In Germany: Fridays, 8.15pm, Sky 1. Started October 13
In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic. Starts November 5
Ask any Brit who didn’t take GCSE or A-level History what Germany, particularly Berlin, was like during the inter-war years, they probably won’t have much of an idea. Chances are that if they have a clue at all, that clue is going to be based on the movie Cabaret.
It’s a movie that subtextually looms over Babylon Berlin, Sky Deutschland’s epic new attempt to break into the international TV big leagues, following the success of Deutschland 83 and Amazon’s You Are Wanted. Yet while it fleshes out that cinematic snapshot of a society, Babylon Berlin is very much its own beast and owes as much to that other staple of German fiction, particularly TV fiction, the ‘Krimi’.
Based on the books of Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin is set in Berlin in 1929 and follows young police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) after he arrives from Cologne to investigate a porn ring.
However, as the deaths begin to mount up, it soon becomes clear that the pornographers have connections to more dangerous people. On top of that, there’s a revolutionary band of Poles and Russians in town (the Fourth International), about whom the Bolsheviks, now led by Stalin, might have something to say, too. Needless to say, Bruch is on the case, even if it takes him to those debauched nightclubs you might have heard so much about…
Despite its budget of £36m for 16 episodes making it the most expensive TV show ever made (in a language other than English, of course), Babylon Berlin is made by Germans principally for Germans, and it’s almost completely in the German language, bar a bit of Polish, French and Russian here and there. No surprise then that the show isn’t excited by its location in the same way that the American-made, highly touristic Berlin Station was, for example, and doesn’t bother to explain all the things most Germans would already know (my press kit actually came with a glossary to explain everything from Ringverein to the ‘stab in the back’ myth).
Instead, it’s far more interested in the time and culture of the period. Here, it’s a hugely convincing piece of work, with no expense spared to recreate costumes and places, right down to the typography on the posters.
There’s even money for CGI, with episode 1 featuring a beautiful recreation of the inter-war Alexanderplatz, with no Fernsehturm to be seen, for example:
The show depicts very well a society of haves and have-nots, from those living in beautiful Art Deco hotels to those such as Liv Lisa Fries who are living 10 to a room and working as many jobs as they can to support the others.
As well as explicitly showing a society not yet recovered from the austerity of war and the hyperinflation of the early 20s, Babylon Berlin also implicitly looks at Germany’s shattered psyche. Rath is one of those with ‘the tremors’ (PTSD) from his service in the War and he needs daily medication to stay functional, risking possible addiction if he takes too much. He gives us an occasionally hallucinatory view of his world, but often, drugs aren’t needed to take him beyond reality, since the traumatised Germans are nearly ready for a new form of madness. The frequent scenes and photographs of pornography and prostitution are dominated by bondage, and the cabaret scenes feature a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich-esque performer (Severija Janusauskaite) and an audience ready to enjoy the ‘spiel’ of regimentation.
That nihilistic existential scream crosses over in several ways with the criminal investigations, from the catalogue of photographs of murders and who processes them to the pornography that Rath has to deal with. However, the criminal investigation is often a source of humour as well and Babylon Berlin is often quite funny, such as Fries’s reaction to Rath’s archaic name. “Where are you from? The Middle Ages?” “No, Cologne.”
Rath’s partner at the police service (Peter Kurth) is also a source of both comedy and violence. While Rath is no unambiguous moral hero, he doesn’t beat suspects. Yet at the same time Kurth is the frequent joker of the pair, ordering underlings to carry Rath’s bags for him whenever he’s feeling benevolent (“It’s great round here, isn’t it?”).
All of which makes Babylon Berlin feel both richer and more human than the frequently excessively dark Nordic Noir dramas we get. Despite its often unreal settings, it also feels a bit more real and believable, with criminal investigations that don’t aim to be excessive or involve genius serial killers.
But is it any good?
I found episode one interesting but not initially totally persuasive, whereas episode two made me want more. The main plot felt a little been there, done that, but Babylon Berlin manages to add layers in the second episode that actually made it quite compelling and the characters were engaging and interesting.
The show’s big issue for me is its run-time: sixteen episodes. Sky is following on from its German partner in showing episodes in pairs, at least initially, but that’s still a chunky two hours every Sunday night and a scarily long boxset if I save them up.
So, I’ll certainly be doing my best to watch future episodes, and if you’ve any interest in the time and the place depicted, it’s a must watch. But the show’s expansive circumspection might be its own worst enemy.