(For the foreseeable future — aka as long as this quarantine lasts — Emily will be watching the critically acclaimed German drama Babylon Berlin, a neo-noir set in 1929 Germany. The series is available on Netflix in the United States. For every installment, she will be joined by a special guest. Today’s guest is TV critic and costuming aficionado Emma Fraser. Find Emma on the internet on Twitter and at her website.)
Emily: Babylon Berlin’s sixth episode, while not being my favorite of the show so far, is exactly the kind of episode that makes me love television.
In theory, this series, based on books as it is, could have been a film franchise or something similar. Most of the time, a novel is slightly too packed for a movie but not packed enough for a TV show. But “Episode 6” shows that all involved in Babylon Berlin know that TV storytelling is as much about knowing when to place pauses as it is building momentum.
Instead of the long, slow, steady build of too many Netflix shows, this series put a whole bunch of exciting stuff at the top of its run. And then, when the time came, the show gave us a half episode of the characters just hanging out on a lazy Sunday, going to the river to go boating, and having a great time. Gereon even gets laid! Good for him!
Emma, you are an expert in this series, having seen all of it. Where do you think these episodes sit in the show’s run? And please tell me which moment in “Episode 5” is the one you love the gif of so very much.
Emma: Babylon Berlin took hold over me at the end of the summer in 2018, resulting in me watching both seasons one and two over the space of a week.
The respite offered in "Episode 6" by this leisurely Sunday does a good job of showing the duality of this time period by never letting Lotte or Greta forget they are interlopers in this particular arena. Up to this point, when Lotte is out in public, she is generally on the receiving end of flattering comments, so the mean girls’ gibe about her bathing suit (which still looks great, by the way!) is maybe a tad on the unsubtle side. But it reminds us and Lotte that there are gatekeepers everywhere.
In terms of an influence/reference point, the movie Lotte goes to see in "Episode 3," after she has endured a miserable time at home, is "People on Sunday." Written by none other than Billy Wilder, it wasn't released until 1930, so the show has fudged its timeline a bit. However, the choice of this film is no accident. It follows five Berliners as they enjoy a leisurely Sunday afternoon, and it is revelatory for its use of non-actors.
When Lotte is in the theater she can barely concentrate, for all the tears in her eyes. But a few episodes later, she briefly experiences this exact kind of carefree day — at least until real life and her detective ambitions lead her into the morgue with the now fully dressed Rudi. She ends up gathering a lot more information to prove her worth. She also doesn't let noxious bodily gas get in the way of a sneaky smooch, and even though Rudi is definitely not the kind of guy you date, he is useful to have around.
The investigation leads Lotte to a number of locations over these two episodes, including a night out with Gereon. It’s a delightful experience for a variety of reasons. The whole energy of this bar is more intimate and frenetic than the choreographed Moka Efti routines. It also doesn't have the same negative connotations for Lotte as her other work place.
We've already seen Gereon's dance moves in what I imagine is a more traditional bar but he soon finds his dancing feet and this burst of exuberant joy is the Gereon and Lotte gif I use frequently. What did you make of this sequence and how this factors into the overall depiction of nightlife in Berlin?
Emily: See, yes, in theory I should have been thinking a lot about the Berlin nightlife and the expansion of queer spaces in 1920s Berlin and all of that, but all I could think about was how much the push-pull between Gereon and Lotte is setting my dang shipper klaxons a-blazing. They’re such a good duo, and it feels like “Episode 5” is the first episode that really gives us a good window into just why that is. They’re able to solve crimes together and dance together and… when Gereon offers to take her home, there’s an implicit “and…” tacked on there in my brain.
In a weird way, these two episodes do a lot of great world-building that I’m sure the rest of the series will need going forward. “Episode 5” is more straightforwardly connected to the plot — because Gereon and Lotte find out from their visit to the nightclub about the Trotskyists’ print shop — but both are as much about expanding the way this show feels as anything else.
