Sunday, March 11, 2018

Crime, Politics and Spectacle: Netflix's Babylon Berlin

Severija Janušauskaitė as the cross-dressing singer Svetlana Sorokina in Babylon Berlin.
 "The rise of the Nazis, and the devastation of WWII and the Holocaust, have been widely depicted in film and TV. Rarely seen is the period just before, when democracy – in the form of the idealistic, if flawed, Weimar Republic – was still fresh in Germany and the country was in the midst of a cultural, political and social revolution."
                                           – Tom Twyker, a director of Babylon Berlin
Babylon Berlin (on Netflix) is an exhilarating, gritty sixteen-part series that is a mash-up of genres. On the most basic level, it is a propulsive police procedural and political thriller that has been adapted from the crime novel of the same name by Volker Kutscher (Picador, translated in 2016), the first in a series planned by the author that will culminate in the 1938 Kristallnacht. More importantly, the drama – reportedly the most expensive German television production to date, involving three directors in every episode – is a vivid evocation of 1929 Berlin a few months before the crash of the American stock market, accented with film noir. Ten years after the end of the Great War veterans still carry its scars; the war's consequences accelerate extremist politics from the left and the right, threatening the rule of law and destabilizing the fragility of the Weimar Republic; pockets of poverty in the city remain with its attendant political and social ramifications, particularly for vulnerable women. And the attempt to blot out a humiliating defeat and, for most Germans, a shameful peace treaty explains in part its frenetic cultural, social and sexual life. Very little of the political, social and cultural tapestry of Berlin portrayed in the series is based on the novel. The series' other strength is its focus on character development, which enables the actors to grow into their roles and deliver strong performances.

As a police procedural, the series is indebted to the plot and the major figures who populate the novel. Yet the series improves upon them, especially in the first few weeks, by complicating and providing greater clarification of the plot, and by offering more complex and nuanced characters. True, some scenes from the novel are lifted directly into the script while others are placed in a different context and some, especially those that involve character, are improved upon through greater development so they make better dramatic sense.

The complex plot encompasses a mystery about a unidentified dead man found in a canal; a blackmail vice ring; a Soviet train transporting poison gas and gold that a gang of local criminals and extremists of every political stripe are determined to acquire, among them Soviet dissidents with the goal of overthrowing Stalin; and disaffected army officers whose rituals involve more than mourning their fallen comrades in the war. The series provides more depth to what I have outlined and adds a massacre, a cross-dressing jazz singer who may or may not be a Russian countess, an Armenian mafia boss and a rich industrialist colluding with a group of renegade proto-Fascist army officers who undertake a secret German military operation in direct contradiction of the Treaty of Versailles with the goal of overthrowing the Republic. Tossed into this seething cauldron are ruthless Soviet agents and Trotskyite agitators. Although the overview may sound convoluted and overwhelming, over the course of the two seasons, the writers and directors -- among them Tom Twyker, (Cloud Atlas, Run Lola Run) -- assist the viewer in acquiring greater clarity.

I do not wish to underestimate the contribution of the novel's plot to the television drama but I am glad that I read it after viewing the series. Character development is, however, much richer in the latter. For example, the major protagonist is Detective Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), who has been transferred from the Homicide Division in Cologne to work within the Berlin Vice Division. The only explanation provided in the novel is that there is an opening, whereas in the series a logical reason, which I cannot reveal, gradually unfolds for his investigation into a blackmail plot involving a sadomasochistic porn film. Rath's family and entangled personal life in Cologne weaves itself into his Berlin life throughout the series, which renders him a much more complicated character than in the novel. In addition to nursing a sense of inadequacy given his family background, he also suffers from post-traumatic stress, enduring tremors whenever he encounters stressful situations that require him to self-medicate with morphine. In the novel, apart from the specific reason for his transfer and his inability to experience military action because the war ends by the time he reaches the front, we learn little about Rath's life prior to his arrival in Berlin and inexplicably he becomes a cocaine addict.

The second major character in the novel is Charlotte Ritter, a middle-class law student working part time as a stenographer for the Homicide Division who embarks upon a conventional romance with Rath. In the series, however, she is much more compelling. Played by a convincing Liv Lisa Fries, Charlotte is an ambitious, resourceful woman desperate to escape the Dickensian squalor of her damp-infested hovel, its crowded grey rooms packed with squabbling family members and ill parents, allowing Charlotte little or no space to sleep. By day she picks up secretarial work at police headquarters, and at night she dances and works as an occasional sex worker at the famous Moka Efti, a nightclub that is both a dance hall and a brothel. Her overriding ambition is to become Berlin's first female homicide detective.

The third major character, the corrupt local cop, Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), is Rath's partner. He is also a veteran of the war, known for being a sniper, and he often meets with former officers to mourn the dead and talk ultra-nationalist politics. Rath is invited to one of these meetings (in both the novel and the series), where there are menacing allusions to the canard about the "stab in the back," i.e., Germany was never defeated in the battlefield but was betrayed by the Social Democrats on the home front -- an ominous harbinger that foreshadows what is later dramatized in the series. Wolter is a dangerous and nasty character and yet the series also tries to humanize him when he offers gestures of kindness and generosity.

