Babylon Berlin is a hugely expensive German-language TV show that seems to have a rabid cult following and universal critical acclaim—but no one I’ve talked to has seen it. It’s based on a series of novels by author Volker Kutscher about a police inspector, Gereon Rath, who has many demons of his own, from drug addiction to PTSD from WW1. It’s set against the backdrop of the waning years of Weimar Republic, right before Hitler and his brownshirts took over the country. There is a complete sense of dread hanging over the series, because you know it’s not going to end well for anybody involved by the time the series finishes (there is a third season on the way.)
The series is directed by not one but three directors working together: Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten, and Achim von Borries. Tykwer is best known for the vastly overrated Run, Lola, Run, but has also directed the underrated thriller The International and actually co-directed the ambitious and sprawling Cloud Atlas with The Wachowskis. Hendrik Handloegten, and Achim von Borries are probably best known for being the co-writers of the very charming Good Bye Lenin!, but both have directed in their own right.
The fact that the series has a constant visual vision (despite the trio of directors) through these first 16 episodes elevates the show beyond the usual visual trappings of television. It’s the same reason that the first season of True Detective stood out as compared to its next seasons (and almost any other TV show) or David Lynch’s latest season of Twin Peaks. It’s far closer to cinema then even some of the best “prestige television.” It’s utterly captivating practically from the start, and never lets up. If anything, the second block of 8 episodes is even better than the first tranche.
Volker Bruch leads the cast as Gereon Rath, and perfectly captures this deeply damaged man who is navigating this way through the underbelly of late ’20s Berlin. Liv Lisa Fries is an absolute revelation as Charlotte Ritter, a young flapper girl who is a sometimes prostitute at the nightclub Moka Efti. She ends up working for a clerk for the police, and as the first female homicide detective. The possibility of Charlotte becoming a homicide detective during the Weimar Republic was feasible—woman were getting a lot more career possibilities, but then Hitler came in to send them back to the kitchen. Peter Kurth plays Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter, Rath’s partner, and has a fascinating narrative arc of his own. The rest of the cast is full of great German character actors.
The Nazis hover over the series, but the filmmakers made an amazing choice not to show them for almost the entire series, it’s not till the end of Season 2 that they pop up in a big way. It’s slightly anachronistic, because the Nazis already were big players in politics by 1929 when the show starts. Instead, the directors decided to focus more on the anti-Stalinist Trotskyist cells and the mainstream conservative party to show why Germany was so fractured and corrupt on all sides, leaving an opening that the Nazis could use to take complete control only a few years later. I assume the show will end with the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler’s supremacy was confirmed over the various violent groups and individuals who had helped him come to power.
Babylon Berlin is by far the most consuming and masterful piece of television at the moment, and if you aren’t watching it, you are doing yourself a great disservice. No American TV show comes close to the richness of the storytelling or visual splendour. The recreation of Weimar Republic Berlin is amazing, from the jazz bars the characters frequent to all the criminal activity everybody is up to, drug addiction and more.
The 16 episodes are spread over four discs, and the final disc includes a 45-minute making-of featurette. It’s only available on DVD—I wish it was available on Blu-Ray, because it would pop visually even more in that format.