There’s something about German culture between the world wars that matches my attitudes and predilections. I’m not sure what that says about me, but you can keep your ancient Greece and classical Rome and Victorian England and all the rest of it, just give me a jumping cabaret or a lively coffeehouse and I’m happy. That goes double if we’re talking about Weimar Berlin, so of course I had to check out the German TV series Babylon Berlin, set in that city beginning in 1929. I’ve only seen two seasons, so far, courtesy of a Blu-ray set from Kino Lorber, but at least four seasons are planned, with the story eventually running through mid-1931.
The central character in Babylon Berlin is Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a police inspector recently transferred from Cologne to Berlin, where he works on the vice squad with Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth). Rath has a secret—he’s addicted to morphine—and plenty of other characters are also suffering the after-effects of World War I (for instance, one character is so shell-shocked he loses his job due to over-reaction to loud noises).
A lot of people are also struggling financially, thanks to a collapsed economy and high unemployment, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of vice for the cops to uncover in Berlin. Not far into the first episode, Rath and Wolter break up a pornographic film shoot that is simultaneously tacky, sacrilegious, and hilarious—“You’re receiving the Redeemer!” says the director to a naked woman receiving something quite else from two men at once—and there’s plenty more where that came from. That’s “vice” from the 1929 police point of view, of course—I have no interest in interfering with what consenting adults due with each other, plus I understand that survival generally trumps so-called morality when the two come in to conflict. On the other hand, this is not a series for kids—besides all the private parts on display, there are graphic scenes of police torture, drug injection, and some other things that were no doubt prevalent at the time but are still shocking when viewed on screen.
One of the most interesting characters is Babylon Berlin is Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), who represents both the new freedom enjoyed by women in this period, and the discrimination which remained a fact of their existence. Charlotte lives with her family in a crowded apartment in the slums of Neukölln, where she is the primary breadwinner supporting her schoolgirl sister, infirm mother, pregnant sister, and the sister’s child and slovenly unemployed husband. She gets clerical work when she can (as one among dozens of women who line up each morning hoping to get the equivalent of day labor), and is a regular at the legendary Moka Efti nightclub, where she works as a dancer and sometime prostitute. She really wants to be a homicide detective, however, despite the fact that she’s been told up front that women aren’t allowed to work in that department.
Babylon Berlin is written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Henk Handloegten, and Achim Von Borries, based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher that combine historical events with fictional characters. It’s Germany’s most expensive television series ever (production cost 40 million Euros) and has both the long game and the short game expected of large scale TV series—there are complex story lines with arcs lasting a season or more, but also enough immediate interest to keep you watching while you figure out the complicated stuff. Babylon Berlin looks fabulous, but, like old-school Hollywood movies, relies heavily on sets that are just a bit too perfect and clean for what they are meant to represent. Still, there are some nightclub scenes to die for, and overall Babylon Berlin is one of the best historical television series I’ve seen recently. | Sarah Boslaugh
Babylon Berlin is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. Seasons 1 and 2 have 8 episodes each, with each episode running about 48 minutes. The Blu-ray set consists of 4 discs, with extras including a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes footage, and trailers. I’m hoping for an enhanced edition to be released later on, with a commentary track that talks about the history behind the events shown and identifies the locations portrayed. Until then, there are plenty of sites on the Internet to help with both projects.