“Dames and drones, swingers and swayers, flinchers and fidgeters, wobblers and wavers, shakers and stompers. It’s 9.59am. The first round of the first Berlin Ladies’ Dance Marathon begins now!”
It’s episode two, season 4, and the out-of-work journalist Fred Jacoby is welcoming participants to a 24-hour dance marathon in the beautifully re-created Moka Efti dance hall. Babylon Berlin is back, boasting more exciting, choreographed dance routines and a hot jazz band.
Watching the final scene of series 3, we saw a huge spiked beast crawling through Berlin’s sewers in 1929.
Hard to know what it was, apart from being a huge spiked beast in a sewer, but we immediately recognise the metaphor in the opening to series 4: the rise of Nazism.
The paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, the SA (Sturmabteilung) also known as the Brownshirts are smashing up Jewish stores along a Berlin boulevard and beating up any Jewish pedestrians they find.
In the crowd, looking very smart in his Brownshirt duds, is the central hero of the first three series, Police Inspector Gereon Rath who is now convincingly screaming “Sieg Heil!”. By chance, his love interest, the flapper and former prostitute, Charlotte Ritter, spots him and it’s all over for their relationship as she delivers a “you-are-dead-to-me” speech.
This is awkward. They are both police and work in the same office. And Charlotte is the first female in the Berlin Homicide squad.
It’s 1930 and New Year’s Eve. When Charlotte, once again protecting her sister Toni, falsifies evidence, she’s out of the Squad. Rath, meanwhile, embarks on a deep investigation into criminal underworld gangs that vie for turf and influence fixing boxing matches and gambling rackets.
The “Ring Clubs” (Ringvereines) also mete out their own form of kangaroo-court justice, as we know from the fate of Hans Becket (Peter Lorre) at the end of Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
As series 4 unfolds, we are treated to yet another panoply of life in Weimar Germany. Alfred Nyssen, whom we last saw shorting the stock market during The Crash of 1929, is now planning to launch the first rocket to the Moon and be the first man there. Shades of Elon Musk. But it’s all cover. He plans to sell the rocket technology to the military.
There’s the paramilitary arm of the Communist Party, the Red Front Fighters League. The fascistic Oberst Gottfried Wendt, seemingly the self-proclaimed leader of the political wing of the police force, is the chief antagonist against the Brownshirts and still embroiled in political plots. At one point he is literally caught with his pants down cruising in the Tiergarten.
There’s the White Hand Court, perhaps based on the Sondergericht, and set up outside the operations of the constitutional frame of law. Even in the constitutional courts, judges blatantly dismantle the judicial system.
The conflicts between the leader of the SA Brownshirts, Walter Franz Stennes (historical figure), and the SA’s confrontation with the Nazi hierarchy in 1930 and 1931, lead to battles between the SS and SA, including occupying Nazi buildings and seizing Goebbels’ newspaper Der Angriff.
The monstrous Dr Voss is intent on sending homeless youth, products of the Depression, into reformatories or jails and is rumoured to have sentenced 150 adults to execution.
Russian communists infiltrate political organisations; double agents are planted; zeppelins fly; and the police force is packed with Nazi-sympathizing fascists.
Abraham Goldstein arrives in Berlin from New York to track down the Rothschild Blue diamond, last spotted hanging around the neck of Nyssen’s wife Helga; and in the bowels of an unidentified building, Rath’s wayward brother Dr Anno Schmidt, who, in series 3, was trying to fuse humans with machines, is now experimenting on animals in the hope of breeding supermen.
You certainly can’t accuse Babylon Berlin of lacking content. Based on a series of books by Volker Kutscher, it’s the most expensive television series made in Germany. Also, the most successful and is probably recognized as German TV’s finest hour for a television series.
For my money, it’s at least the equal of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), also set in Weimar Germany.
It also owes a lot to Fritz Lang, not just in its portraits of the overweight, lovable police and the sinister underworld megalomaniacs, but in its convincing rendition of the atmospheric world of Weimar Germany.
The creators have said they intend to stop at Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. So maybe we can look forward to one more series.
They haven’t put a foot wrong yet.