Babylon Berlin is a German period drama television series based on novels by Volker Kutscher (de). The series takes place in 1929 during the Weimar Republic and follows police inspector Gereon Rath, who has been transferred from the city of Cologne to Berlin, and aspiring police inspector Charlotte Ritter. The first series premiered on 13 October 2017 on Sky 1, a German-language entertainment channel broadcast by Sky Deutschland. The first novel of the book series, which put a premium on historical accuracy, is entitled Der Nasse Fisch (literally "The Wet Fish") (2008).
The series is the most expensive television drama series not made in English, costing nearly $40 million to make. It was co-directed by Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries, who also wrote the scripts. For the first time in history of German TV, German public broadcaster ARD and pay TV channel Sky co-produced the series. Sky broadcast the series initially as part of the arrangement and ARD will broadcast it on free-to-air television around a year later. Netflix purchased broadcast rights for the United States and Canada.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the show's co-creator, Tom Tykwer, spoke about the era; “At the time people did not realize how absolutely unstable this new construction of society which the Weimar Republic represented was. It interested us because the fragility of democracy has been put to the test quite profoundly in recent years... By 1929, new opportunities were arising. Women had more possibilities to take part in society, especially in the labor market as Berlin became crowded with new thinking, new art, theater, music and journalistic writing.” Nonetheless, Tykwer insisted that he and his co-directors were determined not to idealize the Weimar Republic. “People tend to forget that it was also a very rough era in German history. There was a lot of poverty, and people who had survived the war were suffering from a great deal of trauma.”
BABYLON BERLIN, SPRING 1929
A metropolis in turmoil. From economy to culture, politics to the underworld – everything is in the grip of radical change.
Speculation and inflation are already tearing away at the foundations of the still young Weimar Republic. Growing poverty and unemployment stand in stark contrast to the excesses and indulgence of the city’s night life and its overflowing creative energy.
Gereon Rath, a young police inspector from Cologne, is transferred to Berlin in order to solve a criminal case – a porno ring run by the Berlin Mafia. What at first glance appears to be simply a matter of extortion soon reveals itself to be a scandal that will forever change the lives of both Gereon and his closest associates.
Together with stenotypist Charlotte Ritter and his partner Bruno Wolter, Rath is confronted with a tangled web of corruption, drug dealing, and weapons trafficking, forcing him into an existential conflict as he is torn between loyalty and uncovering the truth. And we are left wondering: in this story, who is friend and who is foe?
With the political unrest spurred by May Day demonstrations and rising National Socialism, even an institution like the “Rote Burg,” Berlin’s police headquarters and the centre of democracy and the constitutional state, is increasingly becoming the melting pot of a democracy whose days are numbered.
Based on the best-selling novels by Volker Kutscher, BABYLON BERLIN is the first German TV series where viewers can emotionally experience the story of the political developments leading from the Weimar Republic to the spread of National Socialism.
Through the eyes of Gereon Rath, the young police inspector from Cologne, we get a glimpse behind the scenes of the “Roaring Twenties,” which not only brought the Great Depression, but where “dancing on the volcano” became the stuff of legend.
Since May 2016 and continuing on until the end of this year, X Filme Creative Pool, ARD, SKY, and Beta Film are bringing the 1920´s back to life on original sites in Berlin, namely the back lot set “Neuen Berliner Straße” at the Studio Babelsberg and in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Sky will broadcast the series in 2017 and ARD in 2018. As co-producer, Beta Film will be responsible for the worldwide distribution of the series.
Back in 2007, just as author Volker Kutscher finished „Der nasse Fisch“, the first entry in his series of novels about detective Gereon Rath, he broke new ground on the literary scene. Historical crime novels set in Nazi-Germany had been written before, but a series dealing with the “golden” 1920´s had never been published until then.
An especially exciting phase of German history, the 1920´s were marked by radical changes in society, a fact Kutscher combines in his novels with classic noir elements, reminiscent of hard-boiled American writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler back in the day. This is an approach mirrored in the choice of making the protagonist a detective who is being transferred from Cologne to Berlin. Following this ambitious, yet politically indifferent anti-hero, the reader can explore the old “Chicago at the river Spree” and vicariously experience how a young, promising democracy with great progressive tendencies could descend into a rule of fascism.
Gereon Rath´s cases are meticulously researched history lessons during which the author confronts fictional as well as non-fictional characters with historic events while never losing sight of the detective story. Kutscher uses a gripping, scenic narrating style which presents the intoxicating world of a doomed Weimar Republic brought back to live in stunning detail and perfectly serves as a basis for a TV adaptation. Kutscher has stated that the ground-braking HBO series “The Sopranos” (1999-2007) served as an inspiration for him – and also the fact he had seen two movies in quick succession in 2002: Sam Mendes´ hard-boiled gangster film “Road to Perdition” set in 1931 and Fritz Lang´s 1931 masterpiece “M”, made in Berlin. The idea of blending both of those worlds in a crime novel was born.
