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Come to the Cabaret, Old Chum.

Babylon Berlin is a period crime drama that takes place in 1929 during Germany’s brief 20th century dalliance with democracy called the Weimar Republic. The old Kaiser (king) is in exile and the country is struggling to right itself after the disaster of the Great War and the resulting, highly punitive Treaty of Versailles. The Great Depression is sweeping across the globe and helping to create even more misery for Germany. Unemployment, homelessness and poverty are everywhere. Corruption, crime and despair follow closely, covering every inch of the country, especially the epi-center of German life at the time – Berlin.

This is the story of police inspector Gereon Rath who has been transferred to Berlin from the hinterlands of Cologne in order to continue his investigation of a pornography ring that reaches into the very upper echelons of political and societal life in Germany. Soon after arriving in Berlin, Inspector Rath becomes involved with informant and aspiring detective Charlotte Ritter. Charlotte is an ambitious, struggling woman in the city willing to do anything it takes to survive and get ahead. When Rath meets her she is snagging piece work jobs at police headquarters as well as working as a prostitute at a downtown cabaret club called Moka Efti.


Gereon’s investigations quickly widen to include the hijacking of a train by Trotskyite Communists who smuggle it into Berlin proper under the noses of the Republic’s security forces. They do this with the help of a leading German arms manufacturer who is tied to nationalist forces bent on toppling the government and re-instating the monarchy. The unlikely alliance between the Communists and proto-Nazi nationalists creates only the first layer of intrigue and tension that also includes the machinations of a zealous Minster of Political Police, the scheming of Gereon’s duplicitous partner Bruno Wolter,  the sly maneuverings of  Russian countess Sorokina and the ambitious thrashings of Charlotte,  a fierce feminist woman breaking through the glass ceiling before there ever was such a thing. And the train – the train which carries both enough poison gas to kill everyone in the city and enough gold to buy the city twice over; all of this playing out in a perfectly realized depiction of Berlin before the rise of the Nazis and the cataclysm that came after.

The series captures the dark noir of the times in all of its shadowy glory. The club and bar scenes are filled with the frantic energy and breakthrough artistry of a society living in the moment and avoiding the reality of an unknowable, disturbing future. There are lots of dark alleys, menacing structures and rain. Lots and lots of rain. There is music. Some of it authentic to the times and some that is a pastiche of modern and 1920’s jazz. The music and dancing scenes are striking counterpoints to the breakneck, tension packed plot. The glittering clubs serve as loud, bright distractions from the grit and grime of Berlin’s pervasive impoverishment, simmering anger and fearful uncertainty.   Bertold Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera” plays a major role in a large plot point and characters whistle or hum “Mack the Knife” throughout the final few episodes – it was Number One on the Berlin hit parade in 1929. There are layers of subplots involving a dizzying array of minor players that all manage to have their moments to shine and contribute. . There is Gereon Rath’s drug addiction and crippling PTSD which is the hypo shaped sword hanging over his life and career. There is Charlotte Ritter’s relationship with her pimp/boss and her awful living circumstances with her fractured family in the Berlin slum of Wedding.   There is Charlotte’s reluctant revolutionary girlfriend and unwitting mad bomber, Greta, and Helga Rath, Gereon’s lover, who happens to be his brother’s wife – a brother who has been MIA since the war ended ten years before. Lurking in the wings is the mysterious Dr. Schmidt who treats Gereon’s psychic wounds with drugs and hypnotism in service to his own dark, unknown agenda.

The plot twists and turns so much its hard sometimes to know what’s happening and that’s a good thing. The action, particularly in the last few episodes, is worthy of the best far-fetched Indiana Jones scenarios. People are trapped at the bottom of a lake, there’s a plane flight that is the stuff of nightmares, someone nearly dies in a freezer, someone DOES die encased in concrete, a burglary worthy of Indy raiding a tomb occurs and there’s that train that’s both treasure and death. We come back to the train – one audacious McGuffin that somehow ties it all together in the end. A rolling plot device that leads us to another reality for our heroes and foreshadows the horror trains in Germany’s future. At the end, we see a city and country speeding towards what we know is a grim de-evolution into societal madness and self-destruction.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 28th, 2018 01:33 am (UTC)
Good review! Now I want to watch it. :-)
Feb. 28th, 2018 01:51 am (UTC)
Where is it available?
Mar. 2nd, 2018 01:33 am (UTC)
its on Netflix
Mar. 2nd, 2018 02:26 am (UTC)
Wow - for once, something is available to Canadian Netflix viewers!

(most shows are blocked unless you use a VPN to pretend you are a US customer).
Mar. 2nd, 2018 01:44 am (UTC)
Very well done and I remembered things I'd forgotten about the Weimar Republic period - the complicated dance between the Republic, the Communists and the burgeoning Nationalists. And all the infighting within each organization - the Communists were particularly vicious.
Feb. 28th, 2018 02:09 am (UTC)
Mar. 2nd, 2018 01:33 am (UTC)
Re: Rath
Yup - I'm looking for e-versions to read.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )