Babylon Berlin - The Best Adult Binge on Television
Updated: Jul 14, 2018
Arguably more captivating than The Crown or Ozark or other well-crafted, binge-worthy offerings, Babylon Berlin (2017), a series available on Netflix, is set in Weimar Republic Berlin beginning just before May Day, 1929. Everything about Babylon Berlin is BIG. Big budget, big sets, big cast, three directors, three cinematographers, spectacular song and dance numbers that may have made Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) a tad jealous; and more intimate but exuberant dance numbers reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s 1978 British TV series Pennies from Heaven that had featured a lip-syncing singing and dancing Bob Hoskins and supporting cast. But Babylon Berlin isn’t a musical or a gauzy, hazy-filmed musical pastiche. Rather this is a detective story with occasional wild night club scenes, several plot lines to follow, and complex and multidimensional characters that act nobly one minute and despicably the next. And because it has the luxury of telling its story in several one-hour episodes, this is a much more explosive, graphic, intense, detailed and multi-faceted depiction of Berlin in the waning days of the Deutsches Reich than say Cabaret or Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich which was actually shot in Berlin at the time Babylon Berlin is set - as fine as those films are.
In Babylon Berlin there are dream sequences sometimes fueled by narcotics; a band of determined but hapless Trotskyites and their Stalinist counterparts - diplomats and thugs bent on rooting and rubbing them out; there are other impassioned German Communists agitating, marching and demonstrating; and plotting German nationalists who want to restore the Fatherland to its former glory. There are murderers, spies, traitors, prostitutes, transvestites, junkies, a wealthy gangster with henchmen who has the goods on high-ranking German officials; a crackpot doctor with theories about mass hypnosis and telepathic communication between brains (a not so veiled reference to Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse*); police detectives with varying allegiances and agendas; hot jazz and very hot, illicit cargo on a train from the Soviet Union; and as they say…more…much more.
WARNING: Babylon Berlin depicts the city in all its salacious and decadent debauchery. But it’s also deviously clever. Its cast sport well-lived-in, period-perfect costumes and at times have no costumes at all. So, a warning to those with young children at home – this is a production rated MA – for Mature Audiences – and there is full-frontal nudity for both sexes on occasion and brief glimpses of sexual intercourse typically in the background, as well as naked and decomposing cadavers now and then. ONE MINOR SPOILER HERE: In fact, the first episode features a vice squad bust on a pornographic film production that some may find offensive for its Christian blasphemy. If you can get by that, the series continues to take you down a dizzying vortex of colorful, alarming, and shocking criminal and political intrigue that keeps you hooked to watch one episode after another. This is a series that never lags. It moves at a brisk pace and constantly surprises.
Production values are first rate and my guess would have made a perfectionist like David Lean proud or at least thoroughly entertained him. The attention to detail in the street scenes and interiors transport viewers to, and immerse them in the chaotic German capital still suffering under the strict constraints of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the Great War and where competing political and military factions were secretly jockeying to wrestle power away from an elderly and doddering President Paul von Hindenburg.
Everyone in the cast is superb. The two leads are Volker Bruch who plays a young, smart, well-connected police detective Gereon Rath from Cologne (who also has some mean dance moves) and Liv Lisa Fries who plays Charlotte Ritter, a smart but struggling young woman who ekes out a living as a police department clerical worker by day and a night club escort/prostitute by night. Peter Kurth, Rath’s brawnier and more seasoned partner, vice detective Bruno Wolter, also delivers an amazing performance – sometimes threatening and brutal, sometimes tender and caring, a cop on the take but a man with his own agenda and secret mission. Matthias Brandt plays the head of Berlin’s political police division, someone who is quiet about his Jewish background, in a more reserved and nuanced role and is one of the more honorable characters in the series.
Babylon Berlin is shown on Netflix in German with English subtitles or you can watch the dubbed English version. I prefer watching the original German though at times the translations of various street signs or names of buildings flash by too quickly, so you may have to rewind and pause on the frame to read them — but that would be my one nit-pick of the series. Other than that, I’m thoroughly hooked and may have to binge the series again at some point.
*Fritz Lang made the two-part film, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1924) but revisited, reintroduced and modified the Mabuse character again in 1933 with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The newer version of Mabuse was Lang's allusion to Adolph Hitler, a master criminal and terrorist who was imprisoned and writing page after page of material from the confines of his prison cell, as Hitler had done writing Mein Kampf when he was sent to prison. Mabuse in Testament has somehow mastered the power to control his gang's thoughts through occult-like, hypnotic telepathic powers from the confines of his cell; much as Hitler seemed to have mesmerized his followers. The Nazis spotted the apparent reference to Hitler and banned the film. Lang fled to France and then to Hollywood shortly thereafter, after he claims that Goebbels offered him the role of heading up the entire German film industry. Others have said that Lang may have fabricated the encounter with Goebbels to embellish or establish his anti-Nazi credentials.