Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Not a heart attack - just gum disease

Marlene Dietrich, from The Blue Angel
I blogged the other day about Babylon Berlin, the sixteen-hour made-for-TV series about Berlin in the latter days of the Weimar Republic, that noble attempt at democracy Germany made between the end of WWI and the Hitler takeover in 1933.  I mentioned that I was so taken with the parallels between the failure of the Weimar democracy and what’s going on around me that I kind of took it for granted that I understood something about the filmmakers’ motivation in making the film – the fact that the failure of democracy during the Weimar period would speak to the fears of people today that democracy is on the run. It has failed in Victor Orban’s Hungary, is going down in Poland, and people are panicking that it’s going down in Trump’s America. 

Just take a look at some of what is on the best seller list these days. I don’t mean just:

1. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the White House.

Granted, many consider that a hatchet job, poorly documented, exaggerated and slanted in places.

I went looking for David Frum’s latest book, Trumpocracy, so I typed it into Amazon’s search. Look what popped up:

Not just

2. David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.

But also:

3. David Cay Johnston’s It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America

4. Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die

5. Paul McGuire and Troy Anderson’s Trumpocalypse: The End-Times President, a Battle Against the Globalist Elite, and the Countdown to Armageddon

6. Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

7. Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win

8. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

9. Charles J. Sykes’ How the Right Lost Its Mind

10. Bob Riemen’s To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism

11. Brian Klaas and David Talbot’s The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy

12. Donna Brazile’s Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House

I could stop with an even dozen, but there are more:

13. David Martin’s Donny’s First Year – granted, Martin is a satirist rather than a serious critic, but like all the evening satire shows,  Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher and others, his humor has an unusual sharpness to it that goes beyond normal chiding satire. Martin says, for example, “with such daily craziness, it’s often difficult to stay ahead of the satirical curve.”

Then there is:

14. Michael Mathiesen, who seems to have gotten to the term before Frum:

Trumpocracy: A Demonstration Democracy

That’s enough to suggest maybe the burden of proof is on the Trump camp to demonstrate that he is not actually subverting democracy.

Still looking for more on the topic, I came across an interesting panel discussion at the Brookings Institute.

First on the panel is David Frum, who got this ball rolling for me, the Republican conservative and onetime speechwriter for George W. Bush, often credited for the origin of the term “axis of evil”. Like many who supported the Iraq war at the beginning and became disillusioned, he admitted that he was unduly persuaded by the conservatives he hung around with who turned out to be wrong. Frum is clearly a thinking man, an honest intellectual who has been unafraid to drift into new territory and today is one of the more ardent of Trump’s opponents.  The kind that saw it all coming: he voted for Hillary.

Also on the panel is Elaine Kamarck, an expert in American electoral politics and senior fellow at Brookings, lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and member of the DNC. Has a PhD from Berkeley in political science and worked in the Clinton White House.

The third panel member is Benjamin Wittes, also at Brookings. He is a journalist with a background in law; he is co-director of the Harvard Law School project on Law and Security.  He has described the Trump’s policy on refugees and visas as "malevolence tempered by incompetence."

Moderator is Jonathan Rauch, also of Brookings and, like Frum, an editor of The Atlantic.

The discussion is worth listening to. In a nutshell, the two men, Frum and Wittes, worry there is a serious threat to democracy, while Kamarck insists that American institutions are strong enough to resist what’s coming down. And when we say institutions, it’s the media and the judiciary most at risk. Both, Kamarck insists will not only survive, but the challenge is actually doing them good.

While Frum makes some of the most cogent arguments, it is the contrast between Kamarck and Wittes that most interested me. It’s the old story – what doesn’t destroy you only makes you stronger. It’s just a question of whether the test is too severe. Wittes worries about what will happen in post-Trump America, when the rules of gentlemanly behavior once associated with the White House have been shattered.  Will the memory of how easy it was to break things down encourage another Trump down the road? In fact, Kamarck is working on a research project to search out potential future Trumps and head them off.

Will it only be easier from now on to take advantage of America’s weaknesses? I hope Wittes is wrong, but I also believe he’s got a point – once the toothpaste is out of the tube, Americans will not know how to put it back, I fear.

