Berlin in the late 1920s was a dynamic, fast-paced city with a remarkably seedy underbelly. As the capital of the Weimar Republic (the German state as it existed between the end of World War I and Hitler’s rise), its diverse population channeled the trauma from World War I into a particularly intense brand of hedonism and criminality. “Babylon Berlin,” the hit German series available to American audiences through Netflix, explores the interplay between the city’s various factions in a frank, unrestrained and thrilling manner.
Released originally in Oct. 2017, “Babylon Berlin” took Germany by storm, drawing numbers of viewers only surpassed by “Game of Thrones” and supposedly costing more than any German TV series ever made. The show follows Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch, “Generation War”), a police inspector from Cologne. Traumatized by his experiences in the war, he is assigned to investigate a complicated web of threats and blackmail involving a pornographic film. Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries, “Und morgen Mittag bin ich tot”), a poor police typist who also spends her nights working at a gritty club, crosses paths with Rath and eventually becomes his assistant as he works through the capital.
While the plot mainly focuses on Rath and Ritter, it encompasses a sprawling variety of topics ranging from a Soviet smuggling operation to conflicts within the Berlin mafia. However, what seems to rise above all of the plotlines is the city of Berlin itself. Each individual story dives into a different aspect of the city’s collective psyche in the postwar era, depicting the different ways in which people tried to escape the trauma from the war. Rath indulges in drugs, while many retreat into extremely hedonistic establishments such as Moka Efti, the nightclub where Ritter works. The sets and costumes that depict scenes of life in 1920s Berlin are painstakingly detailed and imbue a sense of vibrancy, going beyond simply being pleasant to look at. The environment in the city is reminiscent of 1970s New York, as shown in the HBO series “The Deuce,” with increased social freedom but a layer of moral and physical degradation.
Despite the dizzying array of plotlines and characters, the show moves along at a quick pace, but still leaves enough room to take it all in and feel the energy and chaos of Weimar Berlin. Rath and Ritter, the two main subjects of the show, naturally stand out from the pack. Bruch is capable of conveying a wide range of emotion and internal turmoil with little dialogue, and Fries convincingly portrays Ritter as a young woman taking advantage of her society’s increased social freedoms to unshackle herself from the wretched life in the tenements that she is used to.
The main concern to be expected with a show such as “Babylon Berlin” is whether it will drown under its own ambition. It immediately dives into several seemingly disconnected plotlines. While they do thoroughly explore different facets of Weimar Berlin, the question remains as to whether the show can tie them together cohesively and not create the sense that it could have benefited from a tighter narrative structure.
Overall, the pilot paints an intriguing and stylish portrait of a city and period of time that is rarely explored in popular culture, and it is worth exploring further to see how the seeds were planted for a more infamous period to come.