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A Metropolis on the Verge of Modernity

Marcel Bois
Adam Baltner

In the years before the Nazi takeover, Berlin was a pulsing metropolis. Hit series Babylon Berlin immerses us in a recognizable era of transformation — and despair.

A still from Babylon Berlin. Sky Atlantic

In 2019 German liberal democracy is mired in crisis: the mass parties of center right and center left are increasingly losing members and supporters, a far-right party is on the rise, and the parliamentary arithmetic is becoming more and more convoluted. In the wake of the most recent  election to the Bundestag in September 2017, the political scientist Albrecht von Lucke spoke of “Weimar conditions” while media outlets like the Bayerischer Rundfunk and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung devoted entire series to comparisons between recent developments and the social conditions of the 1920s.

During coalition talks, Christian Democratic chancellor Angela Merkel allegedly warned the libertarian FDP and the Greens of the need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the era that led to the rise of Nazism. A hundred years since it was established in the wake of World War I, the Weimar Republic seems to be enjoying something of a “renaissance.”

This fresh interest in the era between World War I and the Nazi dictatorship is especially apparent in the success of hit TV series Babylon Berlin. The most expensive series ever produced for German television, it follows the travails of a police inspector in the doomed Republic. No simple crime drama, it captures the mood of an era that has all too many resonances for our own.

A New Experiment

Babylon Berlin constitutes a special kind of public-private partnership: produced jointly by ARD (the German consortium of public broadcasters) and Sky (a European media conglomerate), it represents the first time that a public and private broadcaster have jointly funded production costs, which totaled €38 million. No less than three directors, including Tom Tykwer, have taken part in the mammoth project. Even the supporting roles are played by a laundry list of German stars: Matthias Brandt, Benno Führmann, Hannah Herzsprung, Lars Eidiger, and Fritzi Haberlandt.

The expenditure was worth it from the producers’ standpoint. Babylon Berlin has brought in record-breaking ratings for Sky’s subscription-based streaming service, earning more viewers than any other offering on the platform except for the seventh season of Game of Thrones. It has been licensed in almost all European countries and in North America, and has received numerous awards, including fourteen Grimme Awards and four German Television Awards. Before the first episode was made available for free by ARD at the end of September, Tykwer had already announced another season.

The setting for the series is certainly evocative. The action takes place in the spring of 1929, just a few months prior to the onset of the global economic crisis. During the period in which the series is set, more people lived in the German capital than they do today. With just over four million residents, Berlin was one of the three biggest cities in the world: only New York and London were more heavily populated, and only Los Angeles took up a larger geographical area.

Similarly to today, the Berlin of 1929 was also a socially divided city: bankers and industrialists resided in fashionable villas in the green neighborhoods on its outskirts, while the urban proletariat subsists in jam-packed tenement apartments in inner-city working-class districts. Multiple generations often lived together in overcrowded, underlit lodgings, and it was not uncommon for beds to be rented out during the day to so-called bed lodgers — nightshift workers without a residence of their own. Diseases spread quickly, and invalids from World War I thronged the streets.

But Berlin at the end of the “golden twenties” was also a site of social awakening. Following the leaden years of the German Empire, it was now turning into “sin city” as the social conventions of old Prussia broke down. People experimented with drugs and alcohol, and in the nightclubs, men and women expressed their sexual orientations in new ways. This was the climate in which the nude dancer Anita Berber made her name, Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera had its premiere, and the painter Otto Dix was creating his disturbing Metropolis triptych.

Time Machine

This sense of upheaval also comes through in the series itself. As co-director Tom Tykwer explained in a recent interview, Babylon Berlin is supposed to “feel like being thrown into a time machine and just led through the city.” And indeed, the success its creators have had in capturing the social mood in late 1920s Berlin is impressive. For extended stretches of time, the plot itself even appears to fade into the background, serving merely one purpose: creating space to portray a metropolis on the abyss of modernity.

Take, for example, the “Moka Efti,” a café and dance hall that actually existed on the corner of Leipzigerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse up until the economic crisis. In Babylon Berlin, it is reborn as a cabaret theater attached to a brothel. Young people dance upstairs while prostitutes are visited by their johns in the basement and shady business is conducted in back rooms. Gracing the stage is the Russian Nikoros (Severija Janušauskaitė), an androgynous figure dressed as a man. She performs “Zu Asche, zu Staub” (To Ashes, To Dust), the hit song composed specifically for the series, while the throngs before her dance as if there were no tomorrow. Not for nothing did the Süddeutsche Zeitung dub Moka Efti “the Berghain of Tom Tykwer’s Berlin series.”

