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Fear and Loathing in the Weimar Era: Babylon Berlin Comes to Netflix

The successful but hard-drinking detective has been a staple of film noir since the days of Humphrey Bogart. But it’s not very often that you see a police detective addicted to morphine. Babylon Berlin, the subtitled German TV series whose first two seasons debuted on Netflix at the start of the month, is a look at a 20th century Pompeii – you know there are no happy endings for the characters in a series set in Weimar Germany in 1929.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson tells Faye Dunaway that back when he was a rookie policeman assigned by the police force to work in Chinatown, things were so confusing, politics and morals shifting so quickly, he was ordered by his superiors to do “as little as possible.” Babylon Berlin depicts a Weimar as the ultimate Chinatown where what was reality today might not be the same tomorrow.

The show, based on the novels by Volker Kutscher, reportedly cost $40 million to produce, and while there are quibbles here and there about some individual elements (I’ll get to those), it looks like a cross between Boardwalk Empire and a steampunk version of Blade Runner – alternately dark and gleaming, as anything involving the Weimar era should be. It’s hypnotic television -- I had to deliberately pace myself while watching it, rather than go full-on binge watching over a night or two.

Actor Volker Bruch, who previously was in the German WWII-based miniseries series Generation War (also available on Netflix), which we reviewed here back in 2014, stars in his new role as 30-something detective Gereon Rath. The reason for Rath’s addiction is post-traumatic stress disorder from a very appropriate source. Before joining the police force, he served on the Siegfried Line in France during WWI, where his older brother went missing in action, presumed dead.

Rath is new in town, having been dispatched from Cologne to solve a pornography-oriented extortion ring. This allows the writers to have the classic rookie cop, grizzled old veteran paradigm so familiar to police procedurals since the early days of American television, since it allows for a believable method of passing expository information to the audience. The hard-drinking stocky older cop, Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter, is played by veteran German actor Peter Kurth, 60, who realistically portrays someone who’s seen it all as a Berlin vice cop, after serving as an captain in Belgium and France during WWI.

An NPR review of the series, headlined, “Germany’s ‘Babylon Berlin’ Crime Series Is Like ‘Cabaret’ On Cocaine” (though I’d say the hypnotic atmosphere is more akin to Rath’s morphine), perceptively notes the series’ recurring theme of damaged males, literally and/or emotionally:

Weimar Berlin specialist and German studies professor Ulrike Zitzlsperger says the many thousands of veterans who lost limbs or were facially disfigured during World War I were visceral reminders of the trenches. "There's a lot of talk about an emasculated society at the time," she says. "In Germany, these men are no heroes. You can't talk about the war, you want to move on. So the trauma is absolutely horrific."

In Babylon Berlin, this damaged generation can't sleep because of post-traumatic stress disorder — so they find solace in nightclubs. Tykwer says clubbing was cheap, and all walks of life met on the dance floor or in the brothel below. "Nightlife, then, was spectacular and very experimental with lots of diverse clubs for more or less any kind of taste."

In Robert Harris’ Fatherland and Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, the combination of detectives solving crimes while dealing with the cynical machinations of a totalitarian state made for gripping drama. Babylon Berlin’s namesake town hasn’t reached that stage yet – but the state does thwart Walter and Rath on several occasions.

WARNING: Spoilers abound. Read no further if haven’t watched yet. You’ve been warned.