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 Fish (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 car on the train 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 are 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 the 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. 


1 comment:

John Clarke said...

Somehow images of METROPOLIS kept surging up!!!