival, “Davos 1917” was produced by Contrast Film, Letterbox Filmproduktion, Amalia Film, SRF and ARD Degeto. Global Screen handles sales.
Complex female relationships remain at the core of the show, with Johanna forced to join forces with a spying countess who quickly spots her potential (Jeanette Hain).
“When you think about spy stories, you always have mentors. Usually, it’s older guys teaching other guys or younger women, like in ‘Nikita.’ But you hardly ever see a woman mentoring another woman,” says Illien.
“We have one episode called ‘Women of War’ and we show that because so many men were away at that time, women could finally become leaders.”
Including his protagonist, who turns into “a rebel in a nurse uniform.”
“She is much more talented than most men give her credit for. That’s why she connects with the countess, because as manipulative as she is, at least she appreciates her.”
“They become close, but you never know if they are friends or enemies, or lovers. There is so much power in this ambiguity. We wanted to show that you can still respect someone, even if you don’t think alike.”
While the amount of research that went into the period-set show was “exciting and exhausting,” the writers allowed themselves some leeway.
“The way I approach period stories, not everything needs to be 100% accurate. But I have to know when it isn’t. We talk about spies, war and medicine, and surely enough we had all these experts on set. There are some boundaries you need to respect and if you deviate from them, you must have a good reason.”
As famously neutral Switzerland becomes a playground for spies and freedom fighters, tensions rise. Even in the idyllic Davos.
“All neutral countries were hotspots for espionage. We found out there were even espionage rings of nurses! Some of them were executed because of that. As the war went on, they even came up with these posters: ‘Beware of the female spies.’ Implying they might look innocent, but you shouldn’t trust them,” he says.
Although “Davos” – directed by Jan-Eric Mack, Anca Miruna Lăzărescu and Christian Theede – is SRF’s biggest series to date, set to make its debut in December, its budget wasn’t on Illien’s mind.
“From the story’s point of view, I don’t care. From the production’s point of view, sometimes you have more freedom when it’s not that expensive. Take ‘The Office,’ which didn’t cost much and is an absolute masterpiece,” he says.
“There is an additional pressure that comes with money sometimes. You think: ‘Okay, I guess we really need to blow something up.’ We knew these characters won’t be sitting around, that they will fight, because we are talking about spies. But as a writer, I just hoped we would have enough money to do this story justice.”
A return for the second season is still “in discussion.”
“I think there is potential for these relationships to continue, also because our show talks about what we are going through now. There are so many parallels between our reality and what was happening back in 1917,” he says.
“We have a war in Europe, people are questioning the establishment, we had COVID. In 1917, it was the Spanish Flu. We went from Wilson’s campaign slogan ‘America First’ to Trump. I really think it can resonate.”