Liv Lisa Fries as Charlotte Ritter in Netflix's Babylon Berlin.

Two characters from the drama are also worthy of mention because they are more fully fleshed out than in the novel. When a young man is killed in the novel, he makes little impression upon the reader since he is little more than a cipher. But in the series he is a more fully developed, not only professionally but within his family milieu and in social settings. When he meets his tragic fate, it is shocking. Another is a police commissioner devoted to the rule of law whose careful assemblage of evidence against influential men is jeopardized by circumstances beyond his control. He is further humanized through his family interactions. Both men possess integrity and are among the most decent characters in the series.

A third, who makes no appearance in the novel, is a young woman who, like Charlotte, has emerged from a hard-scrabble environment. We first see her among the women who crowd government buildings every morning looking for clerical work to help support their families. Desperate for work but unwilling to take up Charlotte's offer of prostitution, she lands a well-treated domestic position in an upper-middle-class household. She is single and, lacking the street smarts possessed by Charlotte, is vulnerable to the seductions of unsavoury men who would and do exploit her for their own nefarious ends. What happens to her provides one of the saddest, most poignant moments in the series.

By contrast, the hedonistic scenes created in the Moka Efti nightclub are among the series' most sensational. They capture a raw energy fuelled by alcohol and drugs, a frenzied need for a respite from the poverty, the crime and the political intrigue the characters confront during their work and private lives. The club's rooms include an opulent seafood dining-room, a stage and dance hall and a seedy sex-for-sale underground. One of the drama's most jaw-dropping, spectacular set pieces, which can be seen on YouTube, takes place early in the series during a nightclub performance by a cross-dressing singer, Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janušauskaitė), who entrances the audience into performing a unified dance movement. That memorable scene is followed by a dazzling montage sequence that sizzles both dramatically and visually.

The nightclub scenes may remind North American audiences of Cabaret but I also recall the satirical, harsh and realistic depictions of urban life in the Weimar Republic paintings by Otto Dix. If the film Cabaret quoted directly from Dix – a cut-out of a female journalist smoking a cigarette – Babylon Berlin is inspired by, rather than quoting, Dix's dance hall scenes and his portraits of prostitutes consorting with the powerful. The cultural life of the city abounds with tantalizing references: a producer watches rushes of Marlene Dietrich that will later turn into The Blue Angel and characters whistle "Mack the Knife," the most famous tune from the Marxist Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which had opened in Berlin a year previously. In an ironic touch, ultra-nationalists attempt a coup during one of its performances at a precise moment that may remind reviewers of the Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. One character from Babylon Berlin, whom I have not mentioned but who wields considerable influence, is a sinister physician who hypnotizes individuals suffering from PTSD. He bears similarity to one of the iconic figures of German cinema, Doctor Malbuse, the eponymous protagonist from the two Fritz Lang films, Dr. Malbuse the Gambler and The Testament of Dr. Malbuse.

Babylon Berlin is hardly perfect: a shootout near the end strains credibility, but by that time I was so hooked it did not matter. The lush production convincingly recreates the streets and plazas of 1920s Berlin. Alexanderplatz, in the central district where much of the action occurs, looks very much like the street scenes depicted in the paintings by other German Expressionist painters. The unruly May Day demonstration by the Communists and the brutal police overreactions are unsettling partly because police accountability is lacking. One of the most memorable and resonating passages in the novel occurs when the narrator comments, "The truth was a pliable commodity."

The police appear less alarmed by the more dangerous threats to society posed by the extreme right where political, economic and military power resides. These potentates remain largely invisible because they plan their strategy on palatial estates and store their cache of arms in private basements. When some are arrested, they are quietly squirreled out of the public domain by the top tier of political power. Not until the last segments do the violent-prone paramilitary brownshirts appear on the streets. Hitler is mentioned only once in passing. Nonetheless, as the late art critic, Robert Hughes, perceptively notes, the "Weimar Republic was a political mutant, a war casualty, displaying the surface marks of a democracy while leaving the real power in the hands of capitalist, cop, and Prussian officers." Although Hughes might have added the criminals, his pungent assessment of the country's political fragility is a pretty accurate description of what Babylon Berlin conveys.

The series carries considerable current resonance considering that illiberal democracy and populist nationalism are on the rise in Europe and America. The far right has emerged as the third largest political party in Germany, and the once-popular Angela Merkel has barely managed to cobble together a coalition that will enable her to govern. For the most part, police are not held accountable for the shootings they commit against the unarmed, and unlike in 1929 Berlin there are now video cameras that record this violence. And with the proliferation of genuinely fake news, the truth still remains a "pliable commodity." Given what we know about what happened when the Weimar Republic collapsed in 1933 with the collusion of the conservative political elites, I hope that viewers will watch this fascinating series with an awareness of its political ramifications for the present.

Photo by Keith Penner.
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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