Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / We know Gereon Rath’s a junkie
Radio might be the most intimate medium but TV is the most sociable; a convivial presence in every living room we’ve ever known, ready with gossip, information, comfort or distraction. In ‘Friend in the Corner’ we look at significant TV shows to find out what they did for us, and how they pulled it off.
Friend in the corner: Babylon Berlin
Berlin, 1929: two new faces join the city police force. One is Köln cop Gereon Rath, who has come to Berlin on the trail of a blackmailer; the other is the resourceful Charlotte Ritter, who is trying to work her way up from the typing pool to the detective squad. Their backdrop is the seedy underbelly of Weimar Berlin, peopled by communists, fascists, spies and gangsters.
Babylon Berlin is a German TV adaptation of a series of popular novels and was a smash hit in its home county. It's not hard to see why. Period detective shows always have the best of both worlds, combining show-off design and style with the plot hooks of a mystery. Babylon Berlin also has excellent performances - not only from the leads Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries, but also from a splendid rogues’ gallery of character actors - and electric direction.
Most of all, though, it has the setting.
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Berlin during the Weimar period (1918-33) is the perfect setting for a policier. The ‘20s and ‘30s was the golden age of British detective stories, but these were stories set in the cosy heartlands of the largest Empire the world had ever seen. They are stories about railway timetables and disputed wills, polite little poisonings at the tea party and bodies in the billiard room. Babylon Berlin is set in another inter-war European world, featuring monster gangsters, political turmoil, conspiracy, and revolutionary artistic languages: film and jazz, recorded music and mass media.
Its first two seasons cover Trotskyists and White Russians in Red Berlin, a fascist military conspiracy and a shadowy gangster controlling the city’s underworlds. The latter is very clearly modelled on Dr Mabuse, the villain of Fritz Lang’s film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), who symbolised the psychic turmoil of Weimar Germany. (The Nazis interpreted Mabuse as an emblematic sinister Jew; the left saw him as prefiguring Adolf Hitler in his ability to mesmerise and pervert the popular will.) The show dramatises this maelstrom in the fate of Lotte’s friend Greta, who is pulled to and fro by the competing tensions of class, politics and emotion. Humiliation and tragedy are heaped endlessly upon her as she is betrayed by Nazis, failed by her friends and destroyed by the state. She is the image of a working class Berliner everywoman, scrabbling for survival, running on instinct and susceptible to manipulation.
The first storyline in these opening seasons makes full use of the possibilities of the Weimar setting. Rath arrives in Berlin on the heels of a pornographer called König (‘king’) who specialises in amateur movies starring lookalikes of German statesmen, including President Hindenburg and the Kaiser. Here we have not just the underworld of loose sexual mores and criminal enterprise, but also the political wasteland. The loss of the Great War has diminished authority, and no one takes the state seriously any more.
And there’s also a streak of satire there, too. Because Berlin isn’t all communists and criminals; there are also nightclubs and dark bier kellers full of hectic jazz, transgressive entertainers and desperate young people trying to find some glint of transient glee. Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome im Cabaret, the abiding image of ‘20s Berlin: what Peter Cook referred to as ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.’
Period setting (all flapper dresses and sharp suits), political turmoil (the street fighting clash of communists and fascists), seedy underbelly (gangsters, dopefiends and cabaret) and cultural maelstrom (cars! movies! jazz!): the perfect setting for a detective series.
But it's a scene in the show’s central nightclub, the Moka Efti, in the second episode of the first season, that really sold me on the show. Here Lotte and her friends watch, and participate in, a performance by the Countess Sorokin. Sorokin, a Russian emigre played by the Lithuanian actress Severija Janušauskaitė, is in her male persona of the mysterious Nikoros as she sings the song ‘Zu Aschen, Zu Staub’.
The song contains the whole setting. It starts in shadows and fog, haunting piano and cymbal, out of which emerges an insistent throb, an urging of desperation. Sorokin’s voice is declamatory and resigned behind a keening woodwind phrase that yearns for joy. It all resolves into a transcendent chorus, a great cry of triumphant survival, of the perseverance of humanity amongst the hectic, inescapable drumming of life.
The staging is perfect. There’s a deliberate tension between jazz individuality - the dancers’ Josephine Baker banana skirts, Nikoros’s distinctive cabaret cross-dressing - and the instinctive group choreography of the crowd, who know all the words and perform a mass dance routine, mimicking the roboticised workers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. They have a deep need to perform joy together, but there are also hints of how that togetherness might be exploited; Nikoros’s signature gesture, an upraised arm, is almost a Nazi salute.
Also, the song itself is absolutely brilliant: I have been playing it on repeat for months. It was co-written by, among others, Nikko Weidemann (who has worked with Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Larry Mullins (who has also played for the Bad Seeds and is in Swans). It’s the sound of underground Berlin alright: underground Berlin in the ‘80s.
And this is, perhaps, the ultimate appeal of the setting. This is Berlin as the outsider’s demi-monde (eine halbe-Welt, perhaps); the anti-Paris, Paris being a city that easily accommodates itself to American musicals and glossy Netflix series. Berlin has always been different, awkward. Post-war West Berlin was eine halbe Stadt, a half city, an outpost of free Europe marooned in the drab communist East. This is the city that gave us the underground pop culture of the ‘80s, formed by Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), in which you can find all the genres of ‘80s pop in larval form.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that, for British Generation X, Berlin had a very distinct image. This wasn’t just a city full of spies, the front line of the Cold War; this was the old capital of Germany, the legendary enemy of two world wars (and something called a World Cup, which isn’t really my area). We were brought up in a country where the bad guys were always German; even forty years later, primetime TV was full of sitcoms, dramas and films about THE WAR. In this (at the time) instinctively anti-German country, the appeal of Berlin to even the most timidly rebellious teenager (ie me) was unparalleled. What better way to annoy the Boomers, after all? It helped, of course, that the Berlin of the Cold War ‘80s was just as febrile and creative as the city of the ‘20s. Dancing, once again, on the edge of an abyss; dancing, it has to be said, to brilliant music.
It is impossible for people of my vintage to see Berlin of any period without this foreshadowing. But especially this period, this brief moment in which German democracy and the entire future of Europe (and European Jewry) hung in the balance: possible, promising, doomed.
It is hard not to see the characters as people whistling past the graveyard, trying to eke some life and joy out of the wasteland of economic depression, political turmoil and personal tragedy. We see Berlin as a city under two shadows. The First World War’s shadow falls forward; Gereon Rath is addicted to the morphine he takes for his shellshock, and suffers from survivor’s guilt over the death of his brother. And the shadow of the Second World War falls backwards on a society hungry for order and identity. In this double darkness, the spotlight burns twice as bright and twice as furious.
For more Berlin, there’s always Wim Wenders’ ‘80s indie hit ‘Wings of Desire’: