Review: Babylon Berlin

Author: Leyla Kadi

Sub-editor: Zack Goutzoulas

Beautifully filmed and utterly mesmerising, Babylon Berlin graced our screens last year with a third season. Full of stunning visuals and intriguing plots, it acts as a deeper investigation into the lives of people across the social spectrum during Berlin in the late 1920s.

Based on the books by Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin follows a vice detective in the Weimar Republic alongside a host of other interesting and interwoven characters on a journey through the underground scene of Berlin. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, co-writer Henk Handloegten explained that ‘one of the main reasons to make Babylon Berlin was to show how all these Nazis did not just fall from the sky’. Babylon Berlin keeps viewers hooked with the ‘will they, won’t they’ trope, but as applied to a fledgeling republic rather than romantic plot. While it can be slow at times, the small ways in which the subplots interact keep the show tense and engaging.

While the individual plotlines are not historically accurate, the world the characters live in closely resembles reality, and that is exactly where the show’s beauty and intrigue lie. Harkening back to the interwar German film industry, Babylon Berlin employs Weimar era cinematographic styles to follow in the footsteps of other great expressionist works such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. At the conclusion of World War One, a host of economic and bureaucratic restrictions were placed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. However, one industry which remained relatively unscathed was film. By investing in the German film industry, innovation flourished and was adapted to fit the culture it was produced in; a culture of stifled economic growth, rapidly growing wealth divides, and most importantly a culture of shame, can all be seen through the expressionist presentation of Babylon Berlin

Cinematographically speaking, most effects can be directly compared to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the 1920 film which pioneered the German expressionist film movement; by utilising techniques such as vignette wipes in place of traditional scene transitions, use of chiaroscuro lighting to sidestep censorship by hiding ‘unsavoury’ scenes in the shadows, and frame tints for certain characters and their respective plotlines, the directors of Babylon Berlin show a clear respect and admiration for the era the tv show is set in. The expressionist fascination with murder, mortality and mentality are all prevalent themes explored throughout the show, and all are considered from a variety of perspectives. The use of perspectives as a visual construct is also used to support the plot, most notably in the third season which revolves around the production of a 1920s expressionist film. Distorted camera angles and strange set composition are a hallmark of German expressionism and have slowly seeped into mainstream film genres.

With cinematographic purity and attention to detail in following the German expressionist tradition set in place by the era it seeks to examine, Babylon Berlin is undoubtedly deserving of its high praise. For non-German speakers, I recommend watching with subtitles rather than voiceovers – the only drawback of this method is that you do need to watch it carefully. Babylon Berlin’s rich world, captivating visuals and engaging, albeit historically inaccurate, story make it well worth your time.

Babylon Berlin is available on Netflix (AUS).

Image credit

Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, untitled still, 2017, courtesy of the Babylon Berlin website.

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