There is also this thing called the law of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, which I have always understood as “Everything eventually turns to shit.”  OK, so physics is not my strong suit. But I have observed that it’s harder, for example, for decency to survive against indecency since the former plays by rules which the latter feels free to break. The guy who plays dirty has the upper hand. And in the current battle for control of government, it’s the liars who seem to be getting away with murder. Short of wholesale outrage at deception, there is no way to fight the deceivers. And whether the enlarged Ego at the center of things is manipulating those who want to help the rich get richer – or whether they are manipulating him is a less interesting question to me than whether we can survive in the devastated America he leaves behind once he’s either kicked out of office or goes quietly at the end of his term.

To return to the Weimar comparison, my understanding of why the Weimar democracy failed is chiefly that the Germans had no experience with democracy. They were experimenting, making it up as they went along. Internally, the country was sharply divided between communists and nationalists. The former, remembering what it felt like to be at the bottom of society during the imperial years under the kaisers, wanted to bring the Russian Bolshevik revolution to Germany. The nationalists, on the other hand, wanted to bring the monarchy back.  To a great degree, it was a battle between the haves and the have-nots.

[Some comic relief here, if you're finding this all a bit dry: Have a listen to a march I first learned at Carnival (Fasching) in Munich back in 1960. “We want our old Kaiser Wilhelm back! – The guy with the beard – the long long beard.”    Back in the days “when grandma was able to drink the water directly out of the Elbe River – it was so clean.”]

There were parties in the middle – the socialists on the left and the liberals (what in America we call conservatives) on the right, as well as a (catholic) Center Party – but without a full commitment to democracy, a deep-seated understanding of the need to work together with others who held opposing views, there was a tendency for everybody to be pulled to the extremes. With loyalty going to the party one belonged to and not to the nation, the nation, in the end, could not stand.

Adding to this problem of polarization was the cultural element. In the big cities – Berlin, in particular, in addition to a large number of working class folks on the left, you had the artists and entertainers – the Hollywood types of the era. The glamour set of the “Roaring Twenties,” who exposed attitudes that offended the good country folk – too little clothing, too much vulgarity, homosexuality and gutsy (many would say “loose”) women. Babylon Berlin opens on a scene of the vice squad breaking into a porno ring. Law and order meets decadence.

Comparisons between Weimar and America become impossible to resist. We’ve got the ascendance of the evangelicals into the Trump administration and the demonization of “Hollywood types” by the Republican Party. We’ve got the extreme polarization and the quite evident proof that Republicans, who once were deficit hawks, for example, are now willing to go trillions more into debt to serve party interests: read: the furtherance of the financial interests of the 1%. We’ve got the direct attack on the judiciary and the press – examples galore on a daily basis. People who listen to Fox don’t listen to MSNBC and vice versa. Except, of course, to gather material to fan their outrage.

The Weimar period ended in 1933 with the legal election of Adolf Hitler. Many point out that the handover to Trump took place legally, as well. Never mind the gerrymandering and the abomination that is the electoral college. The election took place according to the rules in place at the time. It was perfectly legal. Never mind the arguments that he didn’t win the election so much as Hillary lost it.  Weimar rightists made much of the “blood and soil” meme, blood meaning “the people” not the outsider Jew/Mexican/immigrant, soil being the land, not the cities. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann used to talk about the people in the middle as, “the real Americans.”

Trump is not Hitler. He doesn’t advocate the creation of a Gestapo to pull his enemies out of bed at night. Elaine Kamarck is right – our institutions are holding – and are a long way from collapsing as they did under National Socialism. But just as Germans in the Weimar period read Mein Kampf, where Hitler put into words his plan to exterminate the Jews, and elected him anyway, Americans listen on a daily basis to Trump demean women, urge violence – “I’ll pay your legal bills…”, and let it be known that he expects lawyers and judges, the FBI and anybody else in government to do his bidding, show personal loyalty to him as opposed to the traditional ethical standards of their profession, and his supporters let it all pass. In fact, such Trumpist actions only seem to increase their support for him.  The “Lock her up” chants he cheer led shows he’d really like to not just to defeat his political opponents, but imprison them. Like Hitler, who admired Mussolini and Stalin, Trump has repeatedly expressed an admiration for tyrants – Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Duterte, to name the ones that come immediately to mind. And now he wants a military band to march down the boulevard and salute him. The parallels with dictatorships continue to grow in number.