Volker Kutscher was born 1962 in Lindar, North Rhine-Westphalia. After studying German literature, philosophy, and history, he worked as an editor for a daily newspaper. In 1996, he published his first crime novel „Bullenmord“, set in his native region Bergisches Land. His award-winning Gereon Rath series, published by Kiepenbauer & Witsch, consists at this point of “Der nasse Fisch” (2007), “Der stumme Tod” (2009), “Goldstein” (2010), “Die Akte Vaterland” (2012), and “Märzgefallene” (2014), all using Berlin during 1929-1931 as a scenic backdrop. Kutscher’s 6th novel, “Lunapark”, will be released in November 2016 and will be set in summer 1934. At least three more entries in the series will follow.
The Babelsberg Studio exterior sets were extended for the shooting of the series. Shooting locations were also some original sites in Berlin and Germany, like the Museums Island and the Alexanderplatz and the Hermannplatz in Berlin, or the Church of the Redeemer on the Havel river in Potsdam. The Berlin City Hall was used for police headquarters and the scenes in the Moka Efti night club were filmed at the Delphi Cinema in Berlin-Weissensee. The scenes in the estate of the Nyssen family were filmed at Schloss Drachenburg, a castle in the Rhineland. Scenes involving a steam train were filmed at the Bavarian Railway Museum near Nördlingen.
Volker Bruch as Inspector Gereon Rath, a combat veteran of the Imperial German Army during World War I and a policeman in both Cologne and Berlin. A Roman Catholic and family friend of future West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Inspector Rath struggles to reconcile his faith with his ongoing affair with Helga Rath, his sister-in-law. Rath also struggles with PTSD linked to his war experiences and survivor's guilt over the loss of his brother, Anno Rath, who is still listed as missing in action. Secretly, Rath self-medicates by taking morphine.
Liv Lisa Fries as Charlotte Ritter, a flapper from the slums of Wedding, occasional prostitute at the Moka Efti cabaret, and feminist who dreams of becoming the first female Homicide Detective in the history of the Berlin Police.
Peter Kurth as Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter, a Berlin Police investigator whose affability masks a willingness to extort sex from unregistered prostitutes and even to murder his fellow cops in cold blood. Despite this, Wolter also shows great kindness to Charlotte Ritter by paying funeral expenses and comforting her when her mother dies.
Matthias Brandt as Councillor August Benda, a Jewish Social Democrat and the head of the Berlin Political Police. A tenacious investigator and true believer in the Weimar Republic, Benda is equally loathed by Monarchists, Communists, and Nazis. For years, the Councillor has been investigating a secret military build up which defies the Treaty of Versailles. He calls this shadow army, "The Black Reichswehr," and believes that, unless they are stopped, they will overthrow the Republic and plunge Europe into another World War.
Leonie Benesch as Greta Overbeck, a childhood friend of Charlotte Ritter and domestic servant to Councillor Benda and his family. After a disastrous romance in Series Two, Greta is reluctantly drawn into a conspiracy to assassinate Benda by planting a concealed bomb in his home.
Ernst Stötzner as Major General Kurt Seegers, a member of the Reichswehr's General Staff and DCI Bruno Wolter's commanding officer during the Great War. Gen. Seegers has secretly been building Germany a large and modern military through secret military bases and armaments factories in the Soviet Union. Although Seegers' violations of the Treaty of Versailles are known and approved of by German President Paul von Hindenburg and "half the Reichstag", he routinely orders the assassination of journalists and investigators who get too close to his secret activities. General Seegers is also the mastermind of a planned coup d'etat to overthrow the Republic, arrest all politicians expected to oppose its abolition, and to restore Kaiser Wilhelm II to the German throne. He is the primary antagonist of Series One and Two.
Denis Burgazliev as Col. Trochin, a Soviet diplomat and official of Joseph Stalin's secret police. Under orders from his superiors, Trochin routinely masterminds the abduction, torture, and murder of both real and imagined anti-Stalinists among Berlin's Russian community. With help from Charlotte Ritter, Inspector Gereon Rath conclusively ties Trochin and the Soviet Embassy staff to the machine gun slayings of fifteen Trotskyists found in a mass grave in the forest outside Berlin and to the abduction, torture, and murder of a sixteenth Trotskyist found floating in a Berlin canal. Using this evidence, Trochin is blackmailed by Councillor Benda. Although Trochin and his staff have diplomatic immunity from German prosecution, he knows that Stalin will have him tortured and shot for having been caught so easily. Therefore, Trochin breaks into his own offices by night, steals evidence of Soviet collusion with "The Black Reichswehr", and gives the evidence to Rath and Benda. Trochin's staff are then released into his custody.
