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Babylon Berlin: Media, Spectacle, and History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2021


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.)

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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