Babylon Berlin or How Much Worse Could Things Get, Anyway?

One of the weird things about general life and culture in modern Europe is the absolute dominance of Germany in economic and (slightly less) political terms and the absolute gaping hole that is modern German art. Over the last twenty years or so Denmark (with 5 million souls) has had a higher cultural profile than 80 million strong Germany, arguably even Iceland (less than half a million) has produced more high profile popular culture. It’s a weird situation and I recall that some years ago someone on another blog said it’s a matter of concern within Germany itself.

Now maybe things are changing. I’ve watched the first season of Babylon Berlin and it’s actually never less than watchable and at its best first rate TV. It’s a limited series that begins just before May day in 1929. German society is reeling from economic dislocations and the shadow of World War I still looms large and young people are partying like there’s no tomorrow because, from their point of view…. there might as well not be.

The story follows a policeman, who’s a drug addict suffering from shell shock (he doses himself to keep his shaking under control), who’s transferred to Berlin from Cologne to clean up a potential sex scandal. There’s also a young woman who dabbles at secretarial work at the police headquarters (they have casual labor set up for paperwork) by day and dabbles in kinky prostitution by night at a high end nightclub. In the background there are Russians at war with each other in Berlin and train cars filled with poison gas or smuggled Russian gold and don’t think too closely about the sense of it all just drink in the visual imagination and luxury.

It also does anachronisms right, rather than the real music of 1929 Berlin (the Morität from the Threepenny Opera) can be heard for a few seconds whining from a gramophone) the nightclub music is mostly modern, meant to sound to modern audiences how it probably sounded to people at the time. But unlike Moulin Rouge that went way too far (I enjoyed it but it was a hot steaming mess) it’s just a little more…. restrained and in character.

The musical highlight so far has been zu Asche zu Staub (to ashes to dust) performed by a Russian woman in male drag in a mad deco nightclub. It maybe lasts about a half a minute too long but it’s a delirious set piece that comes across as half self-aware decadence and half pagan ritual, it’s a wild mass delusion that obliquely foreshadows the horrors to come (all that energy looking for an outlet…).


I don’t know if this is just a one off flash in the pan, or if more interesting stuff is in the offing from Germany, but it’s a welcome sign of life in what has been a cultural black hole in the heart of Europe.


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2 Responses to Babylon Berlin or How Much Worse Could Things Get, Anyway?

  1. Garr says:

    Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter (painters) had, and maybe still have, huge status in the USA, but maybe they don’t really count as fitting within “the last twenty years or so.”

    • cliff arroyo says:

      I’m thinking more of language based arts… I can think of a couple movies (run lola run, goodbye lenin and the life of others) that had some international impact and… not much else.
      I don’t get any German tv channels anymore, but when I did most of the content was. not. good (in extremely diplomatic terms).
      The book Das Parfum had an impact but that was in the 80s and the movie was in English and too international to count as German in any cultural sense (though Tywer was involved there too, I hope he plans on working in German more, it needs him)

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