Trump is no Hitler, and this is not Weimar Germany. But the elements are in place. It’s not whether it can happen, but whether we can keep ourselves from becoming like the frog in the kettle, unaware that the water is heating up until it’s too late to jump out.

David Frum argues that the decay of democracy is not something that happens overnight. People have it all wrong, he says. It’s not like a heart attack. It’s more like gum disease.

One reads history not just to understand how we got where we are. There are historical lessons out there we’d do well to take a closer look at, to see where we really don’t want to go.



 photo credit - the iconic image of Marlene Dietrich

trivia note: In the movie The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich plays Lola Lola a woman who ultimately seduces Immanuel Rath, played by Emil Jannings, a would-be embodiment of the essence of bourgeois propriety. Perhaps it's pure coincidence, but Volker Kutscher used the name Rath for the protagonist in his series of novels, the first of which the movie Babylon Berlin was based on. Pure coincidence, maybe, and Gereon Rath is not destroyed by a shady lady in the end, so the resemblence ends with the name. But when you're retired and have some extra time on your hands, you've got time to notice little things like this.









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Friday, February 9, 2018

The price of a blessing

Two of Germany's movers and shakers. That's Mutti on the
left and Cardinal Reinhard Marx on the right
My heart breaks for those unfortunate lesbian and gay Catholics still holding out hope they might find their unions “blessed” by the hand of old Mother Church. Dream on, kids. You'd have better luck getting drug dealers to build a drug prevention center.

German Cardinal and head of the German Bishops’ Conference Reinhard Marx gave an interview this week in which he was asked if the church was ready to extend its blessing to lesbian and gay couples. Showing himself to be a smart diplomatic politician, he deflected the question. “You’re asking the wrong question,” he said in effect.  What is important here is that some things can be regulated and some things must be left up to people making on-the-spot decisions. The church’s stand on homosexuality is one thing. Blessing an individual couple is another, in other words.  

The cardinal likes to have his cake and eat it too.

As you might expect, Marx’s response satisfied no one. Hardliners huff that the cardinal has no business leaving open the question of church doctrine. It is clear. Homosexual behavior is a sin. Those inclined toward it have one option – celibacy. If they want to avoid sin, that is. They should not expect the church to change its mind on this.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who heard the cardinal’s clearly ambiguous answer and saw in it the prospect for change. Several German papers used the sneaky tactic of putting words into the cardinal’s mouth with attention-getting headlines. “Marx holds out the prospect of blessing,” say the Frankfurter Allgemeine of Frankfurt and the Rheinische Post, of Düsseldorf. When you read the articles themselves, though, you realize the headline is an ellipsis. The completion of the sentence runs, “but only in individual cases.” This only places the burden on the individual priest to remind himself that the price of a blessing for a gay person is celibacy. And for couples? Well, maybe if they just live together and never share any pleasure of their bodies...

It’s an old church trick. Some people think of it as the Italian way of doing things. Say one thing and do another. Do what you want. Just don’t mess with the principle. Keep up appearances.

Marx actually provides fuel in this interview to the fire in this battle by progressive forces such as We
Munich's Frauenkirche, cathedral church of the diocese
of Munich and Freising - and one of Munich's major
landmarks
Are Church
and The Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), to include gay people as equals in the life of the church. Among the first questions Marx is asked are, “What changes have you seen since you have taken over this job (as head of the church in Munich and Freising)?” and “What is the biggest change you have seen?” To the latter question he responds, “The biggest change is actually a new awareness of change,” and urges his followers to be prepared to take on the challenges of a changing world.  One is reminded of the theological question debated recently of whether to change the wording of the Lord's Prayer.  Is God, the thinking goes, the type of guy who might actually “lead” one into temptation, and therefore must be begged not to? In the end the church decided to leave things as they are. not change the language, in other words. But let's not miss the point that this suggested what would have been a whopper of a change. One should get points for having the temerity to ask, right?

