Babylon Berlin (Sky Atlantic), the epic German-made Euro noir detective drama set during Weimar, is so addictively brilliant that I’d almost advise you not to start watching it. After the two seasons to date you’ll be left feeling like the morphine-addicted hero Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) when deprived of his fix.
That’s because they haven’t even started making season three yet, so you’ll have an excruciatingly long wait to see what becomes of its cast of immensely captivating characters: Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), Rath’s corrupt, lying, whoring but affable sidekick; the treacherous White Russian Countess (Severija Janusauskaite), who dresses as a man for her floor-filling cabaret act; Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), the gorgeous flapper and occasional tart from the slums whose hopeless ambition it is to join the murder squad of the Berlin police; the Armenian gangster; Benda, the elegant, principled Jewish police chief; the sweet, Tintin-like student with the deaf parents.
Some of these characters, I should warn you, may not survive that far. Volker Kutscher, who wrote the novels on which the series is based, has a similar disregard for the sanctity of his characters’ lives as Thrones’s George R.R. Martin. Many is the episode that will end with you casting an appalled and shell-shocked look at your viewing partner: ‘Nooo! How could they possibly have done that?’ This is especially true of the second season, which is even more thrilling and dramatic than the first.
So far it has cost €40 million, making it easily the most expensive drama in German TV history. A lot of that has gone into recreating late 1920s Berlin: labyrinthine industrial buildings with rusting machinery, which presumably created materiel for the recent disastrous war; vast open squares of bustling citizenry viewed from above betokening a Metropolis-style future; raucous, down-and-dirty Bierkellers redolent of Kurt Weill; and, best of all, the sumptuously decadent Moka Efti nightclub with the vast marine fish tanks in its immaculate art deco dining area, and the breast-baring whores lurking below stairs in their dungeon-like boudoirs, and the dancefloor where everyone loses themselves in the wild abandon of young people who seem almost to have intuited that this entire world is about to vanish. As, indeed, it will have done within 15 years. There is nothing physically left of Weimar Berlin, so this series is about as close as any of us will get to seeing and experiencing its hallucinogenic sights and sounds. (The music, featuring Bryan Ferry, is a joy.)
And what a period in which to set your drama! Weimar is Germany’s steampunk — an era so eye-catching and overstylised and weird you believe almost anything could happen. You’ve got a government not unlike Theresa May’s, cautious, feeble, centrist, hopelessly inadequate to solving all the problems — wild income disparities, massive resentment, extremist factions, meddling foreign powers (the Russians, again) — conspiring to blow up at any moment. On the one hand there are the communists, on the other the stabbed-in-the-back war veterans yearning to recreate German greatness by whatever means, be it via the Freikorps, perhaps restoring the Kaiser, or this new up-and-coming outfit with the swastika armbands.
Sensibly, the series doesn’t seek to judge that era through modern eyes. The Nazis are obviously thugs but really no worse than the communists. Both the poverty and the licentiousness are observed with clinical detachment — they are there because that’s how it was rather than to shock us or tug at our heart-strings. Women are constrained as women were. The only black characters are visiting US jazz musicians. Everyone, from the leads down, is in some way flawed, compromised, disappointing.
The plot, which revolves round missing Imperial Russian gold, is abundant with satisfying twists and turns. Sometimes — the flight over Russia, for example; the final train sequence — the action is so over-the-top that it borders on the Bulldog Drummond. But even at its most preposterous you never lose faith because the characters are so real and exquisitely played, and because its recreation of the period is so lovingly, nay obsessively, realised — from the fancy, door-free lifts in the police HQ to the interior of the Junkers on that hair-raising flight.
Set aside 16 hours of your life now, and binge-watch this masterpiece. Then write me a nice thank-you letter.
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