Recap: Babylon Berlin Season 1, Episode 1
The first episode of Babylon Berlin presents a series of uncanny images: a horse outfitted with a World War I-era gas mask; a slab of frozen octopus hissing on a hot griddle; skylight windows making eerie islands in the background of a rooftop police chase, like icebergs in a dark sea. The cumulative effect of all this visual richness is one of wonder, even as the glittering spectacle of Berlin in 1929 turns lurid and violent. The show’s Berlin is like an Egon Schiele painting come to life, peopled with grotesque bodies draped in finery. One gets the feeling that every person in it is wearing a costume.
That goes double for Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a policeman recently transferred to the capital from his native Cologne, who we first meet as he gobbles down a vial of morphine in a public bathroom to stave off the shakes. Despite his family’s wealth and connections, Rath toils in obscurity on the vice squad rather than joining a “decent” unit like homicide or, as his boss Detective Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kirth) suggests, the secret police. We first see Rath in action as his unit busts up a predawn pornography shoot, a depiction of the Nativity hilarious in its casual blasphemy. In a nod to Weimar-era permissiveness, the director points out that “art is free”; the police will have to prove that he’s not an artist.
Rath confronts one of the ringleaders waiting in the wings and tears off after him across the still-dark rooftops, losing his gun and nearly getting shot in the pursuit. Wolter tackles the pornographer, Krajewski, and questions the shellshocked man about his service on the Western Front—then, to Rath’s surprise, Wolter lets him go. Wolter airs his contempt for “tremblers” on the drive back to the station, calling them “broken automatons,” and Rath, whose wartime experiences have driven him to apparent Naked Lunch-level drug use, is forced to agree.
Meanwhile, a woman named Lotte (Liv Lisa Fries) returns to her crowded apartment after a night on the town, changing out of her flapper getup to hop a streetcar for police headquarters. She’s there with a crowd of other young women who show up every morning desperate for clerical work, and winds up with the task of cataloguing grisly murder photos for the princely sum of one mark per hour. When she later runs into Rath in the hallway, spilling the evidence, they sort through each other’s mingled black and white photos of naked bodies both dead and alive in the world’s most grimly comic meet-cute.
At the border of the U.S.S.R., a group of Russian communists hijacks a train on its way to Berlin, and back in town a band of Trotskyite expats led by Alexej Kardakow (Ivan Shvedoff) and the elegant Sveta (Severija Janusauskaite) celebrates by throwing knives at a picture of Stalin (so far, this show has style to burn, but subtle it is not). The two of them rock out on violin and theremin(!) in the house band of a ritzy establishment run by a mob boss who has a lot of thoughts about the philosophical significance of tongues. This scene, with its menacing monologue and sinister food porn, is reminiscent of Cult Critique favorite Hannibal.
A lead from the escaped pornographer helps the detectives to capture a man from Cologne named König, who Wolter brutally interrogates alone—not about his crimes, but about Rath and his motivations for coming to Berlin. The answer he pries out of the perp is classic noir: “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.” König is in deep with an organized crime syndicate involving sinister psychiatrist Dr. Schmidt, and apparently he’s taken a film and gone into business for himself, throwing the Berlin underbelly into an uproar.
A plot summary of the first episode makes the show sound like an exercise in miserabilism, but a combination of deadpan humor and small touches of grace keeps things from getting too dour. Lotte in particular is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise drab Alexanderplatz, and Rath gets a moment of freedom and silliness when he dances the Charleston in a bar full of appreciative strangers. The show is also brimming with aesthetic pleasures, rendering the decadence and squalor of its setting in loving detail, down to Sveta’s luxurious fur hat and the wad of chewed gum that holds up Lotte’s grubby mirror.
Babylon Berlin is shaping up to be a show about underworlds and the masks those who live in them must wear to move in daylight. Its disparate realms of organized crime, political dissidence, and drug-fueled nightlife have yet to converge, but the world it introduces is already alive with dark and twisted charms. Tune in next week for episode two, when we’ll hopefully learn more about König’s mysterious film, Lotte’s double life, and the woman Rath left behind.
Babylon Berlin is available for streaming on Netflix. Language: German, English subtitles.