Anyway. Here's the lowdown. Season 3 just started, so now's as good a time to bring it up as any.
What is Babylon Berlin?
Babylon Berlin is a German television series in the crime noir genre that's based on a series of novels. The series is produced as a joint venture between ARD (one of Germany's old publicly funded broadcasting stations) and Sky (a subscription-based commercial media platform). New seasons are first made available via Sky, and then after a few months they air on ARD. This completely unprecedented cooperation was deemed the only option to gain the necessary funding for the show.
What is it about?
The show is an adaptation of a series of novels by German writer Volker Kutscher. Seasons 1 and 2 (eight episodes each) are both based on his first novel, Der nasse Fisch (literally "The Wet Fish"), whereas season 3 is based on its successor, Der stumme Tod (literally "The Mute Death"). As the title already suggests, the series is set in the German capital city of Berlin, with all three seasons so far taking place in 1929.
The main characters are Gereon Rath, a World War I veteran secretly suffering from PTSD (and addicted to morphine as a result) who now works as a police officer and is sent from the city of Cologne to Berlin to investigate in a blackmail case, and Charlotte "Lotte" Ritter, a young woman from a very poor family who works as a stenotypist for the police by day, and as a prostitute by night, but dreams of becoming a fully-fledged police officer one day.
Soon they get dragged down a huge rabbit hole that involves organized crime, police corruption, Russian Trotskyist counter-revolutionaries, Soviet party officials and their enforcers, corrupt industrialists, revolting German communists, a conspiracy to overthrow the then acting German government, and more.
What is the historic context?
For those not versed too well in German history, here's a quick overview: After the German empire had contributed to starting World War I (aka "the Great War"), 1918 saw the German military's leadership urge for a ceasefire. At the same time, left-leaning social democrats pressed for reforms, and when the navy troops revolted against a suicide mission, this ultimately resulted in a revolution that forced the emperor to abdicate and flee into exile. The monarchy was abolished, Germany became a republic (an era historically referred to as the "Weimar Republic") and surrendered, thus ending Wold War I.
However, the Treaty of Versailles severly hampered Germany, with hefty reparation demands hindering the economy, resulting in a series of economic crises which led to several attempted coups to overthrow the fledgling democracy, in some instances with the intent to reinstate the exiled emperor. As the years went by, the democracy became more and more strained, with elections turning out more and more splintered vote results, and many of the parties refused to cooperate, thus making it exceedingly hard to even form a working government. (Sound familiar?) And then the Great Depression happened, which affected Germany massively. Eventually, by 1933, politicians found themselves out of options, and thus decided to give a certain party named the NSDAP a chance, making a certain Austrian-born Adolf Hitler the new chancellor, under the belief that they could easily control him and make him do their bidding. And as we all know, that worked out just fine.
But that's still in the future from the show's perspective. Seasons 1 and 2 are set in early 1929, even before the Great Depression happened, thus giving us a chance to see the old Berlin in its glory days, before things got worse. There's one particular real historic event that happens in season 1: The "Blutmai" ("Bloody May") was an uprising by German communists on Mai 1st 1929, the International Workers' Day (aka "Labor Day"), which resulted in an extremely harsh reaction by the police, using firearms against unarmed civilians.
Which real historic figures should I be aware of?
Konrad Adenauer, mentioned a few times but never seen, was the mayor of the city of Cologne in 1929. Following World War II, he would become the first chancellor of the new postwar West German republic.
Karl Zörgiebel was the chief of police for Berlin from 1926 to 1929. (Having previously been the chief of police for Cologne, he's familiar with the fictional Rath within the context of the show.)
Ernst Gennat, nicknamed "Buddha" because of his corpulence, was a high-ranking member of the Berlin force who played a key role in modernizing police work, establishing a homicide department and introducing new methods of investigation that would become a new standard around the world. He continued in his career until his death in 1939, but was a noted critic of the Nazi party. It's generally agreed that he was an idealist who valued objective truth over political agendas.
