Babylon Berlin

I’ve spent the past few weeks watching the TV series Babylon Berlin which has been airing on Sky Atlantic (the second season has just finished). My Dad recommended it, and IMDB tells us:

Most expensive non-English language drama series ever made in history and also most expensive German TV series at the time of its first season release with a budget of approximately 40 million Euros.

As far as I know it’s not been dubbed and all the dialogue takes place in German with some Russian thrown in, but the subtitling is excellent: no Chinese DVD effort here. It takes place in 1920s Berlin and follows the path of a young detective sent over from Cologne to investigate vice, corruption, and blackmail in Germany’s capital.

The first thing that struck me is that the actors can actually act. All of the leads are capable of portraying a range of emotions, in stark contrast to most American TV shows. I recently watched The Man in the High Castle and found the leading woman wore the exact same facial expression from start to finish, and her boyfriend wasn’t any better. How these people ever got through an audition to secure the part is beyond me, but thankfully the Germans playing roles in Babylon Berlin are proper actors.

The characters are more interesting too. I’ve written before about how I like characters to be complex and not squeaky clean or cartoon villains, and I was delighted to find that few of them in Babylon Berlin were one-dimensional. Nobody is wholly good, many of them are morally compromised, and the bad guys aren’t going around raping people to let everyone know they’re bad. (I recently got introduced to the series Outlander. Sure enough, by the second episode a dastardly English redcoat is raping a bonnie Scottish lass in front of her brother, the hero of the series. I switched it off right there.) You’re never too sure who to root for because you don’t really know who’s who in the swamp of corruption and intrigue they’re all operating in. There are a few clichéd moments, but none bearing the saccharine we’ve come to expect from American or British TV series, which often seem like they replaced the scriptwriter with software.

The producers have also shown some balls in choosing to set it in the 1920s. It would have been very easy to set the show in the 1930s and beat the audience over the head with a “Nazis are bad” message, but instead they picked an era of surprising complexity which isn’t well known. The First World War looms large over several of the characters, former soldiers and widows alike, and we get a glimpse of the German perspective and the impact it had on their lives. I can’t think of another series or film that addresses this in any way. A large part of the plot concerns the social and political changes taking place in Germany, especially the threat of Communism supported by the fledgling Soviet Union now under Stalin, but the audience is never told what to think. They managed to capture issues of considerable complexity without taking sides, which is a rarity these days. The plot is complicated and I lost my way a few times, but it was at least believable. The Man in the High Castle only managed to advance the plot by portraying the totalitarian, ruthlessly paranoid Japanese occupying government as utterly incompetent, incapable of performing basic background checks. Babylon Berlin thankfully doesn’t use blithering idiocy to get the script working, although there are a few too many coincidences and chance encounters for my liking.

Finally, the production quality is superb. The clothes, set design, and attention to historical detail meets the standards set by Boardwalk Empire and on these measures you’d believe you were watching a big-budget American series (only with some money set aside for a scriptwriter and some actors). There are several scenes which are beautifully shot, and visually it is a pleasure to watch. The score is probably good too but, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t notice.

Babylon Berlin was the second German TV series I’d watched recently which I was very impressed with, the other being Deutschland 83. I’m rather hoping they keep this up.

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32 thoughts on “Babylon Berlin

  1. “How these people ever got through an audition to secure the part is beyond me”: ooh, naughty.

    Mr Weinstein will see you now – or, rather, you’ll see Mr Weinstein.

    My latest prize for Inability to Act in a Public Place was awarded to the broad in (the American) House of Cards – she was an attractive enough clothes-horse, but I could have done a better turn.

  2. “the threat of Communism supported by the fledgling Soviet Union”: you are aware, I trust, that the Soviet Union attempted to invade Germany in 1920, being stopped only by the gallant Poles in the battle known as The Miracle on the Vistula.

    (Neither was I until I came across a fine book on that war a few years ago.)

  3. My latest prize for Inability to Act in a Public Place was awarded to the broad in (the American) House of Cards

    Oh God, she was useless: one single pose and a single facial expression across all series. Laughably she was demanding as much money as Spacey by the end. I expect the producers were quite glad when he handed them an excuse to pull the plug.

    you are aware, I trust, that the Soviet Union attempted to invade Germany in 1920, being stopped only by the gallant Poles in the battle known as The Miracle on the Vistula.

    Utterly unaware!

  4. You should make that war the subject of your next novel. You could call it Peace and War. Or Piece of War, or whatsoever. Anyway, you could use your Russian experience and language abilities.

    P.S. “I expect the producers were quite glad when he handed them an excuse to pull the plug.” They have reinserted the plug with Herself as the new lead.

