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 morphine addiction.
Charlotte, also known as Lotte, gets her start in the police department as a freelance stenotypist—a kind of Girl Friday—and she is perhaps the show’s most surprising and gripping character, a heroine with the beauty, gumption, and joie de vivre of Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur. Her life is also something of a screwball tragedy: she works as a prostitute at night to support her family and pay the rent on their crowded tenement apartment, as wretched a place as any drawn by Heinrich Zille, the graphic artist who illustrated 1920s social conditions in the German satirical newspaper Simplicissimus.
Lotte frequents a snazzy Art Deco nightclub, Moka Efti, where she takes clients to a basement room for whatever they want, including chains and leather. What is notable is how matter-of-fact she is about her side job—she shows no shame or squeamishness. This is what it takes to survive, and it doesn’t dampen her spirits or harden her heart. Babylon Berlin is full of louche characters and cantilevered story lines, but in scene after scene, it also takes time to reveal every shade of Charlotte’s character: tough and fearless when confronting louts like her brutish, unemployed brother-in-law; fiercely protective of her little sister and her senile grandfather; playful and generous to her friends; and game for a dance or a lark. More than anything, however, she wants to be a detective, a goal she doggedly pursues against police tradition.
Babylon Berlin is said to be the most expensive television series ever made in Germany, and the spending is evident: the cinematography, the music, the costumes, and the recreation of Berlin are sumptuous. This is a series steeped in the heightened glamor of a decadent society. But more striking is how lavishly the show’s creators—Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten—riff on their source material. Neither Gereon’s nor Charlotte’s backstory comes from Kutscher’s novels, which are tersely narrated in the first person by the detective. “The neon signs outside Plaza were out and the taxi rank at Küstriner Platz looked as abandoned as a bank vault after a visit from the Brothers Sass,” Rath says in the first volume. Kutscher’s Gereon doesn’t have PTSD or a morphine addiction, though he does occasionally use cocaine. In the book, the reader is told that Charlotte is a good-looking stenographer who aspires to go to law school, and that’s about it. The sixteen episodes of Babylon Berlin now available on Netflix are not loosely based on the novels so much as packed with additional scene-setting, character, and mood. It is as if Kutscher had handed the showrunners a neatly cut plank of pine, which they then bleached and brushed with layer after layer of lacquer to attain a higher sheen. The degree of invention they bring to the material makes the series an example of how long-form television can expand and improve on fiction. It has the time and space to turn even a short book into a streaming roman fleuve.
In the show, Charlotte is first shown getting ready for work in her fetid household after being up all night at a club. Her sister asks if she’s tired. “If you sleep you miss being awake,” Charlotte says. The bathroom mirror has long since been reduced to shards. Charlotte takes a used wad of gum from under a shelf and uses it to fix her compact mirror at eye level above the sink and reapply her makeup. As she leaves the building, her little sister tosses a silk stocking out the window, which Charlotte ties around her neck to hide a bruise from the night before as she races eagerly to the police station.
There Charlotte joins a large gaggle of young women waiting in the lobby to be chosen for a job by an administrator who doesn’t need more than one or two of them. Charlotte isn’t selected, but one of the junior officers on the homicide squad sees her dejection and finds a task he can steer her way. Her delight is infectious because it clashes so vibrantly with the drab, sallow, and resigned faces all around her.
Babylon Berlin depends on juxtapositions like these. The show paints a contrapuntal portrait of Berlin, juxtaposing scenes of violence—revolutionaries in a clandestine printing shop being massacred by machine gun, for instance—with shots of nightclub dancers flailing to the music as if under a hail of bullets. Throughout, small grace notes contrast with grotesque reminders of how miserable the poverty of those days was. When Charlotte’s mother has an illness that forces her to leave her job at a slaughterhouse, her little sister, Toni, volunteers to work there in her place. Charlotte, who wants Toni to stay in school, says that their oafish brother-in-law should seek work rather than she. He clearly thinks that all work is women’s work, even laboring in a slaughterhouse. Charlotte is incensed, but her mother says he has a point: “He couldn’t get the maggots out with those paws.”
Charlotte first crosses paths with Gereon in a distinctly Weimar sort of meet-cute. He steps off the down elevator carrying an evidence file of confiscated smut. She is coming up from the basement with a folder full of pictures of murdered and dismembered bodies. They collide, both folders fall to the floor, and as they bend down to retrieve the scattered material, they sort and hand each other the photographs—she hands him a photograph of a woman’s naked derriere, he gives her one of a maimed and disfigured corpse, saying politely, “This must be yours.” As she hands him a shot of a naked couple in flagrante delicto, she says archly, “I hope you are with vice.” He replies, “And I hope you are with the homicide squad.”
Gereon is an imperfect hero, with all the weaknesses of a generation of men ravaged by a lost war. He’s determined but in many ways inept; he loses his gun—twice—and is often befuddled and sidetracked by his own demons. Charlotte is the smart one, cannier, more resilient, quicker to figure out clues and press ahead.
Once they meet, Babylon Berlin’s plot becomes a convoluted web of intertwining political and criminal machinations that together foreshadow the collapse of the Republic. Gereon’s investigation into a pornography ring leads him to a right-wing plot to assassinate German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann while he attends a performance of The Threepenny Opera with Aristide Briand, the visiting French foreign minister. The choice of musical is apt and obvious: the show’s composer, Kurt Weill, and its lyricist, Bertolt Brecht, who fled Germany in 1933, defined Weimar culture. But the inclusion of Stresemann is also important to this portrait of the Golden Twenties. He shared the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize with Briand and to this day is remembered in Germany as a stabilizing force in the Weimar chaos, part of its if-only mythology; his fatal stroke in 1929 is often cited as a factor in Hitler’s rise to power.
