Although 2020 has seen a limited number of theatrical film releases, it has nevertheless provided cinephiles with many options for DVD and streaming experiences. For fans of Tom Tykwer, Kino Lorber’s new box set of Babylon Berlin is one of the year’s highlights. Seasons 1 and 2 are available now, with a separate set of Season Three discs coming in November.
Tykwer’s filmography includes high-energy thrillers like Run Lola Run and The International as well as more somber, pensive fare such as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and the sadly underrated Heaven. The director has cited influences as varied as John Carpenter and Krystof Kieslowski, which may make his style hard to pin down. As Tykwer explains in the wonderful documentary Lubitsch in Berlin, it is that proverbial touch which he has been attracted to and trying to emulate for much of his career.
One point of obvious comparison to Lubitsch is that Tykwer’s films often occupy an emotional space permeated with deep melancholy but occupied by those who have not yet surrendered to despair. That preoccupation is well on display in Babylon Berlin, and the series works equally well as a period melodrama and a portrait of people (and a broader culture) battling against not just political forces but also their own emotions wrought by seeing the world around them drifting towards insanity.
In some ways, of course, that’s a very postmodern theme, but as the connection to Lubitsch suggests, Tykwer sees postmodernism flirtation with nihilism not something new but rather the newest iteration of an age old struggle to find meaning in the midst of harsh circumstances.
The protagonist is Gereon Rath, and after a brief but ambiguous set up that suggests he is seeking treatment at an indeterminate time in the future, the series flashes backwards to Berlin in 1929. Rath has been transferred to the vice division of the police, and much of the opening episode involves a raid on the underground production of pornographic films. His partner is a bit more brutal – in him we see hints of the Nazi regime to come. But that isn’t all that separates the partners. Rath has secrets of his own, including why he was transferred and what he is really looking for.
At the police station he means Charlotte (Lotte) Ritter, an attractive and determined woman who is doing all that she can to keep her family afloat – without much help from anyone else. When Lotte is getting dressed up we think she might be prostituting herself, but she is actually looking for any way to get noticed by the bureaucrat who might offer any one of the twenty ladies waiting in line some secretarial work.
Ironically, the work she gets is tagging photos in the “murder squad,” so that detectives can look for commonalities between crimes. In the pilot’s best scene, Ritter and Rath bump into each other (the most cliché of all meet cutes), each spilling crime photos on the floor. As they sift through the pile, neatly separating murder from sex, violence from vice, neither flinches in embarrassment, though one comment towards the end signals a belated concession that something about the encounter isn’t normal.
The scene is emblematic of the whole, and its quintessential Tykwer. People trapped in an elaborate mousetrap getting glimpses of the artificiality of their roles and indeed their lives.
The pilot also introduces a plot thread of Trotsky loyalists who are smuggling something – we know not what – on a train making its way inexorably towards Berlin. I admit to finding that storyline less interesting, but Tykwer understands the mechanics of genre entertainments, such as building mystery and suspense through the slow approach of…something.
Pilots are always challenging because they must introduce both characters and storylines. Babylon Berlin’s does both well. By the end of the first episode, you will either have seen enough or be eager for more. I was definitely in the latter category.