In the classic 1966 interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock explained how he conceptualized suspense versus surprise on the big screen to fellow movie director Francois Truffaut:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.
Babylon Berlin’s third season takes that formula to the absolute limit; its first scene shows veteran Berlin detective Gereon Rath (portrayed by Volker Bruch) wandering in a daze through the Börse, Berlin’s stock exchange, past stockbrokers who have shot and hanged themselves amidst a swirling blizzard of stock certificates in the immediate aftermath of the October stock market crash of 1929. So we know the crash is coming, and it’s going to be absolutely horrific when it arrives. But cui bono: Who set the crash into motion? Who stands to benefit from it? Thus begins the first of 12 episodes of Babylon Berlin’s third season. And most importantly, what does the crash have to do with the previous seasons of Babylon Berlin? Could it be set in motion by those National Socialists who began to appear toward the end of Season 2?
Dispatches from the Börse Belt
Incidentally, this makes for great television, but it’s arguably wildly irresponsible as well, seeing as how after September 11, 2001, 35 percent to possibly over half of all American Democrats believed President Bush played some role in causing 9/11. If the National Socialists caused the 1929 stock market crash, why can’t we blame the socialists of 2008 for tanking the markets to usher in the Obama era? The socialists in Beijing for creating coronavirus to cripple the U.S. economy via the “Great Reset”?
In any case, it’s important to note that the TV series Babylon Berlin, based on the novels by Volker Kutscher, is no more a history lesson of the fall of the Weimar Republic than Miami Vice was an accurate history of the Florida drug trade of the mid-1980s, or Boardwalk Empire a documentary on the pitfalls of the 18th Amendment. The third season of Babylon Berlin doesn’t even have the same level of byzantine political intrigue that the first two seasons had. Those seasons dealt with Capital-C Communists battling it out with monarchists, with Nazis only emerging near the end of the second season as a rival street-fighting gang to be reckoned with. In the third season, the Communists are largely reduced to a handful of characters, as we will see later.
The second season of Babylon Berlin culminated in Rath meeting Dr. Anno Schmidt, his brother who was presumed dead in the no-man’s land of WWI. In the third season, Schmidt has a recurring and somewhat mystical role as a combination mad scientist, psychologist, and radio host to help move the exposition along.
In the first two seasons, the MacGuffin was a railroad train from the Soviet Union that both the Communists and monarchists wanted to capture, whose cars turned out to be made of gold, a plot straight out of a 1960s Speed Racer cartoon. This time, the MacGuffin is the stock market crash, with the Nazis and monarchists working together to short sell the market, and cause everyday German citizens who have speculated wildly on credit to miss their margin calls, bankrupting them. (“Never let a crisis go to waste,” to coin a socialistic phrase.)
Unlike the previous seasons, when you really did need a scorecard just to keep track of who’s shivving who, the plotting in the show’s third season is slightly less byzantine. Its timeline begins five months before the Crash, focusing on three main plots. Obviously, planning the stock market crash is the big one.
The second plot involves Armenian gangsters maneuvering around a Berlin film studio as it makes the transition from silent movies to talkies. Actresses keep dying, and the main suspect is a masked man in a very silly, expressionistic suit that’s a cross between the Phantom of the Opera, Darth Vader, Batman, and maybe a touch of Nosferatu. This plot, about gangsters toying with a film studio, seems like something out of Robert Stack’s Untouchables series.
The third plotline is the fate of the childhood friend of Charlotte Ritter, Rath’s sidekick, Greta Overbeck, who has been sent to death row after her role in the assassination of August Benda, the head of the Berlin Political Police, at the climax of the show’s second season.
Related to that last plot point, and in contrast to the large group of Communists, monarchists, and eventually Nazis in Babylon Berlin’s first two seasons, there are only three Communists prominently featured in the show’s third season. While the show’s cadre of Nazis is depicted as (appropriately enough) tough, ruthless men, the three Communists who dominate the new season are portrayed sympathetically by a pair of attractive women, and the third is a bookish public defender fighting to save a young woman on death row.