  5. Aah, yes, the anti-Imperialist USSR. I must have missed the part where they dismantled the old Russian empire, and didn’t invade their neighbours.

    But that’s different because reasons…

  6. You are both very harsh to Tinseltown’s 2nd best icily vacant blonde (behind C. Theron). Incidentally both were involved with Sean Penn, which shows a spectacular lack of judgement. Although at least he can act.

    Genuine acting talent is quite rare, I think. There are others who have screen charisma, even if they can’t ‘inhabit a role’. And the rest are there because they look pretty or fill some appearance niche (big mean dude, geek, fat black bird etc etc) Also bear in mind that the US is churning out zillions of hours of TV and movies, they’re probably running out of people who are pretty enough be on the telly and bright enough to learn the script.

    Hang on, I did have another point. I have been watching the US TV series Elementary, a modern day Sherlock Holmes with Lucy Liu as Dr Watson. I started off quite liking it (and Ms Liu is v attractive) but it is a police procedural at heart with some extra acting from Jonny Lee Miller.

    However, I have noticed that more recent episodes (seasons 3/4) have a wearying liberal left tone ie the businessman is always the villain and Sherlock is prone to prosing about the evils of lawyers, bankers, anyone with a few quid.

    I shouldn’t be surprised. I have a close friend who works in the telly business and with one exception, they all have identikit lefty views.

  7. Thanks for the tip Tim, making a note to look it up. I also heard good things about Deutschland 83, but the interwar period has been of great interest to me lately, all the more so in Germany.

    I think you are being a bit unfair to US series. My guess is that only the best of the non-English-speaking shows make it outside of their home country, unlike the English-speaking ones that are immediately accessible to English speakers, independent of quality. Plus, my guess is that the English-speaking series (and movies, for that matter) industry is where most of the money is available, so no wonder quantity tends to exceed quality. That said, The Man in High Castle left me totally cold after the first two or three episodes, so I’m with you on that one.

    Have you watched The Americans?

  8. If you haven’t read it

    Len Deighton:
    Winter: A Berlin Family, 1899–1945

    From the description you give of Babylon Berlin – you might appreciate it.

    I read it back in 1987 and it made a deep impression on me that still lingers.

    ps dearieme – save me a Google on that “Miracle on The Vistula” book?

  9. I think you are being a bit unfair to US series.

    Possibly: some of them have been very good.

    My guess is that only the best of the non-English-speaking shows make it outside of their home country

    Yup!

    Have you watched The Americans?

    Heh! I think you’re this blog’s equivalent of the kid who missed three weeks of school and is now playing catchup. 😉

    Here:

    Prompted by a friend, I recently watched the pilot of the TV series The Americans. Sure enough, the female lead gets raped by her superior in a flashback, just to make sure the audience knows that this guy is evil and deserves everything that’s coming to him. The fact that his raping her is absolutely ludicrous both in terms of historical accuracy and the plot doesn’t seem to matter: the important thing is we get to see a woman being raped, thus ensuring we all talk about how serious, edgy, and thought-provoking the series is. For me, it simply showed the writers are so lacking imagination the script might as well have been created by a piece of software.

  10. I have watched the first four episodes of Babylon Berlin and am hooked. Interesting to note that Bryan Ferry does some of the music for the series and puts in an appearance in season 2.

    I enjoyed Deutschland 83 as well, particularly the episode when the young protagonist was introduced to the Sony Walkman.

  11. Sounds good, the Wiemar was a fascinating period and yes the Bolshevik threat like elsewhere in Europe at the time was very real.

    I will watch out for it coming down under, I rarely watch TV but I will give this one a whirl.

  12. @Dearieme “being stopped only by the gallant Poles in the battle known as The Miracle on the Vistula.”

    Some say that if Marshal Jozef Pilsudski had not died suddenly in 1935 then they would never have been a war with Germany.

    “Just before his death, Piłsudski told Józef Beck that it must be Poland’s policy to maintain neutral relations with Germany and keep up the Polish alliance with France, and to improve relations with the United Kingdom.”

    Also the Red Internationalist scourge technically invaded Berlin during the Sparticist uprising in 1919 . The Kaiser fled to Holland during this period as he thought that he was going to get what the Russian Czar’s had from the Bolsheviks got but thankfully the ex-German and still patriotic soldiers of the Freikorps defeated them and immediately exterminated Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg with extreme prejudice.

    See pictures of Adolf Hitler at Pilsudski’s memorial service in Berlin.

    https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/adolf-hitler-memorial-pilsudski-1935/

  13. The fact that his raping her is absolutely ludicrous both in terms of historical accuracy and the plot doesn’t seem to matter

    Why is that particular bit ludicrous? Not that there aren’t some ludicrous turns of plot and even of the entire premise in that show, but that’s what makes for the drama 🙂 In any case, I brought it merely as an example of well developed characters and superb acting. I suggest you try to keep watching, but YMMV, as they say.

  14. best icily vacant blonde (behind C. Theron)

    If you haven’t seen it, try Snow White and the Huntsman for “vacant” C. Theron.

    In any case actors, even the most talented ones, are almost entirely dependent on writers and directors for their performance. Not there aren’t incapable actors out there who are nonetheless famous, and not that there aren’t actors who are amazing even in otherwise mediocre films and series – but from what I’ve seen, both tend to exceptions rather than the rule.

  15. Why is that particular bit ludicrous?

    I can imagine that ensuring spies sent overseas retained their loyalty to the USSR was a tricky business at best, and considerable efforts spent to ensure they remained loyal and didn’t defect. This would be even more difficult if you want your spies to totally immerse themselves in the foreign culture for years on end with no return to the Motherland. Raping the spy just before she goes is therefore a spectacularly stupid thing to do, and would almost guarantee she’d hate the organisation she’s working for.

    Also, what’s in it for him? Sexual gratification? Hardly. A demonstration of his power? As if the Soviets were short of ways to do that!

    In any case, I brought it merely as an example of well developed characters and superb acting.

    Presumably the lot used in the pilot are shot in a muddy field outside Nizhnekamsk two episodes in, and replaced wholesale? 😉

  16. @Alisa “but the interwar period has been of great interest to me lately, all the more so in Germany”

    There is relatively unknown young Welsh journalist that visited Germany during this time, he actually flew with Hitler, met Goebbels, tried to fly in the Denzig corridor (fascinating story), visited fascists in Austria and Treist. His work is very easy reading and very informative on what was actually happening on the streets in the thirties plus there are some good impartial comparison of Bolsheviks, Facsims and Nazism. Tragically he was murdered in China in 1934, a great loss in my books and he was also posthumously awarded the Ukranaian Order of Freedom for exposing the Holdomor in the West.

    Recommended reading for anyone interested in the interwar period.

    “This throws a light upon the political passions in Germany. I look again at Hitler. He and his followers feel that the hundreds of Nazis, such as this young boy who have died in street battles must be avenged, and they will be ruthless in crushing Communist opposition.

    Hitler is now turning and smiling to his adjutant. He looks mild. Can this be the ruthless enemy of Bolshevism? It puzzles me.

    We are now descending, however. Frankfurt is beneath us. A crowd is gathered below. Thousands of faces look up at us. We make a smooth landing. Nazi leaders, some in brown, some in black and silver, all with a red swastika arm-band, await their chief. Hitler steps out of the aeroplane. But he is now a man spiritually transformed. His eyes have a certain fixed purpose. Here is a different Hitler.

    There are two Hitlers – the natural boyish Hitler, and the Hitler who is inspired by tremendous national force, a great Hitler. It is the second Hitler who has stirred Germany to an awakening.”

    ……………

    “The time has come, however, to leave for the mass meeting. The hall, which holds 25,000, has been packed since twelve o’clock, although Hitler is not to speak until 8.15. The “Leader” is upstairs getting ready. Dr. Goebbels tells me that the Nazis never prepare their speeches fully. They all speak out openly. Goebbels and Hitler jot a few slogans on two or three pieces of paper or outline a short plan and are usually carried away by the revivalist spirit.

    Hitler is now coming down the staircase in his brown uniform. We must go. Before long I am destined to witness one of the most overwhelming outbursts of national emotion which history records and the beginning of German Fascism.”

    His work can be found at garethjones.org

  17. “The Man In The High Castle” turned out to be tedious after an opening ten minutes or so in which you get to see the imprint of Japanese and Germany on America. Well worth not watching after the opening parts. I suppose I felt I ought to watch it as I had read Philip K Dick’s book a couple of times (and even went out and bought a copy of the I Ching.)

    But I differ, sir, over “Outlander.” I didn’t think it was bad at all and interestingly illustrated how trying to change time to avoid disasters — or Scottish setbacks — didn’t work. The only thing that irked me was the second world war memory of the English nurse who for reasons not fully explained had to be shown with US troops, though as always with TV crafted (their word, not mine) for the US market there is a great need to show brave GIs and so forth.

    On the subject of locked facial expressions, Ms Ridley in “The Force Awakens” stoically maintains one look throughout, which is a sort of disgusted ‘I think someone round here may have filled their pants” stare.

  18. I endorse TomO’s recommendation of “Winter”. Very good indeed, and some of the characters appear later in time in the spy novels.

