Invalidness is deeply intertwined with proto-capitalist, imperialist schemas. This is very easy to forget when a “native” English speaker. Random, little things matter as much as geography. After all, Adam Smith would have had the same impact as Adán Herrero but not as Adam Forgeron or Adam Schmied.
Enter “Babylon Berlin:” the newest best show on TV. Germany’s most expensive production ever for the small screen, “Babylon Berlin” takes place in the Weimar Republic before Hitler’s election to the chancellorship. Cynics are right to straighten their necks and tighten their assholes. High-budget Nazi apologism in this day and era would practically be the death knell of everything good, decent, and right.
Good for us, then, that “Babylon Berlin” is uncompromising in its humanization. Are there racist Nazi creeps that want to kill every living example of their faith’s classic antithesis? Sure! Do these Nazi creeps want to squash every sign of insubordination or equality? You betcha! But there is much more.
“Babylon Berlin,” if anything, is an examination of defeat. Of despair. Of reality. The main protagonist, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch ), a WW1 veteran only a few years younger than Hitler, is a detective newly assigned to Berlin. His mission? To track down incriminating, and deviant, footage that could humiliate a bigwig in Cologne. Why? Because his daddy is an immediate inferior to the police chief of Cologne, of course!
Rath’s resoluteness, as much because of his addiction to laudanum as his sense of place, contrasts excellently with his setting. His work is loathsome but Rath hardly blinks -and we never are clear if it’s because of his experience in WW1, his drug habit, or both. One of the first scenes alone is worth a laugh until its escalation. Repressive and confused, the namesake city of “Babylon Berlin” exists as two entities: one over-authoritative and one overindulgent.
Many critics will likely call “Babylon Berlin” post-apocalyptic. Zizek would call it “Christian.” Most vitally, though, it is realistic. Babylon Berlin takes place in a center of change and desperation and the show’s portrayal of such is close to uncompromising. Yes, there is more room to explore frustrated superiority complexes. It also pigeon-holes an ethnic other as a kingpin. All in all, though, the Berlin of “Babylon Berlin” is a living, breathing setting that offers more ambiguity than even Chandler’s L.A.
Bruch is brilliant as Rath but his portrayal’s strength is in his reactions. And what characters and actors to react towards! The abusive disdain towards perps and consistently deceitful nature of Rath’s immediate superior, Bruno Wolter, (Peter Kurth) goes from funny to downright outrageous, all the more perturbing as he is loyal to his friends, typically in good cheer, and dotes on his long-term wife. Ambitious and struggling Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) competes with other day-by-day temps at the police station as the only breadwinner in her three-room family household consisting of her two sisters, mother, grandfather, two infant nieces, and deadbeat brother in law. The young assistant of Woller, Stephan Jänicke (Anton von Lucke), watches out for two parents who went deaf as a result of the war and spies on Woller for August Benda (Matthias Brandt), the police councilman. Greta (Leonie Benesch), old primary school classmate of Charlotte, struggles with homelessness and, in one of the saddest scenes in TV, cries because her recent c-section even precludes her from sex work at a decent brothel. Only one of the above characters supports fascism, at all, and seeing the lengths that character goes, and why, are among the most gut-wrenching moments in modern television.
Late 1920’s Berlin is multicultural and dynamic. We also run into refugee Trotskyists, an exiled Russian aristocrat who crossdresses as a male entertainer at a hot nightclub, more than a few Americans, an Armenian mob boss, and a Polish Catholic priest who doubles as an enforcer. All in all, though, “Babylon Berlin” is about the German experience and rightfully so.
No production about the Weimar Republic would be complete without music. And what music! Even those with an aversion to old-timey jazz will find themselves grinning at the frequent club scenes. Far from glossing over such moments, the renditions in “Babylon Berlin” showcases talent, misappropriation, tolerance, and soft racism in equal measure. More integrally, these scenes show how the German contingent of the “Lost Generation” (and early “GI Generation”) coped. Rath is an exuberant dancer, Wolter is nothing but mirth, and Ritter clubs like any other hot early-20-something. Instead of the series’ focus, though, such scenes are an escape from the desperate realities of a nation squashed by its own sense of identity, disgrace, and subjugation. Many watching these scenes will doubtless smile but there will likely be a tear or two as well.
Put off what you’re currently watching and check out Babylon Berlin!