Which ties this question to the larger question of how the church comes to terms with its past. They have admitted that St. Peter’s in Rome, the church of all Catholic churches, was built with money from selling forgiveness for not-yet-committed sins, a corruption which not only led to the Protestant Reformation but begs the question of just what won’t the church do for money?  

On March 12, 2000 John Paul II surprised the world by apologizing for the sins of the church. Some of them. Addressing the Jews of the world, he said, "We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer." Nice. "Saddened" is not quite the same as "I'm really sorry; we were bad," but it was a start. And, to be fair, when he was done, Cardinal Edward Cassidy stepped up to acknowledge the "sufferings of the people of Israel" and ask divine pardon for the "sins committed by not a few [Catholics] against the people of the covenant". 

I may be mistaken about this, but to my knowledge there was no mention of a misinterpretation of scripture or an admission that the theology behind the anti-semitism played any part in the commission of those sins. That would seem to be pushing it.  And lest this apology, if that's really what it was, get out of hand, the move seemed to be anticipated by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. In December 1999 they published a document entitled, "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past."  And what's that about?   Please note, says the commission, we don't want you to take this apology wrong. With our apology we are issuing a “purification of memory” statement which should work to “liberat(e) personal and communal conscience from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults.” You gotta love these guys.

So much for fessing up for all that dark history, from the arrest of Galileo for maintaining that Copernicus was right, that the earth does go around the sun, to the sin of omission of not standing by the Jews at the time of the Holocaust and, for that matter, centuries of unmistakable anti-Semitism.

So what went down last week was the church being church: Cardinal Marx sending out signals that led a number of German sources besides those mentioned above, like Domradio, in Cologne and Die Presse, in Vienna to suggest that there is some “room to maneuver” (Spielraum) in Marx’s statements about blessings for gays. Perhaps it’s not fair to the cardinal to blame him for the misleading headlines like “Marx holds out the prospect of blessing.” But if you read the articles, they point to the fact that he is avoiding the issue and throwing responsibility onto individual pastors whether to call what they do “blessing” the couples. Talk about plausible deniability.

The church has definitely changed over the years. It no longer endorses slavery (or "perpetual servitude" if that distinction is meaningful to you), and no longer cooperates with fascists (well, in most places, at least). No modern-day pope would steal a child from a Jewish family on the excuse that its nanny had baptized him. It turns a blind eye to divorced couples and allows them to take communion, and it has pretty much cried uncle in the fight against the use of contraception, recognizing that when 98% of Catholics admit to using some form of it, they can't very well withhold blessings from that many people. But for some reason it continues to hold out on a couple of issues – not allowing women the same right as men to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of the son of their god, and not allowing gay people to be gay and keep their dignity as decent men and women who’d simply like to have a sex life and/or build a family along with a same-sex partner.

Go join the Episcopalians, I want to tell them. But I recognize that in practical terms there are two distinct Catholic Churches – the clericalists, the folk in the clutches of the authoritarians; and the “ecclesia” – a concept that loomed large at Vatican II – the body of believers as a collective. The first church is about power and being in control, the second about trying to make meaning out of a Middle Eastern creation story and mythical tradition to which one can attach a moral code. I want to lend my support to those in the second group, because I think they are basically good folk looking for an anchor in life, and do a lot of good when they put their minds to it. 

Unfortunately, this is a tough time for the sincerely righteous. Just as America is being held captive to greed and deceit at the moment, despite the best efforts of the not all that effective “Resistance,” the good Catholics of the “ecclesia” – the non-authoritarians, are in the clutches of the Vatican hustlers. Not all Republicans are indecent – many are well-meaning government-is-bad ideologues who become justifiers and enablers. And not all power-structure Catholics are indecent, either. Many – like Cardinal Marx, who foster the illusion that people can surrender their dignity and still have self-respect, are the Enablers who make the wheels of Vatican Central go round.