Charlotte Ritter is one of the establishment’s regulars. The female lead (played spectacularly by Liv Lisa Fries) represents the inner turmoil experienced by young working-class women in this era. Her outward appearance thoroughly corresponds to the “new woman” of the Weimar Republic: she wears her hair short and her clothes modern. A stranger to sleep, she prefers to spend her nights partying and her weekends at the popular beach Strandbad Wannsee.

Yet this is all ultimately a forlorn attempt to escape from her humble conditions. In a cramped apartment in the proletarian Moabit district, she lives with her gravely ill mother, her sisters and their unemployed stepfather. Charlotte dreams of a career with the police where she occasionally does temp work. Yet rarely is she ever taken seriously by the male officials. And the pay isn’t enough either, which is why she returns time and again to Moka Efti to work as a prostitute.

While working with the police, she meets commissioner Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) who’s come to the capital on assignment to destroy compromising photos. The images allegedly show a person belonging to the highest circles of Cologne society, the direct associates of that city’s mayor (and post–World War II German chancellor) Konrad Adenauer.

Rath is also depicted as a deeply ambivalent figure. An earnest and ambitious police officer, things are going well for him professionally. However, his private life is a mess: for more than a year, he’s been having an affair with the wife of his brother who has been missing since World War I. Rath himself was stationed at the front during the war and — like countless contemporaries of his — returned deeply traumatized.

He suffers from recurring nightmares and regular attacks that he attempts to treat with questionable substances. Indeed thousands of soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following the end of the war. Labelled as Kriegszitterer, “war shakers,” between four and five thousand of these psychologically sick veterans of World War I were later killed by the Nazis.

Political Berlin

This is just one of the ways in which Babylon Berlin provides an extremely precise portrayal of social conditions at the end of the Golden Twenties. And it also captures the political situation of the era. Rath gradually discovers a planned coup by the “Black Reichswehr,” illegal paramilitary groups that actually did try to destroy the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.

Such groups were often led by former members of the Freikorps — i.e., the right-wing, antisemitic paramilitary units that made bloody attacks on workers on strike or in rebellion during the German Revolution of 1918–19. Anti-republican generals from the regular army also supported the Black Reichswehr in the hope of circumventing the limit on the standing army (a maximum of one hundred thousand troops) stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles.

Also impressively portrayed is Berlin’s Blutmai (Bloody May) of 1929. On May 1 of that year, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) led an unauthorized demonstration which was then smashed by police, killing thirty people and injuring almost two hundred. Given that the orders had come from the Social Democratic (SPD) police president Karl Zörgiebel, these events deepened the mutual resentment between KPD and SPD members during the period of the rise of Nazism.

The Blutmai events also became a scandal because no official investigation into the deaths took place and no police officers were indicted. Things play out slightly differently in Babylon Berlin, as the department of public prosecution does conduct an investigation. However, the core of the story remains unchanged: the esprit de corps among the police is so great that officers cover up for each other and no one is brought to justice for the deaths of the civilian bystanders.

These two examples are indicative of Babylon Berlin’s portrayal of the whole breadth of the political spectrum in the Weimar Republic. Here there are monarchists and Communists, liberals and conservatives, Social Democrats and Nazis. All are depicted with skill and nuance. That being said, it is unfortunate (if not entirely unrealistic) that the only antisemitic comment in the series thus far is uttered by a communist and not a Nazi (although the creators will presumably remedy this later on).

Unfortunately, minor historical discrepancies recur throughout the series. For example, one character revives another with chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, using a technique that at the time would only have been known in expert circles if at all. Moreover, the showdown on a moving train is more reminiscent of Indiana Jones than of actual police work in the 1920s. Similar could be said of the treatment of the Trotskyists: in real life they attended political gatherings and distributed newspapers, while in Babylon Berlin, they’re depicted as if they were a gangster group out of an American film about the 1920s, smuggling gold and stockpiling weapons.

The Glamor and Gloom of a City of Millions

Babylon Berlin is of course a fictional series and not a documentary. That being said, the existence of easily avoidable inaccuracies like these is regrettable, damaging as they are to the high degree of authenticity painstakingly constructed by the series creators.

Yet all in all, Babylon Berlin delivers a wonderful glimpse into a bygone era. The series paints a picture of a deeply fragmented society, related via corrupt police and anti-republican nobility, militant Communists and statist Social Democrats, proletarian despair and bourgeois smugness — in short, a picture of the glamor and gloom of a city of millions in one of the most affecting epochs of the twentieth century. Above all, Babylon Berlin uncovers long-forgotten elements of a cultural awakening that met an abrupt end with Hitler’s takeover of power. Rediscovering them in this twelve-hour flood of images is a joy.