Next in our series of Summer Boxset reviews, we dip into the sprawling, Weimar Republic-era political thriller based on the books by Volker Kutscher.
What’s the story?
I’m a huge fan of the film noir genre, and series one of Babylon Berlin promised much: dark, lamp-lit Berlin streets from the lawless Weimar Republic era; a tormented, morphine-addicted detective suffering from post-WWI PTSD; pre-Nazi ferment; communists, nationalists and counter-revolutionaries jostling murderously to fill a power vacuum; secret armies; opulent, libidinous nightclubs; stolen gold; and police corruption. It had it all, and was as rich and as dense as it sounds. Like a German James Ellroy novel brought to the small screen, series one sometimes struggled to fit everything in and when it frequently tried things lacked skip and pizzazz, and it was, at times, convoluted.
Here’s a trailer from series one just to give you a flavour/reminder:
But the central characters, the addled Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and stenographer-aspiring-detective-cum-nightclub-sex-worker, Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) were perfectly cast, and their performances showcased characters who were respectively torn apart by experiences by the Great War (Rath was tormented by losing his brother and shacking up with his wife) and the crushing poverty this period in history gripped those who were not on the gravy train.
Indeed, one of the great things about series one was the incredible production design. It perfectly realised a city and country in flux. There were those gorgeous noir aesthetics in abundance – dark shadows in dark alleys, Fedora hats, and half-lit faces – as well as the juxtaposition of neon-lit nightclubs (where gender-bending Deitrich-like performers swayed on stage and bodies writhed on the dancefloor and even more down in the basement) with bombed-out husks, filthy tenements and broken and battered people. It was in this crucible where the constant jostling between the have and the have-nots took place. And this friction, history tells us, always leads to bad things.
In this case very, very bad things.
And this is what series one of Babylon Berlin showed us – essentially what a socio-political and economic climate needs to look like to spawn something as hideous as the Nazi Party. It wove a fictional story around real-life events and people. We saw real-life politicians rub shoulders with the fictional characters, saw situations and movements that actually existed and took place become the backdrop for a fictional story. Just like a James Ellroy novel.
That fictional story – the true nature of the locomotive, smuggled into the country and hijacked by Russian counter-revolutionaries and re-captured by the state, sitting in a hangar in the middle of nowhere – helped to show all these warring factions, humans in tribal, politically-aligned groups ready to do what it took to gain the advantage.
Everyone wanted a piece of this train, and in series two the real nature of the vessel was revealed.
And, of course, Gereon Rath was at the heart of it all. Now working for Councillor Benda and his political police force, the two men wage a war against what they think is treason and the biggest threat to the new republic it has faced – the dreaded and up until now, rumoured Black Reichwehr (a secret group of nationalists outraged at what they see as the humiliation of the Treaty Of Versailles and a group intent on creating a secret army in order to perform a coup d’état and bring back glory to Germany).
The race is on, not only to bring the key members of the Black Reichwehr to book but also fight against a conspiracy that goes right to the very top, by those who are intent on ushering the Reichwehr to power.
To do this, Rath forms a little crack team of young investigators – including Lotte – and together they begin to delve and to make their own, surreptitious inquiries. When one of the young team dies early on, the stakes and the tempo is ramped up, especially when someone from within the police force is fingered as the killer.
On a personal level, Rath is dealing with a shift in his life. His brother’s wife, Helga, and her young son Moritz decide to come to Berlin to make a new life with Gereon. Suddenly he’s in a proper relationship and a step-father to his brother’s son. It takes some getting used to. At work, a new police captain is tasked with finding the killer of The Priest (from series one) and Rath is the prime suspect. To get out of this tricky situation, he has to do some tinkering himself.
Charlotte, too, has shifts to deal with. In her cramped and filthy family home her mother dies (this features a terrible scene where her sister and brother-in-law mercilessly sort through her belongings to see what is of value and what can be thrown, all while she lays dead on the bed beside them). Determined to save her mother from the fate of the Charité, she goes back to Moka Efti to continue to work in order to pay for it, despite her reluctance to do so. Later in the series, her work with Rath leads her into a dangerous situation. Or three.
Elsewhere, the relationship between Rath and his politically-incorrect partner, Bruno Wolter, is examined further, and there’s a really juicy storyline involving Greta, Lotte’s friend and housekeeper at the Benda household.
What’s good about it?
As you can see above, there’s a lot going on. A lot. And the first several episodes percolate like all eight episodes of the first series. Because of the political climate it’s never less than interesting or engrossing, but series one was so sprawling and convoluted I feared that series two would be more of the same.
But then from episode five onwards it really kicks into life and suddenly there’s an urgency and narrative drive – almost irresistibly so – that makes it an absolute must-watch. Everything that came before it felt like sparring, and the last half of the series becomes so good and so twisty and turny you can’t take your eyes of it.
There are three big twists that will take your breath away (one of them you might well guess, but it was nonetheless well handled), which is something you just didn’t see coming at the end of series one, and even after the first several episodes.
At the heart of it all are Rath and Lotte who actually spend quite a lot of time apart, but there has always been a will-they-won’t-they element to their relationship and when they are together onscreen they crackle. There’s a really incredible moment between them when they both process the death of a colleague. Lotte is in tears and Rath comforts her, and as they get ever nearer their physical contact precipitates a real moment between them. A moment of intimacy that looks to have suddenly opened the doors to the possibility of more. Bruch and Fries are just superb as Rath and Lotte throughout.
But the other storylines add into everything. Greta’s storyline is edge-of-your-seat, and Wolter, too, has some serious screen time.
Series two is everything you wanted series one to be, but really the two series have to be watched sequentially – they are two halves of the same story. You can’t watch one without the other.
Because of the historical significance of this period – and the fact that in a matter of five or six years you know what’s coming – every word and every little scene is full of dread and portent. These characters are swimming against the tide and they will eventually drown in a wave of hate and sweeping nationalism, but we care how they get there and whether they will survive.
And, of course, the production design is still to die for. There’s less time spent at Moka Efti (good) and more varied locations, including stunning Art Deco hotels, grubby journalist offices and inside the station itself. One lovely line from Helga when she and Rath are forced to move to a hotel: “I thought the idea of having a wireless in a hotel was quite showy, but I’m quite liking it now.”
How times change.
What’s bad about it?
As I mentioned earlier, the start of the series felt like a replication of series one’s convoluted, sprawling narrative and slow pace. Yes, all these sub-strands give a richness and a nuance to the story, but a balance has to be struck, especially when it comes to a crime drama. But when it kicks into life… hold on to your Fedoras.
The finale was pure adventure movie, which some would argue went against everything that came before it. I enjoyed the hyper-realism of it all because the series had been building and building. So what was wrong with a shoot-out on top of a speeding train?
The only thing that didn’t ring true was the slight sidelining of Lotte and the elevation of Rath as a male protector, an almost superhero, Jack Bauer-type of figure.
Still, these are nit-picks.
Why it’s worth a binge…
If you like historical crime drama with huge swathes of political intrigue, real-life context, incredible production design, perfect casting and uniformly excellent performances.
Babylon Berlin (Series 2): Available on Now TV