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Babylon Berlin: Media, Spectacle, and History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2021

Extract

Babylon Berlin (henceforth BB) premiered in Germany on the pay channel Sky TV in October 2017 and in the United States on the streaming service Netflix in January 2018. It is based on Volker Kutscher's series of crime novels set in late Weimar Republic and early Nazi-era Berlin. At its center are the lives and investigations of the laconic and tormented police detective Gereon Rath and his charismatic and irrepressible assistant Charlotte (Lotte) Ritter. In anticipation of the series premiere on public television, marathon screenings took place in 150 cinemas across Germany, where audience members dressed up in 1920s fashion and enjoyed a Currywurst break. Its viewership in the Federal Republic was topped only by the global fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones. The series is clearly modeled on American series such as Mad Men (2007–2015) and The Wire (2002–2008) as it unfolds a complex web of characters and subplots with loving attention to the history and fashions of the time. Indeed, this collaboration of seasoned directors Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Henk Handloegten is the most expensive German TV series to date. The fact that BB premiered on pay TV while having been largely produced with public funds drew some ire. German reviewers questioned both the circumstances of its production and its creative ambition. While Der Spiegel called it “a masterpiece,” one much debated blog review went so far as to call it “pure crap,” which neither reflected historical truth nor carried artistic merit. Many critics faulted the series for trading in postcard clichés and creating a 1920s “Berlin Disneyland.” The weekly Die Zeit complained that there was a little too much cute dialect, such as “icke” and “kiek ma,” which made the critic sometimes feel like wiping the dirt makeup off the proletarian faces. (And indeed, one of the numerous intertexts of this series are Heinrich Zille's unflinching depictions of proletarian misery.)

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Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Central European History Society of the American Historical Association

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References

1 Christian Buß, “Serienmeisterwerk Babylon Berlin. Weltmeister der Angst,” Der Spiegel, October 13, 2017.

2 Kurt Scheel, “Warum ist ‘Babylon Berlin’ so abstoßend?”, Das Schema, October 23, 2017 (https://das-schema.com/2017/10/23/warum-ist-babylon-berlin-so-abstossend/).

3 Esme Nicholson, “Germany's ‘Babylon Berlin’ Crime Series Is Like ‘Cabaret’ On Cocaine,” NPR All Things Considered, January 30, 2018 (https://www.npr.org/2018/01/30/581543050/germanys-babylon-berlin-crime-series-is-like-cabaret-on-cocaine?t=1591619899228).

4 Adrian Daub, “What Babylon Berlin Sees in the Weimar Republic,” The New Republic, February 14, 2018 (https://newrepublic.com/article/147053/babylon-berlin-sees-weimar-republic).

5 Noah Isenberg, “Voluptuous Panic,” New York Review of Books, April 28, 2018 (https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/04/28/voluptuous-panic/).

6 Hall, Sara F., “Babylon Berlin: Pastiching Weimar Cinema,” Communications 44, no. 3 (2019): 304–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Jeff Mannes, “Babylon Berlin? Zum Mythos der wilden 20er Jahre,” Siegessäule.de, August 28, 2019 (https://www.siegessaeule.de/no_cache/newscomments/article/4442-babylon-berlin-vom-mythos-der-wilden-20-er-jahre.html).

8 Kaes, Anton, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Bettauer, Hugo, Die Stadt ohne Juden [The City without Jews] (Vienna: Löwit, 1922)Google Scholar.

10 Bernhard Weiss, “Mehr Selbstbewusstsein,” C.V Zeitung, June 3, 1931.

11 Lars-Olav Beier, “Schluss mit Pappmaché-Retro-Nostalgie!“, Der Spiegel, October 12, 2017.

12 Kaes, Anton, “Film in der Weimarer Republik,” in Geschichte des Deutschen Films, ed. Jacobsen, Wolfgang, Kaes, Anton, and Prinzler, Hans Helmut (Stuttgart and Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 1993), 46Google Scholar.

13 “Video-Teaser 9: Costume Design” (https://babylon-berlin.com/en/press/video-teaser-9-kostuembild/).

14 Cameron Hood, “Babylon Berlin,” The New Yorker, May 21, 2018 (https://www.newyorker.com/recommends/watch/babylon-berlin); and Isenberg, “Voluptuous Panic.”

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