My Take on Netflix’s Babylon Berlin

Dec 30, 2019

With a long weekend approaching, my binge-watching recommendation is Babylon Berlin on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it already, it is most definitely worth it! This is, in my humble opinion, one of the best TV shows out there right now. It is a German TV show based on the novels by Volker Kutscher. The main character is Inspector Gereon Rath from Cologne, who is sent to Berlin on a special assignment. He is also a combat veteran from WWI, where he lost his brother in the battlefields. It all takes place in 1929, during the Weimar Republic years in Germany. The show is very historically accurate, which I think is one of the best parts. So, a little background on the historic events in those years will help to appreciate how amazing this show is.

The Weimar Republic was established in Germany in 1919, after the end of the war and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Germany became a parliamentary democratic republic. Of course, it all ended in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. During the Weimar years, there were many opposing groups in German politics. The imperialists who wanted to restore the monarchy and opposed the Versailles Treaty. The social democrats who supported the new republic. Then the communists and the national socialists, among others. In the show, we see these groups interacting in the complex sociopolitical scene of the time. The story also shows a group called the Red Fortress, a cell of Russian supporters of Leon Trotsky operating in Berlin. They are trying to send him a gold cargo on a train to Istanbul to help the cause against Joseph Stalin. Historically, Trotsky was indeed living in exile in Turkey during this time (we also know that he spent his last days in Mexico, where he lived with famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He died there after being attacked by an assassin sent by Stalin).

But, there was also art and music. The Expressionist artistic movement was particularly strong in Germany. And, in music, Jazz was extremely popular. In America, the Roaring Twenties was also the period of the “Jazz Age.” My favorite scene in the show is on S1E2 when Nikoros (aka Countess Svetlana Sorokina) performs the song “Zu Asche, Zu Staub” (To Ashes, To Dust) at the Moka Efti cabaret. She is wearing a men’s suit and a mustache, which I think is inspired by the real-life actress Marlene Dietrich. Also, she is accompanied on stage by dancers wearing banana skirts. Inspired by American dancer Josephine Baker, who performed in Paris and Berlin around this time. The song is amazing. And, I think the entire show’s soundtrack is astounding.

There are many more details and historical events portrayed in the show, like the demonstrations on May 1st, 1929, Blutmai (Bloody May), or the activities of the Black Reichswehr (in violation of the Versailles Treaty). For more on the Weimar years, I recommend reading Before the Deluge by Harvard-educated journalist Otto Friedrich. The book was first published in 1972, and he interviewed a few Berliners that lived there during the 1920s. He presents some fascinating stories of the time. Also, the excellent novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin is a prime example of Expressionist literature. The story is also set in Berlin of the 1920s.

The first two seasons are on Netflix right now, and the third season just finished filming. It will air on German TV early next year, but I haven’t heard anything about when it will be on Netflix (hopefully soon). Binge on!