Oktoberfest 2020 was cancelled due to COVID, but for the thirsty masses missing München, Netflix has an antidote—sorta. Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood is a dark—sometimes nonsensically so—period drama depicting one ruthless brewer’s fanatical quest to build the Wiesn’s largest tent.
The six part miniseries is evocative of Boardwalk Empire… in turn of the 20th century Germany… with Samoan cannibals thrown in for good measure. The beautifully shot result is at times riveting and others absurdly mediocre (see Samoan cannibals). However, the writers included enough elements of Oktoberfest culture to keep a hophead entertained, even during the lowpoints.
Before diving into to the tent, a little background is necessary. Netflix aggressively pursued both the international and original ‘prestige’ programming markets over the past five years. The intersection of these two trajectories arrived with Dark, a Lynchian metaphysical sci-fi series out of Germany. Oktoberfest is the followup piece from Dark’s co-creator Ronny Schalk
Schalk’s second Netflix work narrates the tale of Kurt Prank (Mišel Matičević), an ambitious Nuremberg brewer who arrives in Munich with plans to transform Oktoberfest. To fulfill his dream of transforming the Wiesen from a collection of small stalls into the home for a 6000 person mega-tent, Prank will sacrifice morals, family, and even the integrity of beer labeling.
Prank’s escapades provide a backbone for several subplots. A Romeo & Juliet type romance emerges between his daughter and the son of a rival brewer. The city’s brewing establishment engages in shenanigans aimed at consolidating their own power. The police investigate a murder and the Samoans are saddled as scapegoats. For a good measure, Schalk includes cameos by the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Albert Einstein’s father.
There’s also plenty of material for the Oktoberfest faithful. Of course, the series’ premise is based upon an actual brewer George Lang’s introduction of the fest’s first large tent. Bavaria’s famed beer purity laws also play a role and the current regulations on beer served at the fest also provide fodder for the writers’ room. Familiar drinking songs like ‘Ein Prosit’ are employed often and there’s ample shots of delicious rotisserie chickens.
Between this fan service, we are treated to the relatively straightforward story of Prank’s ascent. To keep things spicy, Schalke breaks up the trajectory with weird scenes of transcendental visions and flirtations with insanity; these more artistic element do little to advance the plot and appear out of place. The writers also decided to hammer home the brutality of the race by treating us to some unnecessary attempts at shock therapy. One scene in which Prank chugs a urine filled stein stands out.
Balancing out these frat-boy antics, Oktoberfest also tries to inject some historical context regarding the discrimination suffered by woman and minorities into the mix. For example, once subplot regarding back alley abortionists provides for some of the series’ most moving moments. Yet, a subplot about the all female server staff striking feels forced and disingenuous.
Even more concerning is the show’s treatment of said Samoan natives. Germany briefly colonized Samoa, the nation’s only territory in the Pacific. The script jams in a tribe of Samoan cannibals transported to Munich by their colonizers to appear in a Midway style freak-show. To say, the portrayal of these characters is cringe-worthy would be an understatement. Despite a stab at garnering sympathy for the Samoans as misunderstood, the portrayal falls back on classic tropes of colonialism, fetishization, and the ‘exotic.’ The problem are not ‘2020 inappropriate,’ they are Edward-Said-Orientalism-1978 offensive.
Despite this mix of problematic and praiseworthy historical references, the show should not be mistaken for a docuseries. Oktoberfest is fantasy inspired some actual events. The formula is time tested which is the point. Netflix is in the midst of big budget to expand their entry into semi-prestige (high production values, solid actors, but never quite elevating fully) television with a raft of internationally produced programming in the category.
Whether Oktoberfest manages to breach/create this coveted new market remains to be seen. However, if you exhausted your queue of streaming content during lockdown, the show offers a solid option for a few nights of escapism. Prost!
Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood is currently streaming on Netflix.