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Series / Babylon Berlin

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Imagine Cabaret if it was envisioned by Fritz Lang... and directed by Tom Tykwer, of Run, Lola, Run fame.

You will get Babylon Berlin, a gritty Film Noir set in the capital of the Weimar Republic in 1929, in a time of political upheaval, poverty-fueled crime, and lavish jazz parties.

It tells the story of Kommissar Gereon Rath, an enigmatic police inspector from Cologne who - sent on a clandestine mission by his mayor, Dr. Konrad Adenauer - joins the Sittendezernat, the vice squad of the City of Berlin police.

Together with his volatile partner Oberkommissar Bruno Wolter and the down-on-her-luck police typist (and part-time prostitute) Charlotte Ritter, he sets out to smash an infamous underground pornography ring that is blackmailing various public figures. But unbeknownst to them, a mysterious train inbound from the Soviet Union gets commandeered by a cell of Communist splitters, bringing thirteen freight cars worth of trouble into a city that itself seems to be teetering on the precipice of a Communist uprising.


Soon, rather than dealing with pornographers, Rath also has to put up with Trotskyist rebels, Soviet government agents, Socialist rabble-rousers, scheming public officials, corrupt business magnates, ruthless Berliner gangsters, renegade right-wing military officers, and, of course, Nazis.

Based on a book seriesnote  by Volker Kutscher, this 2017 TV series - co-produced by Sky1 and the ARD - has been the most expensive non-English television production of its time. Two seasons of eight episodes each were filmed for 40 Million Euros, with a third season under order. The series streams in the US on Netflix.

Not to be confused with either Babylon 5 or Babylon (which has some quite similar themes).