Along the way, Gereon and Charlotte stumble onto a case that involves a train smuggling poison gas—and hidden gold—from Moscow to Berlin. That conspiracy involves, among others, Alfred Nyssen (Lars Eidinger), a right-wing scion of a steel fortune; Alexei Kardakov (Ivan Shvedoff), a violinist and Trotskyite plotting to overthrow Stalin; and the woman they both love, Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janušauskaitė), a beautiful Russian countess who dons a mustache and wig for a gender-bending cabaret act at the Moka Efti. Sveta’s performance—Marlene Dietrich with a touch of 1970s Grace Jones—is sinister, seductive, and electrifying. Yet other dance numbers, including a dream sequence in which Gereon and Helga, a visiting lover from Cologne, tap dance and lindy-hop around the apartment in their pajamas, are as lighthearted and engaging as any in an MGM musical.
The music, much of it composed by Tom Tykwer and Johnny Klimek, blends jazz, swing, and Bryan Ferry, and is eclectic and surprising. So is the dancing. The very first number isn’t a Baz Luhrmann–style jazz-age extravaganza; it takes place in the small back room of a crowded working-class bar, where customers vigorously and companionably let off steam to ragtime. Gereon, who is there by himself, joins in, revealing an unexpected athleticism, grace, and playfulness. The scene has none of the decadence one has grown to expect from Weimar after dark, and that makes it all the more evocative.
Kutscher is far from the only mystery writer to set his books during these kinds of strained historical times. The American novelist Martin Cruz Smith has written eight novels starring Arkady Renko, a homicide detective in the Soviet Union. Marek Krajewski, the Polish crime writer, puts his gumshoe hero Eberhard Mock in 1933 Breslau, which was part of Germany until the end of World War II. Settings like the Third Reich or Stalin’s Soviet Union carry a special irony: the futile gallantry of a detective seeking truth and justice in a society based on lies and villainy. Philip Kerr, who died in March, wrote fourteen novels about Bernie Gunther, a police detective turned private eye in Nazi Germany. The series follows Gunther from the 1930s through the Holocaust and after the war, at which point he goes on the run in Argentina. In the first installment, March Violets, Gunther sounds like Philip Marlowe on the Spree when he describes a library: “It wasn’t big by the standards of a Bismarck or a Hindenburg, and you couldn’t have packed more than six cars between the Reichstag-sized desk and the door.”
Writers have been particularly drawn of late to Germany just before the war. In his most recent novel, Munich, the English novelist Robert Harris places two invented characters—a young British diplomat and his German counterpart, an old friend from Oxford—beside Chamberlain and Hitler respectively before their historic meeting in 1938. The French writer Éric Vuillard chose the same year as the setting of L’Ordre du jour, his novelistic history of the feints, lies, and missteps that led to Hitler’s annexation of Austria. The Dead, the latest novel by the Swiss writer Christian Kracht, which will be published in English in July, is a prewar historical fantasy about a fictional Swiss filmmaker hired to make a pro-Nazi film in Japan. Most of the story is told in elliptical flashbacks, but the more hallucinatory plotlines are wrapped around real events, including the May 15, 1932, assassination of Japanese prime minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, an attempted coup d’état that almost killed the visiting American movie star Charlie Chaplin. As Vuillard recently told a reporter, World War II and the Holocaust “never stop providing us with explanations of human nature, diplomatic relations, compromises, betrayals, hypocrisy.”
The heroes and villains of Babylon Berlin of course don’t know that they are dancing on the edge of the abyss. Nazis don’t appear in full until the fifteenth episode, when a mob of brownshirts wearing swastikas harass a Jewish politician. Most of the characters’ movements are viewed in the moment, without the portentous hindsight that hovers over so many films about the period, such as Cabaret. But the warning signs are all there, including the misplaced good faith of German Jews who underestimated the danger lurking ahead. August Benda, the head of the political police, is a Social Democrat and a Jew intent on protecting the Reich from right-wing conspirators, only to discover that the fix is in and goes all the way to the top. A general Benda had hoped to arrest for building up a private army, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, isn’t worried because he knows he has the support of President Paul von Hindenburg. When the general says with a sneer, “Please leave national matters to the people whose soil you are on,” Benda looks startled. He hasn’t yet heard this kind of anti-Semitism expressed so directly to his face.
The show’s last few episodes descend into a manic mixture of genres from early German and American cinema. Charlotte’s adventures in particular turn into The Perils of Pauline. Among other things, she is kidnapped by gangsters, locked up in a cellar, thrown from a car, and almost drowned. A climactic gunfight on top of a moving train becomes an almost farcical homage to Hollywood westerns (it helps that Bruno looks and walks like an overfed John Wayne). Terrible things happen that make the future look bleak. The series ends, however, not with politics but with one man’s recovery and redemption.
We know the future is bleak. But Babylon Berlin allows us to step away from what we know now and experience Weimar as it was lived then, with parentheses of hope and wonder wedged into the quickening doom. The late historian Peter Gay would likely have approved of Babylon Berlin. In his book Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider, he wrote:
The Republic was born in defeat, lived in turmoil, and died in disaster, and from the beginning there were many who saw its travail with superb indifference or with that unholy delight in the suffering of others for which the Germans have coined that evocative term Schadenfreude. Still, the choice of Weimar was neither quixotic nor arbitrary; for a time the Republic had a real chance. Whatever some derisive historians have said, if the end of the Republic was implied in its beginning, that end was not inevitable.