On Sunday I had the usual email newsletter from Sky TV telling me about upcoming shows for the week. Usually I have a quick flick through but nothing really catches my eye. However, this time was different and at the top it recommended a new tv show, Babylon Berlin, starting in just a couple of hours. It looked right up my street. The photo that went along with it was the dead giveaway and so I set the Sky box to record the series. At 9pm I settled down on the sofa and tuned into Sky Atlantic. Within seconds I was hooked!
Babylon Berlin is based on a series of six books by German author Volker Kutscher. His work is focused on historical accuracy and this series, and the TV show, begins in 1929 at the tale-end of the Weimar Republic. They continue through to 1933 when the Republic came to an end and Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. It’s a period that absolutely fascinates me, and trust me Babylon Berlin does not disappoint. But it doesn’t stop there, Kutscher has just completed his seventh book, which is set in 1935, and hopes to continue through to 1938 before bringing it to a close.
The TV show is the most expensive German TV series ever, costing €38m. It was developed over the course of four years, was filmed in 300 locations and used a whopping 5,000 extras. Can you imagine the number of costumes they required?! It was co-produced by German public broadcaster ARD and Sky, hence why it’s being shown in the UK. It has also been purchased by Netflix, so will be shown through them in the US.
So, what’s it all about then? In a nutshell, sex, drugs, partying, jazz, cabarets, dancing, cross-dressing, the criminal underworld, revolutionaries, poverty, just about everything you’d expect from Berlin in this time period! Okay, so there is a storyline and it is very intriguing. The main two characters are Gereon Rath, a mysterious new inspector who’s just joined the Berlin vice squad, and Charlotte (Lotte) Ritter, a young woman living with her family in poverty who loves to party all night.
There’s also the Russians. The beautiful and incredibly intriguing Svetlana, the main Russian character, by day seems to be a revolutionary and by night is a cross-dressing performer at the Babylon Berlin nightclub. There’s an amazing scene where she is performing along with four women all dressed in the classic Josephine Baker banana costume. It’s moody, artsy, with sections of high energy when the audience joins in.
The main premise of the story is that it’s a crime mystery. It starts with a raid on an illegal adult film set, which seems simple enough, but as different characters are introduced it becomes more complicated. Certain people seem to know each other, even though they’re from different sides of the track. You wonder how deep the so-called good guys have got themselves within the seedy criminal underworld. And just how do all the main characters connect to each other? I don’t want to go into it in any depth because I don’t want to spoil it!
One thing Babylon Berlin does exceptionally well is realism. Forget the glamour of Hollywood and the gloss of BBC productions, this is gritty and really makes you feel like this is actually what it was like back in 1929 Berlin.
The thing that struck me the most was the women’s hairstyles. Yes, they were bobbed, but none of them were perfectly quaffed. Lotte didn’t have time to reset her hair every night, she was way too busy in the club, so yes her hair was straggly and out of place when she rushed to work the next morning. Hey, but that’s what a cloche is for, right? You can hide anything under one of those!
The chief costume designer on Babylon Berlin is French designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud, also know for the fabulous film, Perfume: The Story of a Murder and many European films. His costumes are wonderful, just look at the width of the guy’s trousers in the middle of the above photo! For those who don’t know, these are what was known as Oxford Bags and were first popular at Oxford University in the mid-1920s. However, the majority of looks are very much German fashions of the time. There were subtle differences to American and British fashion which are hard to pinpoint but are definitely there. If you’ve seen Amazon’s The Last Tycoon, you would’ve seen this subtle difference with Hannah Taub’s outfits.
Babylon Berlin is definitely worth a watch, even if you’re not keen on subtitled shows (unless you’re fluent in German, obviously!). It’s incredibly compelling and the locations and cinematography are outstanding. In fact, they even built three of their own 1920s streets that, apparently, look almost real! Just don’t watch it if you’re easily shocked, it has full-frontal nudity from the outset and explores many taboo subjects. But that’s what makes it so brilliant. It doesn’t apologise for any of it or try and shield you from it. Like I said, this isn’t Hollywood or the BBC!
The first season, currently being shown on Sky Atlantic on Sundays at 9pm, is eight episodes long, as is the second season. Season 3 is already in production, due to it’s immense popularity in its native country, so I will definitely be gripped for some time to come.