Severija Janušauskaitė as Countess Svetlana Sorokina / Nikoros a Russian White emigre, singer at the Moka Efti cabaret, and spy for the Soviet secret police. The Countess is also the secret lover of both Trotskyist leader Alexei Kardakov and right wing industrialist Alfred Nyssen.
Hannah Herzsprung as Helga Rath, Inspector Gereon Rath's secret lover of more than ten years and the wife of his brother who went missing in the Great War.
Ivan Shvedoff as Alexei Kardakov, an anti-Stalinist Russian refugee and the leader of a Trotskyist cell in Berlin.
Lars Eidinger as Alfred Nyssen, an arms manufacturer with links to Reichswehr and Freikorps officers plotting to overthrow the Republic and restore Kaiser Wilhelm II to the German throne. As expressed in conversation with Councillor Benda, Nyssen believes that the Republic is an aberration and that the absence of the monarchy is a disgrace to Germany. As Benda then retorts, Nyssen and his comrades are not only Monarchists, but also anti-Semites who thoroughly detest the ruling Social Democratic Party of Germany. In Series Two, Nyssen witnesses an impassioned speech against rearmament by Helga Rath and invites her to a romantic dinner. She is seen to accept.
Anton von Lucke as Stephan Jänicke, a Detective in the Berlin Police who has been assigned by Councillor Benda to investigate DCI Bruno Wolter for ties to "The Black Reichswehr."
Fritzi Haberlandt as Elisabeth Behnke, a grieving war widow and Gereon Rath's landlady. She is implied to be a secret lover of DCI Bruno Wolter, who served with her husband during the Great War.
Jördis Triebel as Doctor Völcker, a female physician in the slums of Kreuzberg and senior member of the Communist Party of Germany. As Inspector Gereon Rath learns in the Series Two finale, Doctor Völcker sometimes orders the murders of police officers, "on behalf of the repressed masses."
Mišel Matičević as Edgar "The Armenian", the impeccably dressed owner of the Moka Efti cabaret, and the leader of organized crime in Berlin. A ruthless, but also deeply principled gangster, "The Armenian" claims to "own the police" and routinely uses intimidation and blackmail to get what he wants. He is also not above murdering police officers when it suits his purposes. For reasons that are only later made clear, "The Armenian" acts as a secret protector to Inspector Gereon Rath, whom he secretly respects.
Frank Künstler as "Saint Joseph", a heavily tattooed enforcer and widely feared assassin for the crime family led by Edgar "The Armenian." "Saint Joseph" routinely dresses in the cassock and Roman collar of a Catholic priest to deflect suspicion while on missions for his boss. "Saint Joseph" is ultimately killed and encased in wet cement by Inspector Gereon Rath. When the body turns up anyway, Rath steals and switches the bullet from the autopsy to deflect suspicion from himself.
Jens Harzer as Doctor Schmidt, a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of World War I veterans with PTSD. Schmidt's belief that PTSD is a treatable illness is mocked by mainstream medicine and by the general public, which sees his patients as cowards who dishonor the war dead and as parasites who are trying to shirk their obligations to society. It is revealed, however, that Doctor Schmidt has changed the lives of many of his patients for the better, including Edgar "The Armenian." Doctor Schmidt's reasons for repeatedly reaching out to Inspector Gereon Rath are revealed at the end of the Series Two finale.
Babylon Berlin review: political maelstrom, a populist right on the march – sound familiar?
This big budget, Weimar-era German police drama has plenty of contemporary resonance. And even more debauchery …
Mon 6 Nov 2017 06.00 GMT Last modified on Thu 15 Feb 2018 12.49 GMT
A steam train hurtling purposefully through the night is suddenly stopped, screeching and sparking, by a burning tree falling on the track. Men with guns – Trotskyist train-jackers – emerge from the bushes; they won’t hurt the driver and his mate, they say, they just want their uniforms. A goods truck – containing who knows what, but I suspect something dangerous and subversive – is pulled by horse from a siding and hooked on. The driver and his mate are shot in the head; the Trots lied, it’s their train now and they are heading for Berlin.
