Some small part of me wants to take everybody who makes so-called “prestige” American television and force them to watch Babylon Berlin, a megabudget German series that is so much better than just about any other major drama being produced today.
Across three seasons, the series — which is available in the US on Netflix — tells complicated stories about police officers solving twisty, noir-inflected cases driven by strange and hidden conspiracies in 1929 Berlin. The German democracy is on its last legs, about to be swept aside by Hitler and the Nazis. Crucially, the audience knows this already, while the characters think their system of government is shaky but fundamentally salvageable. Unlike a lot of stories set in Germany during this era, it takes several episodes for Hitler to even be mentioned (and only once across the first two seasons!), and then a seemingly eternal stretch of time after that for a swastika to show up.
And yet the overall sweep of the show is vintage film noir: The heroes, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), take down the bad guys they can capture or sideline, all the while being forced by those above them in the chain of command to let the real villains walk. Broadly speaking, Babylon Berlin is about the challenge of ever stopping the slow slide into fascism, because the full picture is often hard to see, and those who scream about it are written off as paranoiacs. But even Gereon and Charlotte do awful things in the name of their own self-interest.
It’s a nervy, complex drama. But it’s also screamingly funny. (And sometimes it’s a musical?) The long, slow-burn flirtation between Gereon and Charlotte is one of the best will-they/won’t-theys I’ve ever seen. Plus, did I mention that every episode is under 50 minutes? And paced like a lightning bolt? Oh, and the dream sequences, how did I not mention the dream sequences? Or the incredibly impressive and elaborate stunt work!
If you called Babylon Berlin “Germany’s Game of Thrones,” you wouldn’t be wrong
The series I keep wanting to compare Babylon Berlin to is Game of Thrones. Like the HBO behemoth, Babylon Berlin is based on a popular book series that became megapopular after the TV show was a hit. (The Gereon Rath books, by Volker Kutscher, are even being translated into English now!) The two series are similarly expensive, with Babylon Berlin being the most expensive TV production in German history.
They’re also similarly complicated. Babylon Berlin follows dozens of characters in and around 1929 Berlin, then lets their storylines collide and crash into each other in fascinating ways. Every time a character in one storyline opens their door to suddenly see characters from another storyline, it gives me the giddy thrill I felt when, say, Tyrion met Daenerys on Game of Thrones all those years ago. But where Game of Thrones too often let those meetings descend into circuitous games of realpolitik, Babylon Berlin uses its storyline collisions to keep moving things forward.
That momentum is what I wish I could force prestige TV makers in the US to see in Babylon Berlin. How many times have you watched an American TV drama that dragged on well past the point of your engagement? Across the show’s first 28 episodes, only one installment of Babylon Berlin runs over 50 minutes long, and it’s the third season finale — a wholly acceptable time to have a longer-than-usual episode. The storytelling is marvelously efficient, too. A fantasy dance sequence in one episode turns out to teach you the geography of a location that becomes very important for a “sneaking around a house trying not to be detected” sequence in a later episode. Every moment of character development is a moment of plot development and vice versa.
To some degree, the Babylon Berlin team (which includes highly acclaimed German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, among others) has an unfair advantage here over other prestige dramas. Kutscher’s series of novels will eventually number nine in total, and he’s already completed seven, with an eighth on the way. Thus, the show’s creative team can layer character and plot development together in a way that speaks to the source material. Character growth happens slowly — as it would in real life — but plot development can speed by more quickly, with a new major mystery each season (though the mysteries in seasons one and two, which both adapt the first book in the series, are highly linked).
Even without the books, Babylon Berlin has the benefit of real-world history to draw from. We know where all of this is heading, and it’s horrifying. The closer Gereon and Charlotte get to the truth, the more they miss the forest for the trees. We know the shape of that forest, and we know the monsters that hide within it. But at every turn, Babylon Berlin insists that just as its characters are blind to what is coming, so too might we be. Thinking you can’t be living through something dark and terrible is a privilege of those who don’t realize how easy it is to stray from the path and end up lost somewhere in the depths of the woods.
Also, c’mon, how can you not watch a show featuring this (non-spoilery) sequence in its second episode?
The first three seasons of Babylon Berlin are available in the US and many other territories on Netflix. The fourth season is supposed to go into production in late 2020 or early 2021, but who knows if that will happen.