Babylon Berlin, a 16-part drama imported from Germany and already a hit in that country — where it won four awards including “Best Drama Series” in Germany’s version of the Emmy Awards — made its debut on Netflix January 30, and already appears to be creating the best “buzz” for a Netflix drama since The Crown.
Like The Crown, Babylon Berlin unfolds against a historical setting. In the case of the German series, that setting is Berlin in the latter stages of the Weimar Republic, a period after World War I when Germany became a democracy but at the same time was about to see the rise of the greatest evil the modern world has ever known — Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Netflix is streaming both of the first two seasons of Babylon Berlin, which are set in that city, the center of nightlife, arts, and radical politics in the decade known as Germany’s “Golden Twenties.” At a reported cost of nearly $50 million, the series recreates the Berlin of 1929 — shortly before the American stock market crash in October of that year plunged the world into a devastating economic crisis — in painstaking detail.
The series also depicts events that appear to be directly inspired by historical incidents. For example, Episode 4 centers around the “Bloody Mayday” riots that year, in which members of Germany’s Communist Party took to the streets on May 1, only to be met with a violent crackdown by police.
The 1929 Mayday riots really happened, but what is fictional, of course, is the involvement of Detective Gereon Rath, the series’ protagonist portrayed by 37-year-old veteran German actor Volker Bruch. In fact, Rath and all of the primary characters in the Babylon Berlin are the creation of Volker Kutscher, a 54-year-old German mystery author who has so far penned six novels in his projected nine-part “Gereon Rath” series. But with only two so far translated into English — Babylon Berlin and its sequel, The Silent Death — Kutscher remains largely unknown in the United States and in the United Kingdom, where the series recently aired on the satellite Sky Atlantic TV network.
For series creators Henk Handloegten, Tom Twyker, and Achim Borries, adapting the “Rath” novels presented an opportunity to pursue what had long been a passion project for the trio — a series depicting conditions in Germany that led to the rise of Hitler.
“Usually in movies, Nazis just fall from the sky, and they are there,” Handloegten said in an interview with Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. “But I always thought, ‘How?’ The Weimar era was forward-thinking, democratic. How could it have happened that such an advanced society fell into barbarism? No one was telling this story.”
In 1928, one year before the narrative of Babylon Berlin opens, the Nazi party garnered just 2.6 percent of the vote in a national election. But two years later, in 1930, Hitler and the Nazis won 18.3 percent, and in 1932 they totaled nearly 40 percent of the vote, becoming the dominant party in the German Reichstag, or parliament.
Later that year, after a series of negotiations, Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, allowing the Nazis to consolidate power over the entire government.
The Babylon Berlin author says that his intention with the series is to depict what life was like in Germany, both for ordinary people — such as Charlotte Ritter (played by 27-year-old Liv Lisa Fries), the police typist who moonlights as a dominatrix before becoming an investigator herself — as well as for political elites, business tycoons, and gangsters. How did these conditions pave the way for fascism to take over what had been, albeit briefly, a functioning democracy?
“I’m very curious about this time — an important time, not only in German history,” Kutscher told The Guardian newspaper. “I always questioned how a civilized country, a republic like Germany, could change into this dictatorship. There’s no easy answer to this.”