By Caitlin Kelly
It came to me highly recommended and, if you haven’t seen this new German television series, set in Berlin in 1929, check it out!
It follows the path of policeman Gereon Rath and a young would-be police inspector, Charlotte Ritter. They’re both compelling characters, both haunted — Rath with a morphine addiction thanks to shell-shock from fighting in WWI and Ritter, who shares a filthy, squalid apartment with her mother, grandmother, pregnant sister (and her infant), brother-in-law and younger sister. To make ends meet, she works as a prostitute in a high-end club.
Lest this all sound really depressing, it’s not!
Rath is on the hunt for those who are blackmailing a prominent politician and he’s come to big-city Berlin from more provincial Cologne. Ritter is funny, smart and ambitious, eager to become a policeman as well. Together they must negotiate a difficult city, and a time — the Weimar Republic — legendary for its chaos and confusion.
There’s also a cross-dressing blond Russian named Svetlana and a ladies’ maid named Greta and her Communist beau, Fritz…
The show’s production values are tremendous — it’s the most expensive German series ever made, at nearly $40 million — and it shows. With 70 percent of it filmed on location in Berlin, it’s also fun for those of us who’ve been there to spot familiar sights.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the show’s co-creator, Tom Tykwer, spoke about the era; “At the time people did not realize how absolutely unstable this new construction of society which the Weimar Republic represented was. It interested us because the fragility of democracy has been put to the test quite profoundly in recent years… By 1929, new opportunities were arising. Women had more possibilities to take part in society, especially in the labor market as Berlin became crowded with new thinking, new art, theater, music and journalistic writing.” Nonetheless, Tykwer insisted that he and his co-directors were determined not to idealize the Weimar Republic. “People tend to forget that it was also a very rough era in German history. There was a lot of poverty, and people who had survived the war were suffering from a great deal of trauma.”
I read a history of the Weimar Republic a few years ago, which I urge you to do — it really helps to better understand and appreciate what you’ll see on-screen, from old soldiers’ endless romanticizing of the heroes of the Great War — even 11 years later — to the period’s tremendous poverty and social unrest. (One of my favorite films, which I’ve seen many times, is Cabaret, also set in Berlin during that period but BB, with so many episodes, is able to dive deeper. Like Cabaret, it also revolves around a nightclub, Moka Efti, whose dance hall is cavernous and whose basement contains a whorehouse.)
BB is darker, more violent and much more complex than Cabaret — you need to pay close and careful attention to its many characters and plot-lines. But so well worth it!
From its opening sequence, kaleidoscopic and filled with solarized images, to the blaring mass of horns that ends it and starts the show, you know you’re in for suspense and surprise. If you’re a fan of louche 70s British rocker Bryan Ferry, he, of all people, added songs to the show, (including several Jazz Age versions of his own), and he even appears in one episode singing onstage.