Everything leads to and everyone is going to Berlin, Babylon Berlin (Sky Atlantic, Sunday), heart of the Weimar Republic. It might be both the best and the worst place, almost certainly the most interesting place, in the world between the wars. A place of all sorts of extremes – political, social, sexual. There’s hyperinflation, desperate poverty on the streets, shell shocked veterans of the previous war seen as broken automatons to be tossed on the scrapheap. The populist far right is gaining momentum, as it is across Europe. (Sound familiar? It might be period drama but there’s plenty of resonance.) Don’t forget the far left too, though, and that Trot express speeding to the capital.
In the nightclubs you wouldn’t know any of this was going on; they don’t seem to care, the jazz age is in full swing, they’re partying like it’s 1929, which it is. Sexing, too – everyone, with everyone else, they’re at it, the old Wie ist dein Vater. It’s fabulous debauchery and naughtiness, a political maelstrom and a ticking timebomb. I think we all know where this – and Germany – is heading.
Not a bad backdrop, then, to this lavish 16-part adaptation of the crime novels of Volker Kutscher. In the foreground is Gereon Rath, a police inspector from Cologne. Rath is a veteran of the first war too, and a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder. He hides his shakes by necking phials of morphine on the sly, which also helps him to forget his strict Catholic upbringing. It’s not yet clear – I don’t think – where Volker stands politically. Or what exactly he’s doing; well, he’s raiding debauched biblical porn shoots, but he seems to be delving deeper into (even) darker secrets too. Oh, and he enjoys a dance as much anyone else.
Equally intriguing is Charlotte Ritter, who by day finds work at the police HQ, cataloguing murders, in order to keep her family just about alive, while at night she’s up to no good along with the rest of Weimar.
The club scenes – plus that train, and the outside recreations of late-20s Berlin – are fabulous and stunning and reflect the massive scale and ambition of Babylon Berlin. It’s the most expensive German TV series ever, €38m (currently about £38m, I think, thanks @Nigel_Farage), took six months to film in 300 locations, using 5,000 extras; it’s literally the biggest thing to come out of Germany since the Hindenburg. Ah, but will it crash and burn, or fly high across the globe?
That’s clearly the aim, international success. Which might be both a good thing and a not so good one. Chucking money at something to create a time and a place (however fascinating – and however much it chimes with what’s going on now), plus fabulous club/dance sequences, don’t make great drama alone – just look at the preposterous Vinyl and The Get Down. This is much better than either of those – because it’s based on crime fiction, there’s the momentum of intriguing plot and character development.
But there’s also a slight blandness about it that I think is partly down to its international ambition. Forget the Hindenburg, think about sausages (let’s get as many German stereotypes in as possible, no wurst puns please, like case scenarios). This is an export sausage, not as strongly flavoured as the ones for the domestic market, but one that is meant to appeal to a wide palette … No, that doesn’t quite work, because Babylon Berlin has mainly – though not entirely – gone down well at home.
So think of the other subtitled dramas you’ve loved recently – from Scandinavia, obviously, but also Iceland, France, Germany too (Deutschland 83). They’ve been much less glitzy and glamorous (and less expensive) but moodier, quirkier and more enveloping. In trying to appeal to the many, Babylon Berlin is maybe less appealing to the few. I’m certainly in – intrigued, involved – just not quite addicted. Perhaps, like Gereon’s morphine, it will take more than two phials to get hooked.
Sex, Drugs and Crime in the Gritty Drama ‘Babylon Berlin’
By SIOBHÁN DOWLINGNOV. 7, 2017
BERLIN — It’s the spring of 1929, and this city is a fast-moving modern metropolis where artistic and sexual experimentation flourishes against a backdrop of organized crime, political street battles and a fragile democratic order.
Welcome to the world of “Babylon Berlin.”
This new epic crime drama, set during the Weimar Republic, the chaotic 15-year era that preceded the Third Reich, is widely predicted to become an international television sensation. Reportedly the most expensive German-language TV show ever produced, “Babylon Berlin” aims to build on the success of other recent German hits, like “Deutschland ’83” and “The Same Sky.”
This ambitious 16-part, two-season show has already been sold to 60 TV markets. It had its British premiere on Sunday night on Sky Atlantic and will begin streaming on Netflix in the United States on Jan. 30.
Based on the best-selling novels by Volker Kutscher, the show centers on Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne played by Volker Bruch, who arrives in the unfamiliar capital to investigate a blackmail plot involving a sadomasochistic porn film.
The troubled young detective is assisted by Charlotte Ritter, a police typist played by Liv Lisa Fries, who strives to make the most of Weimar Berlin’s new freedoms to escape the poverty of her bleak, overcrowded tenement. By day she picks up sporadic work at police headquarters, and by night turns tricks at Moka Efti, a nightclub and temple to hedonism.
