Amidst the slew of period dramas that have currently made waves in the world of television stands Babylon Berlin, Germany’s new edgy alternative to The Crown’s picture of propriety. While other series have faithfully recreated images of period life, Babylon Berlin stands out from its genre affiliates in the way in which it portrays the multifaceted layers of Berlin in the 1920s, intertwining narratives across socioeconomic strata to show the pervasive physical and symbolic intoxication of the era. Based on a series of books by Volker Kutscher and directed by Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten, and Achim von Borries, Babylon Berlin follows Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a young policeman from Cologne who is transferred to a new job in the big city: Berlin. Starting out in the vice squad, Gereon slowly works his way up in the police force, uncovering the dirty criminal underworld of Germany’s opulent “Babylon.” Embroiled in the plot are at least four political entities wishing to get their hands on gold carried by a Soviet train—which also has poisonous gas onboard. These entities are represented by the Soviets, a Russian countess, the Berlin mafia, and a group of German nationalists. Gereon, honest and slightly naive, finds an unlikely partner in Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a brazen young woman trying by any means to get herself out of poverty and achieve her goal of becoming a detective. Together, the pair provides a charismatic grounding in a world saturated with chaos and opulence.
The richness and ambition of the series suggest that Babylon Berlin was made to be exported. The series cost over forty million dollars to produce, is featured on American Netflix (but not on German Netflix) and was recently dubbed into English, although it is best to watch the German version with English subtitles if you wish to truly immerse yourself in the lavish world of 1929 Berlin. It clearly plays to an American audience as well, packaging itself in the German equivalent of the beloved tropes of America’s roaring ‘20s. Charlotte dances each night away in a colossal nightclub called Moki Efti where she also works as a prostitute, appeasing her clients’ masochistic desires. Gereon tries to ease the pain of his haunting past of war and loss by harboring a morphine addiction. Bruno, Gereon’s boss, arrests a man involved in a pornographic ring in the show’s first episode, which serves as the basis of one of the first season’s major plotlines. One could, of course, sell the series as Siobhán Dowling of the New York Times does with the title of her review: “Sex, Drugs and Crime in the Gritty Drama ‘Babylon Berlin.’” But while the show beautifully portrays these axes of the Berlin world, its true worth lies not in the physical recreation of the period as it was but in the way in which it captures the spirit of a flailing era trapped between two wars. The Berlin of Babylon Berlin is a testament to an era which is slowly digging itself back into its own grave even as it tricks itself into thinking it has resurrected.
The Berlin of Babylon Berlin is not a bastion to a postwar economic boom. Instead, the 1929 Berlin of the night is merely morphine to a war-torn generation. Like Gereon, who is suffering from PTSD and nicknamed a “trembler” by Bruno for his shivering fits, the city is at its core unstable and wavering. The Russian countess and cabaret singer Svetlana Sorokina may put her audience into a trance with the haunting words of the series’ prophetic theme song, “zu asche, zu staub” (to ashes, to dust), but the nightclub is merely a hallucinatory refuge. The nightclub itself serves as the meeting ground of political corruption, mafia, and exploitation, showing the duplicitous nature of the period.
The series thus brings foreign viewers into an often overlooked time in Germany’s history, which is essential to understanding the advent of Hitler and the Nazis. Babylon Berlin captures the political unrest on both sides. Throughout the series, communists hold May 1st demonstrations and target police forces, and nationalists react to what they see as the degrading policies of the Treaty of Versailles and create a secret German army with the help of the Soviets. As scholar Adrian Daub writes in The New Republic: “if Babylon Berlin has a thesis statement that might be it: It wants to tell the story of democracy undone by totalitarianism from the left and the right.” Hitler’s name is mentioned only once, when a character mistakes Lenin’s quote on revolution for Hitler’s. At the same time, we already see people flocking into groups. Charlotte joins the crowd of women in Berlin’s central police precinct in the hopes of finding even the smallest job, Gereon finds himself amidst political rallies, and nightclub revelers dance eerily in tandem to the same tune. While we see hints of what we know the future has in store, Babylon Berlin avoids falling into the trap of making the series simply an explanatory tale.
Caught up in the midst of political intrigue, Gereon and Lotte’s lives hang perpetually by a thread. But even as we watch them dodge bullets coming from all directions and factions, we cannot dismiss the feeling that even if they survive the trials of the present they will have to face the torrent of the future that we, but not they, know means doom for their country. For the time being, we can find comfort in the fact that Babylon Berlin is not going anywhere, or at least not yet, since filming for Season 3 is reportedly already underway.
While taking Babylon Berlin as a direct cautionary tale may be misguided, the timing of the series’ release is not entirely a coincidence. As the United States encounters sharp division caused by vehement proponents on both sides of the political spectrum, we cannot help but wonder whether there might be something to learn from Babylon Berlin’s depiction of Weimar Republic Germany. Germany’s vastly different condition at the brink of the Weimar Republic may preclude us from making any direct comparisons, but even so, under careful consideration, the series may be trying to tell us that even those in Berlin did not expect their Babylon to topple down. As we wait for Berlin’s Babylon to fall apart, we can pause for a moment to look at the “Babylon” around us.