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.

Given that Weimar is universally known as the precursor to the National Socialists, it was a brilliant choice by the writers to avoiding making the series a predictable tale of Nazi hunting until the very end of the second season. It makes the ongoing conspiracy portrayed throughout much of the series’ second season episodes the ultimate red herring, but it also builds tension, since most viewers will assume they’re watching the salad days of the Nazi Party, on the cusp of forming the Third Reich. A segment devoted to an assassination attempt as a prelude to a coup, at a staging of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (where in real life, the Threepenny Opera debuted in 1928) is gripping filmmaking, very much in the style and pacing of the classic sniper in the symphony scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Laurence Harvey in the Madison Square Garden rafters of the Republican Convention in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate.

During Babylon Berlin’s earliest episodes, Trotskyite communists are a key plot element, leading up to a disastrous May Day rally where the police kill multiple communist protestors. The way the series depicts the riots, it becomes obvious that Berlin was going to fall one way or another. The Trotskyites’ leader, played by Ivan Shvedoff, is portrayed in remarkably sympathetic fashion; he’s seems to survive more assassination attempts than the Road Runner, one of which he hides out in the bottom of an outhouse, in a scene framed almost exactly like the haunting scene in Schindler’s List where a child hides in the bottom of a concentration camp’s sewer to escape death.

Another action-packed segment involves Rath and a chubby beta male from the police department’s photo lab sent off to obtain photographic evidence that the Soviet Union is helping rebuild the Luftwaffe, in direct violation of the Versailles Treaty. The two characters, neither of whom have flown before, are sent up in the back of an early Junkers Ju-52 tri-motor aircraft, depicted as a cargo hold to make their flight all the more uncomfortable. Even knowing that the flying scenes are all rather phony looking green screen and CGI, there’s a sequence where Rath is holding on to his photographer’s belt while he’s hanging out of the back of the aircraft that left me feeling I was on a terrifying rollercoaster ride.

Almost as scary as flight in the 1920s is the elevator in the Alexanderplatz police HQ, which is an open-style paternoster lift. As Wikipedia notes, “The construction of new paternosters is no longer allowed in many countries because of the high risk of accident for people who can't use the lift properly. In 2012, an 81-year-old man was killed when he fell into the shaft of a paternoster in The Hague in The Netherlands. Elderly people, disabled people, and children are the most in danger of being crushed or losing a limb.”

During the series’ first season, otherwise set in the unremitting gloom of Berlin, a nice change of pace is achieved in the sixth episode, much of which is set in a gauzy sunlit pastoral lakeside resort – until you realize that the lake in question is Lake Wannsee, which 13 years after the events shown in Babylon Berlin would host one of the key planning sessions for the Holocaust, led by Reinhard Heydrich. Appropriately, it’s this episode where Hitler is first, fleetingly mentioned, when two young men standing in the lake swap a grim joke: “Mass executions are a legitimate tool of the revolution.” “Says who, Hitler?” “Lenin.”

From Bauhaus to Prince’s House

There are a few faults in the series. Charlotte Ritter, played by the diminutive but expressive actress Liv Lisa Fries, is the ultimate hooker with a heart of gold. Trying to eke out a living to help support her impoverished siblings, she seems to have transcended the need to sleep. By night, she’s an escort in the basement brothel of the giant restaurant/nightclub/dance hall where much of the series’ action and machinations take place. During the day, she’s a flapper and budding detective in Berlin's vice squad alongside Rath, and given her rapid advancement in a police force staffed with hardscrabble WWI veterans, very much an anachronistic feminist Mary Sue.

While Germany’s Bauhaus design school pioneered modern architecture in the 1920s, the series’ Moka Efti nightclub, owned by fur coat wearing sadistic gangster “Edgar the Armenian,” looks more akin to the First Avenue nightclub in Prince’s Purple Rain than a realistic portrayal of a club from the 1920s. I roared with laughter when Bryan Ferry appeared onstage there in a later episode singing a Brechtian number, but it’s a brilliant bit of stunt casting, given the Weimar-esque aspects of Roxy Music and Ferry’s world-weary Continental saloon singer persona.

The Mammoth MacGuffin

It’s understandable that the series’ producers would want something action-packed to end the second season. However, while the bulk of the series is set in noirish, rain-slicked Berlin, its climax, a slugfest atop a tanker train, feels much more like something out of a James Bond movie, albeit with plenty of sadly phony-looking CGI instead, suddenly making the megabucks production look surprisingly cheap.

The tanker train serves as one of the series’ two chief MacGuffins, since one car is rumored to be filled with gold smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and the rest are filled with deadly phosgene gas, being smuggled in by one of the revolutionary forces working to unseat the Weimar government. When it turns out the gold is fake, the writers turn to a hoary plot device left over from the mid-sixties Japanese cartoon series Speed Racer’s “Mammoth Car” episode – the railroad car itself is made of gold.

According to Screen Daily, the producers of Babylon Berlin have secured funding for a third season, and new scripts are being written. As they’re being drafted, I hope the writers can tone down the over the top elements in the second season’s last episodes, especially given where the story will soon be taking them…

Is Babylon Berlin the Metaphor That We Need Right Now?

While Steven Malanga doesn't mention Babylon Berlin in his fun column at City Journal headlined “Here’s a Commentary That We Need Right Now,” it’s not for lack of source material; numerous left-leaning Websites have talked about how timely Babylon Berlin is, in much the same way they saw Trumpian subtexts to The Handmaid’s Tale and even Orwell’s 1984 last year. In a November review of the show, a New York Times critic of course managed to work in the T-word: “Some critics have also drawn parallels to current political events, like the American election of Donald J. Trump, the Brexit vote, and the arrival of the far-right Alternative for Germany in the Bundestag.”

As Glenn Reynolds wrote at Instapundit last year, “The thing is, you don’t get Hitler because of Hitler — there are always potential Hitlers out there. You get Hitler because of Weimar, and you get Weimar because the liberals are too corrupt and incompetent to maintain a liberal polity.”

Although the current two seasons of Babylon Berlin do allow German elites to distract themselves for several hours from the real issues that have currently engulfed their country. As with Babylon Berlin, I wonder if it will take another 90 years for a miniseries on the machinations that led to them? (Assuming there’s still a Germany, of course.)

As for American viewers, Babylon Berlin isn’t a documentary on epistemology and its impact on history. You won’t come away with much knowledge of the Treaty of Versailles and how a sea change in philosophy in the 19th century led to the decadence of the Weimar era and the horrors to come. But it’s great television (if at times NC-17-rated), and I certainly hope there’s a third season for Netflix to acquire.