Babylon Berlin is the most expensive German TV drama ever made. It is also the most successful, with its depiction of Weimar Republic Berlin being screened in more than 100 countries worldwide. Since its early seasons, this detective-noir show has exploded with color, razzle-dazzle, danger and sweeping set pieces, and it has now spent five years vividly reliving a decade-long blitz of chaotic democracy that ended in financial turmoil, corruption and , finally, fascism. With its stunning opening titles, breathless, trippy pace and extravagant song and dance numbers – last season even saw a turn from Bryan Ferry, who sang a German jazz version of his song Bitter-Sweet – heady, dangerous times have never been better portrayed.
This season, the feel of the show has become even more menacing. Since launching in October on Sky Atlantic, British viewers have been treated to a darker, wintry vision of Berlin, its smoky streets lined with the disheveled and desperate victims of the 1929 crash. The Nazis no longer lurk menacingly in the background, but take violent center stage. Lead detective Gereon Rath, played by Volker Bruch, finds himself uncomfortably close to Hitler’s militant followers when he undertakes a secret mission to infiltrate the National Socialist Party. As the city descends into chaos, all the dancing and hedonism take on a new twist, as it becomes clear that decadence is now a last, desperate refuge from the terrible world outside the ballrooms. At one point, we see one of the show’s main characters – a girl and sex worker who became an aspiring detective Charlotte “Lotte” Ritter, played by Liv Lisa Fries – almost loses her job when she tries to help her homeless sister. The city depicted is one of broken dreams, crushed hopes and life on the edge.
“I think, ‘Why am I doing this when I can do a comedy or something?'” says Fries as she wanders the streets of Berlin’s Neukölln district, talking into her camera phone. “[And it’s] because such things still happen. It’s so insane and terribly sad that it’s real.” Frie’s character is a working-class Berliner, a striver, a fighter – and embodies the ordinary citizens of the time in a way that makes her almost the true heart of the story. “When you realize how many people were there working creatively … and the role of women really started to evolve. So that’s the start of something. But then it’s been stopped so aggressively.”
The series is based on the Gereon Rath mysteries, a series of noir detective novels by Volker Kutscher. A sixth English-language book is on the way. This latest series of the TV show is based on Goldstein, the third of the nine books, but its writers chose to make some changes when it came to the characters’ privilege.
“It would be strange not to have one of our main characters with a working-class background,” says Henk Handloegten, one of the show’s three main directors. “[So we made Lotte] a social climber. She represents a very specific type of young woman in 1920s Berlin – whenever they are struck down, they come fast, funny and with a certain wit.”
For 10 episode, the writers have thrown us into a world of moral ambiguity. Viewers can never be completely sure who is good, who is bad, who is on the right side of history. In the opening episode of the new season, we saw Gereon put on his swastika bracelet and take to the streets of Berlin as a brownshirt, bumping into a shocked Lotte during a fight. How did it feel, I wonder, for Fries to see his co-star in those clothes? “Super weird. It felt divisive, I felt a great distance. In the shoot he was part of a crowd, I didn’t see him in person, so he seemed like part of the movement, and it didn’t feel good.”
Gereon is a man who ebbs and flows with the flow of history, while Lotte is constantly struggling not to be swept under – but it seems almost inevitable that she, and most of the other characters, eventually will be. It’s hard to ignore the underlying fact that no matter how any of the characters develop, no matter where the plot takes them, they are ultimately doomed to fall prey to what’s to come.
“Most of them won’t survive the next 20 years,” says Tom Twyker, another of the big creative trio. “There is a sad beauty in the innocence of everyone involved. However we judge anyone we meet, no one can be aware of what awaits them and how massive it is – the size and the destruction and the madness that just lurks out there.”
Playing with the familiar element of the story and then delving deeper into the fallible, human worlds of the characters – even the most deplorable – is one of the show’s strongest points. It doesn’t just depict a linear march into the darkness that we the audience know is coming, but takes care of the “what-ifs”, wrong turns and the delicate balance between light and dark that plays out in such a tumultuous period.
But what does that mean for the series finale? “It’s probably going to be pretty dark,” says Fries, keenly aware of her character’s likely grim fate. “Don’t expect anything bright. Maybe it will end tragically. I trust the writers. They invented something so complex, and it refers so much to my image of how I see the world now, how I see people, how I want things to be. I am very happy to be a part of it.”
The final one two episodes of Babylon Berlin’s fourth season air in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Friday 18 November from 11 p.m., with episodes available on Now TV soon after
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