1 May 2018
Göran R Buckhorn has been sitting glued to the screen, looking at murders and rowing.
From time to time, I enjoy reading a mystery story or watching a crime series on TV. Netflix has proved to be a good place to find series to watch from different countries. Right now, on Netflix USA and UK at least, the best one is a German Krimi called Babylon Berlin, which is a somewhat political thriller, based on Volker Kutscher’s best-selling novels. Babylon Berlin is far from the scenic Poirot’s English country house or Mesopotamia, Miss Marple’s picturesque English village, Endeavour and Lewis’s beautiful Oxford, Longmire’s Wyoming and Wallander’s grey, winded landscape outside of Ystad.
The binge-watch-worthy, 16-episode Babylon Berlin, which was released in Germany in October last year, has won several German TV awards and is the most expensive TV series coming out of that country at €40m ($48.3m; £35m; different sources give different numbers, but it has cost a lot of dough). It was co-directed by Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries. They also wrote the scripts. According to reports, it took six months to film in 300 locations, using 5,000 extras – that’s something to think about in these days when mass scenes of people in movies are created on a computer.
The series begins in 1929 in the Weimar Republic’s Berlin, then the capital of the world. Weimar Berlin is the perfect setting. Here is the city’s darkness, dirt and filth; and you can almost smell the misery – a 21st-century version of Fritz Lang noir and far away from the upbeat 1972 Cabaret (for the better).
Although, it’s ten years since the Great War ended, dark clouds are still looming over Berlin and Germany. The German soldiers never came home as heroes, instead many of them came home shell shocked and traumatized, and the human suffering can be read in their faces. Many of the old veterans are forced to live in the streets and in poverty – looked down upon as traitors and losers by the society. Behind closed doors, the survivors of the war, mostly officers, are celebrating the memory of their fallen comrades – and some are plotting to take revenge on the socialists who they feel sold them out at the end of the war. Those who are younger and never served in the war try to forget the hard times by partying away at the city’s nightclubs, drinking, dancing, using drugs, listening to the new music, jazz, and throwing themselves into a decadent life-style (who wouldn’t?). Berlin is the place for high culture, gruesome crimes and political upheaval with corruption, gangsters, (German) communists, Stalin’s secret service and Stalin’s enemies the Trotskyists, monarchists and the illegal paramilitary group Schwarze Reichswehr and – at the end of the series – followers of National Socialism who start to show their ugly faces. You cannot really trust anyone, especially not the police. All these factors make the Weimar Republic a fragile democracy. Of course, we know that the Weimar Republic was soon to be followed by the Third Reich in 1933.
It’s in this melting pot the lead characters, Gereon Rath and Charlotte ‘Lotte’ Ritter, are navigating, trying to solve cases that all seem to be connected to a Soviet freight train, which is carrying poison gas and gold bricks, which everyone is after.
In the beginning of the series, Police Inspector Gereon Rath (played by Volker Bruch) arrives from Cologne to join the Berlin vice squad to follow a lead in a blackmail case involving a pornographic film. Rath, a troubled veteran of the war who daily rides his demons, is suffering from PTSD, which he tries to cover up by taking morphine. He also has a couple of other secrets that will be revealed as the series goes on. Detective Rath proves to be an effective police man and goes from the vice squad to the homicide division while he also helps out in the ‘political police’ section.
The other lead role is Lotte Ritter (played by Liv Lisa Fries), who during the day is a typist at the Police Headquarters, cataloguing horrific photographs of murder victims. Lotte dreams of becoming a murder detective, and she certainly has the brains for it, but the occupation is closed for women. At night, Lotte turns into a flapper and lives the high-life at Moka Efti, a chic night club, where you can dance all night long and where the booze flows. As the night moves along, some of the night club’s clientele find their way to the club’s ‘catacombs’, where sex is offered with no restrictions. Here, Lotte makes some extra money to be able to pay for her large family’s dump in the north-western slums of Wedding in Berlin.
In the Berlin police corps is also Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (played by Peter Kurth), who knows all the tricks in the book. Despite sometimes seeming like an easy-going fellow, he’s a complex man and you never really know where you have him. Then, there is the young Stefan Jänicke (played by Anton von Lucke), who is a Detective with a remarkable gift.
There are many fascinating characters in Babylon Berlin – the list is too long to mention everyone here, though one exception should be made of a non-German musician, Bryan Ferry, who surprisingly plays a nameless singer at Moka Efti.
The characters (and the actors playing them) are what makes this series stand above many other TV detective series. Even ‘minor’ characters are played with such depth that every character feels real. Another strong point of Babylon Berlin is that it gets the historical details right. And the series even has its funny moments.
After this lengthy tale of Babylon Berlin, you readers might ask yourselves, why is this on HTBS? The answer is simple: Detective Stefan Jänicke is a member of Akademischer Ruderclub on Wannsee. There is an episode, which should interest what my dear colleague Tim Koch calls ‘HTBS Types’. In that episode, No. 6, Jänicke invites Lotte and her friend Greta to Akademischer Ruderclub. Being a rowing club in the 1920s, Lotte is made aware of the sharp distinction between the working class and the academic sphere.
The scenes at the rowing club start at 6:09 and go on to 9:34 and then continue from 14:08 to 17:01. We are offered some good racing scenes in two mixed, wooden, coxed half-outrigger gigs. As a series of high class, the actors/extras actually know how to row – Vielen Dank!
In the 17 March 2018 issue of The Spectator, James Delingpole wrote about Babylon Berlin. Already the title of his review gives away what he thought, “Babylon Berlin is so brilliant I’d advise you not to start watching it”. The introduction continues: ‘This TV masterpiece about Weimar Germany will eat up 16 hours of your life.’ Delingpole writes:
The plot, which revolves round missing Imperial Russian gold, is abundant with satisfying twists and turns. Sometimes – the flight over Russia, for example; the final train sequence – the action is so over-the-top that it borders on the Bulldog Drummond. But even at its most preposterous you never lose faith because the characters are so real and exquisitely played, and because its recreation of the period is so lovingly, nay obsessively, realized – from the fancy, door-free lifts in the police HQ to the interior of the Junkers on that hair-raising flight.
Set aside 16 hours of your life now, and binge-watch this masterpiece. Then write me a nice thank-you letter.
Or write a thank-you note to HTBS.
And yes, Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries are working on the next episodes.
Here is a two-minute teaser: