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Between the Wars: Babylon Berlin Series 1&2 on DVD

  Babylon Berlin is a television series on a mission, a mission to prove that the best television drama in the world was not necessarily made in English and set out to create a series that would put Germany on the map by capitalising on the tumultuous history of that nation. There had been a resurgence of interest during the twenty-tens in the Weimar Republic, largely focusing on the entertainment that had been produced as Germany took on the major studios in Hollywood and Britain and established one of the most successful runs of films any country could boast. It was not difficult to see that ambition echoed in the producers here.

Another reason Weimar media may have been the subject of interest was that the world, and in particular Europe, seemed to be living through ominous times, as the politics moved to the right and the rise of extremists troubled many. It seemed as though the period between World War One and World War Two was resonating into the future as the fears of generations too young to recall what that was like first time around were growing when their own future looked uncertain, to say the least, no matter how often we heard that terrorists would not win, or that global warming was preventable if we were able to take action now.

That sense of events overtaking the ordinary folk, that things were running out of control, was all reflected in Babylon Berlin, which over the course of its first two seasons in 2017 depicted a society that was positing the more things changed, the more they stayed the same: they simply went in cycles. Following a collection of characters starting in 1929, in the titular Berlin but not exclusively there, chiefly it was the police inspector Gereon Rath (played by Volker Bruch) and the secretary Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) who were our central couple, the former introduced busting a pornography racket, the latter getting a job sorting crime scene photographs.

These two jumping off points saw Rath discover a conspiracy to blackmail the great and the not-so-good over the course of season one, as he tries to trace the identity of the man in one frame of a secretly-shot porno loop and finds corruption runs very deep, while Lotte follows her dream of being a police detective, a pie in the sky notion for a young woman in the Germany of that era. Nevertheless, she perseveres, and discovers a conspiracy of her own that may be linked to what Rath has been uncovering, growing aware there is a force at work trying to cover its tracks to impose its will on Berlin, then Germany, then Europe...

Tomorrow the World, basically, and there were echoes of such respected German works as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, the television epic which was set around the same time as this, and even Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse films which were hits at the actual period this took place in, mixing the complex character business of the former with the sinister secret societies seeking to dominate us from the latter. There was certainly a large cast here, and not one put a foot wrong which helped in keeping track of who was doing what to whom, the degree of subplots and main plots intermingling at least an impressive feat of juggling from the writers.

One of those creators was Tom Tykwer, who had exploded onto the European and indeed international scene with his offbeat action movie Run Lola Run back in the nineties. He had enjoyed mixed success since, but the fans of Babylon Berlin were convinced he and his team were onto a winner with this, eclipsing everything else he had achieved, in cinema at least. There were aspects which betrayed his influence, such as the interest in keeping a story from nine decades ago alive by adding elements from later in history, most blatantly the music. Bryan Ferry was involved in that, and you could hear the occasional Roxy Music tune on the soundtrack.

As well as techno overlaid on a club scene, which was a bit of a conceit, and might have been better off without it, as if the programme makers did not quite trust their audience. That quibble aside, these adaptations of the long running Gereon Rath novels by Volker Kutscher, optioned because the producers wanted a long-running series of television shows to rival other countries' similarly enduring and popular hits, were assuredly generating that interest, though more at home than they did abroad. Nevertheless, Babylon Berlin picked up a cult following from those who watched it subtitled (avoid the dubbed version), which was better than nothing.

And it remained a success in its native land, presenting the German past with a need to explain, to explore the darker aspects in its character, in the hope that having understood, the world could make moves to stop it happening again. Yet for all its noble intentions, it was first and foremost a rattling good adventure yarn, with all the plusses and pitfalls that could accompany such an approach. With its large cast, we could follow lowly maid Greta (Leonie Benesch) or shady inspector Wolter (Peter Kurth) without being wholly clear whose side they were on, the shifting allegiances of the viewers a major part of the appeal. If there were improbable elements, an underwater car sequence hard to believe, for instance, and not very scientific regressive hypnotherapy, then at least they were in the service of a polished production as conspiracies were foiled and stolen gold was coveted. Babylon Berlin proved quality German TV did not begin and end with Heimat.

[Babylon Berlin Series 1&2 has been released on DVD by Acorn Media, and has a pretty extensive making of featurette (it's the length of an average episode of the series) and a gallery as extras.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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