Gustav Stresemann was the German chancellor in 1923 (for brief period of just 102 days), and later Foreign Minister from 1923 until his death in late 1929. Politically, he opposed the Treaty of Versailles, but worked towards peacefully revising the conditions of the treaty. In 1926, he became a co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize alongside his French counterpart Aristide Briand for their efforts to achieve a reconciliation between Germany and France following the war. He also played a key role in Germany's admission to the League of Nations in 1926.
Paul von Hindenburg was a highly decorated World War I veteran who would then become the president of the Weimar Republic (i.e. post-WWI democratic Germany), In 1933, he appointed Adolf Hitler as the new chancellor, and eventually died in 1934.
Which characters are made up but based on real historic people?
Industrialist heir "Alfred Nyssen" is based on Fritz Thyssen, heir of the Thyssen family. He initially cooperated with the Nazis, but later opposed them and fled until he was apprehended and interned. Unlike the fictional Nyssens, the Thyssen family resided in the Ruhr area, one of Germany's major industrial regions deep in the Western part of the country, far away from Berlin.
Police official August Benda is based on the real Bernhard Weiß. Both Weiß and the fictional Benda were Jews. However, Weiß didn't die until 1951.
So is it historically accurate?
Not entirely, though the complaints are rather nitpicky. For example, that steam train that plays a major role in the first two seasons is apparently the wrong model, having only gone into production in 1942 or later, while the tank cars even use a post-WWII design. Additionally, the Soviet Union used a different rail gauge than Germany, and thus, the train couldn't have simply crossed the border as depicted on the show. Likewise, the crew would have only been licensed for one country.
The shot of Berlin's Alexanderplatz (see below) isn't entirely historically accurate either: By 1929, constructions for the Berolinahaus (the building barely glimpsed on the right, behind that red roof) had only just begun, while constructions for the similar-looking Alexanderhaus (that large building in the center of the shot) didn't start until the following year, and neither would be finished until 1932!
There's also this character called "Saint Joseph" (because he walks around dressed like a priest) who works as an enforcer for the Berlin mob. One of his main characteristics is that he's decked out in a plethora of tattoos that look way too elaborate and modern for anything that would have realistically existed in 1929.
Personally, the thing that really took me out of the show was that large derelict industrial area that played a role in several episodes. Had they only used it for on-location shots, I could have ignored it, but then they show wide shots of it CGed into the backdrop in several scenes, and I can't help but notice that I know the place, I've been there numerous times, it's not even remotely in Berlin (it's actually closer to Gereon Rath's home town of Cologne), and it's most definitely not a 1920s-era location. It's actually a decommissioned ironworks site that's been turned into a park that has been open to the public for over 25 years... and it's located only a few minutes from where I live, in my very own home town of Duisburg in the very west of Germany. And I know for sure that it's an ironworks site with facilities built in the 1960s and 70s that was put out of commission in 1985. Here it is in real life:
This is not what an ironworks site would have looked like in 1929, especially not a derelict one. This is what the same place looked like around the time Babylon Berlin takes place:
Note the much more primitive construction, the overall considerably smaller blast furnaces, the bulky vertical elevators and a lot more details I won't mention because as I said, these are minor nitpicks. This particular one just bothered me personally because it's so close to home, in the literal sense.
What other inspirations does the show have?
On the one hand, the show firmly follows the standard serialized story pattern of many modern drama shows, with a lot of main plots and subplots going on at the same time, intertwining, some disappearing into the background for a while until coming back to the fore, with a bunch of hints, Chekhov's Guns and red herrings, but (arguably) never too blatant. This is a show to watch, not consume while dozing off on the couch.
On the other hand, there are also many references to classic German films from the 1920s and 1930s. Take, fo example, this exterior shot of Café Josty:
Compare that perspective to this shot from one of the first ever sound films, M (aka M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder) by Fritz Lang (the director of Metropolis) that came out in 1931:
Furthermore, there's a beach scene that's heavily inspired by the 1930 silent film People on Sunday... after Charlotte had already watched the actual People on Sunday in a movie theater in episode 3 (another anachronism).
Those weird color effects shown during the closing credits of every episode are taken from the experimental Lichtspiel: Opus II by Walter Ruttmann.
