Is history born on the battlefield or in the subterranean corners of a city? This is the nature of the question of how the modern era came to be. We now live in that transitional period in the historical timeline, that moment between eras where nothing is defined but tensions saturate the air. The Italian revolutionary and intellectual Antonio Gramsci once described such a moment as, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”
Babylon Berlin, a feverish noir imported from Germany by Netflix and now streaming on the service, takes place in one of the great seminal in-between moments in modern history. It is set in Berlin during the Weimar years, that brief interlude after World War I when Germany found itself being both a key center of cultural innovation and social powder keg. Decadence and economic collapse danced hand in hand, while in the streets the old order was brushed aside and the conflict between socialist revolution and fascism determined the road ahead. Fittingly, the series is a noir based on a bestselling detective novel by Volker Kutscher. It is in noir that dark passions mingle with intrigue, political corruption and human longings. In a sense noir encompasses many of the forces that shape society down to its core. Because it is a television series, Babylon Berlin has the appropriate room to explore its world fully- every shadow is cast, every room in the city explored. Even as its plot hurtles forward amid twists and turns, what the show is truly about is a city where the primal forces of early 20th century collide.
It is 1929 Berlin. The economy is in tatters, the scars of World War I linger and political upheaval is in the air. The nationalist ideals which will pave the way to fascism remain slogans espoused by the disenfranchised, while others find solace in the proletarian expressions of the Communists. Volker Bruch plays Gereon Rath, a World War I veteran turned detective in the Berlin police department’s vice squad. Rath and his partner, the big and rough old schooler Bruno (Peter Kurth), find themselves investigating a case involving the city’s underground pornography networks. But Rath has been hired by a mysterious client to find a specific film which contains explosive material.
New to the department is a young woman named Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries), who struggles to make enough to help her cluttered, poverty-stricken household. When Charlotte isn’t typing up reports she moonlights in the city’s glitzy, debauched nightclubs where Berliners dance away their sorrows (and pay handsomely for extra services). Meanwhile, in the distant woods a Soviet freight train has been hijacked by an underground group linked to a major conspiracy which contains the first salvos of greater events to come.
Babylon Berlin is partly the brainchild of German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, a director of visual exuberance and human insights. His two most notable films are Run Lola Run, a cult hit scored to driving Euro techno about a young woman rushing to save her boyfriend from vengeful gangsters, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, an enrapturing, perverse tale about an 18th century serial killer obsessed with capturing the very scents of his victims. Along with the Wachowskis, Tykwer co-directed one of the great underrated epics of the last decade, Cloud Atlas. An inventive, overwhelming film, it glides through various eras and characters, moving backwards into the 19th century, hurtling on into some futuristic city centuries ahead of us and then coming back to the more recent 1970s before going even further into the future.
Babylon Berlin is itself a link between eras. It is filmed in the hyper style of modern entertainment, but hedonism, and radical political ideas seem like the antidote for a society in crisis. Weimar Germany is the day after the failed revolution. Its birth truly takes place in 1919, as the Great War came to a catastrophic end and a tumultuous revolution followed. The old Europe was gone, the Russian Revolution inaugurated the Communist era, and in Germany the dazed populace found itself in a new republic. Yet already it was a beginning soaked in blood and haunted by what-ifs. A rising led by a radical socialist movement, the Sparticists, was viciously crushed. Freikorps paramilitaries assassinated the revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, an act Hannah Arendt would term as the first victory of the forces that would later embrace Nazism.
“Zu Asche, Zu Staub” (the song), by Severija
The world Tywker and the show’s team create is a Berlin draped in grit and shadow, where cabaret and night-life provide escape from grinding poverty. The aristocratic class holds on to old ways of thinking while the younger generation loses faith in tradition. This is a time which has been dramatized before in classic literature like Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood, and the Oscar-winning, exhilarating Bob Fosse musical Cabaret. Visually, in Babylon Berlin, there are moments of beautiful homage to the style of German Expressionism. Dutch angles — large shadows moving across walls — and the sense in certain scenes of architecture becoming menacing, are a few touches borrowed from the Expressionist era. It was in the era of German Expressionism that certain genres and forms of cinema were crafted that still grace our screens. The horror film, the serial killer procedural, the zombie movie, their place of birth is Germany in the 1920s. This was the Germany of the Bauhaus movement and its revolution in architecture and the emergence of criticism as an art form with figures like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Josephine Baker was there too, gracing the stage with her luminous, dangerous beauty: great minds, all, damned to witness the birth of terrible new dramas.
In his monumental work, From Caligari to Hitler, the German critic Siegfried Kracauer analyzes the films of the period as artistic expressions of an entire society’s subconscious. Fritz Lang’s luminous, robotic figure in Metropolis; F.W. Murnau’s vampire in Nosferatu, whose desire captures the loneliness and sexual angst of an era; and Lang’s M, where a child killer stalks the city as the police and government are mired in corruption: these films express through different genres the mood of a society which has lost faith in the system, where authority has lost its trust value while violence becomes an increasing presence. In another Fritz Lang opus, the gigantic Die Nibelungen, Nordic myth comes alive with fire and fury- imagery which encapsulates Nazism’s obsession with blood and land cults (as we lose ourselves today with militarist fantasies like American Sniper). In one scene of Babylon Berlin, the detective Rath wanders into a studio where Josof Von Sternberg reviews footage from his movie The Blue Angel, a Weimar classic starring Marlene Dietrich as a cabaret performer who provokes a respected professor to spiral into madness through his desires. It is a sensuous but damning film, featuring characters trapped in a society where loneliness amid social chaos leads to personal anarchy.
