Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
Usually to be considered as a TV Rewind subject, a series we’re reminiscing about or catching up on needs to have aired no sooner than the previous year. But I’m giving a pass to the excellent Babylon Berlin because mostly it aired in 2017, and only recently popped back in for another installment on Netflix. It’s also getting a pass because yes, I just discovered it, and frankly we all need to be watching and talking about Babylon Berlin. It’s astonishing to me how rapidly the show went from being a niche title I saw occasionally mentioned on Twitter to a series I cannot stop thinking about. I’ve considered devoting my career to the way one character says “gud.” This is the spell that Babylon Berlin casts—slowly at first, and then with the roar of a train engine at full tilt—over the course of three marvelous seasons (with hopefully more to come).
The series is both an intuitive watch and occasionally a difficult one in this particular political moment. As someone who gets too much of her historical knowledge from television, I’ve also found Babylon Berlin to be particularly illuminating about the forces at play in German society in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was, by all accounts, not dissimilar to America—although German denizens were haunted (of course) by the horrors of World War I, and more intricately linked to the rise of both communist and fascist factions across Europe.
All of these macro topics are given human stories for us to become deeply involved with, although the show’s primary duo exist in their own intimate, complicated emotional worlds. Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is a detective from Cologne who shows up in Berlin’s vice squad with his own secret agenda, and who is self-medicating his PTSD with morphine and psychotherapy. He soon meets Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries), a cunning young flapper with ambitions to become the department’s first female inspector, while looking to escape her family’s poverty and cycle of abuses. From the start, Babylon Berlin is a complex work that introduces us to a myriad of characters with various allegiances and backgrounds, all coalescing at a place and a time that is about to set the world ablaze.
And yet, the series is not really focused on the rise of far-right radicals, at least to start. True to life, it mostly happens in the background, in spurts, until it slowly moves out into the open and begins to take over. We don’t see a swastika until the penultimate episode of Season 2. Season 3 deals more overtly with the integration of the Nazi party—still largely seen as goons by society—into the fringes of government alongside the arrest or disappearance of political dissidents, but it isn’t until the stock market collapse of 1929 that they really get the opportunity to seize power. And yet, revelations like party members infiltrating communist protests to incite violence and turn public opinion against the left feels uncomfortably relatable.
In its first two seasons, the show is marvelously concerned with the contents of a train car filled with Russian gold, which two nations and at least four political movements are trying to get their hands on. The noir beginnings—including an odyssey into vintage pornography—introduce a number of warring factions, heroes, and villains, with more than a few surprises in terms of allegiance. But this is a show that is also particularly inclusive regarding its depictions of sex workers, a burgeoning queer community, and even the Deaf in casual yet potent ways. It shows how easily, truly, it should be for series to present characters whose lives contain multitudes. Because in doing so, we as viewers respond to the depth and nuance in ways that make our relationships with them feel fully involved.
Some of this intimacy and caring comes more quickly for certain characters than others, but every episode of Babylon Berlin is so packed with information—both plot and character related—that you soon become awash in the show’s varied world and appreciative of all of it. Yet despite the intricate machinations that only truly become clear late in Season 2 (and truly gloriously so), Babylon Berlin is a series that doesn’t mind taking the time to spend almost an entire episode on an idyllic lakeside repose. It’s also indicative of the show’s carefully crafted details and moments that other series might speed over on their way to bigger reveals, like a public bath that two friends pay to take for 30 minutes, with the first one being rushed out by the second. “That’s not equal time!” the first complains. “You get the heat, so I get to soak in the soup,” the second says with a laugh.
The soup! That could be a quirk of the translation though, since I am partial to subtitles for foreign (and some domestic!) series. Netflix presents Babylon Berlin in a variety of audio formats, and anecdotally I know some people prefer the (very noir and, in my opinion clunky) dub, which matches well. But to really get the feel for the time period and country of origin, it feels right to hear it in German—particular for Fries’ pronunciation of “gud,” as previously noted. That’s because everything about the production is meant to evoke that particular cultural moment, from the Expressionism embedded in its nightmarish title sequence to the winking use of classic film elements, not to mention exceptional costuming—including one unforgettable green hat.
In its third season, Babylon Berlin shifts somewhat into more of a murder mystery format at a film studio, while still weaving its new storyline in with previous seasons beautifully. Here, we start to more overtly follow the far-right’s moves to power, including an occasional mention of Adolf Hitler, particularly regarding the Hitler Youth movement of (essentially) boy scouts trained to be fascists. Still, Berlin in the late 1920s as presented here seems to largely be a place full of ideas and theoretical politics. Gereon is interested in a copy of Mein Kampf—he doesn’t have leanings towards the Nazi party, so it’s uncertain whether he’s reading it to better understand how to combat them or because he’s simply curious. Because at the same time, he’s protecting a Jewish man being targeted by the political police because he knows it’s the right thing to do.
What Babylon Berlin excels in the most is its seamless integration of very personal stories alongside major political movements in ways that feel completely organic. So much so that by the time we reach the final episodes of each season, the feverish crescendo is operating on a number of different emotional and intellectual levels. At the heart of it all, though, are Gereon and Lotte, who are such fantastic partners. Eschewing so many pitfalls of will-they-won’t-they TV romances, the series understands that simply showing us their friendship and collaboration, which hinges on a special comfort and understanding between them (alongside the occasional lingering look), is enough to establish the connection. They never, ever talk about their feelings for one another, they just simply need each other and work best as a duo. There are a few moments where feelings bubble to the surface, and they are so electric exactly because of the quiet buildup of mutual affection.
It’s hard to overstate how much charisma Bruch and especially Fries constantly exude in their roles, but that kind of magnetism is also not limited to them. The entire production is stacked with a cast who expertly convey mixtures of frustration and pathos for their characters, calibrating everything from comic relief for some to acts of cruelty from others in order to captivate us and keep us on our toes.
All of this adds up to a show where episodes are full; there is no filler. Everything feels essential because it is, and because we want to spend more time in this world. It makes us deeply curious about each new character we meet and how they might connect to ongoing storylines (or create new ones). While it can take more than a few episodes to appreciate the show’s rhythm and ambitions beyond its excellent costuming and atmosphere, once you are immersed in it there is no turning back. The careful and deliberate crafting of the show’s plotting and character moments creates thrilling sequences and—in the case of the Season 2 finale—one of the best TV episodes of all time. Watching Babylon Berlin is often a visceral experience, one you may occasionally need a break from yet find it hard to tear yourself away. It is simply stunning television that has for too long been buried in the depths of Netflix’s vast catalogue. Seek it out like that fabled Russian gold. You will, indeed, uncover a treasure.
Watch on Netflix
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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