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Beware the Creeping Nazi Beast – A TV Review

February 26, 2018

Babylon Berlin tracks how a democratic nation can slide into fascism

Babylon Berlin, the 16-part TV series released on Netflix in late January 2018, may be the best television since Deadwood and possibly better that Breaking Bad, two of my favourites. Europe seems to think so and the North American reviews are generally positive.

The New York Times predicts that it will become “an international television sensation.” GQ says “it looks damn great.” And The Hollywood Reporter says the $45 million “period epic. . .could change how Europe makes TV.” Viewers might also be compelled to compare Trump’s America with Weimar Republic Germany. There are clear similarities.

Part police detective thriller, part historical fiction, the drama is set in 1929 Berlin where shell-shocked Detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is investigating a Russian pornography ring in which his Cologne boss is implicated. He’s the star of the show, but in a sense he shares that spot with Berlin itself.

The filmmakers take us back to the craziness as a democratic society slides into fascism, depicting Berlin a few years before Hitler takes power in 1933. The plot thickens quickly to include a Trotskyist group bent on getting a shipment of gold to Istanbul.

It isn’t mentioned but for a time Leon Trotsky escaped Joseph Stalin’s wrath on the island of Buyukada, a short ferry ride from Istanbul. Add an attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic, assisted by Rath’s partner, and a mafia ring. The action mounts quickly with plenty of shootings, political intrigues, and a healthy dose of vintage porn.

From what I’ve read, author Volker Kutscher is pretty savvy about the inside story of what caused Germany to turn so rapidly into a Nazi dictatorship. And the filmmakers make use of plenty of good scenes of Berlin in the decadent and corrupt flapper days that precede Hitler.

Some viewers will see similarities to British writer Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, but he is a different kind of police detective. Gunther is not a Nazi, but he manages to solve crimes while surrounded by official Nazi criminal activity. Detective Rath doesn’t appear to have the same attitude toward the Nazis. In fact, he may not have a social conscience at all. He’s just a cop on loan from Cologne who lives in a lie.

Although not a musical per se, several club scenes add to the decadent atmosphere of the times. We are reminded of Cabaret as we watch club goers jiggle and jump to sexy cabaret music redolent of Marlene Dietrich before she went to Hollywood. But Babylon Berlin does decadence much better, the frenetic movements of the dancers conveying the abandon on display as the Nazi Brown Shirts harass people in the streets.

Satisfyingly, there are no North American super-star distractions here. Rath and his detective partner Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth) have appeared in some non-German productions, notably Rath in The Reader, but they are both homegrown actors. For many of us, this will be our introduction.

The female characters stand out, especially the villainous Svetlana Sorokina played by Lithuanian actress (Severija Janusauskaite). But Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) also does an excellent job as the destitute wannabe police investigator and occasional prostitute. She and others bring to mind the waif-like characters of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera and the shadowy intensity of Fritz Lang’s M.

There are a few over-the-top segments that require suspending disbelief – the rescue from drowning of Ms. Ritter, for example, and Rath riding atop a speeding train – but most of the scenes are generally believable. Volker Kutscher, the author of the novel that guided some of the action, provided credible plot turns without leaning too heavily into ideological territory. He’s committed to writing one novel a year from 1929 to 1938. Apparently he’s on 1935 now, so much to look forward to.

I binged-watched the series over three nights and can hardly wait for the next installment . . .if there is one. This was an expensive production by European TV standards. The only way to do it was in collaboration with big money players like Sky pay TV, the German public network ARD, and Beta Film. The book depicting 1930 is due out in English later this year. We’ll have to wait and see whether the Babylon Berlin producers fund another year.

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