TV Series Review: Babylon Berlin

by Steve Lancaster10/2/18
This is a Netflix series that has all the elements to be a failure. Somehow it succeeds in every venue. The series is long, 16 episodes. It is in German with subtitles, it has a train full of gold, Communists, Nazis, Weimar Republic, German nationalists, drugs, criminal underground, sex and corrupt police.

The series is set in the last hurrah of the Weimer Republic the summer of 1929. After the years of runaway inflation during the early post-war, Germany has stabilized its economy. Unemployment is still high and living standards for the lower classes are grim but improving. We know that the sword of Damocles is resting above their heads and the horrors of the next 16 years will destroy the German world, but they don’t.

Social conditions and politics are at fever pitch. Everyone knows the elderly and senile Hindenburg is deteriorating and there is no accepted replacement in the mix. The communists and nationalists are plotting separate coups to bring down the republic and institute either a worker’s regime or bring back the monarchy. Into this mix is Gereon Rath, (Volker Bruch) sent from Cologne to Berlin to find some pictures that are embarrassing to his father. Gereon is a skilled detective and since his father is the mayor of Cologne, he is given status in the police world.

During an arrest of a pornographer, Gereon becomes aware that there is more going on than prostitution and porno. On 1 May Communists are planning a major protest.

Gereon reports to his boss and receives assignment to continue to investigate into the threats posed to the republic by the communists and nationalists. Gereon enlists a young woman, Charlotte Ritter, (Liv Lisa Fries) working as a clerk to assist him. Charlotte supplements her income at a club owned by local organized crime as a hostess, a part time prostitute. A distinction the very uptight Rath would find compromising.

At the same time a train arrives in Berlin, bound for Istanbul full of phosphate gas intended to be used by nationalists when they overthrow the government. Death follows the train. The original crew is executed outside of Berlin. When authorities open one of the cars looking for contraband they release gas and kill several people. Charlotte, acting on her own discovers the true intent of the train and its golden treasure.

In the meantime, Gereon and his partner, Bruno Wolter (Perter Kurth) are investigating a mass murder of Trotskyites in the woods outside Berlin. The leader of the Trotskyites, Svevtlana Sorokina, (Severija Janusauskaite) claims to be the sole survivor of a rich Russian oligarch. The gold on the train is her family fortune. Carefully hidden during the revolution and civil war.

Primitive ballistics determine that the weapons used, were of Russian manufacture and were the property of the Soviet Embassy. By this time everyone seems to want the train sent back to Russia, but no one wants to order it. The nationalists learn of the gold on the train, as do the criminal mob. The nationalists plan to hijack the train as it slowly makes its way out of Berlin. The mob is going to hijack the nationalists and the gold

That is a short plot summary and by far not everything involved. I admit it takes a couple of episodes to get a hang of the flow. We know that in October of 29 the entire house of cards the Weimar Republic is built on is going to collapse with the stock market. The most positive element of this series is the sets. Someone must have raided every antique car show in Germany. The cars set the background in every episode, also the buildings, some are rebuilt after the war, others are CG but the feeling of being in Berlin during the summer of 1929 is well done.  There is some foreshadowing of the impending horrors yet to come.

If your German is very good, you can watch this without translation or subtitles. The German to English translation is awkward. A lot of the German has slang and the English translation is terrible. However, if you go with English subtitles the translation is excellent and conveys both intention and emotion. On the whole, this is a very good series and worth the time. • (156 views)

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22 Responses to TV Series Review: Babylon Berlin

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I too liked it, Steve. It’s difficult to recommend to a general audience because it’s . . . well . . . German. German avant garde cinema can be a little different. This is.

    The show isn’t stupid and it doesn’t generally cheat you (except for the whole train thing which is too spread out and not particularly believable).

    Depending upon your taste in music, it’s got a wonderful soundtrack as well. I purchased it and listen to it often. It must be my inner Kraut wanting to come out. It’s an eclectic soundtrack, but how can you not like Dance Away?

