Ricky Gervais achieved global fame thanks to The Office. The BBC sitcom about the woes of the working world, something so universal and easily adaptable to the local context, which he created with Stephen Merchant, has been reimagined in up to 16 versions in countries as diverse as the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Finland. The duo’s next hit, Extras, transferred their sarcasm to the audiovisual industry and featured self-parodic cameos by Hollywood stars including Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ben Stiller. It has been almost 20 years since Extras premiered but the series also now has an international adaptation, German Genius, which is available on HBO Max and was recently presented at the Geneva Film Festival.
The premise of this fiction is completely real. Kida Khodr Ramadan is an established actor in Germany following his acclaimed role as Toni Hamady in the series 4 Blocks, a drama about Arab mafias operating in the multicultural neighborhood of Neukölln in Berlin. Such is his success that his challenge is to find a new project to match the previous one. One day in 2018, Gervais shares a message on Twitter (now X) praising the series and Ramadan takes the opportunity to meet the British comedian and propose a Germanic version of Extras.
Just finished the German series #4Blocks. It's a fucking masterpiece.— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) October 3, 2018
In reality, German Genius is an original series. It just takes advantage of this anecdote to build a meta-referential plot four years later, which has as much in common with the British comedy as it might have with another that has nothing to do with Gervais, the French hit Call My Agent: all that connects them is that they are satires about what the entertainment world hides off-screen.
The challenges for Kida Ramadan — the fictional one — in becoming a producer and setting up a German Extras is that his country is not very famous for its sense of humor. Nor does it have as many internationally recognized stars to fill a whole season with. But it does have plenty of historical figures known to viewers around the world. With a little twist, the adaptation can go ahead. And thus it is proposed to Gervais, who becomes the first cameo appearance in the series. It is true that only the most dedicated cinephiles will recognize the actors and directors who play themselves in German Genius (the best-known are filmmaker Wim Wenders and actor Tom Schilling), but the series understands how to go global through its themes.
The protagonist is not only a famous actor who agrees to take pictures with his fans in the most absurd situations. He is also a husband, friend, and father. And an Arab living in a big European city. All this social context rows in his favor in a skillful narrative game of Chinese whispers. At home, Kida is a householder with conflicts not unlike those portrayed in The Simpsons. In his new professional environment as a producer, he makes mistakes and gaffes. Putting on the costume of one of the classic archetypes of comedy, the charming bumbler, he manages to escape the huge shadow of his initial mentor. Without being as great as its ironic title promises, German Genius knows how to mine its own worth.
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