On an overcast Tuesday morning on Francis Street in Dublin two sharp sounds bounce off the red-brick Liberties facades: the clack-clack of high heels and the zack-zack of sharp German consonants.
A young woman is carrying a cardboard box down the street, pursued by a man in a vintage cream linen suit straight from the wardrobe of Tom Wolfe. They stop walking but keep arguing; a ball is kicked at them; she pretends to kick it back. Then they walk back to the start of the street and do it again. And again. A woman pushing a pram along the opposite side of the street wonders what’s going on.
What's going on is Ein Moment fürs Leben, a German television movie based on the Cecelia Ahern bestseller The Time of My Life.
The Irish author is no stranger to dramatisations of her books, from PS I Love You to Love, Rosie. But few know of her thriving collaboration with German television.
Watching the shoot closely on Francis Street is Andreas Bareiss, a producer who has already brought two Ahern films to German television screens. This is the third; a fourth will be filmed in the autumn. He has also taken out an option on her recent book The Gift.
“The Germans cannot get enough of Ireland and they cannot get enough of Cecelia Ahern,” he says. “Her movies are now a brand, and they are very successful.”
Five years ago he approached Ahern with the idea of creating original works – not based on her novels – for German public television station ZDF.
Two original television movies aired in 2014, watched by eight million viewers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The success was even more remarkable given their competitive slot: on Sunday evenings against the cult crime show Tatort.
After 12 years as a bestselling author worldwide success is not new to Ahern. But she says her success in Germany is in a league of its own.
She has sold eight million books in the German-speaking world – her biggest market outside of English. Her book signings in Germany are large events that readers pay to attend. So what’s the special connection?
“Irish people would say that my books are not particularly Irish, but Germans see Ireland in my book and seem to connect at a deep emotional level to the landscape, the language and the humour,” Ahern says.
The original ZDF deal saw her write treatments for original stories in English, which were then turned into scripts by German screenwriters and translated back into English for Ahern’s feedback and corrections.
Despite the challenges – her full-time writing job, the language barrier and the cultural differences – the risk appears to have paid off. Ahern is now established as the third brand of German Sunday-evening television.
The two other big players are Rosamunde Pilcher, Britain’s nonagenarian queen of chintz, and Inga Lindström, the pen name of the German writer Christiane Sadlo, to feed an appetite here for romantic dramas set in red Swedish seaside cottages.
For Ahern, being the third member of this triumvirate is quite an achievement – and a responsibility.
“Because my name is over the title I was quite hard on them during the scriptwriting process,” she said. “Because I’m an Irish author I don’t write about Ireland in certain ways, just as I wouldn’t make certain Irish jokes. I didn’t want any cliches in the films.”
So how does she explain, in the first ZDF movie from 2014, the leprechaun sitting on a hill and picking foxgloves over the opening credits, a figure who haunts the rest of the film like Darby O’Gill’s ghost?
Ahern sighs ruefully at the memory. “I lost the fight on that one,” she says. “But we have a running joke now that there’ll be no leprechauns in this movie.”
On Francis Street filming has shifted to the next scene, involving a magic carpet cleaning shop. By chance two German newlyweds are strolling past, perplexed to hear so much German in a Dublin street. When they hear what’s being filmed – a ZDF “herzkino” (heart cinema) romantic comedy – they smile knowingly.
“I’m more a fan of crime shows than films like this, to be honest,” says Liane Jakob, a 24-year-old from near Bad Hersfeld. “But these romantic films are like tabloid newspapers: everyone laughs at them, but so many people are hooked by them – like my father, for instance.”
But, just as Ahern is anxious to shrug off the chick-lit shackles, her German collaborators in Dublin are hopeful that this latest Ahern film will mark a turning point in their genre. They want to go beyond frothy plots, a helpless heroine and picture-postcard Ireland to show German audiences a modern, urban Ireland – and a stronger leading lady.
This is music to the ears of the German actor Julia-Maria Köhler, whose character, Lucy, is forced by circumstances – and a persistent friend – to re-examine her life. Köhler says that the Cecelia Ahern factor on this project is tangible: a “very un-German” script: fast and funny and with more depth, allowing for the leading lady to be “a bit crazy, a bit loud”.
“It’s a joy to play this character, because she’s confident but also makes mistakes,” she says. “It’s important to bring in fresh air and new audiences to this genre by telling stories with stronger women. We just need the courage to do so.”
The Irish author is clearly having the time of her life working with German creative teams. Beyond the four ZDF television films, she says, the cinema release Love, Rosie was produced by a German company, Constantin, and had a German director.
“Why do I like working with them? Because when they say they are going to do something they do it,” says Ahern. “I write quickly. I deliver on time. I get frustrated with people who are not efficient.” She laughs. “When I am creative I am Irish, but I have the work ethic of a German.”