Friday, 18 May 2018

TV77: Babylon Berlin

I was recently surprised to discover that one of my favourite European filmmakers was part of a team that created, wrote and directed a 16-episode (so far) German TV show called Babylon Berlin, playing on Netflix. Since nothing Tom Tykwer has made has received less than ***+ from me, I immediately dived in. I wasn’t disappointed, though the show has a few flaws.

Babylon Berlin stars Volker Bruch as Gereon Rath, a police inspector in Berlin in 1929, in the days of the Weimar Republic. Rath is a survivor of WWI, but has a very bad case of PTSD, one that leaves him shaking without a constant dose of morphine. Rath has been in a relationship with Helga (Hannah Herzsprung), his brother’s wife, since the war (his brother went missing in action). Rath, who is working homicide, is in Berlin (from Cologne) to find a certain pornographic film but gets involved in a case involving a train from Russia carrying poisonous gas and a wealth in gold. Working with Rath (or against him?) is an older detective named Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth).

Liv Lisa Fries co-stars as Charlotte Ritter, a young woman with a lot of ambition who wants to become the first female homicide detective in Berlin. She also gets mixed up in the two investigations, taking on the dangerous role of Rath’s assistant. Ritter’s friend, Greta (Leonie Benesch), shows up in town and becomes a maid for August Benda (Matthias Brandt), the head of Berlin’s political police, who becomes Rath’s closest ally.

There are a lot more characters in the show, including communists who want to overthrow Stalin and a secret group of soldiers rebuilding Germany’s air force in Russia. With sixteen episodes, you can have a lot going on and, in 1929 Berlin, there was a lot going on, with major changes around the corner.

Babylon Berlin has a marvellous period feel, aided by gorgeous cinematography and a great soundtrack. The acting is generally outstanding, especially for TV, as is the writing. While there was a little too much melodrama on occasion (especially late in the series), and some credibility issues, I found the story compelling and intelligent throughout, with a lot to say about the history of Germany during that time. Best of all, Babylon Berlin has a strong noir feel that works perfectly with its 1929 setting. Rumour has it that this is the most expensive non-English TV show ever made. I’m not surprised. 

Despite its flaws, I am giving Babylon Berlin ****. This is outstanding TV and better than most of the stuff on Netflix. But I should note that this is a slow-moving and decidedly adult TV show. My mug is up. 

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