  19. But I differ, sir, over “Outlander.” I didn’t think it was bad at all

    Didn’t the whole “bonny Scots oppressed by the dastardly English” piss you off? I mean, this has been done before, hasn’t it? Braveheart? Couldn’t the writers come up with something new?

  20. Adam Zamoyski “Warsaw 1920”
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Warsaw-1920-Lenins-Failed-Conquest/dp/0007225539

    As for Weimar (and other things) – “Knaves, Fools And Heroes: In Europe Between The Wars” by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, Macmillan, New York,1974. It’s good stuff once you make allowance for his English, which is stylish but of his place, time, and class (such as the use of “one” to mean “I”, not infrequently.)

    Also good is “The Europe I Saw (1968)” by Elizabeth Wiskemann.

  21. German film and drama is generally top-notch and there is quite a tradition of recent(ish) historical fiction dramas. Deutschland ’83 and Türkisch für Anfänger are well worth watching (don’t know if there is an English version available), and everyone who has ever lived has presumably seen Das Boot and Downfall at least once.

    If The Lives of Others, Young Goethe in love, Goodbye Lenin, or Fack Ju Göhte made it to the English-speaking world, go watch them.

    Ironically the best known and longest running one, Tatort, a police drama, seems like it is done on one take with no rehearsal. There was a rival show made in the east they occasionally dig up to fill the TV schedules and is even worse.

  22. “Sure enough, by the second episode a dastardly English redcoat is raping a bonnie Scottish lass in front of her brother, the hero of the series. I switched it off right there.”

    Just as well that you did as a few episodes later the bonnie Scottish man gets raped by an English redcoat.

    I don’t find Outlander that bad though. I can always half watch it with my wife whilst I read through your posts.

    The Americans…first couple of series were OK in my view but then got boring.

  23. I have been trying to watch the man in the high castle for about a year now still haven’t finished the first episode. it is definitely not worth it

  24. If The Lives of Others, Young Goethe in love, Goodbye Lenin, or Fack Ju Göhte made it to the English-speaking world, go watch them.

    The Lives of Others was fantastic, and I enjoyed Goodbye Lenin a lot.

  25. Just as well that you did as a few episodes later the bonnie Scottish man gets raped by an English redcoat.

    Oh FFS! Don’t these scriptwriters have any other plot devices?!

    I can always half watch it with my wife whilst I read through your posts.

    Heh!

  26. “Didn’t the whole “bonny Scots oppressed by the dastardly English” piss you off?”

    Yes indeed, just as the whole US book, TV and movie output regularly pisses me off with their attitude to the country of my birth. But Outlander was based on a popular (American) book and at least it wasn’t, like 99.9 per cent of US TV, based entirely on events real or imagined in LA, NY or Chicago. If nothing else it at least looked Scottish.

    Also, Bonny Prince Charlie came across as not really all that smart, so there was that.

  27. Raping the spy just before she goes is therefore a spectacularly stupid thing to do, and would almost guarantee she’d hate the organisation she’s working for.

    He raped her the first day of her training, which IIRC took a couple of years.

    Also, what’s in it for him? Sexual gratification? Hardly. A demonstration of his power? As if the Soviets were short of ways to do that!

    They were not, and I see no reason why the various ways should be mutually exclusive. And of course if such things did happen (which I would be very surprised if they didn’t), the purpose was anything but sexual gratification.

    Anyway, I think I’m done ra… er, beating that dead horse here 🙂

  28. “Barbara” is another German film that is well worth watching. Its the GDR as I remember it, GPs who smoke the lot.

  29. If you want Weimar Germany, look for Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse. Epically long ( in two parts) and suffers from Lang’s uneven pacing, but gripping.

    As BiG says, sometimes the Germans produce superlative TV, there was an excellent Austro-German production recently about the emperor Maximilian I. A lot of the home-made TV consists of cop shows, though. The private channels have mostly given up on original drama and their schedules are filled with reality shows and CSI/NCIS, bit like Channel 5.

    To my shame, I watch Tatort every Sunday. BiG is right about most of them. The old Hamburg ones were very good and the current Vienna and Münster shows are excellent, because they have “proper” actors in them and they are also quite funny. Just to explain, Tatort ( Scene of Crime) is made by the regional state-owned TV companies along with the Austrians and Swiss, so each week is set in a different city and they are usually instantly forgettable and formulaic

    I made the mistake of watching a whole series of Homeland after having ignored it for years. Everyone in it was an imbecile and I only kept watching to see what stunning incompetence disguised as heroic failure or bad luck was going to happen this week. I didn’t bother again.

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