What’s The Show? Babylon Berlin
What’s It All About, JG? The series is set in Berlin during the dying days of the Weimer Republic, where Inspector Gereon Rath has arrived, fresh-faced and slightly innocent, from Colonge who is sent on assignment. He’s there to try and take apart an extortion ring – it very much doesn’t just so happens to be his father that’s being extorted – aided and abetted by Charlotte Ritter, one of the police clerks trying to make her own way past the inherent sexism of the era in a time when women were finally starting to make progress in the workplace.
This leads them into the seedy underbelly of Berlin, while off to one side there’s a train full of gold from the USSR that apparently everyone wants to get their hands on. The first and second seasons follow broadly the same storyline, with Ritter investigating the extortion ring while slowly exposing a cuckoo in the nest of the Berlin police department. The third season (at time of writing – a fourth has been comissioned) moves onto a new plot, the murder of a film-star and the increasingly fractuous politics of the time. Over all three seasons, the noir, the characters, the setting and the politics all collide into a heady mix of drama and, it must me said, melodrama. It’s an intoxicating brew.
Why Did You Give It A Go? Reputation alone, I fear. It has a great reputation, in fact, and since I’ve been trying to expand my non-English viewing it seemed like a good series to tackle. Plus, I fucking love Berlin, and Germany in gerenal. Awesome city, awesome country (with a few rather non-awesome moments, obviously).
Is Is Any Good? Oh hell yes. It’s absolutely fucking amazing, in fact, an extremely immersive and propulsive show that never for one moment lets up. And it’s that immersiveness that’s really what gets you – there’s a texture and feel to the way that 1920’s Berlin is put together that makes it feel like so much more than just a location. And it’s not at all glamour and gals – there’s a real squalid side that isn’t afraid to show the city at its worst. This never feels exploitative – this isn’t some BS class tourism like Downton Abbey – but simply an honest reflection of the times. Some people lived in lovely villas, some people lived in barely-more-than-a-hovel tenements that would make squats seem upmarket and desirable.
Through all this, though, it’s the characters that draw you in, and Rath, as played by Volker Bruch, is an incredibly detailed, well-realised and fleshed-out character. There are so many nuances to the performance, and Bruch deserves all the credit in the world for bringing him to life, even when being given fairly standard things to deal with like a drug habit. He’s just so real. But Bruch isn’t alone – Peter Kurth’s Bruno Wolter is appealingly sleazy as Rath’s superior, and Matthias Brandt’s August Benda is an incredibly sympathetic and likeable character, simply unaware that the weight of history is against him. He is a decent man in indecent times and, like the series itself, is simply difficult to take your eyes off whenever he’s on.
And that “difficult to take your eyes off” is important too, because the direction here is also part of what draws you in – the locations feel real because of how they’re shot, and the style and panache of the direction never threatens to overwhelm the material. It’s cheeky in places – the fake “expanding hole” at the start of every episode done to resemble an old-time silent movie – but it always adds atmosphere and depth. And the few musical numbers that we get here? Jaw-dropping, and in ways musical numbers almost never are in shows like this. Brian Ferry is on hand (and at one point in the second season, on stage) as musical director and he too does exemplory work using the sounds of the era to bring Berlin to life.
How Many Episides Did You Watch? You better believe it was every last one of them! And of course I’ll be watching Season Four when it rolls around.
Would You Recommend It? Not only would I but in point of fact I already have, and I’m doing it again right now! Because it’s just great. One of the most amazing things about it is how it’s able to be set at the end of the Weimer Republic yet not simply be about the rise of the Nazis. In fact, it’s perspetive is genuinely facsinating – rather than being about the rise of evil, it’s about the fall of decency and democracy and how fragile society can be – and the time, setting and the fact that it’s a German series lends real power to that appraoch. Benda, a good man trying to do the right thing in face of odds he simply can’t overcome, is the perfect encapsulation of this and why he’s such a tragic figure, but there are many others.
What the show also does a simply stunning job of showing is just how much was lost with the fall of this era. It’s not idolising or digging into nostalga for cheap point-scoring – the genuinely uncomofrtable scenes of povery preclude that possibility. It just shows that many really innovations and achievements – from German Expressionist cinema in the third season via progressive social attitudes throughout the show – were lost and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions.
The one time there really is a big attempt to overthrow democracy in the show, it turns out not to be the Nazis at all but instead a group of fanatics determined to restore the monarchy. Needless to say, that doesn’t quite come off… And yet, especially during the third season, the Nazi threat is slowly integrated into the plot – initially little more threathening than a Boy Scout equivilent but growing quietly in the shadows, as evil does, but with increasing presence… yet, again, it’s never heavy-handed or clumsy, and that’s the show all over. It’s incredibly subtle and deft in the way it handles its themes, characters and era. The third series is, admittedly, a fractional step down from the first two basically-perfect seasons, but by being a little longer also allows us to explore a few more nooks and crannies, and that’s alway time well spent. Babylon Berlin is a remarkable creation and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Scores On The Doors? 9 / 10, and the one mark off is just because the third season is marginally less good. But it’s still bloody great!