Somewhere between decadent dance halls, S&M trysts, mob slayings, opium dens, corruption, torture, pornography, and bloody May Day riots, the TV series Babylon Berlin twirls away from Weimar Germany to give a nod to 1930s Hollywood comedies. The hero of the show, a detective named Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), has rescued his irrepressible sidekick, Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a would-be investigator, from a scrape with the local police. Outside the station Gereon hails a taxi, but the driver ignores him and races on. Charlotte, working-class and street smart, says, “Let me do this.” In an echo of a classic scene from It Happened One Night, Charlotte lets out a piercing whistle and, to his dismay, the next taxi obediently screeches to a halt.
That fleeting allusion to the comic style of directors like Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Henry Koster is one of several moments when Babylon Berlin uses a light Hollywood touch to depict a dark era. This German television series, based on the detective novels of Volker Kutscher, is irresistible for many reasons, but one is the way it intersperses a macabre portrait of a doomed society with glints of its promise, notably by showcasing the Euro-swing jazz of Berlin nightclubs and channeling the sensibilities of Hollywood filmmakers, many of whom had fled Germany for America.
Babylon Berlin is set in the spring of 1929, near the end of the period known as Weimar’s Golden Years—after the worst of the post–World War I hyperinflation and before the Wall Street crash that brought back mass unemployment. Yet the series is exultantly dark. Powerful gangsters rule the streets. Communists and ultranationalists are at war with one another and with the Republic’s fragile democracy. The Nazis are still dismissed as a fringe group. The most imminent threat comes from the Black Reichswehr: military and ex-military revanchists, nationalists, and business tycoons who think the politicians who signed the Versailles Treaty stabbed them in the back. Nightclubs and cafés are full, but sidewalks are lined with crippled World War I veterans begging for handouts; homeless women and children sleep on the street.
Gereon is newly assigned from Cologne to the Berlin vice squad to investigate a pornography ring. His partner, Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), is a tough, heavyset, older war veteran with contempt for democracy and allegiances to the old order. Bruno has flares of humanity but no scruples about beating prisoners, taking money from brothel owners, or blackmailing girls for sexual favors and information. He is gruffly friendly to Rath, but he also suspects that the young detective, whose father is a highly placed police official in Cologne, has a hidden agenda. Rath indeed does, and that’s apart from his many other secrets, which include PTSD from combat in the last war and a…
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