TV series review: Babylon Berlin – season 1-2 (ARD/Sky, 2017)
tl;dr: 1920s German Noir thriller starts out strong and continues to deliver.
Weimar era Germany doesn’t usually get a lot of attention on TV. Babylon Berlin, a German co-production between ARD and Sky, set out to change that. The show is based on the Gereon Rath series of books by Volker Kutsche, the first two seasons being based on the 2008 book Der nasse Fisch (The Wet Fish). As the first two seasons were released at the same time, sometimes the sixteen episodes are simply referred to as “season one” but they are officially two eight-episode seasons. Because they are one continuous story, I’ve chosen to combine them here.
In April 1929 Berlin was a bustling city. The Great War finished over a decade ago, and the party hasn’t stopped. On the surface, glitzy restaurants and nightclubs. Scratch the surface and you find poverty, prostitution, murder, and narcotics. Politically, there’s a monarchist movement seeking to reinstate the Kaiser, and then there are Communists on the one hand and the rise of the NSDAP – the Nazis – on the other.
Battle-scarred mentally, if not physically, police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) has transferred to Berlin from Cologne. His colleagues, like DCI Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), don’t really trust him. Who does he think he is, coming to Berlin and telling people what to do? But he’s actually there to locate and destroy an incriminating film reel containing an ambitious politician.
Meanwhile, flapper Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) is doing everything she can to get enough money to help feed her ailing mother and younger siblings in the slums of Neukölln. If that means prostituting herself by night, so be it. By day, she’s one of the many women trying to get one of the on-the-day jobs as a clerk at the police headquarters. This is where she realises she has a knack for investigating and wants to become the first female detective on the murder squad. Her male colleagues range from openly hostile to bemused at the idea, but Gereon is one of the few to support her.
Part of the overarching plot of the first two seasons contains a train carriage full of gold smuggled out the Soviet Union. It’s the Sorokin family’s hidden fortune, and its sole survivor Svetlana (Severija Janušauskaitė) is waiting for it in Berlin. It could be used to fund the Trotskyist cell in Berlin, headed by her lover Alexei Kardakov (Ivan Shvedoff), but is it? Whose side is she actually on?
The main plot line of season one is that of the incriminating film reels. Someone has been filming a number of notable people in compromising positions and is holding the reels as blackmail fodder. The main plot line of season two is a group of people who secretly plot to overthrow the Republic in order to reinstate Kaiser Wilhelm II as head of state.
There are some people who make an appearance in the first two seasons, so you know who they are, but they don’t come into their own until season three. These include industrial magnate Alfred Nyssen (Lars Eidinger), organised crime boss Edgar Kasabian a.k.a. “The Armenian” (Mišel Matičević) who owns the nightclub Moka Efti, and Colonel Gottfried Wendt (Benno Fürmann), a shady police councillor who has his eyes set on political power.
It’s a big cast of characters, but they all have their parts to play in the great tapestry that makes up Babylon Berlin. It’s said to be the most expensive TV series set in Germany, and you can tell no expense has been spared. You really get a feel for the era with the way that the scenery, clothes and cars transport you back to the 1920s. Much like Boardwalk Empire, but instead of Prohibition it’s the early days of the NSDAP gaining a foot hold, so instead of scheming bootleggers you have scheming Nazis, Communists and Royalists. Instead of being on the side of the gangsters, we’re (mostly) on the side of the police force investigating murders. It’s 1920s gangers, historical drama, political scheming and solving crimes all rolled into one, and it’s great! If you don’t care much about one particular aspect, it soon changes to another.
For me personally, I think the first two seasons are the least interesting. When I first saw it I thought it was good, very well made, but wasn’t too invested in the whole train thing, but I liked the characters and the setting. It wasn’t until season three came along that I went “HECK YES Babylon Berlin!” and having re-watched the first three seasons in preparation for the fourth, I stand by that. Perhaps it’s because the first two are so entwined that the main memory of them afterwards is “oh yeah, the train thing”, because it’s drawn out over two seasons. But we do need to set the scene for the future, and the first sixteen episodes do lay a great foundation.
Helga (Hannah Herzsprung) and her son Moritz (Ivo Pietzcker) show up in Berlin. Helga is the wife of Gereon’s brother, who has been missing since World War I and is presumed dead. They’ll be more important later. Boarding house owner Elisabeth Behnke (Fritzi Haberlandt) and the investigative journalist, Samuel Katelbach (Karl Markovics), who rents a room from her will also play a larger part later. Charlotte’s little sister Toni (Irene Böhm) also gets a larger part. You think you won’t see Dr Völcker (Jördis Triebel) again, then she pops up as a prison inmate. Greta Overbeck (Leonie Benesch) is a side character but later becomes integral to the plot. Then you have people like the mysterious Dr Schmidt (Jens Harzer), whose identity I’m still not sure about. Was the big revelation only in someone’s head? If it wasn’t, surely a bigger deal should be made of it?
You also learn what it might have been like to live in 1929 – like the young police officer Stephan Jänicke (Anton von Lucke), whose parents are deaf, or crime scene photographer Reinhold Gräf (Christian Friedel), a homosexual and occasional drag queen. We know what the Nazis eventually did to gay people, so I can’t help but feel sad about him, because Gräf is one of the good guys. The show is set to end by the time the Nazis take over the country, because the show’s creators want to focus on the years before that, when Berlin truly was a kind of Babylon. An era that for obvious reasons gets overshadowed by what was to replace it.
Babylon Berlin is a magnificent time capsule with great music, excellent acting, and shows you don’t need to be American to produce big budget spectacular TV shows.
4.5 out of 5 paternoster lifts.