Netflix: Season 3
Babylon Berlin is back and doing what it does best
Returning for its third season more than two years after its previous batch of episodes, this slinky, sultry, intrigue-filled German crime thriller once again steps into the glamorous yet complicated world of Weimar-era Berlin.
By Sarah Ward
When Babylon Berlin’s second season came to an end — in December 2017 in Germany, where it airs on television, and in January 2018 in Australia, where it streams on Netflix — the Weimar era-set German crime thriller did so with revelations and altercations, fights and confrontations atop a moving train, and more than one resurrection. Returning for its third season more than two years later, that leaves the glamorous, slinky and twisty series based on Volker Kutscher’s novels facing a considerable question: where to from here?
How does a show top one of the best cliffhangers seen on TV in recent years, as well as one of the best reversals? How does a series that has seemingly boiled every inch of neo-noir intrigue possible out of its 1929 Berlin setting find more drama to dazzle audiences? If you’re the most expensive non-English language screen production ever made, a worldwide hit that’s sold and screened in more than 100 countries, and a show that’s made its name by combining luxe cabaret clubs, secret gold stashes, widespread social disparity, Soviet schemes, the gradual rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s party, reactionary political forces agitating for insurrection and the shadow cast by the First World War, you do the obvious: you continue as you always have.
To the delight of Babylon Berlin diehards, that means more mysteries and murders, and more political, personal and criminal mayhem. It means more duplicity, double-crossing and deviousness within families, in back alleys, throughout police headquarters and in the halls of power, too. And, yes, more cloche hats, flapper dresses, heavy overcoats and shiny brogues also come with the terrain. As adapted for television by the creator/writer/director team of Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), Achim von Borries (4 Days in May, Alone in Berlin) and Henk Handloegten (Good Bye Lenin!, Summer Window), the show wouldn’t be the same without any of the above.
Narrative-wise, fans are back in familiar territory as well, with torment-(and often drug-)addled police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and clerk-turned-assistant detective Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) once again leading the charge. But more than its murky storylines, labyrinthine subplots, and exquisite costuming and production design — and its stellar use of Berlin’s architecture, too — it’s Babylon Berlin’s ability to both stick to its already clearly established framework and constantly surprise that remains the show’s chief achievement. No episode of Babylon Berlin could ever be mistaken for anything else, but no episode ever feels the same, merely ticks the usual boxes or adheres to a straightforward type, either.
The next chapter
In the series’ third season, Gereon and Charlotte are tasked with a scandalous new case after a rising starlet is killed mid-shoot at a local film studio. The fact that organised crime boss Edgar ‘The Armenian’ Kasabian (Mišel Matičević) and his just-out-of-prison partner Walter Weintraub (Ronald Zehrfeld) are the production’s primary financial backers complicates matters significantly, as does the insurance company’s refusal to cover their losses if the death is ruled anything other than an accident. Unsurprisingly, that’s just the beginning of the story.
Intertwining its multitude of narrative strands with the Moka Efti cabaret club owned by The Armenian, previous seasons of Babylon Berlin leaned into the show’s Cabaret and The Blue Angel–esque vibe; with one set in Berlin in the same period, and the other, German’s first full-length talkie, made at the time, they’re obvious touchstones. The lavish, raucous venue and others like it remain part of the show’s third season, as does the heady atmosphere that they signal; however Tykwer, von Borries and Handloegten have evolved from pairing their slippery tale with singing, dancing, drag king-fronted excess to filtering it through the German Expressionism film movement. This time, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari leave sizeable imprints, and not just on the movie shoot that’s pushed front and centre.
More than its previous 16 episodes across the show’s first two seasons, Babylon Berlin latest chapter shimmers and ripples in-sync with its characters. These 12 new instalments don’t merely depict the goings-on around Gereon and Charlotte — as well as Gereon’s ex (and also his lost brother’s wife) Helga (Hannah Herzsprung), the steel manufacturing heir Alfred Nyssen (Lars Erdinger) she’s drawn to, the political police counsellor Oberst Wendt (Benno Fürmann) surreptitiously trying to push the republic towards anarchy, and Charlotte’s friend and convicted assassin Greta Overbeck (Leonie Benesch), to name a few of the series’ other main players — but endeavour to reflect their constant state of emotional turmoil in every frame. Indeed, as Gereon is forced to confront his past and Charlotte finds herself caught between her own history and her desired future, it feels fitting that they’re charged with chasing down a shadowy figure that, thanks to the killer’s decision to borrow a costume from the film production it’s stalking, resembles the kind of monster that could’ve been seen on-screen during the period.
The Weimar Mirror
When it comes to plot developments and machinations, Babylon Berlin’s third season continues the show’s love of subplots, with ‘the more the merrier’ seemingly Tykwer, von Borries and Handloegten’s motto. As the brief list of supporting characters outlined above intimates, there’s no shortage of drama on every front — and that’s before mentioning Helga’s teenage son Moritz (Ivo Pietcker) and his Jojo Rabbit-style experiences with the Hitler Youth; the quest to find Fritz Hockert (Jacob Matschenz), the catalyst behind Greta’s current predicament; and the plight of Samuel Katelbach (Karl Markovics), a journalist determined to expose underhanded plans threatening Germany’s stability. It’s also before communist law student Malu Seegers (Saskia Rosendahl), daughter to one of the Reichswehr’s generals (Ernst Stötzner), makes an appearance — and before police forensic expert Leopold Ullrich (Luc Feit), who feels he’s the real brains behind the homicide department’s achievements, starts playing a more central role in the series.
The list goes on, both within the show’s latest episodes and Babylon Berlin’s three seasons to date a whole. Sometimes, the end result feels intoxicatingly, bewitchingly intricate; occasionally, even with the series’ decadent staging always catching the eye and luring viewers in, it threatens to feel over-stuffed as well. But while not every narrative thread receives equal time, they all play an important part in holding up a mirror to an era that was a plethora of things at once — as, with the benefit of hindsight, history usually dictates is the case before cataclysmic change sweeps in and alters the world forever.
As typified in its bustling, elaborate, extravagant third season, Babylon Berlin dives headfirst into a world of conflict, complication and contrasts. It’s a series where a woman aspiring to become the first female police detective has to moonlight in illicit affairs to support her ailing family, and where history and fiction combine in an equally astute and surreal manner. Every episode is busy, jostling, energetic and teeming with juxtapositions, all to examine and explore a seemingly liberated place and a time where anything once appeared possible — but, unbeknownst to many, those simmering contradictions were set to bubble to the surface in drastic and catastrophic ways.
That said, Babylon Berlin does more than hold a mirror up to the Weimar Republic’s highs and lows. As proves true with all historical tales, its power and allure resides not just partly, but primarily, in the mirror it also holds up to contemporary life. The show’s prominent paternoster elevator might be a firm sign of its times, and its glittering, glimmering parties may be firmly a product of their period, too; however Gereon’s struggles to overcome his war-torn past traumas, the roadblocks that Charlotte must navigate due to her gender, politicians’ distrust of the press, growing stock market unrest, clashing socio-political forces and causes, and the emergence of right-wing strongholds intent on destabilising the status quo are hardly mere relics of a bygone era.