This series provides examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: Most people have normal names, but the Rath family seems to like peculiar names, with brothers Gereon and Anno Rath. The name 'Gereon' isn't really found anywhere in Germany other than 20th century Cologne (after Saint Gereon of Cologne).
    Charlotte: What, are you from the Middle Ages?
  • All Germans Are Nazis: In spite of being on the rise in 1929, the Nazis are conspicuously absent from the first season. However, they make a sudden and shocking appearance in Season 2's penultimate episode.
    • Truth in Television though. The Nazi were notorious back then as well, but only really gained traction one year and a half later. For the average German in 1929, the Nazis were a tiny fringe party and the communists (and their Soviet backers) would have been seen as a bigger problem than them. They weren’t even the biggest far-right party in Germany at the time. That dubious honor goes to the DNVP, the German National People’s Party, who would be eclipsed by the Nazis during the Great Depression. And if asked about a potential right-wing power grab, the same contemporary would rather have envisioned the military or right-wing monarchists (like the aforementioned DNVP) than the fascists.
  • Alliterative Title: Babylon Berlin, and such a fact was used in the poster, having both words share their starting and ending letters.
  • Anachronism Stew: Little, since the makers invested a lot into historical accuracy.
    • The Alexanderplatz of the series features some prominent buildings that didn't exist yet in 1929.
    • The steam locomotive they used is a DRG Class 52, a class that wasn't built until WW II and looks very out of place with its post war, computer-friendly (down to the check digit), vehicle number.
    • The famous three-engine Junkers Ju 52/3m plane featured in an episode didn't fly until 1932 (though, admittedly, it is stated to be an early prototype).
    • The silent movie People on Sunday was only released in 1930, yet it is already depicted as playing in cinemas.
  • Anachronistic Soundtrack: The soundtrack features songs that were published a few months or years after 1929. Other songs (such as those from the Bryan Ferry orchestra) are lifted wholesale from Retraux bands of the 21st century.
    • One example is "Gloomy Sunday"/"Szomoru Vasarnap" performed in Russian by "Sorokina," which was written in 1933, and translated to Russian in 1936.
  • Arc Words: Hand wird von Hand gewaschen — "One hand washes the other." Used to illustrate how backroom dealings and shadow games are how police business gets done in Weimar-era Berlin, even by ostensibly good cops like Benda or Rath.
  • Artistic License – Law: A judge is at one point addressed as "Euer Ehren", which is largely an an anglicism deriving from "Your Honour". The proper way to address a judge in German is "Herr Vorsitzender" ("Mr President" or "Mr Chairman").
  • Book-Ends: The pilot starts with Gereon in one of Dr. Schmidt's therapy sessions. The second season ends on the same scene. But this time we have gained a greater understanding of the situation. Plus we get to see The Reveal about Dr. Schmidt's character.
  • Comforting the Widow: Gereon is revealed to be having an affair with the wife of his brother Anno, who has gone MIA in the Great War). Though to both their credits, they manage to keep a lid on their relationship until the standard 10-year statute passes and Anno is officially declared dead, so that it'll look more of a Romancing the Widow-type situation. He also sleeps with his landlady, Elizabeth Behnke, at least once, and her late husband was part of Wolter's unit.
  • The Conspiracy: A secret circle of right-wing revanchist army officers, bureaucrats, and industrialists, known as "the Black Reichwehr", try to overthrow the Weimar government.
  • Coolest Club Ever: The Moka Efti is the hippest cabaret/dance club in town.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The Roaring '20s in Berlin are contrasted with the poverty at the onset of the The Great Depression.
  • Deadly Gas: The train cars are supposedly filled with pesticide, but it's soon revealed to be an illegal shipment of phosgene, a military-grade chemical agent. The police only catch on when Schwarz' pathology receives a customs officer's body and he instantly recognises the chemical burns as the same he used to treat in his war days.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Both Gereon and Bruno have their moments.
    Bruno: More beer?
    Gereon: It doesn't go well.
    Bruno: With what?
    Gereon: Stupid questions.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The filmmakers make a point about the open sexism of the time almost Once per Episode.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Two detectives in the Berlin P.D. are constantly bickering about each other's word choices. The first instances of this is when one points out that describing the Armenian as "a local criminal here in Berlin" is redundant.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Gereon numbing his nervous jitters by downing laudanum while away from view.
    • Bruno welcoming Gereon with a sarcastic, low-brow comment before going to deliver some ham.
    • Krajewski, after failing to flee and easily getting overpowered, suffering a shellshock episode so strong that he wets himself.
    • Katelbach trying to pay his landlady with theatre tickets before following up with a mixture of Viennese flattery and Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness.
