Babylon Berlin is a sprawling, big budget, German series set in Berlin in 1929. Amid a period of German history swirling with change, we look at life through the eyes of a few key characters. This is a review of season 1 (episodes 1–8) only.
Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is a police inspector. He is from Cologne, but is sent to Berlin. His personal goal there is to find a film showing his father, a Cologne politician, engaged in dabauched behavior. Gereon’s plans to destroy the film. Gereon is a veteran of World War I. When triggered with memories of the war, he begins to shake and uses drugs to steady himself.
Gereon works with DCI Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth) in the police vice section. For some reason I couldn’t fathom, Wolter takes Gereon under his wing and protects him from all sorts of harm. Wolter is ruthless with other police and criminals alike. I kept expecting him to shoot Gereon, but he did not.
Liv Lisa Fries plays Charlotte Ritter. She lives with her family in impoverished circumstances, like much of Berlin. She has a job with the police as a typist. Charlotte longs to be the first female homicide officer and sets out to apply for the job, launching herself as an investigator with the permission of no one at all. She makes rent money working in a cabaret at night, dancing and performing sexual favors for the bigwigs who can afford to drink and dance and have sex on demand all night.
The story begins when a train from Russia is misdirected into Berlin. A group of Russian Revolutionaries plan to send it on to Turkey where Trotsky can retrieve the entire tanker car full of gold it carries. It also carries several cars of deadly nerve gas. Be careful to open the right door when you’re looking for gold!
Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janusauskaite) performs in the cabaret as a man. In her female persona, she seduces anyone with knowledge of the train full of gold. She pretends to be a Russian supporter of Trotsky, but betrays the entire group of Revolutionaries in hopes of getting access to all that gold.
I found it hard to get into the story. After two episodes, I almost gave up on Babylon Berlin. I decided to watch one more episode before quitting, and that’s when all the bits and pieces from the first two episodes started fitting together and the characters became more interesting. After that there was plenty of intrigue, mystery, and character development.
Charlotte Ritter saved the story for me. Her striving and budding feminism were the antidote to all the masculine posturing and violence. Charlotte helps Gereon investigate the Russian train, impounded in a Berlin train yard.
The look of Babylon Berlin was absolute perfection. The sets, the costumes, the city, the cars, the glittering nightlife, the hidden obscene sexual antics caught on film. It was all top quality work.
We know through most of season 1 that Gereon’s brother disappeared in WWI. Gereon’s in love with his sister-in-law back in Cologne. The big cliffhangers at the end of season 1 involve his sister-in-law and his unsettled working relationship with Charlotte Ritter.
I think Babylon Berlin will appeal to history buffs as well as mystery lovers. The series is based on novels by Volker Kutscher, which strove to be historically accurate. Many real events and real people are mentioned in the series.
The best trailer I could find doesn’t have English subtitles, but you get a sense of the outstanding look of Babylon Berlin with this one, German and all.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Babylon Berlin are currently available on Netflix.