How does fascism take over a nation? There’s a central debate about the rise of the Third Reich framed by two towering German intellectuals. The great novelist Thomas Mann argued that Nazism represented a uniquely nationalistic phenomenon rooted in the ethno-mythological culture of Goethe and Wagner, the rebellious, irrational id seizing hold and throwing the country into temporary romantic madness. In other words, it had to happen here. The brilliant political philosopher Hannah Arendt offered a different take, wherein established bureaucratic power structures carried out their logical conclusion, a process that started well before Hitler and his goons pulled the levers. Not so fast. It can happen anywhere, especially in prosperous, developed countries. Perhaps this is why we continue to ask this question
Babylon Berlin, the best television series out of Germany in a generation, offers a new perspective in this historical debate: why not both? Set towards the end of the Weimar era, the scintillating TV series examines the role of crime and corruption in the police department of the failing German republic. Yet rather than a stuffy costume drama, the show tells a contemporary story in a period setting. Babylon Berlin depicts a vivid portrait of the title city’s famed decadence and lavish nightlife against a historical backdrop of economic downturn, violent political extremism, aristocratic nostalgia and lingering psychic scars of the First World War. The Berlin nightclub concert scenes have the flair of a Baz Luhrmann production, complete with anachronistic songs courtesy of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry. If the rock n’ roll is a stylistic flourish, the sex and drugs frame the historical context. The role of prostitution, even for glamorous club girls like Lotte (Liv Lisa Fries), reflects the devastating poverty of the Weimar era. A drug user like Gereon (Volker Bruch) takes morphine as a means to treat his PTSD from the war. Interestingly, though, the show is really about law and order… and particularly why those words have such a loaded meaning outside of Dick Wolf franchises.
In a brilliant stroke, both the whore and the addict are cops, the main protagonists of the show. This not only both Fries and Bruch to layer emotional complexity into their performances but also serves another purpose. The police setting of the show presents a thoroughly administrative world of necessary paperwork, proper record-keeping and respect for bureaucratic hierarchies. Within this procedural framework, the show questions whether its two flawed characters could ever be the heroes. The main dramatic conflicts examine the moral gray areas of the Berlin force in this period. The police inflict violence on peaceful protesters and run targeted hit squads. The portrayal of departmental politics, labyrinthine bureaucracy and unchecked graft sets the stage for the emerging authoritarianism. Even the villains need to fill out the right forms, and more often than not, they have official titles, ranks and uniforms.
For Babylon Berlin, though, this isn’t so much a question of history. It’s a present-day concern. This likely reflects the influence of the show’s creative team: Tom Tykwer, director of the stylish arthouse classic Run Lola Run, Henk Handloegten and Achim von Borries, the writing team behind the comedy Goodbye, Lenin! that mined the Cold War communism of East Germany for nostalgia. Together, they’ve modernized a familiar period to make it resonate with parallels to the present day politics. Nazis marching through the streets. Russians carrying out political assassinations in other countries. Police covering up the killing of unarmed civilians. Sound familiar? Even a fairly specific, historically detailed subplot like the secret rearmament of the military by fascists has an alarming counterpart in a recent news story about the contemporary German army.
This is precisely the point. Fascism can happen anywhere. To some extent, it still is happening as we live through history. That said, it very notably happened in Germany in this period, which deserves some degree of self-reflection from Babylon Berlin. Interestingly, the creators take more of a stylistic approach to this, with visual and narrative allusions to German Expressionist cinema. Every episode opens with a circle wipe, a trademark of the silent era. The show’s most shadowy antagonist, a menacing psychologist with ties to the criminal underworld and political elite, updates two classic Expressionist villains, the Doctors Caligari and Mabuse. The third season becomes a meta-Expressionist horror movie, with a costumed killer almost literally leaping off the screen and into the narrative. Of course, this is all spectacle, as the real horror resides in the history itself.
Max's Guide to Babylon Berlin
A knowledge of 20th century German history is by no means required for casual viewers of the series. That said, some background knowledge can be helpful. The era of “Babylon Berlin” is defined by the aftermath of World War I. The newly formed constitutional government, the Weimar Republic, faced many obstacles as it tried to rebuild German society after a deadly war. The difficulty of transitioning to a democratic system, especially under punishing economic sanctions, created a void of political and economic power. It was easy for criminals and bad agents to sow the seeds of corruption. Although the war had produced a military stalemate, many high-ranking officers and veterans believed that Germany’s stalemate had been a “stab in the back” by democratic reformers, particularly socialists, communists and Jewish Germans. The military elite and members of the aristocracy encouraged this myth, fearing a revolution similar to the one Russia had experienced. At the same time, the success of a relatively small group of radicals encouraged political extremists, which led to violent clashes.
Whether you’re streaming on Netflix, renting on Amazon or Apple, or just watching good old-fashioned DVDs, we recommend using the subtitles instead of the dubbing. While the story may be simpler to follow for non-German speakers, the performances simply don’t translate. It also helps to be patient in the first season. The narrative is extremely complex, with a lot of different characters and storylines. A lot of what is introduced early on will pay off down the line. Even the train. It also might be helpful to watch the “Previously On” recaps, even if you’re on a binge.
If you’re enjoying “Babylon Berlin” and want to see more stories like this, there are a number of films and TV shows that have influenced it. Again, this is not required viewing before you start the series. Think of it as enhancement.
Cabaret – Bob Fosse’s brilliant musical sets the style and tone for the nightclub scenes. In Season 3, the actress Tilly Brooks references the character of Sally Bowles.
The Blue Angel – Joseph von Sternberg’s cabaret movie offers a contemporary look at the club scene, featuring a memorable performance from Marlene Dietrich as a seductive dancer.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse – Another film contemporary to the times. Fritz Lang’s continuation of his crime epic sees the city of Berlin tormented by the titular psychiatrist/criminal mastermind. The catch? Dr. Mabuse is already dead when his plan goes into effect. Bonus points for anyone who watches Lang’s 4-hour plus silent prequel Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – The controversial masterpiece of Expressionist horror also features a psychiatrist villain. Or is he merely misunderstood? Critics have accused Robert Wiene’s classic of setting the stage for Nazism.
Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy – Though set in post-WWII West Germany, these films explore the continued effects of the Weimar era and Nazi rule on contemporary German society. Fassbinder definitely falls on the side that there was something corrupt at the heart of Germany’s national character.
“Berlin Alexanderplatz” – Need more Fassbinder? His 15-hour miniseries about petty German criminals in the Weimar era was famous for its marathon arthouse theater screenings in the US. However, it was intended as a TV show for a reason. That said, everything Fassbinder made can be a little grueling to get through.