    The lead actor, Volker Bruch, reminds me a bit of Timothy Olyphant who was the lead in Deadwood. Neither is a flamboyant actor. In fact, they border on dull. But in the midst of an often bizarre set of people, they work effectively as the straight man.

    Perhaps it’s the overall atmosphere that keeps the show interesting enough to watch because if I had to tell you what it’s about, or what’s so great about the plot, it’s a bit of a blur. There are some unrealized elements to this in a McGuffin or two. (Steve: Think: car in water.)

    The characters are good and well-acted. The definitely avant garde Svetlana Sorokina is central to the look-and-feel of this series. She’s Emma Peel with some stylish (and sometimes just bizarre and nasty) Kraut thrown in. I found the partner of Gereon Rath (Charlotte Ritter, played by Liv Lisa Fries)) to range clearly into the realm of nuisance by the halfway point. But she fits early-on.

    What’s this all about? Why would you watch it? I don’t have an answer to that. There’s certainly some history thrown in but the politics of pre-war Germany is not the central focus. It’s more of a backdrop.

    It’s easy to see the decadence of Berlin’s nightlife as one of the progenitors of the Nazis who would bring order to this lunatic asylum. But had there been no stock market crash, it seems doubtful that Nazis would have ever taken power. And Berlin, from what I understand, is just as loony today, if not more so.

    The fun is to be immersed in this quite foreign culture. The plot drags at times, particularly toward the end. And I don’t think you’re really paid off for sitting through all those episodes and subplots, so enjoy the bizarreness and decadence of Berlin from moment to moment and don’t worry if it doesn’t all add up to a smashing finale.

    I see from IMDB that there is a season two but it hasn’t come to Netflix yet.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Brad,
      As I understand it, the 16 part series is seasons 1 and 2. It is built on a 2017 book by Volker Kutscher, book 1 of 3 in a Gereon Rath mystery series. I am about 1/3 of the way through the first book. Of course, the depth of the characters is better done in the book, but the series comes close to capturing the tone of the book.

      The tone is very much the same as the Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood, and the very excellent movie and play Cabaret are based. I find the decent of Germany into hell during the 20s and early 30s fascinating. We all know where and when the face of evil will appear yet, we study it hoping that the history will change. Its like that famous quote from, Intruder in the dust. But instead of every Souther boy insert every German;

      “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain”

      Perhaps I am just a nostalgic old man and history is all I have left. My G grandfather and G uncle made that walk with Davis brigade, the 42nd Miss on 3 July 1863. the could have, should have and would have are irrelevant to what did happen. Its the same with Germany.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I find the decent of Germany into hell during the 20s and early 30s fascinating. We all know where and when the face of evil will appear yet, we study it hoping that the history will change.

        Yes, I know exactly what you mean, Steve. Who really could have seen it coming? Right now I would advise all Jews to leave Europe, for instance. Many have.

        I do think that this decadence contributed to the backlash, at least in small measure. The average German must have looked askew at the excesses of Berlin as many do today at “gay pride” parades and all that. They won’t do anything themselves but will acquiesce if someone else does, even if their methods are a little extreme.

        Back then the Communists were a real threat to German law and order. The Nazis, of course, used this to their advantage. But at least in season one, the word “Nazi” is barely uttered…if only because much of this was set before their rise or the first season simply focused the story elsewhere.

        The dynamics of any culture or movement do seem to be full of those before-the-charge moments when everything changes and so much could have been avoided. This is the heart of the imbalance between left and right in this country. The Left has a strategic vision. Individual battles may be won or lost. In fact, the PR hits they apparently take would seem to be setbacks. But they never are because they keep pushing.

        On the other hand, the GOP has no strategic vision. And they are afraid to death of bad PR. This is a one-way battle that has only one end: bloodshed and tyranny….or complete enslavement of the population “for their own good.”

        Watching Germany and Europe self-destruct as they invite invaders into their country is bizarre. The West is completely soft and decadent and will be the victim of those who have a more strategic vision.

