Decadent Mirrors: Babylon Berlin as Reflection of Past and Present

by Alci Rengifo

Is history born on the battlefield or in the subterranean corners of a city? This is the nature of the question of how the modern era came to be. We now live in that transitional period in the historical timeline, that moment between eras where nothing is defined but tensions saturate the air. The Italian revolutionary and intellectual Antonio Gramsci once described such a moment as, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”

Babylon Berlin, a feverish noir imported from Germany by Netflix and now streaming on the service, takes place in one of the great seminal in-between moments in modern history. It is set in Berlin during the Weimar years, that brief interlude after World War I when Germany found itself being both a key center of cultural innovation and social powder keg. Decadence and economic collapse danced hand in hand, while in the streets the old order was brushed aside and the conflict between socialist revolution and fascism determined the road ahead. Fittingly, the series is a noir based on a bestselling detective novel by Volker Kutscher. It is in noir that dark passions mingle with intrigue, political corruption and human longings. In a sense noir encompasses many of the forces that shape society down to its core. Because it is a television series, Babylon Berlin has the appropriate room to explore its world fully- every shadow is cast, every room in the city explored. Even as its plot hurtles forward amid twists and turns, what the show is truly about is a city where the primal forces of early 20th century collide.

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Late ’20’s Weimar Berlin, “where the primal forces of early 20th century collide.” Otto Dix, Gross Stadt (Metropolis). 1928.

It is 1929 Berlin. The economy is in tatters, the scars of World War I linger and political upheaval is in the air. The nationalist ideals which will pave the way to fascism remain slogans espoused by the disenfranchised, while others find solace in the proletarian expressions of the Communists. Volker Bruch plays Gereon Rath, a World War I veteran turned detective in the Berlin police department’s vice squad. Rath and his partner, the big and rough old schooler Bruno (Peter Kurth), find themselves investigating a case involving the city’s underground pornography networks. But Rath has been hired by a mysterious client to find a specific film which contains explosive material.

New to the department is a young woman named Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries), who struggles to make enough to help her cluttered, poverty-stricken household. When Charlotte isn’t typing up reports she moonlights in the city’s glitzy, debauched nightclubs where Berliners dance away their sorrows (and pay handsomely for extra services). Meanwhile, in the distant woods a Soviet freight train has been hijacked by an underground group linked to a major conspiracy which contains the first salvos of greater events to come.

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Train hijack, from Babylon Berlin

Babylon Berlin is partly the brainchild of German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, a director of visual exuberance and human insights. His two most notable films are Run Lola Run, a cult hit scored to driving Euro techno about a young woman rushing to save her boyfriend from vengeful gangsters, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, an enrapturing, perverse tale about an 18th century serial killer obsessed with capturing the very scents of his victims. Along with the Wachowskis, Tykwer co-directed one of the great underrated epics of the last decade, Cloud Atlas. An inventive, overwhelming film, it glides through various eras and characters, moving backwards into the 19th century, hurtling on into some futuristic city centuries ahead of us and then coming back to the more recent 1970s before going even further into the future.

Babylon Berlin is itself a link between eras. It is filmed in the hyper style of modern entertainment, but hedonism, and radical political ideas seem like the antidote for a society in crisis. Weimar Germany is the day after the failed revolution. Its birth truly takes place in 1919, as the Great War came to a catastrophic end and a tumultuous revolution followed. The old Europe was gone, the Russian Revolution inaugurated the Communist era, and in Germany the dazed populace found itself in a new republic. Yet already it was a beginning soaked in blood and haunted by what-ifs. A rising led by a radical socialist movement, the Sparticists, was viciously crushed. Freikorps paramilitaries assassinated the revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, an act Hannah Arendt would term as the first victory of the forces that would later embrace Nazism.

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“Zu Asche, Zu Staub,” from Babylon Berlin

The world Tywker and the show’s team create is a Berlin draped in grit and shadow, where cabaret and night-life provide escape from grinding poverty. The aristocratic class holds on to old ways of thinking while the younger generation loses faith in tradition. This is a time which has been dramatized before in classic literature like Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood, and the Oscar-winning, exhilarating Bob Fosse musical Cabaret. Visually, in Babylon Berlin, there are moments of beautiful homage to the style of German Expressionism. Dutch angles — large shadows moving across walls — and the sense in certain scenes of architecture becoming menacing, are a few touches borrowed from the Expressionist era. It was in the era of German Expressionism that certain genres and forms of cinema were crafted that still grace our screens. The horror film, the serial killer procedural, the zombie movie, their place of birth is Germany in the 1920s. This was the Germany of the Bauhaus movement and its revolution in architecture and the emergence of criticism as an art form with figures like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Josephine Baker was there too, gracing the stage with her luminous, dangerous beauty: great minds, all, damned to witness the birth of terrible new dramas.

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