Recap: Babylon Berlin Season 1, Episode 2
Double lives are de rigeur in a propulsive Babylon Berlin.
Anyone who was expecting a slow burn from this show has probably gotten the message via pink marble phone by now: Babylon Berlin is a runaway freight train that waits for no one. After a tour of the city’s luminous nightlife and a savage betrayal by one of its stars, it’s clear that viewers should avoid getting too comfortable among the revelers.
The episode opens with a tattooed priest threatening König the porn maven, who removes himself from the game by seizing Rath’s gun in the interrogation room and turning it on himself (Rath really needs to keep better track of that thing). This leaves Rath without crucial answers about the image of a bound, hooded man he pulled from König’s missing film, and to make matters worse the sudden violence triggers a PTSD attack that leaves him shaking on the bathroom floor. Charlotte finds him there thanks to an unfavorable men’s to ladies’ restroom ratio (fifty-two to five, she explains). She promises to keep his secret, but a stray medicine bottle she drops while helping the detective get his fix will probably cause trouble down the line.
Once he puts himself back together, Rath anticipates trouble from the higher-ups. However, when he reveals the reason he’s come to Berlin—the mayor of Cologne is being blackmailed—he finds himself all set up with a new set of rooms and an extremely no-nonsense landlady to go with them. With his supply of painkillers running low, Rath is forced to visit his friendly neighborhood sleazy pharmacist, who accepts payment in the form of pornographic photos. In a macabre sight gag that’s shaping up to be a Babylon Berlin calling card, the pharmacist finds a picture of severed arms in the bevy of naked ladies, a souvenir from Charlotte’s crime scene catalogue.
Later, we follow Charlotte home to her impossibly crowded flat. She has three generations of mouths to feed (all of them complaining, coughing, vomiting, or some combination of the three). With a family to support, the stakes are high when she reaches her nighttime engagement at the club owned by the mysterious mob boss from the first episode. An admirer from police headquarters gets up the nerve to ask her to dance, and the pair moves in unison with the revelers as Sveta unveils her eerily familiar drag king persona. It turns out that her Dietrich-esque character is the silent young man who informed on Kardakow earlier in the episode, and the depths of her betrayal slowly sink in as her song entrances the club full of people softly singing along.
Another instance of double lives in action: the stark and deliberate transition between Charlotte’s dismal home life, all blisters and blood sausage, and the sparkling champagne towers of her night work. She spends her nights in a dreamland populated with rhinestone goddesses, but the churning engines of sex and death are never far from the dancefloor. Soon Charlotte is called away from the festivities to attend to a client, and she dons the black leather harness of a dominatrix—another elaborate costume—while Sveta removes her wig and mustache as the plot she set in motion reaches its grisly conclusion. Both women must manipulate their appearances to achieve their goals, highlighting the show’s fixation on outward displays that hide inner darkness.
The dance sequence set to Sveta’s mysterious song is a thrilling illustration of the themes of artifice and conformity that have been simmering under the surface for the first two episodes. The lockstep revelry of the crowd recalls Wolter’s “broken automatons” from the first episode; the moment when they freeze causes the fun-loving illusion of the club to come crashing down. Intercut with the massacre of Kardadow’s anti-Stalinists, we see the dancers frozen in place like corpses themselves, or machines that have been switched off.
With the anti-Stalinists brutally gunned down, Sveta reveals her true allegiance to a mysterious man with a birthmark (honestly, her declarations of love for Kardakow weren’t exactly convincing). Her former lover might have survived the attack by hiding in a latrine—thanks for that shot, by the way—but as the scope of Babylon Berlin’s underworld becomes clear, nobody’s coming out of this entirely clean.
Join us next time for more existential despair, casual murder, and jaunty banana skirts.