So what about that swastika-wearing elephant in the room?
This is actually handled surprisingly clever. For the longest time during the first two seasons, the Nazis never seem to play a major role. The communists are considered the much larger threat, the name "Hitler" is mentioned once offhand during a conversation in season 1 but immediately shrugged off (or so it seems), and when they finally appear very late in season 2, it will be out of nowhere... and then suddenly the other shoe drops. I assure you that this is not really a spoiler. I had this same information going into the show, and was still totally suprised when it happened!
This is done deliberately to mirror the real-life politics at the time: The NSDAP was originally just a small regional splinter party that worked its way up to the parliament in Berlin, but they were hardly on anyone's radar until they were foolishly considered to be the last resort for helping fix the ailing system, under the impression they could easily be held in check. Hardly anyone seriously thought they'd be able to turn the whole country upside down within a few years!
So is it any good?
Hell yes it is. Not perfect, but pretty enjoyable. Like many of my fellow countrymen, I'm extremely critical of any German movies and television shows, which have a reputation (unfortunately fully deserved) of being extremely dull, boring, formulaic, full of stilted dialogue and predicatable story twists. To say Babylon Berlin is "pretty good by German standards" is an understatement. I'd say Babylon Berlin should be the new standard by which all future German productions should be measured. The production values are massive. It's the most expensive German television series to date, and that money certainly did not go to waste. Just look at this breathtaking recreation of the historic view of Berlin's Alexanderplatz:
Take this stunning backdrop (not to mention the massive crowd shot in the foreground) depicting the under-construction Karstadt department store building at Berlin's Hermannsplatz!
Some viewers, even international ones, have praised the show for its production values and argued that it seriously wouldn't look out of place among some of HBO's shows. It's that stunning.
The exterior shots. The sets. The CG effects. The costume designs. The extras. The party scenes. The show is extremely eye-pleasing, and on top of that, the characters are also surprisingly likeable. Even Rath's police partner, rough-and-ready Bruno Wolter, is an entertainingly charming bastard, and you never fully know which side he's really on until the very end. I particularly loved the recurring joke with the two police assistants who keep repeating and correcting each other.
That said, the show is not perfect. There are a few flaws, but they're arguably minor. Most notably, there are barely any real cliffhangers. Even worse, there are scenes that would make for excellent cliffhangers, but instead they're wasted as cold open teasers for the next episode. Also, Gereon's nephew Moritz can be annoying at times, and the character of Greta Overbeck is frustratingly naive.
Regardless, I can highly recommend the show. However, I suggest those of you who aren't fluent in German still watch it in the original German version with English subtitles, because from what I heard, the official English dub is abysmal. That way, you may also notice the way the director had the actors perform their parts with a modern audience in mind, so (for the most part) they speak with a subdued modern German intonation, rather than the HARRRSH OLD-FASHIONED GERRRMAN VAY OF ZPEAKING many of you will probably be familiar with.
If you ever wanted to know what inter-war Germany was like before the Nazis took over and screwed everything up, this is your entry ticket.
Okay, but how relevant is it?
Oooh boy. I don't want to delve too much into politics here, but oooooooh boy. There wasn't much thought given to it back when the show was first conceived, but by the time it actually aired, there had been a disturbing social and political trend all around the world that mirrored the development in Weimar Germany in a frightening way. Right-leaning views gaining more and more traction, populism poisoning civil discourse, hate and death threats becoming accepted means of silencing an opponent in an argument... The creators of the show have outright admitted that they could not have foreseen how culturally relevant their product would become by the time of its release, and many critics agree that this may be one of the reasons for its international success.
Here's the thing: The big lesson to be taken away from this show is causality. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The Nazis' rise to power might have come as a surprise to many, but they would have never gotten this far had there not been an existing society and culture that was all to willing to accept Hitler as the country's new leader. And those social trends are reflected in today's society. If we don't learn from history... well, it's said that history doesn't outright repeat itself, but sometimes it will rhyme.
Edited by Nevermore, 25 January 2020 - 12:41 PM.