If you’re still wondering if you’ll vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in November—that is, if Trump doesn’t sabotage the party before than—you might watch the Netflix series, Babylon Berlin, which is set in Weimar Germany in the late 1920s. Based on the novels of German author Volker Kutscher, it was originally broadcast on Sky Deutschland before moving to Netflix.
After three seasons, I’m hooked, though I’ve read a ton of books and watched a lot of movies about the rise of fascism, a subject that has never lost its fascination for Communists, Fascists, liberals, pacifists and war mongers the world over.
Babylon Berlin has echoes of Berthold Brecht, Kurt Weill, Lotte Leyna and their 1928 masterpiece, Die Dreigroschenoper, AKA The 3d Opera. Butit breaks new ground by tracing in lavish cinematic detail the arduous descent of a large cast of characters, including cops and criminals, and cops who behave like criminals and criminals who act cops, into a surreal labyrinth of mass psychosis. Babylon Berlin wanders into the world of the occult, decadence and perversity. It’s sexy and it’s intensely political, too.
There are no big historical surprises in Babylon Berlin. Anyone who knows anything about the era in which the series takes place knows that the New York Stock Exchange will crash, capitalism will unravel in an unprecedented economic crisis, totalitarian regimes will rise from Europe to Asia, millions of people will be exterminated in death camps and the U.S. will bomb the shit out of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki all the name of democracy.
Yes, Babylon Berlin oozes with cynicism, as only Germans who remember their own history can portray it on the screen. The series employs all the clichés that Hollywood has used for noir, horror films, love stories, and musical comedies but it juggles them, reinvents them and piles one on top of another until the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and manages to be both entertaining and educational. Babylon Berlin might be called musical melodrama, not musical comedy.
Wanna know how fascism came to Germany? Watch Babylon Berlin. Wanna look for analogies between then and now? Ditto.
Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Hughes wrote marvelous noir mysteries but they never brought the darkness to the doorstep of the nation itself. Babylon Berlin builds on their artistry and goes beyond it.
In the large cast of complex characters there is hardly one consistently decent human being, though occasionally some of the characters, including a dogged reporter and the daughter of a general, do decent things and try to prevent the rush to authoritarian rule and the end of civil rights and civil liberties.
A young cop from Cologne who finds himself in the thick of corruption and murder, tries now and then to do the right thing, but when push comes to shove he often supports the regime, its lies and its flunkies.
He also has a habit of arriving on a crime scene too late to prevent a murder or to apprehend the shooter or shooters. Okay, sometimes he does arrive nearly in the nick of time. The main characters have as many lives as the cat of clichedom who has nine of them.
The partner of the cop from Cologne is a young woman who has survived in Berlin by becoming a sex worker, a trade she doesn’t give up when she rises in the ranks of law enforcement. Hey, she needs the money for her ailing mother and prostitution is the only way she can earn it fast.
At one point the anti-hero from Cologne tells his son, who wants to become a Nazi, “I’m not on a side,” seemingly unaware that he has already been bought off and tainted. It’s not until series three that the name Hitler is mentioned, along with his book Mein Kampf.
Why have I watched all three seasons night after night? Part of the answer is the suspense. Another answer is that, though I know what will happen on the stage of history, I still want to see how the plot unfolds and which characters if any will be alive and their humanity not totally warped when the curtain finally comes down.
There is some schmaltz, as the Germans would call it, plus oodles of the grotesque and the exotic. Many of the minor characters play major roles in the narrative. The acting is superb. The sets look authentic, the sound track is enthralling, and the costumes are great, though sometimes the film can seem like an ad for men’s suits and overcoats. Were social democrats and right-leaning politicians this well dressed? I doubt it.
The liberals in the film are largely ineffective, the Communists often irrelevant, and the old aristocrats and the veterans of the German military are the villains of the story who make the slide into fascism possible. By recreating the death of democracy and the rise of authoritarian rule in Germany in the 1920s, Babylon Berlin illuminates a fascinating historical period and offers clues as to what might happen in the U.S. if Trump is reelected and his pathologies are given free reign.