Babylon Berlin review: As the world is swept under a new wave of right-wing nationalism, here’s a show that reminds us how the Nazis came into power.
Cast – Volker Bruch, Liv Lisa Fries, Peter Kurth
Rating – 4/5
Of all the noise that accompanied the election of Donald Trump into presidential office, one brief and terrifying statement stood out. I don’t remember where I read it – it was probably on Twitter, on the day the results were announced, which made it all the more stunning – but it wasn’t written by a liberal commentator or a scorned celebrity.
These words were decades old, written by the Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. “We must be listened to,” he pleaded, “above and beyond our personal experience, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.
It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” He was talking about the Shoah, the Holocaust, the mass-murder of over six million Jews by members of the Nazi party during World War 2. He was also offering a word of caution, a warning for future generations to not make the same mistakes that were made in 1930s Germany.
Babylon Berlin billed as the most expensive non-English language series ever produced, is very much born out of this volatile moment in history. There’s no coincidence that it was made now because as much as it is a period tale, it is a story of the moment.
Co-created by the immensely talented Tom Tykwer — who has proven these talents across a kaleidoscope of genres, ranging from the thrilling Run Lola Run to the new-age philosophies of Cloud Atlas – Babylon Berlin is set in 1929, at the tail-end of the Weimar Republic.
Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is a young detective, posted in Berlin, riddled with PTSD and caught in a political conspiracy that involves socialists and communists fighting on the streets, Soviet spies and German traitors, young sex workers, and glitzy cabaret clubs.
It is a Germany caught in the midst of immense upheaval, racing – as we’re well aware – towards its doom, the under-pressure election of Adolf Hitler in 1933. The Soviets have a sleeper cell in Berlin, their spies have infiltrated the upper-most echelons of German society.
Overzealous officials have already begun spouting the rhetoric that would in a few years become the norm – outsiders are unwelcome, jobs must be reserved for Germans. Vote for us, please. And like Berlin, Inspector Rath is caught between two worlds, disrespected for serving a meek government, and troubled by his own personal demons.
Shows such as this aren’t just a vital comment on the current political climate but also a reflection of how we, as a people, have addressed this great shift. At least in Hollywood, the Trump presidency has been met with almost unanimous resistance. Even films that have no business being political can’t help but sneak in progressive messages – both Warcraft and Thor: Ragnarok, lest you forget, are about the refugee crisis.
Black Panther and The Post’s politics are more easily identified. But one of the few shows to betray a pro-Trump agenda, Roseanne, was swiftly canceled when things became too uncomfortable. And while I wouldn’t normally support such behavior – canceling Roseanne was basically censorship of contrarian thought – in this case, because she couldn’t hide her rancid racism, it was justified.
In India, however, the manner in which our biggest stars have reacted to the right-wing’s rise is a giant metaphor for our general non-confrontational attitudes. Only a few filmmakers have had the courage to question the status quo, while others, for the most part, have endorsed, and hence encouraged, the powers that be. To be clear, one’s patriotism isn’t defined by the energy with which one supports the ruling government.
On the contrary, to question elected officials is a cornerstone of democracy. None of this, of course, is to say that things in India can be compared to what is happening abroad, where there has been a worrying rise in right-wing thought. But that is precisely why Babylon Berlin exists. The show reminds us that tyranny can be born out of something as innocent as a call for change.
Post World War 1, Germany was broke, its people were destitute and disillusioned, unhappy with the government’s meek response to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles – and from the ashes of defeat there emerged an ideology that painted the German as the victims. The Nazis exploited the popular belief that German pride had been dented, and blamed intellectualism and emerging multiculturalism as enemies.
It’s mildly comforting to know then, that almost a century after the events of Babylon Berlin, the city it chronicles has become a global symbol for inclusivity. But I apologize if I’ve made the show sound more political than it really is. While politics is integral to what it is about – right down to its existence – it’s so much more than just a cautionary tale.
Babylon Berlin is mostly a police thriller, made with immense care – especially with regard to the period setting – and with trademark German efficiency. It appears to have been influenced by the films of their greatest artistes – particularly Fritz Lang, his characters and his aesthetic. The acting, the sets, the costumes and the cinematography aren’t as much inspired by actual people and photographic references as they are by movies.
So when we see our angsty hero stare into the distance, a half-forgotten cigarette dangling from his mouth, his eyelids heavy with a lack of sleep, the image is instantly recognizable. We’ve seen it before. It’s comforting, despite itself. It is just a TV show, not real life. Until it is. And there lies the power of storytelling, especially visual storytelling, whose power was famously exploited by the Nazis.
The show will work just as well for those who want to bury its political overtones, but those willing to shovel beneath the surface will discover a richer story. And it is our duty, as an audience, especially now, to make the effort.
Watch a music video from Babylon Berlin here