Set in 1929 Berlin, the German period drama Babylon Berlin explores a world teetering on the edge of the abyss, which might sound a little too heavy to be an escapist binge you need in these uncertain times we are currently experiencing. However, while this show definitely delves into the darkness of this era, it balances the unstable political climate and social upheaval with a murder mystery, the boom of psychiatry, and flamboyantly choreographed dance sequences. Each episode offers lavish set pieces, a will-they-won't-they romance for the ages, drag kings and queens, a dash of the occult, and a city about to plunge into darkness. It is as if everything is possible and restricted in equal measure. Not only that, but, as it is subtitled, it ensures you cannot pick your phone up every few minutes to check what is going on in the present day.
The genre-bending action combines vibrant nightlife and excess with the horrors of an economy in free fall, the threat of National Socialism, and a detective addicted to morphine in a bid to curb his World War I-induced PTSD. As such, Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is an unreliable narrator when he is using; the drugs stop his tremors but also make him susceptible to suggestion, including the treatment he is seeking. It is for all these reasons and more that Babylon Berlin is vital viewing for these uneasy times.
Light spoilers ahead for Babylon Berlin.
A period of great discovery in psychiatry and psychology, Gereon’s PTSD and experimental treatment only add to the fever-dream aesthetic. Real and imagined visuals overlap, adding another layer to the theme of men being treated like broken automatons needing to be fixed. Notions of the "Man-Machine" (or "Mensch-Maschine") and how to mend a traumatized body and mind weave their way throughout via the work of Gereon's physician, Dr. Schmidt (Jens Harzer). It is also represented in the expressionist film, which is also the scene of the crime in Season 3.
While Babylon Berlin's feet are firmly planted in the real world, the realms of noir, science fiction, and horror all factor, which is why it is such an enjoyable, bingeable watch. The pendulum swings from the terrifying depiction of a killer prowling a movie set to the stomach-churning knowledge of what is going to befall these citizens over the next few years. Thankfully, there are limited amounts of knowing winks about the latter, but the insidious nature of Nazism and eugenics bubbles under the surface of every frame. Historical hindsight ensures we are all time travelers silently screaming at the unaware subjects, unable to tell them things are about to get much worse. Instead, the trauma of World War I provides the fracture that ripples its way through the present: a war that ended 10 years ago but still feeds into daily life, economic misery, and a nation that has been left feeling emasculated.
In the first episode, the idea of someone working for the police force with PTSD tremors is seen as laughable, mocked for how ridiculous it is for a trembler to be a cop. This is also the first mention of the word "automaton," which will become synonymous with treatment for the Great War veterans. "An android, free from pain and fear" is another way the "mind injured by war" is later discussed in this bid for science to lead the future: As per this discussion, someone who has experienced the worst the world can throw at them has the ability to become "the new man" devoid of these so-called fallibilities. In the same way an artificial body part can act as a replacement to the physically injured, the damaged mind can be approached in a similar fashion.
This attempt to "fix" a person is also portrayed in the movie-within-the-show after the lead actresses keep getting murdered. The movie can't be shut down (otherwise it will lead to financial ruin), but recasting the lead will be too obvious. Taking inspiration from Fritz Lang's Metropolis and other notable German expressionism films of this period (such as The Cabinet Dr. Caligari), the solution is to use a Man-Machine scenario to showcase "love disembodied through the power of machine" in the fictitious Damonen Der Leidenschaft (translated to mean Demons of Passion).
Season 3 owes a huge debt to Fritz Lang and Robert Weine. Furthermore, modern slasher films are also infused into the killer's movement and caped look, which is part I Know What You Did Last Summer unstoppable killer with a more frightening mask than Michael Myers or the Ghostface Killer. Cranking up the terror and tension, the brief detour into this style of storytelling shows Babylon Berlin's ability to go beyond a simple historical retelling.
Bolsheviks, stolen gold, mobsters, and secret military bases are all featured in the first two seasons, which opens with a blackmail plot involving pornographic images. Gereon Rath is a visiting detective from Cologne; having been sent to track down the offending material to protect an influential figure, he ends up sticking around, joining the homicide division while trying to get a handle on his drug addiction. His assistant, Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), dreams of becoming a detective, but moonlights in the Moka Efti club as a sex worker trying to keep her family afloat by any means necessary. It is a world of grit and glamour that will suck you in before spitting you out.
Season 3 continues in 1929, and sees the stakes raised even higher. The occult makes an appearance courtesy of a ritual to contact the dead, which takes a step toward Eyes Wide Shut territory. The meeting of the Fraternitas Saturni (one of Germany's oldest continuously running magic groups) is an attempt to call the spirit of the first murdered actress. Hooded capes are worn in what turns into a frenzied sexual affair. Later in the season the same medium (along with Dr. Schmidt) are called upon by the police force in a bid to use criminal telepathy to track down a missing suspect. What follows is another scene, which descends into chaos as the majority of the detectives and assistants watching start screaming (and even throwing up) at what they witness. Pure frenzy underscores the atmosphere of this season.
For a timely series that manages to throw up surprises, scares, and staggering set pieces — it is the most expensive non-English language TV show of all time — Babylon Berlin is an ideal watch for these uncertain times. Little comfort might be found in knowing what will happen to the leadership in this country within a few short years, but the confluence of art, scientific developments, tenacious investigators, and the underground party scene that embraced all people paints a broader picture. Monsters both metaphorical and literal feature throughout the three seasons, which never shies away from the reality of the world these characters inhabit, but rather blends the surreal with the gritty. There isn't always a reason to dance, but in Babylon Berlin there is always time to let loose even when the world is about to go to hell.
Babylon Berlin Seasons 1-3 are available to watch on Netflix now.