Monday, March 5, 2018

Babylon Berlin (Seasons 1 and 2, 2017-2018)

Moka Efti cabaret
Ocean of time 
Eternal law 
To ashes, to dust 
To ashes
 But not just yet~ from "Zu Asche, zu Staub" in Babylon Berlin
Babylon Berlin is a German production about the Wiemar republic in the late 1920's, showing how the Nazis came to power amid extreme decadence and a breakdown of society. (What Netflix calls "Season 1" is actually Seasons 1 and 2 rolled into one.) While other films about Wiemar, such as Der Blaue Engel and Cabaret, give a glimpse of the degeneracy, Babylon Berlin takes the viewer into the heart of it with disturbing realism. The first two or three episodes feature scenes that are almost unwatchable and would be except for their brevity. The main character is a Catholic policeman, Gereon Rath, who suffers from PTSD and thus has become addicted to morphine and other co-dependent behaviors. The heroine, Charlotte Ritter, is a poor girl from the slums who is trying to support her family in any way she can. Together they investigate a porn ring as well as try to get to the bottom of a plot between "The Black Reichswehr" and the Soviets, involving a mysterious train containing both poison gas and Imperial Russian gold. Meanwhile, the Troskyite Communists vie for power with the Soviets and Stalin, as the local gangsters, who appear to have more power than the police, pull strings in the background. And they all congregate at the Moka Efti cabaret in Berlin, where a Russian countess in male attires sings "Zu Asche, zu Staub."
Volker Bruch as Inspector Gereon Rath
A veteran of the Great War, it is interesting that the protagonist Gereon Rath has the same last name as the hapless professor in The Blue Angel but there the similarity ends. Unlike Professor Rath, Gereon goes to great lengths to maintain his place in respectable society, guarding his affair with his sister-in-law Helga like a state secret, and withholding the entire truth about the murder of Communist sympathizers in order to support his fellow police. In fact, the police are the main focus of his loyalties; he is totally committed to the force in the face of the shifting political and cultural landscapes which surround him. As a Roman Catholic he obviously struggles with his conscience over a variety of behaviors, as he shares with his confessor. Gereon is not without genuine integrity and courage; he is completely fearless when it comes to facing criminals and danger, especially having no thought of his own safety when it comes to rescuing a friend. Furthermore he often acts with compassion to those in need, especially his assistant Charlotte Ritter.

Liv Lisa Fries as Charlotte Ritter
Charlotte is a clever girl from a dysfunctional family, a family experiencing grinding poverty, disease and semi-starvation. As her mother dies of syphilis and her worthless brother-in-law abuses everyone with his shiftlessness and his fists, "Lotte" works at whatever secretarial jobs she can find and also as a part-time "unregistered" prostitute at the Moka Efti cabaret. At the cabaret she is allowed her choice of dresses and unlimited champagne, while flirting and dancing and taking on an occasional customer. Her prospects are greatly improved when she manages to find work at the police department and through her shrewdness and intuition shows herself adept at finding clues to mysterious cases. She therefore becomes the assistant of Gereon Rath. As she exposes herself to greater danger, Lotte fears for the safety of her little sister, especially after their mother dies. Lotte protects and nurtures her younger sister with the fierceness of a mother bear, and yet more and more she realizes the ruthlessness of the power which encroaches upon her and Germany and her helplessness against it. She and Gereon are slowly falling in love but the complications of both their lives keep them from acknowledging their true feelings until crisis strikes.

Lotte and her sister
Another fascinating character is Countess Svetlana Sorokina, a Russian émigrée and the star of the Moka Efti cabaret. She is trying to get her hands on her family gold which has been smuggled into Germany on a train filled with poison gas. Svetlana is working for everyone and no one. She is in love with a Trotskyite violinist whom the Soviets want her to murder, while accepting flowers from right wing industrialist Alfred Nyssen. Ruthless and imperious, Svetlana might not be who everyone thinks she is, as Gereon and Lotte discover at the end of Season 2. Svetlana and Lotte are among the many women who through circumstances more than by choice survive by granting sexual favors. The widespread poverty which followed the Great War, made worse by the communist and socialist regimes which took power from the fallen monarchs, placed innumerable women and girls in situations where they had to consider some form of prostitution in order to feed themselves and their families.

Severija Janušauskaitė as Countess Svetlana Sorokina
While there are no sign of the Nazis until the end of Season 2, there are hints of them, but only because history has given us hindsight to know what was going on behind the scenes. To appearances, the chief danger to society is from the Communists, who are constantly protesting and rabble rousing. Now we know, as Gereon and Lotte are discovering, that the Soviets are backing the Nazis, whom they plan to help take over the government. The Nazis have secretly made a pact with the right-wing old guard of monarchists, whom they are just using to get a foothold in the government and gain control of the police. Under the layers of glitter and profligacy, Babylon Berlin is a meticulous depiction of the steps taken both publicly and furtively to lead the German people into the totalitarian socialist utopia known as the Third Reich. Share

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