This expensive, exquisite German TV series is a masterpiece


Babylon Berlin ★★★★★

Everything is jangled in this masterful period drama. Individual nerves, a nation’s identity and our expectations of genre are all upended by a series whose labyrinthine narrative is charging towards historic oblivion. Opening in the Berlin of 1929, a crossroads of dissent and conflict, but also a cultural stepping stone to the future, each season of this German-language series unknots telling interlocking schemes while observing the insidious rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists, at that point a minor political party that will assume nightmarish power in 1933. The clock is forever counting down.

Volker Bruch in Babylon Berlin, the most expensive show produced in German TV history.

Volker Bruch in Babylon Berlin, the most expensive show produced in German TV history.

Created by a troika of German filmmakers – Henk Handloegten, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Achim von Borries – Babylon Berlin has a thrilling immediacy. Shooting on location, bolstered by some judicious digital touch-ups, the show crackles with energy: threats, secrets and schemes overlap. In an episode at the start of the third season, activists prepare to drop political banners from the rooftop of a department store, but simultaneously several characters are secreted inside trying to rob it. Historic events and fictional twists are always entangled, offering neither remorse nor breathing room.

The audience gets two very different surrogates as guides to the city. Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is a police detective from Cologne in pursuit of blackmail material that was commissioned in Berlin. He’s an outsider whose authority gives him access, but he still needs the unofficial understanding that resides with Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), an industrious child of the city’s working-class slums whose freelance gigs start with police administration during the day and working at a gangster’s nightclub and basement brothel each night. Both are severely tested, neither respond as you expect.

Liv Lisa Fries plays Charlotte Ritter, an industrious product of Berlin’s working-class slums in Babylon Berlin.

Liv Lisa Fries plays Charlotte Ritter, an industrious product of Berlin’s working-class slums in Babylon Berlin.Credit: SBS

The show is laced with wild flourishes, such as a shipment of illicit Russian gold smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a cell of renegade Trotskyists, and the energy rarely drops even as the stakes rise. The narrative and the characters are always looking forward, operating without the hindsight of textbook history. Everything feels modern, whether it’s a nightclub audience brought to a rapturous peak by an androgynous singer, Nikoros (Severija Janusauskaite), or the clash of ideologies that starts at the ballot box but increasingly spills over into the streets.

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Babylon Berlin has rightly been feted for its exquisite production design, which reflects budgets that made it the most expensive German television series ever produced, but its definitive achievement is capturing how a nation that has been broken into pieces struggles to rebuild. The year, 1929, is little more than a decade since crushing defeat in World War One and the end of the Kaiser’s imperial rule. Homeless veterans dot the streets, and the fledgling democracy of the Weimar Republic instigates change even as various institutions agitate for a return to conservatism. Rath, himself a veteran, pushes his own memories down any way he can.

Netflix had previously aired the first three seasons of the series, but with the broadcast rights to the program, SBS on Demand also receives a fourth season that made its debut in Germany 18 months ago but hadn’t been available here. The narrative has now reached the beginning of 1931, the Great Depression has engulfed Germany and the Nazis have gone from fringe figures to exerting a terrifying gravity that threatens to divide Rath and Ritter. Babylon Berlin may be one of the most thrilling television shows of the past decade, but it can’t escape what awaits.

Babylon Berlin streams on SBS On Demand from March 14.

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