Why now’s the perfect time to watch Babylon Berlin

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

A frightened world!

The economy in chaos!

Bitter nostalgia for lost glories

The rise of a silent-but-deadly threat soon to destroy the world as we knew it (in this case, Nazism, not COVID-19)

 

It all rings a little too close to home right now…

This three-season series has long been one of my favorite shows ever — and the most expensive European TV series made.

And for those newly hungry for fresh viewing content, these three seasons offer 28 episodes.

In 1929 — a year with plenty of fiscal and political nightmares — a Cologne detective named Gereon Rath moves to big bad Berlin to work with their vice squad, soon aided by Charlotte Ritter, a young woman sharing a squalid flat with her parents, grandparents, sister and brother-in-law and baby and younger sister. To earn money to keep them alive and housed, she works nights as a prostitute in the basement of Moka Efti, an enormous nightclub owned by the Armenian, a local crime boss.

The show offers many sub-plots and terrific characters, from the Berlin boarding-house owner, war widow Miss Elizabeth, to a braid-headed, firebrand, female Communist doctor to the creepy rich son playing profiteering games with wily Russians.

There’s Svetlana Sorokin, who’s desperate to get her hands on a train car filled with gold and who — of course — sings at Moka Efti disguised as a man with black hair and moustache. Greta Overbeck’s work as a housemaid to a wealthy, Jewish Berlin politician drives a major plot point.

There’s a driven journalist, (of course!), much trading of favors and access, the enormous gap between the wealthy and the desperate.

Every element is visually powerful: the impeccably Art Deco dining room of Moka Efti, with its room-length aquarium filled with pulsating jellyfish, gorgeous period automobiles and clothes, interiors filled with period furniture, wallpaper, lighting.

If you’ve ever been to Berlin — I finally spent 10 days there in July 2017 — it’s very cool to see elements of it: from its cobblestone streets to the subway to one of the many lakes where Berliners spend long sunny summer days swimming and boating and relaxing.

Sadly, the show also now feels much more relevant now with its themes of social unrest, widespread fear, no reliable political leadership, undercurrents of racist, nationalist fervor.

 

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More on Liv Lisa Fries, who plays Charlotte Ritter.

 

From The New Yorker:

 

The show plays as part period drama, part police procedural, and part mystery thriller, but there is always an undercurrent of foreboding, drawing on our knowledge of what’s to come. Hitler’s name is heard only once in all sixteen episodes; Nazi Brown Shirts first appear in one of the last. The opening lines of the show’s haunting song “Zu Asche, Zu Staub” (“To Ashes, to Dust”) capture the era’s troubled Zeitgeist: “To ashes, to dust / Taken away from the light / But not just yet / Miracles wait until the last.”

Here it is:

 

I hope you’ll check it out — and enjoy!

 

 

 

Have you seen “Babylon Berlin”? Amazing!

By Caitlin Kelly

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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.”[1]

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.