The sexy, stylish crime drama shows how the seeds of Nazism were planted in the Weimar Republic.
One of the most recent additions to Netflix’s vast stable of television series is Babylon Berlin, the $40 million German series that has been touted the most expensive television program ever produced in a language other than English. The first two eight-episode seasons aired on German television in the fall before premiering on Netflix in the United States at the end of January. The show seems to have sailed under the radar of American audiences, with Netflix focusing more on promoting its original series like Altered Carbon — not to mention, the Super Bowl-driven hype (and backlash) surrounding The Cloverfield Paradox.
Based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin follows Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) as he arrives in cosmopolitan Berlin from his industrial hometown of Cologne to investigate an underground porn ring involving powerful politicians. Shell-shocked from his experiences in World War I, which included being captured by the enemy and forced to leave his injured brother behind, Rath relies on morphine to control the tremors and panic attacks that plague him in stressful situations. His brother has been missing since that fateful day on the battlefield; for the past decade, Rath has been carrying on a secret affair with his brother’s wife, despite being wracked with feelings of guilt. The man has enough drama in his own life without being swept up into Berlin’s thriving criminal underground, but that’s not going to stop him from diving in headfirst.
Upon arriving in Berlin, Rath is paired up with Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), a brash bully of a cop not above beating witnesses or extorting sex from unregistered prostitutes. He also happens to have ties to a secret group referred to as the Black Reichswehr, which seeks to defy the Treaty of Versailles, rebuild Germany’s army, and overthrow the Weimar Republic. More helpful to Rath in his investigation is Charlotte Ritter (the charismatic standout Liv Lisa Fries), an ambitious typist at police headquarters who aspires to become Berlin’s first female police inspector. She also moonlights as a prostitute at the club Moka Efti, a recurring location that hosts some of the series’s most memorable set pieces, including this gender-bending musical performance in the second episode.
But Babylon Berlin is so much more than an entertaining period piece chock full of flapper fashion, Soviet spies, and illicit affairs — not to mention almost too many characters and subplots to count. It’s also a remarkable glimpse at Germany and her people during that brief period between era-defining conflicts, showing us how the aftereffects of the first world war planted the seeds for the rise of Nazism and the second world war that was doomed to follow. It also doesn’t shy away from showing us how the politics of the early twentieth century are eerily prescient today.
Babylon Berlin kicks off in 1929, with World War I a decade in the rearview mirror and Hitler’s seizure of power a handful of years away. In a great Wall Street Journal article highlighting how this historical drama feels all too relevant to today’s world, one of the show’s creators, Henk Handloegten, noted, “One of the main reasons to make Babylon Berlin was to show how all these Nazis did not just fall from the sky. They were human beings who reacted to German society’s changes and made their decisions accordingly.”
In one particularly unsettling scene, Wolter invites Rath to a meeting of German war vets on the anniversary of a battle in which many members of their company died. After reliving the fight through an impeccably detailed table model, the men sing war songs and praise the German army as undefeated in the field, blaming their defeat and humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles solely on politicians — namely, the Social Democrats.
Traditionally the party of the center-left in Germany, the Social Democrats recently suffered their worst electoral loss since World War II in the 2017 German elections, with many of their disillusioned working-class voters switching sides and voting for the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland instead. This loss of faith in mainstream politics, coupled with the AfD’s nationalistic values, gives a disturbingly modern echo to a scene that takes place in 1929. It’s an echo that can currently be felt across Europe — and in the United States as well. The desire of Wolter and his compatriots in the Black Reichswehr to reclaim their pride as soldiers, as men, and as Germans is palpable, foreshadowing the horrifying lengths we know men like them will go to in only a few short years to achieve it.
Indeed, even though Hitler is barely a footnote in Babylon Berlin, one can see plenty of signs of the darkness to come. Mostly because, for so many Germans who had survived the Great War — particularly those, like Rath and Wolter, who had fought on the front lines — the darkness never really left in the first place.
Babylon Berlin shows us how German soldiers who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were more often shunned and dismissed as cowards than helped. Wolter mocks Rath’s reliance on morphine, implying that it makes him less of a detective and less of a man, and disdainfully refers to others with the same condition as “tremblers.” Later, Rath is treated by an experimental psychologist, Dr. Schmidt (Jens Harzer) who believes that PTSD is a condition that can be cured with hypnosis and other therapies.
When Dr. Schmidt gives a lecture on his techniques, the hall quickly devolves into an angry mob who not only think his science is stupid, but that the men he is trying to use it on are not worth saving. The implication is that shell-shocked soldiers are not suffering from an illness, but mere cowards whose existence besmirches the war dead. This idea of mentally ill people as flawed and unworthy was to be carried over into the Nazi era when people hospitalized for mental illness and other disabilities were the first to be exterminated for their supposed imperfections. The notion that less-than-ideal human beings — including shell-shocked soldiers — were somehow to blame for Germany’s downfall ended up being a key feature in Hitler’s rise to power.
That isn’t to say that Babylon Berlin is all doom and gloom; it’s a fantastically fun show to watch, with a retro-cool jazz score featuring songs by Bryan Ferry, gorgeous period costumes and set design, and well-placed dashes of humor to keep you from getting bogged down in the darkness mid-binge. There are enough different storylines to prevent you from getting bored without getting too confused, though in my case it took until about episode four for me to finally determine who all of the characters were. Still, even with a bunch of different, albeit intertwined, stories going on, one episode moves the entire plot forward more than a whole season of one of Netflix’s sluggish, slow-moving Marvel superhero shows.
The booze-soaked bohemianism and ragged glamour that have been associated with Weimar Berlin since Christopher Isherwood penned the story of Sally Bowles are still present in Babylon Berlin, but they’re not allowed to overpower the darker truths of the period. It was a time of poverty and political unrest that paved the way for the rise of Nazism, and as we see right-wing politics gaining steam across the world — including in Germany — it is worth being reminded of that fact.