Babylon Berlin, Intrigue and Decor in the Weimar Republic.

Moving on from Poirot, our continental creative director Adam, Twitter’s @artdecoist, recommends a series that all lovers of Art Deco should sample during their confinement.

Titles

Even as Nordic Noir has found a special place in the hearts of the British television-viewing public, there is one dog-that-didn’t-bark in the night time question: why has no German TV series struck a louder chord in the UK? Deutschland 83 is perhaps an exception as is the Netflix show, Dark. Those with longer memories will recall Heimat and the TV cut of Das Boot, but not much else. I think the reason is that the German TV scene has been a bit too comfortable with two public service broadcasters and a single large commercial player. No one  is exactly pushing forward the edge of public taste, although German TV companies have been major investors in Nordic Noir productions.

It has taken the arrival of the streaming platforms to force the risky strategy that is Babylon Berlin, an unlikely collaboration between public service broadcaster ARD and  pay TV operator Sky Deutschland. Believe me, free-to-air and pay TV were at daggers drawn for decades in Germany, but threats create strange alliances. This is what has spawned the hugely ambitious bet that is Berlin Babylon, €40 million for the first 16 episodes, sold into 100 countries across the world.

A Nightclub boss surveys his domain2
A nightclub boss surveys his domain

It is a sprawling, sweeping epic which contains multiple over-lapping plot lines and explores the politics and society of its era with a light touch. How to create a world like GoT is the challenge for modern TV series. It succeeds brilliantly, and, for me, far better than Volker Kutscher’s novels. I read the first book and was underwhelmed by the prose style of the translation; but the TV series moves beyond the novels speedily. Seamlessly blending CGI and surviving locations in Berlin, together with standing sets at the Babelsberg Studios, maybe the same streets where the Cabaret cast played in 1970, it casts the viewer into the world of Weimar Berlin: nightclubs, gangsters, international intrigue and the career ambitions of a cast of deeply imperfect characters. There is the self-medicating cop suffering from PTSD after World War I; the ambitious flapper; the bent cop – natürlich; various gangsters: all with excellent motives for doing bad things, played by an A-list cast, none of whom you will have heard of; but take my word for the quality of the performances.

The client
The client

As lovers of Art Deco,  we all have some impression of at least the high life in Paris and its artistic ferment between the wars: glamour, style, Picasso’s studio. Berlin and Germany is a very different cocktail; one of the leitmotivs of the show is the survival or not, of German democracy. Of course we all know what happened in 1933 and who took power; but this is 1929 when so much seemed possible. One of the things I had to look up was the German flag; the one in the show is identical to the black, red, and yellow tricolour used today: yes, those were the colours of the Weimar republic, reinstated in 1945. There are other details which are so right. The older men have duelling scars on their cheeks, a rite of passage for all members of student brotherhoods before WWI.

The demo - Widescreen Eisenstein
The demo

The range of social milieus is broader than what you usually get in costume drama. Yes, the interiors of the Moka Efti nightclub, filmed in an old silent movie cinema, are wonderfully characteristic; but the writers also major on the lives of ordinary people living in rather modest accommodation.  I like the choice of rather foxed art nouveau wall paper for the apartments: of course people hadn’t redecorated since the end of WW1 given the economic situation of Germany; and the varnished wood so typical of 20s and 30s interiors. Here in Brussels, I can still find that varnish if I chip off some paint from one of my door frames. Higher social echelons have adopted Art Deco design in their living quarters, as one would expect. Look at the house where the political counsellor to the chief of police lives.

Up, close with pre-war wallapaper
Up, close with pre-war wallpaper in 1929

 

The first series of eight episodes may seem to move a bit slowly, but it is doing sterling duty to set up plot lines that will be used in the second series, as well as to establish the world of Weimar: that immaculate CGI pan across Alexander Platz as it was then, before its destruction, for example. Of the creative team, only Tom Tykwer will be known to some of you from movies like Perfume and earlier, Run, Lola Run which he also directed. The composition and production quality allow for comparison with cinema. I was engrossed in the plots and had to dash out and buy the second series of eight episodes, which moves along more briskly.

The_underground
U-Bahn: period adverts, tick

Those of you of a certain age should watch out for Bryan Ferry, at his most louche on the night club stage.  The music track isn’t wholly jazz, I guess because the producers wanted to hook younger audience segments. Look out for characters whistling the Mack the Knife theme from the Threepenny Opera, Brecht/Weil, and said opera playing a role in series 2 plot lines, filmed in the theatre where it first opened.  Any similarity between one scene in series 1 and the St Valentine’s Day massacre is purely intentional; the production employs no less than four armourers per the credits, surely a good sign. Chorus girls gyrate with not much more than bananas around their midriffs: tick box and blow a kiss to chère Joséphine. One of the older male characters, artfully posed to preserve his modesty, appears to have been epilated and lightly oiled for his nude scene. Do I still have your attention, Meine Damen und Herren?

Moka_Efti_Yes we have bananas
Yes, we have bananas: at the night club, Moka Efti

“Aaah, but it’s in German and I hate sub-titles”, you may say. I watched the French Blu-ray edition with sub-titles over the original German audio and still found the show captivating. All three seasons are available to buy on DVD or stream through Amazon Prime.

Bad teeth and a small pistol
Triumph in his eyes

To get in the mood, ready your cocktail shaker and ingredients, an ice pick, a photograph of Leon Trotsky and some stage blood and distribute liberally; watch a few minutes of the silent masterpiece, Berlin Symphony for a Great City in wide-screen with a new score here – or as it was shot here – to start off your programme, as the show’s creative team probably did. You will not need any cocaine as adequate quantities are consumed on screen in Babylon Berlin. There will be enough excitement in the room without it, I promise.

The official website contains further detail, including more on the historical background.

All pictures are screen-shots from Babylon Berlin, © X-filme, ARD Degeto, Das Erste, Sky, Betafilm. Supported by Berlin-Brandenburg Media Board, MEDIA programme of the EU, German Motion Picture Fund, Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy.  

 

Action highlight with skylights
Skylight with low life, prone
Moka_Efti- the joint is jumping
The joint is jumpin’
That Warner Bros Look
Eat your heart out, Warner Bros.
AlexanderPlatz1
Berlin Alexanderplatz, back in the day
The train
Composition and lighting kudos, plus a hat tip from the wardrobe dept

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