The complicated plot encompasses a Russian freight train carrying poison gas and gold; secret military maneuvers; and a brutal May Day confrontation between police and Communists. There are Soviet agents and Trotskyist agitators, a cross-dressing jazz singer, an Armenian mafia boss and a rich industrialist in cahoots with a group of army officers.
The star of the show, however, is Berlin. The lavish production lovingly recreates the city’s 1920s streets, cafes and nightclubs. Around 70 percent of the series was shot on location, with the rest filmed on a massive set at the historic Babelsberg studios.
Costing 38 million euros (about $44 million) to produce, the 180-day shoot involved three crews and three writer/directors: Tom Tykwer (of “Perfume” and “Run Lola Run” fame), Achim von Borries and Henk Handloegten, who had all long sought to work together on a project based on this period.
The lavish production of “Babylon Berlin” recreates the city’s 1920s streets, cafes and nightclubs. Credit Beta Film
“The three of us had the idea to do a big panoramic view of the society at the end of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic, before we actually knew the novels,” Mr. Handloegten said.
Paul Cooke, professor of world cinemas at the University of Leeds, said TV depictions of this period have been rare. “Most obviously, Fassbinder’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz,’ which was a big hit in the 1970s,” he said. “It’s touched on in Edgar Reitz’s ‘Heimat,’ which was a huge international hit. But it’s later periods of history that tend to be the focus of German productions that do well internationally.”
The makers of “Babylon Berlin,” however, were interested in exploring the prelude to the Third Reich. “All these people didn’t fall from the sky as Nazis,” Mr. Handloegten said. “They had to become Nazis.”
In writing the screenplay, the creators made some key changes to the books. As well as expanding the political elements, they turned Gereon Rath into a more sympathetic character, traumatized by his experiences in World War I, prone to fits of shaking and addicted to morphine.
Charlotte Ritter is no longer a bourgeois law student but a street-smart working-class woman. “We felt very strongly that we should have a main character from this proletarian background, because Berlin was always a poor city,” Mr. Handloegten explained.
Work has already begun on Season 3, and there’s plenty more source material to draw on. Mr. Kutscher has already written six Gereon Rath novels and plans another three, culminating with Kristallnacht in 1938.
The TV adaptation is already a commercial and critical hit at home. Within a week of its German premiere on Oct. 13, the first episode had been watched by 1.2 million people — a German viewing figure bested only by “Game of Thrones.”
“The show is epic, the story is complex,” the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel wrote. “The TV version gives the material what it requires while never taking away the striking images, ambiguous characters and exciting story: everything needed to suck you in.”
The weekly magazine Der Spiegel described the show as a “masterpiece” and a “great, dizzying panorama,” and predicted that it could be “the first big German TV production since ‘Das Boot’ to have really relevant success abroad.”
The praise, however, has not been universal. The Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said: “The period it depicts may have been sensuous, but the show is not. The world of ‘Babylon Berlin’ remains behind glass.”
In Britain, the reception has been positive so far. “It’s all wonderfully gripping, and Bruch has the most pained, expressive eyes you’ll see all year,” the critic for The Financial Times wrote. “With the arrival of Charlotte … drab secretary by day, jazz baby by night, we enter the youthful Berlin of dance crazes and desperate excess.”
Some critics have also drawn parallels to current political events, like the American election of Donald J. Trump, the Brexit vote, and the arrival of the far-right Alternative for Germany in the Bundestag.
“The echoes of the ‘populism’ of the 1930s with what is going on right now is certainly a link that is being made,” Professor Cooke said. “How far this is played out in the show itself remains to be seen. But it is fair to say that these kinds of historical dramas always tend to use the past as a cipher for the present.”
But Hajo Funke, professor of political science at the Free University Berlin, cautions against making too many comparisons. “Economically, socially and politically, it was a totally different situation,” he said.
“In 1929, there was a brief phase of stability after the terrible shock at the end of World War I, the inflation crisis, the economic restrictions,” Professor Funke added. “It was not at all clear if it would be possible to overcome the next crisis.”
At the same time, he agrees that the show taps into the current mood. “It could serve to point to the dangers, to the destructive forces in society and politics,” he said.
For the makers of “Babylon Berlin,” it was crucial that the audience experience the past through the eyes of the protagonists.
In the first season, for example, Hitler is only mentioned once in passing. After all, Berlin was a left-wing bastion, and in the 1928 election, the Nazis got only 1.6 percent of the city’s votes.
“In 1929, there were no Nazis in Berlin,” said the producer Stefan Arndt. “You cannot see or even smell that there’s danger coming