The complex and ambitious political German noir TV series is both ambitious and frustrating.
Caution: there are inevitably spoilers ahead as we discuss three seasons of Babylon Berlin.
The decadent days of the Weimar Republic in Berlin – and, for that matter, the international sin cities of the roaring Twenties – are something of an obsession (and future publishing project) here at Reprobate Towers, and so we found ourselves approaching much-praised German TV series Babylon Berlin with some caution. We came to the show with a degree of forewarning, namely that it liked to play fast and loose with history and was all surface gloss with no real substance – and that if you knew anything about the subject matter, you’d probably find yourself gnashing your teeth with frustration at the historical revisionism.
The critics certainly had a point. This police drama set in 1929 seems to have a Tarantino approach to history – the use of Roxy Music’s Dance Away in the first episode (and later with Bryan Ferry warbling away) is a jarring moment that drags us out of the time period and into the 1970s, while the appearance of ageing bluesmen in a club later is equally annoying – this was not the sound of the time and place, and seems to be a too-knowing nod and wink at the audience. The audience dancing and singing along to a cabaret act is equally unconvincing – it’s more Eurovision than Sally Bowles. Perhaps none of this should matter, but it’s all so damned unnecessary, as if the filmmakers were worried that the audience would not be able to connect to the series unless it directly related to their own experiences.
This is a continually niggling irritation with the series, which is a pity because on the whole, this is a show that has a lot going for it. It’s based on the novels of Volker Kutscher, which I haven’t read and so can’t comment on how the series reflects them; however, it is also unquestionably inspired by the other Euro TV police series hits of the last decade, from The Killing to The Bridge and beyond. Although very different to those shows in style – it is, after all, a period piece – it has the same glossy feel and one eye on global sales (though perhaps not a US or UK remake) and the same convoluted structure that demands binge-viewing if you are to have any chance of keeping up with the myriad of individual but ultimately interconnected narratives and characters who only slowly start to unravel their mysteries and personalities as the series progresses. At sixteen parts (the series is ostensibly divided into two seasons, but in fact runs as one long story) it certainly requires a level of commitment, and as with many a modern show, it only offers just enough in the first episode to make you give the second a go, before slowly hooking you in. In the days of traditional weekly broadcast, this was a risky strategy, but now we can say to ourselves “oh well, let’s watch one more and see how it develops” – and before you know it, you’ve been pulled in.
The main story is following police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a detective from Cologne who is in Berlin working for the Vice Squad, trying to find a porn movie that features a prominent politician. Rath finds himself caught up in the political conflicts of the time – one the one hand, revolutionary Communists who are trying to smuggle a secret cargo to Trotsky in Istanbul, on the other, the rising nationalists who resent losing the War and are paving the way for the Nazis. He also gets caught up in police corruption, while self-medicating with morphine to counter the effects of shell shock and the loss of his brother in the trenches.
Woven around this are stories of betrayal and conflict within the Communist groups, local gangsters and the ongoing adventures of Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a flapper and part-time prostitute who dreams of joining the police Murder Squad, and begins to both work with Rath and carry out clandestine and unofficial investigations. Her story also jumps around, with her poverty-stricken family and an old friend who she tries to help out further convoluting the plot. But she’s also the best part of the show – a feisty and appealing character who is not unlike Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks, having a slight crush on the main investigator and a yearning for adventure. The show is at its most entertaining when she is on screen. Rath, on the other hand, is a touch too clichéd – the tortured cop who is being both manipulated and torn in different directions – and is actually rather hard to like.
The show’s first two seasons have a curious vibe – it feels retro, though not 1929 retro. There is a strange, intangible 1980s feel to it, a distinct air of unreality to things, and nothing feels more unreal than Eighties TV. And despite wallowing in the gutter (sometimes literally) there’s a curious cleanness to the whole thing that is unsettling. There’s a strange lack of frisson to either the violence or the frequent nudity (male and female), as if the whole thing has been so polished as to become antiseptic. And I can’t help but wonder if this is because the whole thing is ultimately style over substance, lacking the edge of both the German films made during this period and other movies that explore the Weimar Republic and pre-Nazi Germany. I’ve seen references to this show as being angst-ridden, but I can only wonder at how sanitised the lives of those writers must be to think that – this is not a dark show, as much as it wants to be. And although lively and glamorous, the Berlin nightlife it portrays sometimes seems more kitsch than decadent, like a modern burlesque show instead of a 1920s cabaret and very much reflecting modern sensibilities rather than sin city sleaze.
Season Three Takes things into a somewhat darker turn, perhaps as though the producers had been paying attention to their most fawning critics and decided to go further down this road – or perhaps (and this seems more probable) because any story set in Germany at this period of time would invariably have to slide into the coming end of the Weimar era and the rise of the Nazis. This is both a good and bad thing – at times, the show seems almost too absorbed in being a study of the past through the eyes of the future for comfort, and it’s often an uneasy collision of styles, as the rise of the Nazis becomes just one of many, many plot strands that run throughout the twelve episodes. These include the mysterious murder of a film star during the production of some extravagant musical that collides high camp with expressionist cinema; corruption and political manoeuvring within the police force and their political masters; Rath’s relationship breakdown and Charlotte’s attempt to rise in the police ranks; the case of Charlotte’s friend Greta, who had carried out a fatal bombing in Season Two while being manipulated by National Socialists; the machinations of the Berlin underworld; Rath’s relationship with a mysterious psychiatrist who may or may not be his brother, believed killed in the Great War; Eyes Wide Shut-style occult rituals at the Fraternitas Saturni; a giallo-style masked killer working his – or perhaps her – way though glamorous actresses (the season is awash with little Dario Argento nods, not least a musical motif that seems lifted from Suspiria); a Louise Brooks style character, killed off with unseemly haste; and all this set against the looking Stock Market crash, where the season opens in dramatic, flash-forward style, and then works its way towards.
Juggling so many elements – and there are multiple additional minor strands scattered throughout the show – seems overly ambitious – there’s enough going on here for several different shows, frankly, and not all of these strands are given enough breathing space to fully develop. There’s no faulting the ambition, but with so many characters to juggle and stories to develop, at times the show feels as though it is going to collapse under its own weight. Invariably, some of these plot strands feel under-cooked or even distracting, and it is to the series’ credit that it makes as much work as it does. And at its best, the show does allow the main characters more development, though rath still seems too much of a self-absorbed cold fish to really take to – and increasingly feels like a bit-part player in his own story.
Notably, the third season is lighter on the Weimar glamour and nightlife, and practically devoid of the nudity that was scattered across the first two seasons – something, I guess, had to give in order to work so much narrative into the season, but despite my reservations in the first two seasons, it seems a shame that the glamour – except in the extravagant Damonen Der Leidenschaft (Demons of Passion) movie being shot – has been so dialled back, given how it was so much a part of the earlier seasons. But the sense of growing calamity that builds through the episodes is undoubtedly powerful – leading to quite the finale – and perhaps too it is apt that, for the show, the trivial pleasures are over.
Yet there is no denying that this is a series awash with style – there are visual moments that will make you gasp – and while I’m not sure I was as hooked as I have been on other shows, I watched between four and six episodes in a session over consecutive nights, and so I was definitely invested and entertained, and there was certainly a desire to see how the convoluted plot strands would come together. If we compare it to other glossy period dramas like the execrable Versailles, then the quality of the show certainly shines though, with consistently fine performances and interesting characters. I wouldn’t say that it is essential viewing by any means, but fans of long-form drama, noir and complex political thrillers will find much to keep them satisfied here.