Babylon Berlin recreates 1920s Berlin in exquisite detail to bring Volker Kutchser’s detective Gereon Rath to television. DQ visits the set.
Amid financial turmoil and growing distrust of establishment figures, an ultra-nationalist movement stirs, snaring growing numbers of supporters through lies and scaremongering while opposition parties flounder. A functioning political process begins its slow, stealthy death march, while the importance of fighting for freedom and democracy becomes impossible to ignore.
Small wonder the story of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s postwar democracy dismantled by the Nazis in the 1930s, feels so appropriate for our times. For X Filme, the German production company weighing up the possibilities, the big question was how to tell it. Enter Volker Kutscher, author of the noirish Gereon Rath detective novels.
Kutscher’s first story in the series, Babylon Berlin, follows vice squad detective Rath as he is dispatched from his hometown of Cologne on a secret mission to bust an extortion ring in Berlin. Instead, his investigations turn up sinister goings-on linking politics to the underworld and police corruption to a proposed right-wing military putsch. His sidekick, Charlotte Ritter, is an unlikely combination of police stenotypist and prostitute, such was the struggle for many to make ends meet on the cusp of the Great Depression. Although ridiculed by her superiors, she becomes indispensable to Rath, her dual life granting him crucial access to Berlin’s seamy underbelly.
It’s a rich stew of cultural, personal, political and economic excess in arguably the most intoxicating city of the age, and proved irresistible to producer Michael Polle and X Filme co-founder Tom Tykwer, director of ambitious art-house touchstones including Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas.
Brought to X Filme to build up the television department, it’s fair to say Polle is fulfilling his brief with Babylon Berlin, which will premiere on Sky Deutschland this October before its free-to-air debut on Germany’s ARD Das Erste next year.
After an aborted attempt to work up their own material for a Weimar-era drama, the team turned to Kutscher’s books and, after a patient hunt (they had been optioned by another company), bought the rights. Kutscher has been a hands-off partner on the Babylon Berlin set, happy to leave the production to it once he had seen the scripts, according to Polle.
Crucially, like the novel, the TV adaptation examines the era without imposing any knowledge of what was to come. This was the pre-cabaret age, when optimism still abounded and political turmoil was matched by a thriving creative arts scene led by director Fritz Lang, dramatist Bertolt Brecht and the art movements of Expressionism and New Objectivity. The Nazis were a minority concern and few had heard of Adolf Hitler.
Tykwer was joined by Achim von Borries (Alone in Berlin) and Henk Handloegten (Summer Window), with the triumvirate directing and writing all 16 episodes that make up the first two seasons. And despite being both the most recognisable name internationally and the ostensible showrunner, Tykwer appears to run a very collaborative process, insisting each episode is credited to the three of them. Certainly, it’s unusual for an auteur to harness their creative instincts to the collective quite so comprehensively.
“Tom wanted to develop characters and stories longer than films allow,” claims Polle. “This was the right project at the right time for him. It’s not about who’s best – they’re a strong team. That spirit of co-operation was fascinating. Achim says that, when you see an episode, you have no idea who shot which scene, which was the goal all along.”
While Tykwer was virtually a TV debutant before Babylon Berlin, with just two episodes of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Netflix folly Sense8 to his name, Von Borries and Handloegten had considerable experience in small-screen drama – something undoubtedly invaluable to the extraordinary logistical effort required to shoot 16 episodes concurrently over eight months.
It’s a bone-chillingly cold December day when DQ visits Babylon Berlin’s backlot set, Neuen Berliner Strasse, at the Studio Babelsberg in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, on the outskirts of the German capital. Scenes from episodes two, three, 12, 14 and 15 are being shot by all three directors across several locations in Berlin and Cologne, the hometown of not only Rath (played by Generation War’s Volker Bruch, pictured top) but also Kutscher.
At Babelsberg, a week before wrap, von Borries is directing Liv Lisa Fries (Day of Rage, Night of Reason) as her character, Chartlotte, attempts to rescue her younger sister from the clutches of an exploitative gangster outside Moka Efti, a legendary Berlin nightspot whose art deco facade is impressively rendered here. Almost all the houses on this network of streets are in fact facades, but their doors and windows still offer different perspectives and angles for filming. Interiors were shot in studios or production centres – primarily the former ministry of the interior for the GDR, which was used as the inside of a police station, various offices and part of Moka Efti (an old silent-cinema building was also used for the latter).