        • Steve Lancaster says:

          I recommend the first episode of the World at War: The World at War Ep 1-A New Germany: 1933-1939

          It’s very instructive about the 33-39 years

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Thanks, Steve. I’ll give that a viewing. I just download the YouTube app on my iPad and this will be a perfect time to test it out.

            Neat freak that I am, I fixed your link to read and work better. No charge.

            • Steve Lancaster says:

              Brad,
              thanks, World at War 1973 is one of the best documentaries on WWII. There are interviews with people who were there. The narrator is Lawerence Oliver. It tends to be a little British centric but that is to be expected from the BBC. That said, there is a lot of film from from the Imperial War Museum that is not been aired anywhere else. I think its in 24 episodes so the whole thing is a commitment of time.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                It is generally an excellent series. I believe I only found one mis-translation from German to English during the whole series.

                I believe it was aired on PBS in 1974 or 1975 and I saw every episode then. I have not seen it since.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    An ancestor (or maybe just relative) of Elizabeth’s was the colonel temporarily leading Archer’s brigade by the end of the attack. (Archer was captured on July 1 and Fry on July 3, leaving Shepard in command. Her sister, Alice, once gave her a short biography of Colonel Shepard, but it probably got lost when we moved out.) The 42nd Mississippi, as I recall was a new and large regiment which suffered heavily in the railroad cut on July 1.

    That was probably phosgene gas, not “phosphate” gas. It was one of the deadlier poison gases of the Great War.

    It might be interesting to compare the Berlin of this series with the Berlin of Cabaret.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      It might be interesting to compare the Berlin of this series with the Berlin of Cabaret.

      There have been a couple other movies or series floating around Netflix about life in Berlin during this period. For some reason, Babylon Berlin caught my eye and the others didn’t. In fact, about every other movie on Netflix right now is centered around Nazis or the holocaust. I mean, we shouldn’t forget it but it seems to be a popular subject….at least for those producing these things.

      It’s interesting that Germany’s justification (not explicitly stated, but we all know this) for allowing in Islamic “refugees” is to make up for the treatment of the Jews. How letting in the most virulent anti-Semites in existence helps with this, I don’t know. A Jew would be right to suspect darker motives.

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        That is one of the interesting things about Babylon
        Berlin. Nazis are in the background there is noticeable Anti-semitism in some of the characters but the story is not about what is going to happen but about what is happening in Germany in the summer of 1929.

        Berlin in 1929 was a wide open city. Berlin was the city Europeans and Americans flocked to for culture, art, concerts, nightlife, films, theater and sex. It had 16,000 bars, coffee shops, and dance halls, more than 900 dance bands 800 dramatists and authors, 150 newspapers and 400 periodical magazines. Many of the cabarets and dance halls were thinly vailed brothels. There were cabarets in every quarter. Airplane racing was popular. Nude sunbathing the rage and topless reviews were common in many clubs.

        When the Nazis came to power all that came to a sudden halt. The city emptied of is most talented actors, authors, directors. Museums closed, books burned and 149 newspapers shut down. Nazis censored every communication medium and the only way to stay in business was to be Ayran, and toe the party line. For those who did not fit the Nazi mold there was terror. For Jews there was disenfranchisement, unemployment and severe restrictions on leaving the country.

        Foreign diplomats and saner Germans could not imagine that the Hitler regime would survive long. No one could believe that the sober, hard working, Lutheran Germans; who brought us Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe and Henie. Could descend into madness.

        Are there lessons to be learned for us today? Yes absolutely, the most important, IMHO, is how quickly civilizations can slip into madness.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Especially when leftists who hate our civilization increasingly dominate the culture. That was somewhat the case then, and even more so now. It also happened in the Soviet Union and its later lackeys, but in that case this domination was imposed by the totalitarian government (as ultimately happened, in the form of Gleichschaltung, with the Nazis). The amazing thing about America is that we’re being barbarized completely from within.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Good summation, Steve.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    By chance, the Austrian newspaper “Die Presse” has a short review about “Babylon Berlin” today with the headline, “Nine Grounds (Reasons) why one should watch Babylon Berlin.”

