By DAVID RISING
Actors Leland Orser and Keke Palmer crouch next to a fence at a dusty former East Berlin concrete plant as cranes whir behind them moving pallets of goods in an industrial area oblivious to the filming going on.
As Ashley Judd has her makeup touched up in a gritty basement hallway of a Cold War-era hospital, a confused elderly couple wanders through the set looking for the elevators. Outside, campaign posters for the nationalist anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party festoon the lamp poles.
Carrying on where Epix’s “Berlin Station” left off with at the end of its first season, the city of Berlin is very much a part of the modern spy thriller for Season 2, set amid a changing world order.
“The city is changing in front of our very eyes,” says Orser, who returns this season as CIA Berlin station deputy chief Robert Kirsch, looking around the set location in the city’s Koepenick neighborhood.
“There are cranes everywhere, rents are skyrocketing, the food scene is exploding, the art scene is exploding ... and I think what’s cool is that we’re shooting it now as it’s happening, so there’s no mistaking that the Berlin we’re showing is the Berlin of 2017.”
More than just a backdrop, Orser says, “In our show, Berlin is the star of the show, and we feature it.”
The first season saw agent Daniel Miller, played by Richard Armitage, on a clandestine mission to uncover the source of a leak in the CIA’s Berlin station – a plot that drew on the real-life experiences of WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning’s leak of hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
New characters this year include Palmer, who plays April Lewis, a new CIA case officer on her first field assignment, and Judd, who is the CIA’s new chief of station BB Yates.
Miller returns this season, which premieres Sunday, to infiltrate the German far-right to thwart a plot to carry out a terrorist attack that would be blamed on refugees to drive voters to vote a new anti- migrant nationalist party into power. It features an American ambassador who is the political appointee of a U.S. government that appears to sympathize with the German anti-migrant party.
The season was written before the nationalist Alternative for Germany party won enough votes in Sept. 24’s election to enter German parliament for the first time, ahead of this summer’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“What was amazing about last season is that they seemed to be ahead of the news cycle and wildly enough, I think the same has happened this season,” Orser says. “The writers are telling a story that strangely enough is unfolding politically now.”
Taking a short break from two days of filming over the summer at Berlin’s Benjamin Franklin hospital, built partially with U.S. assistance in the former American Sector of divided Berlin during the Cold War, Judd said the show’s writers were meticulous in their research to weave as realistic a plot as possible.
“They have really done a deep dive into what’s happening in the contemporary geopolitical scene here in Germany and across Europe,” said Judd, who is among those who have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein. “It’s a spy show, it’s fun, [but] some of what we’re talking about is gravely serious.”
In the production process, Armitage said cast members and writers were aware they were “working in the middle of a seismic shift” in the political landscape in the U.S. and Europe and wanted the show to reflect that.
“It’s interesting to not necessarily directly reference real events, but at the same time to be relevant and current,” he said. “It’s quite exposing, and it’s quite a scary place to be, I think.”
For Armitage, working with Germans who grew up on both sides of the Berlin Wall, which divided the communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin until it fell in 1989, helped bring to life the tales of Cold War espionage he’d researched to play a spy.
“Aside from the research and reading and looking at photographs, all I needed to do was speak to members of the crew and some members of our cast who did grow up in eastern Germany and had shocking experiences,” he recalled.
“That really stopped me in my tracks when I started to talk to them about it because to me, it felt like something out of a history book.”