    • Dr Schmidt lulling Gereon into a hypnotic trance.
  • False Flag Operation: The Communist agitators that manipulate Greta into depositing a bomb in Benda's desk are later revealed to be members of the SA (the Nazi Party's paramilitary wing).
  • Flashback Cut: Often when a plot point from a previous episode is revisited, there is a swift flashback to the scene in question to jog the brain of the inattentive audience.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The first hint that Greta's Communist friends are not who they say they are is when one of them refers to Benda as "the Jewish pig". While there was certainly no love lost between Jews and Communists, it didn't hold a candle to the virulent antisemitism of the Nazi movement, which is later revealed to be their actual allegiance.
    • The camera lingers on the streak of gold where the gold-painted coal brick had been thrown against the train car. On the first watch, one would assume that the gold streak is a smear of paint from the bar, but the coal bar has actually stripped away a portion of paint revealing the gold beneath.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Plenty.
    • Wilhelm II is not reinstated in a coup, and neither Gustav Stresemann nor Aristide Briand are assassinated (Stresemann does die in 1929, but of a stroke).
    • Adenauer's political career is never compromised.
    • Leon Trotsky never profited from a train full of gold in Istanbul.
  • Freudian Trio: Gereon (Superego), Bruno (Ego) and Charlotte (Id).
  • Gambit Pileup: The Armenian's underground pornography ring, the secret war between the Trotskyists and Stalinists, the German Communist struggle, the Nazis false flag operation and the Monarchist conspiracy to overthrow the Weimar government all have little or nothing to do with each other - other than Countess Sorokina trying to use several of them to her advantage - and get in in each others' way a lot over the course of the story.
  • Heroic Russian Émigré: Generally averted; there are lots of Russian emigrés in Berlin, but there's barely anything heroic about them (unless you count being against Stalin as a sufficient condition), and the police deliberately turns a blind eye to their infighting as long as it means they don't have to deal with them.
    • Subverted with Kardakov (and his cell). Unlike the usual application of this trope, he isn't a liberal or a noble, but a trotskyist and therefore every bit as communist as the guys he's fighting against, and it can be made a case that the cause he's fighting for isn't exactly a good one either. However, his fight is still against Stalin's tyranny which was most definitely worse than what Trotsky had in mind, and he does so with great personal sacrifices and apparently also without aspirations for personal gain.
    • Completely averted with Svetlana Sorokina. While she fits the idea of the trope as being a emigrated Russian countess who fled from the Soviets (unlike Kardakov), she's only in it for herself and doesn't hesitate to throw everyone and everything under the bus in order to reclaim the Sorokins' family gold. Also, she's an impostor - she's the daughter of the Sorokin's driver who sold out the family and passed the secret of their family gold on to her.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Rath and Wolters are present for investigations of crimes they themselves took part in.
  • Historical-Domain Character:
    • The Lord Mayor of Cologne Dr. Konrad Adenauer is Gereon's benefactor in his mission to retrieve film material being used to blackmail him.
    • In Berlin we see the Mayor Gustav Böß and "Buddha of criminal investigators" Ernst Gennat.
    • German Foreign Minister and former Chancellor Gustav Stresemann and French Prime Minister Aristide Briand make an appearance in season 2 where they are targeted for assassination.
    • Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg]], Kurt von Schleicher and Erich Ludendorff are involved in "Operation Prangertag".
  • Iris Out: Most scenes after the opening credits start with an "Iris In" effect, obviously an homage to the Silent Movie era this series is set in.
  • Kick the Dog: The first appearance of Charlotte's brother-in-law has him make rude and misogynistic statements. His later actions confirm that he's a waste of flesh.
  • Leitmotif: The Mackie Messer theme from The Threepenny Opera pops up several times in the second season. It's being whistled by Bruno, then by Moritz, played in the streets by an Organ Grinder and finally by an orchestra at the opera. Hearing it leads to an Eureka Moment in Gereon.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: There are numerous subplots, each fitted with a long list of characters.
  • MacGuffin: The film that Gereon is after.
  • Mineral MacGuffin: The train car full of gold bars; though the gold bars themselves are later revealed to be pressed lumps of coal with gold colouring on them; the train car itself has been poured out of the gold and painted black.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Racy pornography and blackmail → robbery, arms trafficking, murder, and conspiracy to commit high treason.
  • Military Coup: The "Black Reichswehr" intends to mount one on the Weimar government and reinstate Wilhelm II's monarchy. In Real Life, it would have only been one in an endless cavalcade of attempted coups.
  • Montage Out: Various episodes feature a prolonged scene montage shortly before the end.
  • Morality Pet: Emmi is this to Wolter.