    https://diepresse.com/home/kultur/serien/5506968/Serie_Neun-Gruende-warum-man-Babylon-Berlin-sehen-sollte

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Could you translate what those 9 reasons are? That might prove interesting.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Sorry, didn’t even look at them myself. They are:

        1 A new view of the past
        2 Intoxicated Berlin
        3 First Class Actors
        4 Crime story suspense
        5 The Music
        6 It stands on its own (It is based on another story but is different)
        7 It’s the blockbuster of German series
        8 The shortage of such good German series
        9 “Babylon Berlin” continues

        I have taken a little liberty as one must read the blurbs below some of the points to understand exactly what they mean.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I decided to check the German to see if I could read any of it, and hear and there could recognize a word. But I noticed one name in it, probably an actor, named von Borries. I knew a chap named von Borries (actually Borries, but they wanted to preen a bit). They had a German book of members of the von Borries family, including one who was actually mentioned in Paul Carell’s history, Hitler Moves East 1941-1943). I gather they’re probably descended from a family by-blow.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Thanks, Mr. Kung

          1) Probably true.

          2) ???

          3) Yes, a good cast, generally speaking.

          4) Yes.

          5) Yes yes.

          6) Not sure what that means.

          7) I guess that means it’s reached the “must be seen” status in Germany or something.

          8) Didn’t know the Krauts were short on writing good series.

          9) Weak.

          Probably the first item on the list gets to the heart of it.

          I have the feeling you would hate this because it’s too decadent. Maybe I’m wrong. Aside from the Emma Peel on steroids, perhaps the best character (and I know you’d like him) is Bruno. He plays a police officer who is often assisting Gereon Rath (who is on special assignment in Berlin as a cop from another city). Bruno is both a bad cop and a true patriot. He’s perhaps the reason “the ends don’t justify the means” was invented. He’s a thug but a thug with a purpose. I can’t say much more. He’s about as opposite of girly-man as you can get.

          • Steve Lancaster says:

            At first I liked Bruno in spite of his attitude he presents as a real cop. However, his slide into anti republic nationalism, to me, represents how many Germans in the 20s and 30s acted. The step from nationalism to Naziism is so short. Bruno is not one of the virulent Jew haters but he will go along and go along. Given the ending I believe Gereon will do the same.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Brad,

            A couple of clarifications.

            Point 2. I take this as saying all of Berlin was intoxicated, in an unreal state. Things were not normal.

            Point 6. As I recall, the blurb mentioned that the series was based on another book, but the series was not as dark and had a good number of major differences from the book.

            You are correct in your assumption that I probably wouldn’t like the series. We have enough decadence here in 2018 USA without taking on more from the Germans of 1929.

            Bruno does sound interesting. Someone who understands that to keep much of society from the filth that exists, one must get dirty and it is difficult, if not impossible, to clean the dirt off.

            • Steve Lancaster says:

              There are three books in the Gereon Rath series by Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin is the first. I have read about 1/3 of the first. Its not dark but there is a lot of foreshadowing of events to come. I think the series captures that mood.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Steve,

                I went back and read the blurb about the difference between the series and the book and I flipped which was dark and which wasn’t. In fact the book was less dark.

                Referring to the book “The Wet Fish” the blurb, said it is “better, less filthy and brutal than the series.”

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Point 2. I take this as saying all of Berlin was intoxicated, in an unreal state. Things were not normal.

              That’s consistent with the series.

              And you’ve got Bruno pegged. I thought the series was pretty good up until about the 3/5 point. It then stopped building much of a story of intrigue and simply went back again and again to “the trains” — a plot point that seemingly could have been resolved in an instant.

              To my mind — whether planned or accidental — there’s a slight growing degeneration of the series that seems to parallel Berlin itself. Part of the main attraction of the series is the overall “shtick,” the music, and general look of things. And this can carry things along. But the plot really thins out toward the end of season one and/or they keep repeating themselves. (I can hear Hervé Villechaize as Tattoo yelling, “The trains, the trains!”)

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