If the arts are a reflection of a society’s most inner state, then Babylon Berlin links the past to our own moment through moods and history’s stubborn sense of cause and effect. Like many great cities today in the West, economic uncertainty in the world of this series gives way to both hedonism and radicalism. Charlotte could be at home in the 21st century, aware of political happenings but losing herself in the enrapturing sounds and decadences in vogue. Her face has a warmth typical of those who are kind, but the sad eyes of a victim of history. The nightclub sequences in the show are an amalgam of the classic Weimar cabaret look with the lighting scheme and colors of a modern-day rave. Androgyny is everywhere and sexual/gender biases dissolve amid the frenzy of it all.
” Reason or Rhyme.” The Bryan Ferry Orchestra. From Babylon Berlin.
In one episode even Bryan Ferry performs onstage, lending his hazy voice to a 1920s soundscape. “Open your heart and let me live,” he croons — words appropriate for a series where no one can live without being pulled in by storms beyond their control. The year in which the show takes place saw the premiere of the film Pandora’s Box, by G.W. Pabst. Starring Louise Brooks in a hairstyle which is aped to this day, it tells the story of a woman who inspires love yet her own flawed character destroys everyone around her. Pabst’s film is a metaphor for those who want to live, but give themselves body and soul to forces which destroy them and those in their vicinity. In Babylon Berlin, Charlotte and Rath would like to live normal lives, find comfort in an ideal, but their very world is a visceral carnival colored by absinthe and tears.
The political underworld becomes the prime arena of Babylon Berlin’s mystery as Rath is introduced to proto-fascist movements led by disenfranchised military men convinced the Great War ended in betrayal by liberals. Amid fear for the future, many turn to nostalgia for a romanticized past. As we are seeing in Greece, where today the forces of modernity are clashing in the streets of Athens amid economic destruction, fascism will fuel the darkest fantasies of the lost. There is a haunting sense of buried historical undercurrents in the news reports of Golden Dawn marching in those ancient streets, converting the despaired. In Babylon Berlin, the revolution was never allowed to be born, yet amid the ruins the workers still march, guided by ideals lacking in today’s postmodern age. The revolution, however, soon devours its children. In the series, even local Trotskyists find themselves hunted down and assassinated by Stalinist hit men. In this city nothing can be trusted, not even revolutionary slogans. Nationalists form secret armies to prepare for fantastic coups and wars they conjure in their fevered imaginations. Today politics again dominates our everyday conversations. It is there, floating in the air during any get-together. In the series a girl cannot even go out for a summer stroll with a man without politics invading the conversation, in their case the issue of Marxist revolution to settle Germany’s crisis.
All of these elements make noir the perfect vehicle to tell this story. In a noir there are no heroes and saints never existed. The hero, Rath, is a good man harboring the lingering scars of the war. He is not so much a hero as a functioning, destroyed personality. He must consume vast amounts of morphine to calm his mind and control the shivers and spasms left from the battlefield. The casting is perfect: his face is intelligent but full of subdued rages. Is this not the eternal cycle of the great powers? The lords initiate the great wars and their subjects endure the fire and aftermath. The case Rath follows is essentially a clean-up job for the same kind of men who sent him to bleed in distant lands. It is fitting his investigation begins with pornography films featuring some of Berlin’s elite, because beneath the veneer of power and civility there is always torture and lustful exercise of power. As the case evolves, Rath uncovers an even wider, more dangerous terrain where true believers will carry out their plans at any cost.
Fascism attracts through its purity of thought, its sense of reactionary idealism in which a perverse order can be cleansed through bullets. In Robert Wiene’s classic Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, an insane hypnotist directs a pale-faced, black-clad somnambulist to commit murders. The architecture of the film is distorted and crooked, almost as a precursor to Dali surrealism. The world becomes a demented nightmare of powerful men manipulating the weak to kill. The screenplay was by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists influenced by their experiences while serving in the military during World War I.
Yet there is hope in Babylon Berlin which is written with a beautiful subtly. The characters of this story survive its mayhem, debauchery and violence through simple and at times quiet acts of kindness. Charlotte will help a starving friend find work, Rath will comfort a grieving widow, and not every boss treats their workers with cruelty. As Charlotte and Rath work together to solve the intricate plot lines of the show (which would be a crime to spoil), what they truly discover is the value of solidarity. Even if the world is breaking our hearts, it is through caring that we do not fall into our own personal abyss even if the rulers of the age rush us to the precipice. The power of Babylon Berlin as narrative is that we know where it is all going, soon the cabarets and parties will give way to a society prepared for war, and after the destruction of World War II everything must be built anew. This is an exhilarating, enrapturing series about the start of a watershed. We cannot know where we are going without knowing where it all began.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.