  • Nice Hat: Everybody sports one, which, given the era, isn't surprising. The shako helmets of the Berlin police (which were used up until the 1960s in both Berlins), however, deserve a special mention.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed:
  • Old Soldier: Almost the entire male cast are World War I veterans, which at that point was over ten years ago.
  • Operation: [Blank]: The plot of Season 2 revolves around "Operation Prangertag", a Military Coup by the Black Reichswehr to overthrow the government.
  • Previously On: Episodes start with a recap of what happened previously.
    Narrator: Bisher bei Babylon Berlin...
  • Red Scare: Comes in two distinct pre-Cold War flavours, and are so prevalent in-universe that the Berlin police refuses to investigate deaths of Russians anymore:
    • There are the (pretty grey) Trotskyists (also known as the 4th International), who have been exiled from Russia after the revolution by Stalin, and seek to fund an insurrection from abroad using stolen gold.
    • Then there is Stalin's secret police (pure black), the Joint State Political Directorate, who are tasked with weeding out subversive elements even in Berlin, and murder them with extreme prejudice.
  • Retraux: The opening credits of the series are done according to the aesthetics of the German film of the 1920snote , characterized by the use of distorted angles, intense colors, cutting - often circular - of the image, or superimpositions.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilised: The Trotskyists' first move in the series is to hijack a train, mug the engine drivers out of their uniforms, and then execute them. It later turns out that the engine drivers were smuggling poison gas into Germany for the "Black Reichswehr", but still...
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: Essentially the entire Reichswehr - Weimar Germany's armed forces - have been reduced to that. Since the humiliating post-World War I Treaty of Versailles only allowed Germany to keep a miniscule army, and forced them to scrap most of their navy as well as their entire air force, Germany had take covert means of remilitarisation, which included training their troops and assembling gear abroad (mostly Russia and Poland, in exchange for German technological know-how). 'Surplus' soldiers were delegated towards paramilitary groups. Unfortunately, this situation also gave birth to movements not unlike the In-Universe "Black Reichswehr", renegade nationalist soldiers led by Generalmajor Seegers, bent on overthrowing the Weimar democracy and reinstating Kaiser Wilhelm II.
  • Running Gag:
    • The two Berlin detectives who are constantly correcting each other's wording.
    • People constantly barging into Gräf's darkroom and destroying whatever photos he's developing.
  • The Secret of Long Pork Pies: A trademark of the Armenian. He is introduced inviting a criminal conspirator to eat dinner served by his club, only to reveal that the food is made from the criminal conspirator's slain brother. He later threatens Charlotte to butcher her in his kitchen.
  • Shellshocked Veteran: Most adult men are veterans of the Great War. Rath and Krajewski are suffering PTSD much more than others and take morphine to combat their nervous seizures. Rath hides this fact from others due to social condemnation of "tremblers."
  • Shout-Out: Plenty. The series is very much a Homage to Weimar culture and the artistic movements of the day:
    • The assassination of Stresemann and Briand is supposed to happen at a performance of Brecht's Threepenny Opera. The famous Moritat also serves as the episode's Leitmotif.
    • Some camera angles (particularly the overhead shots of streets and corners) are direct homages to M.
    • Dr Schmidt, his hypnotic shellshock treatment and cooperation with the criminal underworld subplots borrow heavily from both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler , both of which were famed German psychological thrillers of the 20s and 30s.
    • The scenes of Charlotte, Greta and the others hanging out at Wannsee Lake are themselves direct references to People On Sunday, an influential silent film from 1930. The film itself also makes an appearance in spite of being a year too early.
    • The little abstract animations playing in the backdrop of every episode are actually taken straight from Lichtspiel: Opus, a series of abstract experimental films made by Walter Ruttmann in the early 1920s.
  • Theme Tune: Zu Asche, zu Staub, which in-universe is Svetlana Sorokina's jazzy cabaret song.
  • Sorting Algorithm of Mortality: Dr. Benda is Jewish, and the story takes place in Berlin, only a few years before the Nazi Party grabs power. Even before he is ultimately killed by a Nazi-planted bomb, it was almost a given that he wasn't going to make it to old age alive.
  • Title In: All locations are introduced with on-screen text.
  • Voiceover Letter: Whenever a letter is read out, it's done with the voice of the letter's originator.
  • Young Future Famous People:
    • Konrad Adenauer gets name-dropped as the mayor of Cologne. Twenty years later, Adenauer would become the German Federal Republic's first chancellor, as well as "the oldest statesman ever to function in elected office" (according to historians). In fact, "young" is stretching it in his case since he was born in 1876 and thus already in his 50s at the time of the series.
    • Two studio executives are watching dailies of Marlene Dietrich from movie The Blue Angel; this film would serve as her launch pad to international fame.


Example of: