After a busy few years chronicling fatal Balearic excess in White Lines and crafting the pulpy trafficking drama Sky Rojo, the Spanish screenwriter and producer Álex Pina is returning to one of his most famous criminal creations.
La Casa de Papel, known in English as Money Heist, grew into a global TV phenomenon after Netflix picked it up from the Spanish network Antena 3 in late 2017. By 2020, Pina’s pacey, violent and stylish series about a gang of red-overalled, Salvador Dalí-masked robbers who target the royal mint and then the Bank of Spain had become the platform’s most watched non-English-language series.
Two years after wrapping up the saga, Pina is revisiting Money Heist’s most enigmatic character, the cruel, cultured and contradictory individual known as Berlin. Pina and his co-writer, Esther Martínez Lobato, haven’t let the awkward fact that Berlin died in a blaze of bullets at the end of season two get in the way: just as the character returned in flashback for the third, fourth and fifth seasons of Money Heist, so he now reappears in an eponymous prequel, Berlin.
Pina says the new series is, in part, an attempt to fix that mistake. “If we’d known we’d get on to Netflix, we wouldn’t have killed him,” he says. “I think the attraction of Berlin is the same attraction you get with the great cinematic villains: he can be really mean and cruel and he’s capable of doing the worst things, but he’s also capable of doing the best things and being very romantic and a great friend. I think that endears him to the viewer – that and his transgressive nature and his black humour.”
The Berlin of the prequel is as elegant, arch, snobbish and manipulative as ever. As he ponders the end of his third marriage and plots his latest operation – a Paris heist involving a fourth-century chalice, the city’s catacombs and €44m worth of royal jewels – the mastermind still finds time to disdain thieves who fail to dress the part, comparing them to “people who wear sweatpants to the airport”.
The tone of the new series is lighter than the saga that spawned it. After the claustrophobic intensity of Money Heist and the ultraviolence of Sky Rojo, which ran from 2021 to last year, Pina and Martínez Lobato were keen for a change of pace.
“We wanted to do something brighter,” says Pina. “We really like the blockbusters of the 1990s, with that mix of comedy, romance and action that is much less violent. People don’t do that so much any more.”
Eschewing extreme violence allowed Pina to return to the comic writing of his early career. “We’ve dialled up the comedy, and when you do that you always run the risk of losing the tension of the heist,” he says. “It’s been a complicated bit of tightrope walking and a balancing act. When you see it, it looks really simple, but it isn’t. Comedy is a really complicated genre […] for me it’s a harder genre to write because you need to do a lot more drafts and balance out the tone.”
Pina is blunt when asked about the ubiquity of violence in his programmes. “Our work has a lot of violence in it because it generates tension,” he says. “We use violence or crime to create that question for the viewer: how’s this all going to end? You have it in Money Heist – will they pull off the robbery? Will the police arrest them?”
Pina believes that Money Heist’s extraordinary worldwide success was also due its Spanishness and the passion and emotion it brought to a genre that he says is “often cold and technical” in its execution. He says there is a thirst for programmes that are genuinely different, such as Money Heist and Squid Game.
“Both [series] introduced themselves as dramas that are different in terms of the parameters of English-speaking dramas and I think has meant that the public has seen them as a breath of fresh air,” he says. “I don’t really know exactly why people liked Money Heist so much, but I think that deep down it’s because it’s exciting and moving. And it’s just fun. Plus, I think its Spanishness is exotic. And I think part of Squid Game’s success is because it’s Korean and seen as exotic and new.”
The statistics support the idea that Spanish TV is having a bit of a global moment. Recent analysis found that the UK and Spain accounted for 37% of global streamers’ spending on original European content over the past decade. Global streamers’ share in original content spending was particularly high in Spain (51%, compared with 30% in the UK, 20% in France and 11% in Germany).
Pina’s next project, a drama about the mega-rich sheltering from an apocalyptic event in their luxury bunkers, will begin shooting next year. But he has not ruled out another return to the vaults of Money Heist.
“As its creator, I’d love to do more and I think there are characters that I’d like to explore – and not just from the gang side,” he says. He says that the final season’s ratings would have amply justified a sixth season.
“We could have gone for a third heist but we didn’t, so it’ll be up to the public to let us know if they want more of the Money Heist universe. But there are still a lot of options.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by The Kashmir Monitor staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)