If you seek a riveting period drama that mixes political intrigue with sensuous depictions of decadent nightlife, then travel to 1929 to binge-watch “Babylon Berlin.” With its perfectly paced mystery and big-budget production, “Babylon Berlin” offers a compelling and complex portrait of a volatile society.
Title: “Babylon Berlin”
Year it began: 2017
Where it can be seen: Netflix
Who’s in it: Volker Bruch, Liv Lisa Fries, Peter Kurth, Severeija Janušauskaite, Matthias Brandt, Ivan Shvedoff, Anton von Lucke, Leonie Benesch, Jördis Triebel, Lars Eidinger, Fritzi Haberlandt, Mišel Matičević, Jens Harzer and Hannah Herzsprung.
Typical episode length: 45 minutes
Number of episodes to date: 16
Brief plot description: Cologne police inspector Gereon Rath comes to a Berlin vice squad to pursue a secret investigation that raises Chief Inspector Bruno Wolther’s suspicions. Charlotte Ritter, a flapper and part-time secretary, helps Rath investigate. Meanwhile, Russian civil war plays out in a Germany fractured by political and criminal plots.
Why it’s worth watching: “Babylon Berlin” offers mesmerizing television, succeeding both as absorbing mystery and exquisitely produced historical drama. With outstanding directing and first-rate scripts, the German “Babylon Berlin” sets its fictional tale in a vividly portrayed Weimar Germany. We see an unstable Berlin, moving from scenes of abject urban poverty to music-filled clubs where fashionably dressed revelers dance in wild abandon.
It deftly manages its story, alternating between serene depictions of everyday life and a noir atmosphere of cynicism and menace. The series powerfully deploys political history, showing the struggle between Russian Trotskyites and Stalinists, the brutal state repression of German laborers, and the tragic re-emergence of German nationalism.
The show’s large cast is uniformly outstanding. Bruch’s Rath is a fascinating protagonist: though afflicted with occasionally terrifying seizures and drug addiction brought on by wartime trauma, Bruch usually projects a gentle coolness that makes him as believable when he is investigating as when he joyfully dances in a bar. Friese’s resourceful Ritter is charmingly contradictory as her earnest efforts to become a police investigator blend seamlessly with her easygoing life as a flapper in Berlin’s sex- and jazz-laced nightclub scene. Other standout performances include Kurth’s corrupt, but complicated Wolther; Janušauskaite’s icy Countess and transvestite performer, Svetlana Sorokina; Harzer’s determined Doctor Anno Schmidt, who resists public prejudice to treat traumatized veterans with dignity; Herzsprung’s dreamy yet tormented Helga Rath; and Triebel’s Völcker, a physician who fights for poor citizens’ health and rights.
Also to consider
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” For a fascinating look at a real-world connection between the glamorous high-life and the European war haunting “Babylon Berlin,” take a look at the 2017 biographical documentary “Bombshell.” Exploring the life and times of actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, “Bombshell” explores her early life in Austria, her departure after the rise of the Nazis, and her rise to Hollywood stardom. “Bombshell” thoroughly recounts Lamarr’s co-invention (along with the composer George Antheil) of the “Secret Communications System,” which was a frequency hopping communications system designed to help guide Allied torpedoes against Axis targets. Info: 90 minutes. Available via Netflix, PBS and Amazon.
“Charité.” For another fantastic German historical drama with smart scripts and big-budget production, binge-watch “Charité” (2017). Set in a German research hospital in 1888, “Charité” dramatizes an exciting period of medical innovation in which scientists studying such topics as bacteriology and hygiene struggled valiantly against religious conservatives and medical traditionalists. Focusing on Ida Lenze (Alicia von Rittberg), a poor woman who works as a nurse to repay her debts for an emergency appendectomy, “Charité” offers a melodramatic look at the political and romantic conflicts in a busy hospital filled with nurses, doctors and patients, as well as a fascinating history of social and medical progress. Information: 6 episodes, 45 minutes each, available at Netflix.