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Germany's 'Babylon Berlin' Crime Series Is Like 'Cabaret' On Cocaine

Feb 1, 2018
Originally published on January 30, 2018 10:20 pm

German television is coming into its own. After the recent stateside success of shows like Dark and Deutschland 83, the latest subtitled offering is a crime series set in 1920s Berlin. Launching Tuesday on Netflix, Babylon Berlin (based on the crime novels of German writer Volker Kutscher) explores the Weimar era's raging nightlife, flourishing cabaret scene and brutal criminal underbelly.

In 1929, the capital of the Weimar Republic was a hedonistic city of extremes. True to the party drug of the era, you could say this new series is Cabaret on cocaine. The first season depicts a city on the edge of an abyss. It's set before the rise of fascism, and a few months before the American stock market crash.

Co-creator Achim von Borries says a German period drama that's not about World War II or the Cold War is long overdue. "In the '20s, it was really the capital of the world. And nobody really knows about it because, of course, the monstrosity of the Nazi period afterwards is so huge."

In the city where Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Marlene Dietrich and Walter Benjamin set the artistic and intellectual pulse, Babylon Berlin follows a different beat — that of police inspector Gereon Rath.

According to co-writer and -director Tom Tykwer (best known for his 1998 film Run Lola Run), Weimar Berlin was as rich in crime as it was in culture. He says, "We had some really famous serial killers, some really ugly crimes that came from Berlin and that created a myth about the darkness and the filthiness of the city."

In the first episode, Rath and his partner, Bruno Wolter, arrest a former colleague who's now a heroin addict living on the streets. Wolter mocks him for being a so-called "trembler," a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock. Rath remains silent because he, too, suffers from the effects of the war; he suppresses his shakes with regular doses of morphine.

Weimar Berlin specialist and German studies professor Ulrike Zitzlsperger says the many thousands of veterans who lost limbs or were facially disfigured during World War I were visceral reminders of the trenches. "There's a lot of talk about an emasculated society at the time," she says. "In Germany, these men are no heroes. You can't talk about the war, you want to move on. So the trauma is absolutely horrific."

In Babylon Berlin, this damaged generation can't sleep because of post-traumatic stress disorder — so they find solace in nightclubs. Tykwer says clubbing was cheap, and all walks of life met on the dance floor or in the brothel below. "Nightlife, then, was spectacular and very experimental with lots of diverse clubs for more or less any kind of taste."

Henk Handloegten, one of the show's co-creators, finds similarities between the nightlife of 1920s Berlin and that of today, especially when it comes to music. He says, "If you take techno music and you take people from the '20s on film — and they are dancing the Charleston — it matches perfectly."

It's in one of those nightclubs that the show introduces its female lead, Charlotte "Lotte" Ritter. By day, she's a typist at the police headquarters; by night, she's a casual sex worker in the club's fetish cellar, where she earns extra cash to escape her squalid tenement. Ritter is an emancipated Weimar woman — she's even allowed to vote — and she's the perfect foil to Rath's shattered, male soul.

As his unofficial sidekick, Ritter ventures with Rath into Berlin's criminal underworld, which cultural historian Zitzlsperger says was rife with sadistic murders, corruption and even cannibalism. Soon, they come across bigger political crimes, clashes between communists and the then-relatively fringe Nazis.

Babylon Berlin captures the dark glamour of a briefly exhilarating time between the wars. And for today's Berliners — faced with the city's steady, sterile gentrification — the show offers a welcome dose of escapism.

Esme Nicholson is an NPR reporter and producer based in Berlin.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

German TV series are getting popular here in the U.S. First there was "Deutschland 83." Then there was "Dark." And now the latest is a crime series set in 1920s Berlin. It's called "Babylon Berlin," and it's out today on Netflix. Esme Nicholson reports it explores the Weimar era's raging nightlife and brutal criminal underbelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEVERIJA JANUSAUSKAITE SONG, "ZU ASCHE, ZU STAUB (PSYCHO NIKOROS)")

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: It's 1929, and the capital of the Weimar Republic is a hedonistic city of extremes. True to the party drug of the era, you could say this series is "Cabaret" on cocaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZU ASCHE, ZU STAUB (PSYCHO NIKOROS)")

SEVERIJA JANUSAUSKAITE: (Singing in German).

