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.