As well as overseeing the score, as he has done for the vast majority of his films, Tykwer brought several key collaborators to the series. Most critically, there’s production designer Uli Hanisch, whose work on this outstanding set allows grotesque wealth to nestle cheek by jowl with extreme poverty. Various streets from several different Berlin districts are here: principally, Friedrichstrasse, Charlottenburg and Kreuzberg Neukölln. No single thoroughfare is straight, again offering multiple camera angles for the creative director of photography. Greenscreens lurk on street corners, although on-location filming was carried out where possible, including a memorable day of filming on Alexanderplatz, a large public square in central Berlin. “The plan was to get an idea of Berlin in the 1920s, and to do that you have to film in the streets,” says Polle.
The scene being depicted when DQ visits is set a few days after police had used horses and tanks to disperse a Communist march for Official Workers’ Day, May 1, 1929. It’s a little calmer now, but only just. Political slogans cover walls and lampposts. Adverts promote Sanatogen ‘Fur Deine Nerven’ (for your nerves). Beautiful vintage cars squeal through crowds of people going about their business. Around 150 extras are on set today, each with their own name, number and costume – “some people say there aren’t any 20s costumes left in Europe because we have rented them all!” laughs Polle. The blend of 1920s Berlin with the aesthetic of classic American gangster movies is entirely deliberate, and a decision that Boardwalk Empire fan Kutscher endorses.
“Watching The Sopranos 15 years ago was an epiphany,” he told The Guardian last year. “That and The Wire. Seeing my books being adapted for TV in the tradition of those HBO shows is exciting.”
The timing for such a series is unquestionably right. “Once, there were more urgent stories to tell, like the Second World War and Hitler,” reckons Jan Mojto, CEO of Beta Film, Babylon Berlin’s distributor and strategic partner to X-Filme. “Germans have always had a complicated relationship with their past, but that’s changing now. The country is facing its own history in all its contradictions, understanding that, even if it was very black, there were light moments. It’s a more realistic attitude to one’s own history than just guilt.”
Babylon Berlin will join a growing number of German series making an international splash, notably Second World War saga Generation War and Cold War thriller Deustchland 83. Not since the days of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early 1980s has German television drama enjoyed such a high profile. Deutschland 83, however, proved to be a much bigger hit abroad than at home – an indication of the gamble being taken by producers when they aim for a wider market. As a result, broadcaster RTL has partnered with Amazon on its sequel, Deutschland 86. Netflix, meanwhile, will launch German-language supernatural drama Dark this winter.
The market, however, hasn’t been entirely cornered by SVoD services. For Babylon Berlin, X Filme opted for a pay TV/free-to-air partnership between Sky Deustchland and German national broadcaster ARD – an unusual but not unprecedented setup.
“For a project of this size and scale, it’s the first one,” says Mojto. “The budget is comparable to international standards, close to €2.5m [US$2.65m] per episode, but we could never have got that from a single broadcaster in Germany. The arrangement wasn’t too complicated; the important thing was that the three directors wanted to tell this story in a certain way, and we all met on that ground.”
European coproductions have, says Polle, become increasingly common, with Borgen creator Adam Price and Danish network DR working with Franco-German network Arte on faith-based drama Rides Upon the Storm.
“National networks now don’t have enough money to fund big, ambitious series alone,” he notes. “But from a storytelling point of view, even if its being made for a global audience, you shouldn’t be considering what French or American people might think about a scene. The story just needs a strong identity – if it’s unique and good, you’ll get attention around the world.”
Another key decision, says Mojto, was to shoot Babylon Berlin in its native language. “Given the size of the project,” he says, “four years ago it would have been reasonable to try and shoot in English, but we felt it would not enhance its authenticity. [Italian mob drama] Gomorrah was shot in a Neapolitan dialect so strong that lots of Italians struggled to understand it, but that didn’t prevent the series from travelling around the world.”
This is unlikely to be the last we’ll see of Gereon Rath, or his unwitting involvement in the birth of the modern age in all its glory and horror. “Volker wanted to tell the story of Berlin throughout this time,” says Polle. “His first idea was to finish the series in 1936 and the Berlin Olympics. His latest novel is set in 1937, so the first idea went a little too well! But that’s OK – the more books he writes, the better for us.”