Sky spared no expense on this TV drama. Was it worth it?
Babylon Berlin is the most expensive non-English language drama ever made
Forget the empty glamour of Luhrmann’s ostentatious Gatsby, this is the true grit and unabashed sexuality of the underground
“We’re just a bit faster than the rest!” Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) utters breathlessly at the bar in episode five of Sky Atlantic’s Babylon Berlin. She’s not kidding.
This lavish drama is not for the faint of heart. This is no quaint period drama to nod off on the couch to. This is life in all its vein-slicing, eye-popping, cigarette-sizzling gory glory. This is death and decadence jitterbugging across the dance-floor, one-foot twisting in hope, the other treading into utter annihilation.
The show is based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher, and uses three different directors, including art-house visionary Tom Twyker (Cloud Atlas, Run Lola Run). They filmed as a team and focused on individual locations within an episode, rather than filming entire episodes themselves. It’s now the most ambitious and expensive non-English language drama ever produced.
The sprawling period piece is set in 1920s Berlin and it follows detective inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) who has been transferred from his police department in Cologne to work within the Berlin vice squad. Rath is a typically noir-style tormented soul. Haunted by his wartime past and crushed under his Catholic guilt, he is tangled up in a moral Gordian knot as he attempts to aid his father’s political manoeuvring while witnessing the decaying principles of his colleagues.
Bruch’s jaundiced face, like a sun-bleached paperback, looms from the darkness, like a derelict lighthouse unable to navigate anyone to safety, least of all himself.
Meanwhile, having sacrificed themselves to the lure of the capital, Berlin’s citizens are now being eaten alive, as they crowd the streets like smoke-stained zombies frantically searching for work. The slums, with their thin walls and crowded grey rooms, frosty with ice and smothered with damp, are packed with feverish children and coughing parents.
Among them is the Ritter family. Young Charlotte (played with irrepressible ebullience by Liv Lisa Fries) is the vibrant, enterprising daughter of the emerging modern metropolis who is determined to claw her way out of her grim economic situation. She works as a temp in the police department and furiously dances through the night at the famous Moka Efti.
The scenes created in the legendary nightclub are nothing short of astonishing. Forget the empty glamour of Luhrmann’s ostentatious Gatsby, this is the true grit and unabashed sexuality of the underground. These moments capture a raw energy, an unquenchable spirit, a desperation to live, to postpone the grinding poverty and political uncertainty that surrounds them.
They gather in sequined gowns, feathers, cheap suits and borrowed furs, dancing in line, a shivering, jerking mass united in the church of cabaret, singing as a chaotic choir about the passing of time and fear of the future. The spectre of things to come lingers like a heavy perfume with most, if not all oblivious to its blossoming sour scent.
A throbbing headache of paranoia pounds throughout series. Everyone is double crossing each other, from the drag performers and audience members in the Hollander and the working girls of the Moka Efti clubs to the suspicious Soviets and the corrupt police force filled with informants.
As Ritter and Rath’s lives inexorably intertwine they are taken on a journey to the subterranean centre of darkness. And we watch is all, like a political and philosophical peep-show.