Marx was given an opportunity to answer that question about whether the church could bless gay couples with a clear yes. He could still harbor the thought that these people are living in sin but see the grace of God extended to all believers, sinners and folk of the straight-and-narrow alike, as well as everybody in between. Are sinners (if that's what they are) not worthy of blessings? But he chose instead to remain in the good standing with his authoritarian bosses instead of joining with the large-tent contingent. Fine. The Catholic Church in Germany has a long history of enabling authoritarians - I don't need to mention names. Marx will go down in history as just another one.

Maybe in a hundred years there will be a sea change and people will no longer need to believe God wants men on top, women on the bottom. And that hetero reproductive sex is the only permissible way to be erotic and passionate.  It's possible these notions will go the way of astrology and a belief in unicorns, and there will be more room for real love and compassion. In the meantime, lesbians and gays will no doubt go on fooling themselves into thinking they’re simply being forced to sit in the back seat when actually they are outside the car being dragged along the road on a rope.




photo credits:

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Babylon Berlin - a film review

Our hero - Volker Bruch as
Polizeikommissar Gereon Rath
If you’re going to set out to build a blockbuster story, you’ve got to build it around some sort of struggle. Personal struggles are good – what the Muslims call jihad, the attempt to fight off evil within oneself. Patriotic struggles are good, saving the Motherland against the invading hordes. What about the battle to save democracy against nationalist thugs? Now there’s a battle worth fighting. Good entertainment on the screen. And you get in a few kicks against the trend toward modern-day authoritarianism, against a Donald Trump whose latest attempt at dismantling democracy involves getting an entire army to march down the boulevard saluting him.

I’m not sure that’s what Volker Kutscher had in mind when he came up with the idea of writing a history of the Weimar period in the form of detective thrillers, the first of which, The Wet Fisch (Der Nasse Fisch) has been turned into the film noir TV series, Babylon Berlin, but it provides a powerful background story for modern viewers, whether they are looking for an artistic outlet for processing current political events, or for a way to retreat into a shoot-em-up and escape them.

Babylon Berlin has intersecting plot lines. Police Inspector Gereon Rath, the youngest son of a Cologne Police Inspector, has been transferred to Berlin to work with his father’s colleagues after messing up and killing someone. Gereon is assigned to a vice squad chasing down a porno ring. The plot thickens when it becomes known that there are several bigwigs caught on film doing the naughty, and it becomes uncertain whose feet the police are stepping on.

Meanwhile, off in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, a train is heading for Germany carrying several tanks of poison gas, forbidden according to the Versailles Treaty. To make it more interesting, there is a train on the car filled not with gas but with gold bars, supposedly on the way to Turkey to help Trotsky bring down Stalin.

So you’ve got a local detective drama, plus a little international intrigue. All that’s missing is a personal psychological struggle, and that’s easily fixed. Make Gereon Rath a man suffering from shell shock – what today is called PTSD – and a sense of guilt for not having been able to save his brother, who, by the way, was their father’s favorite. Got yourself one spiffy blockbuster.

Set the whole thing in Berlin, the Roaring Twenties capital of Europe, add a bit of song and dance, and you almost can’t fail. Babylon Berlin takes sixteen episodes (just over twelve hours glued to the tube) to unfold.

Have at it, I say. You’ll have a jolly good time.


Babylon Berlin opened in Germany in October and became one of the country’s most-watched TV shows. Netflix picked it up and made it available for streaming on this side of the Atlantic on January 30.

It’s a major production, filmed over 180 days at 300 different Berlin locations with a cast of over 150 plus 5000 extras.   It’s historical drama, albeit one that leave’s the book’s author’s desire for historical accuracy in the dust. This is the world of today, where entertainment matters more than fact. Historians will squirm. But it’s not that bad. It’s mostly true.

The story is rich in complex characters, some sinister, some simply flawed human beings you find yourself rooting for – the sign of a well-written drama, in other words. I've already mentioned Police Inspector Gereon Rath, played by Volker Bruch.  Bruch played minor roles in two 2008 films, The Reader, and The Baader-Meinhof Complex, as well as the 2010 historical fantasy, Young Goethe in Love.  In Babylon Berlin, Bruch plays a man with a troubled war history, which has led him to a morphine dependency to control his PTSD.