Agatha Christie Meets Pepe Silvia Meets Stanley Kubrick Meets Don Draper
As with the previous seasons, there are a few silly melodramatic moments that seem jarring compared to the otherwise solemn police procedural tone of the show. The man in the black cape and mask, who is the prime mover of the terror at the film studio, kidnaps Charlotte and leaves her dangling from the ceiling in an action scene cliché that dates from the early days of Hitchcock, all the way to Hans Gruber’s demise in Die Hard.
There’s a scene where the camera pans over a massive table filled with notes, stock certificates, prospectuses, and other investment flotsam and jetsam as industrialist Alfred Nyssen gets the notion to undermine the stock market, which almost cries out for the words PEPE SILVIA to be scribbled in giant letters across the enormous collage.
Then there’s the crime lab staffer who melts down and has an Agatha Christie-style “I’ve invited you all here” conversation with a classroom full of imaginary students to explain his increasingly bizarre motives over the last several episodes. It’s a massive amount of expository information to present to the viewers, and yet another very silly way to do it. Even the New York Times has noticed this aspect of Babylon Berlin’s third season:
A conclave of Berlin’s criminal gangs looks like a scene from a Dick Tracy cartoon; an orgiastic ceremony in a shuttered mansion is “Eyes Wide Shut” with a didgeridoo. The central mystery plot involves the haunted production of “Demons of Passion,” a musical spectacular with Expressionist touches whose leading ladies keep getting bumped off by a towering figure in a phantom costume. (Clips from the film-within-a-film, with its references to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” are an amusing, and sometimes surprisingly moving, bonus in the later episodes. Also keep your eyes out for a pointed homage to “The Third Man.”)
The new season’s climatic episode, which ties together all of the preceding plot lines, has a much more successful callback to another show. The advertising-themed soap opera Mad Men, set in the 1960s, had lots of fun, particularly in its first seasons, poking its sophisticated, hyper-online audience in the ribs with the hilariously outdated technology of fifty years past. A similar gag occurs in the final episode of Babylon Berlin’s latest season. In order to record the confession of a suspect with powerful connections, instead of the wireless bug connected to a tiny radio transformer that’s a cliché in modern cop shows whenever an undercover policeman records a criminal’s confession, Rath relies on an enormous shoebox of a transmitter. It’s hardwired into a truck in which his fellow detectives use a 78 RPM shellac phonograph record to capture the confession. That episode also features a brilliantly edited Hitchcock-inspired sequence in which Charlotte tries desperately to save her friend from the executioner’s blade, while frantically making her way through the crowds surrounding the massive funeral procession of Gustav Stresemann, the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister, who died on October 3, 1929.
Also in the last episode, mad scientist Anno Schmidt promises Germany a new type of man who, unlike the PTSD traumatized veterans of WWI, is “free of pain and fear,” an “android.” Hey, you know who else wanted to see “the new man,” starting in the 1930s?
In the middle of the twentieth century, the new man was supposed to appear in Hitler’s Germany. Nazism, wrote Hermann Rauschning, “is more than a religion; it is the will to create the superman.” This sturdy “Aryan” would be part peasant, part warrior, part God. “I have seen the new man,” Hitler once confided to Rauschning. “He is intrepid and cruel. I stood in fear before him.”
In the last shot of the final episode, Rath sees/hallucinates a monster snaking its way through the Berlin sewers. Presumably, that’s a metaphor for what we all know awaits Germany in the 1930s.
And yes, Babylon Berlin has been renewed for a fourth season, but production has been delayed by…If you’re reading this in 2020, do I even need to explain why it’s been delayed?
You won’t really get much education as to the history of the Weimar Republic and its collapse, which is likely only a season or two away, but as entertaining, albeit occasionally ham-fisted television, the third season of Babylon Berlin is certainly a fun watch (or read, if I’m honest, given all the endless subtitles).