Imagine a world where dreary work days end in glitter and champagne, where a morning stroll can snowball into shootings and social unrest, and where sex and drugs run as wild as political intrigue. Welcome to the Weimar Republic, the setting for my — and soon yours — latest Netflix obsession, Babylon Berlin.
Set in 1929, Babylon Berlin centres around Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch, your new Netflix bae), a police officer recently arrived from his hometown of Cologne to join the Vice squad in Germany's capital. But what appears to be a straightforward assignment takes a series of strange turns that lead Rath and his partner, Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), to investigate a mystery that will take them from underground S&M porn dens all the way to the top tiers of power.
Along for the ride is Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), an hourly clerical worker at police headquarters who moonlights as a dominatrix in one of the city's most exclusive clubs to escape her bleak home life in a dank and dirty tenement. (Confused about who's who? Follow along with our character guide.)
The weirdly permissive 15-year blip in history between the end of World War I and Hitler's election as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, known as the Weimar Republic, is such a perfect backdrop for an expensive binge-worthy show that I'm shocked we haven't seen it before. (Based on the crime novels by Volker Kutscher, it's reportedly the most expensive German TV show ever produced, and it shows.) And that's part of the appeal of this series — save for Cabaret, and a couple of scenes in Transparent, that brief, but distinct historical timeframe is almost unknown to most Americans, and rife with potential drama.
Before World War I, Germany was an empire, ruled by a monarch known as the Kaiser. By the tail end of the war, military command made a deal with leading social democrat politicians to form a democratic, elected government. Kaiser Wilhelm II went into exile, leaving the new civilian political body holding the bag in the peace negotiations following Germany's catastrophic losses in World War I. The Versailles Treaty, signed in November 1918, all but eradicated the German military, and imposed crippling economic sanctions on a nation already reeling from the deaths of over 4 million men, 19% of the male population at the time, in a conflict that no one could really fathom the consequences of.
In 1929, Berlin had reemerged as mecca for artistic expression and scientific research, but the city was also wracked with economic and political turmoil, all themes that intersect in this particular narrative. You see soldiers who have returned from what was, at that point, the deadliest conflict in human history, still struggling from an unnamed form of post-traumatic stress more than a decade after the armistice. There's a kind of frenzied need for excitement and hedonism in the air after the dismal post-war years that translates into rave-like parties fuelled by drugs and alcohol. One of the series' most iconic scenes takes place during a nightclub performance by a cross-dressing singer who literally entrances the audience into a coordinated dance routing. It's amazing, and I've re-watched the moment every day since I first saw it last week. (You can experience it here.)
But the show doesn't shy away from the grittier, seedier underbelly of all that glitz and glamour. The Wall Street crash may still be a couple of months away, but you can see the beginnings of a Depression haunting the city: women crowd government buildings every morning looking for clerical work to help support their families — those who who can't earn that way turn to prostitution, often in their homes, while the family waits outside; disease runs wild through overcrowded tenement buildings without running water. Years of sanctions and wounded national pride have spawned extremist movements on both the left and the right. (Soviet interference in Berlin is one cause of the massive communist riots you'll see throughout the show, but it's not the only cause.)
In many ways though, this is a story about a city discovering modernity. Cars and subways are an everyday sight at this point in time. Pay phones are everywhere. People who barely have enough to eat are enjoying luxury nightlife, albeit for another kind of price. That push and pull between the past and the daunting future is a guiding thread throughout the show, especially for viewers who know what's about to hit Germany in just four short years.
Babylon Berlin's creators have said that part of the appeal of setting a narrative in that particular era is to be able to show that the Nazis didn't appear in a vacuum. There were forces at work in society that Adolf Hitler effectively tapped into to propel his own vision forward, and show is a good framework in which to let them play out. In fact, you'll only hear the name Hitler once throughout the 16-episode run (the equivalent of two seasons), but his shadow looms large, namely through a number of language cues that indicate a growing nationalistic base. (On the surface, references to those who betrayed the German military and accepted harmful peace terms would appear to refer to the social democrats. But it's also a subtle allusion to the Jewish political leaders in the Weimar Republic, who Hitler will eventually blame for all of Germany's woes.) A fun game to play while watching the show is Guess Who Will Be A Committed Nazi. It's harder than you think, and that's what's so scary.
Social context aside, the show is elevated even further by truly superb acting, and a narrative flow that assumes that viewers are intelligent enough to follow a story without having to explain every single twist, an aspect that's mostly missing from American TV. (Although, be prepared to fall into a black hole of Googling after each episode. There's some Crown-level fact-checking to be done.)
You can catch Babylon Berlin on Sky Atlantic now.
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