Levi Lisa Fries, as Charlotte Ritter
Co-protagonist is Charlotte Ritter, known as Lotte, played by Liv Lisa Fries, a working class Berliner who rises from poverty and abuse by sheer willpower, eventually working her way into a job in homicide in the previously all-male Berlin police force, a job which she supplements by working as a free-lance prostitute at the Moka Efti cafe and nightclub.

By all rights, the next character in order of importance should be Chief Inspector (Oberkommissar) Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), but I’d bump him down a notch and put the City of Berlin in next, laid out in all her conflicts and contradictions. Before she became the capital of the Third Reich and city where the two sides of the Cold War came nose to nose, Berlin had already had quite the reputation as an exciting, but slightly (OK, more than slightly) shady lady during the transition from one world war to the next, as communists and nationalists fought it out in her streets and in her civic and political institutions.

The series is a mixed bag for history buffs, bringing to life the years from 1929 to 1934, between the two world wars in Weimar Germany up to the rise of Hitler. Like all historical drama, fact-based or fictionalized, you can watch this one with an eye to understanding the Tea Party type responses to the unrest the Nazis were able to tap into, the chaos that made the pied piper that was Hitler seem like an answer to their prayers. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the intrigue, the adventure and the love stories. We get our news now in large part from satirists on late-night television; why shouldn't the Germans get their history from detective novels?

The plot involves an attempt by German nationalist forces known as the Black Reichswehr (Schwarze Reichswehr) to get around the restrictions and perceived insults of the Versailles Treaty and restore the German Kaiser to the throne. With the aid of the Russians, they are rebuilding the German Luftwaffe at a site not far from Moscow. Simultaneously, they are planning a coup to take place on Prangertag (Corpus Christi), a holiday observed till today in catholic parts of the country. 

The story begins with the hijacking of a train leaving Russia for Germany loaded with tanks of poison gas to aid in the takeover effort. Also attached – and this is where (Trotskyite) secret agent Svetlana Sorokina comes in – is one railcar filled with gold bars, intended to be taken to Istanbul to support Trotsky’s overthrow of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union. Nice coincidence of world history events that never came to pass. Unfortunately, the Trotsky bit is pure fiction, given that while the plot is set in 1929, the Trotskyist Fourth International didn’t actually get started till 1938. And not in Germany, or Turkey, but in France. OK, so what’s a little fudging when you’re creating exciting shoot-em-up historical dramas. Also problematic is the coup planned by the Black Reichswehr. This story takes place in 1929. The Black Reichswehr was officially dissolved in 1923, although many of its paramilitary forces eventually made their way into Hitler’s SA (Sturmabteilung).

Moka Efti - not the historical one, the recreated one
Besides this fast food for history buffs, there’s a lot of singing and dancing. Not enough to make this a musical, but more than sufficient to create a roaring 20s atmosphere, at least.  Moka Efti was a real place, by the way. It opened in 1927 as Café Schottenhaml and changed its name to Moka Efti in 1933 (another film anachronism, in other words) when it moved to the Tiergarten. Think Studio 54, except that it serves 25,000 cups of coffee during the day and has an attached bordello at night.

The story is set at the time of the “bloody May” uprisings, May 1-3, 1929, when the police overreacted to a communist demonstration, killed thirty-three people and wounded nearly two hundred, and then used the press to blame it on the communists themselves. Gereon is present and sees what is going on, and chooses to support the lie the police are propagating for the sake of his job. We now have a hero with some seriously troubling flaws. Just like modern-day heroes are supposed to be. And incidentally, you can see where the term Lügenpresse (Lying Press = fake news) comes from.

Making the story not just about local politics but international intrigue is the character of Russian double agent Svetlana Sorokina. She is played by Severija Janusauskaite, Lithuania’s best-known (I’m told) singer, dancer and actress, known locally for her role in the lesbian film Anarchy Girls. When Severija/Svetlana is not betraying lovers before shooting them in the forehead, she’s a cabaret artist. She sings the film’s main theme song, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust (Zu Asche zu Staub), available on YouTube here.

