It’s on Netflix, which is where I’m spending a lot of time now. It’s in German with subtitles -if you don’t like reading on film, get over it. This is worth the effort.
‘Babylon Berlin’ is the most expensive non-English-language production ever filmed and it looks it. It’s a mystery series set in 1929 Weimar Berlin and it does a really good job of suggesting the feel of that wild era. The streets looks impossibly glamorous and filthy at once, the cars and streets and clothes and cars look spot-on, at least to my eye.
It starts out as an extortion mystery, really, with detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) coming to Berlin from Cologne to cover up a blackmail plot against a local politician friend of his family (Konrad Adenauer, who later becomes the first Chancellor of West Germany, though that’s never mentioned in the script). As in any good story, things don’t turn out any of the ways you’d expect.
There’s several deaths and lots of conspiracies – Communists against the police, Czarist sympathizers against the Soviets, the old-aristocracy German military hierarchy against the Government, which must at least attempt to adhere to the Treaty of Versailles. Lots of shooting, wild dancing and drug-taking (opium figures prominently), a very real sense of the way people move through a crazy world just trying to survive – and a couple of items that really separate ‘Babylon Berlin’ from anything similar I’ve ever seen (though, in honesty, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything else quite like it).
First of all, there’s a real awareness of class, something American films generally ignore. Rath is clearly not rich but well-off, in contact with the power structure in Cologne. His partner in Berlin, Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth, who’s terrific), is a corrupt cop on the make, arranging roomers in his home and affairs for himself on the side (and more). Rath’s typist and eventually partner sleuth Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries, the standout center of the story) lives in a tiny barely-heated apartment with her mother, enfeebled father, a sister, creepy brother and creepier brother-in-law and a younger sister she’s determined to get into school and out of that place with her body and soul intact. The Berlin police chief (Matthias Brandt) is a Jew, not yet threatened by the Nazis who may have pockets of support in the countryside but not in cosmopolitan Berlin. He lives in a lovely house full of Art Deco and Bauhaus furniture, with a driver-driven car for his wife when she takes the kids away for the weekend – the place has the hushed dignity only money and privilege can buy. Charlotte’s friend (Leonie Benesch) becomes their maid. The relationships between characters are not just personal – there’s a universe of tradition and custom in the deference some are paid and the casual indifference with which others are used and sometimes disposed of. And you get a sense of both the lure and the apprehension that this jazzed-up new world inspired in the people who got to live it.
The other thing that’s wonderful is how this story begins as one animal and becomes another. Netflix has two seasons up so far and the first one ends by tying up the supposed mystery Rath arrived trying to solve but you’re so far beyond that mystery by the time it’s tied up, it would have been maddening if that first season had appeared on its own. It takes the full two seasons to really resolve the main storyline, which balloons into territory so much bigger. It’s like the horizons open as you move into the story, as though the filmmakers got into this world and discovered a much bigger world they fit right into – while naturally, saving a really wrenching surprise for the last few minutes.
The show has three showrunners who work in tandem – shooting different scenes with the cast and joining them in editing. It’s amazing the thing holds together but the result is fascinating and lurid, moving in twenty unexpected ways, kaleidoscopic in scope and way too relevant to our own world.
Series Three is being written now and I have the same anticipation, waiting for it, I used to reserve for ‘Sherlock’. That’s high praise in my book. Don’t miss it.