Culture

Film & Television

‘Babylon Berlin’: strangely familiar

By Craig Mathieson
The gripping Weimar-era police procedural feels completely in the moment

In an early episode of Babylon Berlin, a kaleidoscopic crime drama set in the German capital during the crossroads year of 1929, a dogged police detective pursuing an illicit film shot for blackmail, Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), visits a production house hoping to question the technician who processed the celluloid. Barging into a screening room, he finds a charmed producer watching a woman’s vituperative screen test for the next Josef von Sternberg production.

“Who’s the lady?” asks a distracted Rath. “Dietrich,” an assistant hesitantly replies, checking his notes. The finished movie would be The Blue Angel, a satire of Teutonic pride, and when it was released in 1930 it made Marlene Dietrich an international movie star. Here, however, she is a working actor, a fierce but unstitched presence. Babylon Berlin takes a similar unexpected approach to both genre and history: it makes the procedural mystery and the Weimar Republic crackle with contemporary energy.

Created and directed in turn by a trio of German filmmakers – Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten, and the best known of the three, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) – the 16-part series is sweeping in scope and vast in detail. But even when it engages with historic figures or real-life events, it has a fizzy, tangible energy that makes the numerous turns and period textures feel completely in the moment. The machinations can occasionally be excessive, but instead of looking back with calcifying certainty, the storytelling charges ahead with brash discovery.

At its best Babylon Berlin is so immersive and surprising that it could be an alternate history. The setting is one where a traditional society’s gravitational forces have been suspended: the Kaiser’s Prussian monarchy has been 10 years in exile following the disastrous defeat in World War One, and the Social Democratic government is struggling with the country’s left and right even as it institutes vast social change. “Paragraph 118: art is free,” a pornographer quoting the constitution reminds Rath following a raid.

This Berlin is a city of extremes: experimental art, crushing poverty, flourishing nightclubs, communist collectives, and sexual freedom all abound. It allows the characters to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Rath forms a compromised alliance with Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a mercurial product of the slums who spends her day competing for freelance administrative assignments at police headquarters (the gig economy was also exploiting workers back then) and her nights dancing at a gangster’s nightclub, the Moka Efti, before relocating to the basement bordello. She’s Hermione Granger seen through a Cabaret lens.

While Rath, on secondment from Cologne, is searching for the blackmailer’s reel, he and Charlotte, along with Rath’s nominal partner and local guide, Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), become caught up in the machinations surrounding an impounded freight train car. Smuggled out of Russia by Trotskyists looking to depose Stalin, the cargo leads them to political conspiracy involving the German army that reaches up to the Reichstag. With masterful overhead shots and charged dialogue (best appreciated with English subtitles as opposed to the awkward overdubbing), these interlocking arcs create a steadily tense escalation that makes for gripping viewing.

Normally as plots evolve, revelations provide a sense of certainty, but in this setting there’s a perpetual sense of vertigo threatening the ardent scrabbling. This Germany is a country that has been ruptured and never recovered. “A trembler,” Wolter dismissively says of a former colleague, who, like so many men, exhibits acute shellshock, while Rath, whose brother has been missing since the final days of the war, secretly self-medicates his jangled nerves with morphine. Crippled veterans beg on the street, a reminder of Germany’s defeat at every turn, but many more are hidden away. One of the show’s mysterious figures, Dr Schmidt (Jens Harzer), has forged a shadow network from inside a veterans’ hospital that most Germans don’t want to admit even exists.

In this environment, crowds take on a heightened sense of power – they feel like a shared response to unthinkable events, whether it’s a vast communist procession listening to a firebrand female leader and community GP, Dr Volcker (Jördis Triebel), or a dancefloor brought to an ecstatic pitch by Nikoros (Severija Janušauskaitė). The latter is an androgynous seer who offstage as the White Russian Countess Svetlana Sorokina has used her connections to both the Trotskyists and the scion of a German industrial family to bring the valuable freight car within obsessive reach. “Throw us between happiness and agony,” she sings, and it’s a fitting description of this unhinged landscape.

“Banks eat up your money,” protestors chant, and it’s not hard to draw parallels between the 1929 of the show and the west of 2017, particularly in the way democracy’s foundations are never as firm as people believe. Sorokina’s wealthy lover, Alfred Nyssen (Lars Eidinger), calls the Weimer Republic a “democratic aberration”, and actively works against it, and Babylon Berlin is particularly illuminating in its depiction of how cataclysmic trauma does not draw a country together, but fragments it. This is what a nation with PTSD looks like.

When Rath attends a commemorative dinner hosted by Wolter with fellow veterans from a World War One battle, they listen to a child eulogise their isolated victory before condemning Germany’s defeat. Here nationalism is an escalating battle of extremes, so that the traditionalist right and the army support the centrist Social Democrats in bloodily cracking down on the communists on May Day, even as they prepare their own bid for power. It allows for thrilling plotting – a scheme to assassinate dignitaries at a performance of the recently premiered Threepenny Opera is handled with Hitchcock-like finesse – and the twisting of personalities to juice up the narrative.

Compromise and zealotry are perpetually intertwined, struggling for ascendancy. “Reinvent the world in a better way,” passionately declares Sorokina’s other lover, Trotskyist violinist Alexei Kardakow (Ivan Shvedoff). “No less,” she replies in solidarity, despite having just tipped off the Russian embassy as to the basement location of Kardakow’s exiled cell and their printing presses. Sorokina can fall absent from episodes, but the main players come into acute focus. Wolter’s police detective, for example, is that now rare figure of the charmingly rotund, malevolent fixer (think Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil), and there’s a scene where he subtly menaces an overly curious child that’s agonisingly tense because of his belief in the ends justifying the means.

Babylon Berlin is the most expensive non-English language television series ever produced, and it’s notable for the exquisite production design (echoes of the Moka Efti’s neon wonderland will be found in designer bars for the next five years) and the seamless transition from the physical to the digital that allows for a daunting breadth. What’s expected, but mostly missing, are the Nazis. Adolf Hitler is mentioned by name once in passing, which matches the fact that in the May 1928 general election his National Socialist German Workers’ Party had received just 2.6% of the national vote. They barely feature in the already bloody ideological clashes.

Yet Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship in 1933 and the Nazis’ establishment of a one-party state hangs over every scene, creating a current of dread that the creators subtly stoke. One of Rath’s allies, the head of the political department of the Berlin police, Councillor August Benda (Matthias Brandt), casually explains that he is a Jew married to a Roman Catholic, and like everyone in this fascinating show he cannot see what lies just four years ahead. The end of the series sets up the fascists’ emergence, with the ensemble fixed in places that will bring them into irrevocable conflict (or craven collaboration). The vigour and wonder of Babylon Berlin can never quite dispel the looming tragedy. So much of this world will be destroyed, and while Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich got out in time, many of these characters won’t.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

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