Chief Inspector Bruno Wolther, Gereon Rath’s boss and supposed friend, played by Peter Kurth, turns out  – slight spoiler here – to be a member of the Black Reichswehr – a bad guy. The way his character is written, you’re left to wonder, however, whether he’s going to turn out to be a good guy in the end. I’ll say no more. The same goes for Alfred Nyssen, the big bucks behind the clandestine Black Reichswehr, played by Lars Eidinger. He is clearly a bad guy. On one occasion, as he is being feted as a great entrepreneur and philanthropist, a war widow speaks out against him as an arms dealer and blames him for her soldier husband’s death. In real life, it’s clear Alfred Nyssen is a stand-in for Fritz Thyssen. The Thyssens, along with the Krupps, the Stinnes, the Quandts and the Flicks, (as well as George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, by the way) made huge profits during the Hitler period and are notorious for their use of slave labor.  The families are all intact today, and in possession of great wealth. Many of the progeny of the characters who played a role in Weimar history are intermarried with nobility and hold titles. Hindenburg's suggestion that instead of arresting the plotters for trying to overthrow the government, one use "common sense" - the political analogue of having banks and industries too big to fail - demonstrates the ability of anti-democratic forces to get away with murder. And what was true in the Weimar period is obviously still true today.

One more main character is worth mentioning, August Benda, not coincidentally a Jew, played by Matthias Brandt. Benda is a Government Councilor (Regierungsrat) whom both police inspectors Rath and Wolther report to, an earnest official trying his best to hold back the tide sweeping over Germany which even Reich president Paul Hindenburg turns out to be involved with.  He takes in a friend of Charlotte’s who ends up through her naiveté being an enabler of the Nazis. Benda works with Gereon to try to expose the nationalists in the government who see democracy as the problem, as opposed to the harsh restrictions of the Versailles Treaty.

As I suggested at the outset, some reviewers have wondered aloud how much of the clash between the authoritarian nationalists and the overwhelmed defenders of democracy was written deliberately to reflect modern political events, including Brexit, the fascists in Poland and Hungary, the attack on democratic institutions in the United States by the current administration, and the AfD party, the new nationalists now growing at an alarming rate in Germany. Ironically, as this story is told, it is the Communists doing the most to defend democratic values, in contrast to the power structure, from Hindenburg on down to the local police whose honesty and integrity is questionable.  Right up to the end, as they are picking up the pieces from the struggle to avoid a diplomatic breakdown over the gold and poison gas-bearing train and after the internal struggle against the Black Reichswehr, Gereon Rath is still willing for the sake of solidarity to support the police in scapegoating the communists, even though his communist neighbors know he is lying. The police are portrayed as good guys who have to become bad guys in order to fight even worse guys, and that moral dilemma never gets solved.

And why should it, when we know what comes next. That’s the trouble with telling stories about the Weimar Republic. You can’t write a happy ending.

As far as how this all turns out is concerned, I won’t include spoilers here, except to say that I expected, after sixteen episodes of about 46 minutes each, that I’d be ready to let it go. Instead, I went out and bought the book. The first of six Gereon Rath detective novels, if I’m not mistaken. Time will tell if I have the lasting power for the six novels that I had for the TV series.

Most series suffer from too much stuffing. Babylon Berlin went over the top on a couple occasions with too many coincidences and too many car-chase, swordfight, does-she-or-doesn’t-she-die type scenes.  No car chases (this is 1929, after all) but some scary airplane scenes. No swordfights, but there is a duel conducted while running on top of a moving train – you get my meaning. And one seriously awful does-she-live, does-she-die scene. Nonetheless, this is very good entertainment. It will help, probably, to know who this historical figures are, but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. You may have forgotten that it was Hindenburg that turned the country over to Hitler. But you’ll hate him anyway when you see how he is portrayed as somebody who lets democracy down and justifies that he’s only being practical and using “common sense.”

And I’ll definitely put any films Volker Bruch or Liv Lisa Fries show up in on my must-see list.

Using the Netflix 5-star scale, I’d give this four stars.

I’d give it five if they had scattered a little trash in the streets here and there instead of making them look like they had all been waxed and buffed before each shooting.


picture credits: Gereon and the Moka Efti are from the Guardian, photos credited to Frédéric Batier/X Filme
Charlotte from Express, photo credited to Sky, Germany's pay TV network and one of the producers of Babylon Berlin.