NICHOLSON: The first season of "Babylon Berlin" is set a few months before the Wall Street crash, before the rise of fascism. And it depicts a city on the edge of an abyss. Co-creator Achim von Borries says a German period drama that's not about World War II or the Cold War is long overdue.

ACHIM VON BORRIES: In the '20s, it was really the capital of the world. And nobody really knows about it because, of course, the monstrosity of the Nazi period afterwards is so huge.

NICHOLSON: In the city where Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Marlene Dietrich set the artistic and intellectual pulse, "Babylon Berlin" follows a different beat - that of Police Inspector Gereon Rath. Writer and director Tom Tykwer, best known for his 1998 film "Run Lola Run," says Weimar Berlin was as rich in crime as it was in culture.

TOM TYKWER: We had some really famous serial killers, some really ugly crimes that came from Berlin and that created a myth about the darkness and the filthiness of the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY KLIMEK AND TOM TYKWER'S "EINE FRAU IN BERLIN")

NICHOLSON: In the first episode, Inspector Rath and his partner Wolter arrest a former colleague who's now a heroin addict living on the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BABYLON BERLIN")

PETER KURTH: (As Bruno Wolter, speaking German).

NICHOLSON: Wolter mocks him for being a so-called trembler, a First World War veteran suffering from shell shock. Inspector Rath remain silent because he, too, suffers, but suppresses his shakes with regular doses of morphine.

ULRIKE ZITZLSPERGER: You've got lots of veterans. You've got people who've lost limbs, and thousands.

NICHOLSON: Ulrike Zitzlsperger is a Weimar Berlin specialist and professor of German studies. Sitting in a replica of a 1920s cafe, she says these men were visceral reminders of the trenches.

ZITZLSPERGER: There's a lot of talk about an emasculated society at the time. In Germany, these men are no heroes. You can't talk about the war. You want to move on. So the trauma is absolutely horrific.

NICHOLSON: In "Babylon Berlin," this damaged generation that can't sleep for PTSD finds solace in night clubs. Director Tom Tykwer says clubbing was cheap, and all walks of life met on the dance floor or in the brothel below.

TYKWER: Nightlife then was spectacular and very experimental with lots of diverse clubs for more or less any kind of taste.

NICHOLSON: Tykwer's co-creator, Henk Handloegten, says there are similarities between the nightlife of 1920s Berlin and that of today. Take the music.

HENK HANDLOEGTEN: If you take techno music and you take people from the '20s on film and they are dancing the Charleston, it matches perfectly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKA EFTI ORCHESTRA'S "TRESOR UNSER")

NICHOLSON: In one episode, Bryan Ferry takes to the stage to perform Roxy Music numbers for the Jazz Age, lending a bit of '70s glam.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BRYAN FERRY ORCHESTRA'S "DANCE AWAY")

NICHOLSON: It's in one of these clubs that we reach the female lead, Lotte Ritter. By day she's a typist at the police headquarters, by night a casual prostitute in the club's fetish center, where she earns extra cash to escape her squalid tenement. She's an emancipated Weimar woman now even allowed to vote, and she's the perfect foil to Inspector Rath's shattered male soul. As his unofficial sidekick, Lotte ventures with Rath into Berlin's criminal underworld. Cultural historian Ulrike Zitzlsperger.

ZITZLSPERGER: It's a perfect setting. There's a real obsession with serial killers. You get types of cannibalism. Then you get political crimes. It is a tense climate between Communists and National Socialists that's heating up. So the awareness of an underbelly is really quite strong.

NICHOLSON: "Babylon Berlin" captures the dark glamour of a briefly exhilarating time between the wars. And for today's Berliners, faced with the city's steady, sterile gentrification, the show offers a welcome dose of escapism. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BRYAN FERRY ORCHESTRA'S "DANCE AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.