The series is doing similar things with Greta, who is, yes, ramping up into a pretty major character. The scene where she reveals the scar from what was either an abortion gone wrong or a caesarian section as the reason she can’t be a sex worker like Lotte underlines just how unusual Lotte’s relative freedom as she moves through society is (though she is, of course, constricted in the way all women on the show are), and it also underlines how sex positive the series is when it comes to what Lotte does. This is just how she makes money. What’s the big deal?
(I agree, btw, that her swimsuit is amazing, and the sunglasses she wears in one brief shot? Even better.)
I want to talk about so many things with these episodes, but I do want to point out how bad I feel for saying that Alexei is kind of a snooze in the most recent recap, because I’ve started to realize he is the Babylon Berlin version of Wile E. Coyote — constantly getting pummeled by life and always popping back up with a smile. (And by “smile” I mean increasingly set, grim mouth.) How are you liking the Communists’ adventures? And I’d love to hear you talk a bit about the costumes in this show, because they’re exceptional.
Emma: The chemistry between Volker Bruch (Gereon) and Liv Lisa Fries (Lotte) is exceptional, especially in how they carve out such an intimate moment in such a packed bar. It also helps that he is not without his own baggage, as more is revealed about his mysterious calls home to Cologne. There is nothing quite like the confessional booth to unburden your soul about a decade-long affair with your brother's wife.
Gereon keeps his cards close to his chest, which has infuriated Bruno to the point of blackmailing Lotte. The layers to these dynamics are already quite complex, as each person figures out who is washing whose hand. Lotte didn't really lie about her position, but she is keeping a much bigger secret from Bruno. There is corruption at every level, and pretty much everyone is in the pocket of someone else, which is obviously going to cause more issues going forward. It all speaks to the larger conflict at hand.
The scene with Greta and Lotte is also a reminder that Lotte is stretching herself thin when it comes to her responsibilities at home and work, as well as to her friend. Money is a huge concern and I love that she asked Gereon if she was getting paid for their night out investigating (because damn right, she should get paid).
On to other business! Truly, it is amazing how many scrapes Alexei manages to get himself in and out of, which includes the moment when Sveta turns on him (dressed as Nikoros). There is no grand song and dance, but it is quite the devastating break up for Alexei, even if he survives. (His book stops the bullet and the water saves his back.)
Of course, the gas that he accidentally unleashes near the end of “Episode 6” is another matter, and it blows my mind that those train carriages could be full of a weapon of war like this one. The Communist train story is bubbling under the surface, and as more people like the Armenian are brought into the scheme, my interest grows.
Coupled with the military antics out in the woods, I do think these two storylines benefit from some cursory knowledge of this period. Said antics include the fantastically performative costumes of Alfred Nyssen, the rich kid getting to play war with generals who can barely hide their disdain. He does have the fashion version of hunting attire, which I am probably more excited about than his present company.
Costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud (whose credits range from Bourne Identity to Mr. Bean’s Holiday) has the task of bringing to life a period that is defined by flapper style. Now, 1920s fashion is much more than that, which is best depicted in Lotte's day to night shift from the high-waisted pants — which I covet so hard despite not having the figure to pull them off — to the borrowed closet at the club. I love how she sells this as a perk of the job and that it helps explain where she gets her party frocks from.
The Nikoros leather trench with the embroidered sleeves is such a stunning piece. I find Svetlana to be such a beguiling presence as she switches between worlds. What costume moments stand out to you in these two episodes? And how do you feel about the May 1 report Gereon has to turn in?
Emily: Emma, you have hit upon exactly the outfit I wanted to talk about, because when we were watching these episodes together, my wife saw that trench and gasped, “That coat!” It’s truly a stunning look for our favorite drag king Edgar Allan Poe impersonator. (That’s what she’s going for, right? I’m not wrong about this?)
I’m also generally in to everything Lotte wears, because a) I wish I could wear most of it and b) she’s styled as someone who’s aspiring to something other than what she has. We get to see different sides of the character throughout the first six episodes of the show, and she’s increasingly wearing different costumes to express those different sides of herself. Across the first few, she had two modes — her daily workplace look and that slinky gold dress she wore every night at the club. But the more that she works with Gereon, the more that she’s styled as his perfect professional opposite. Even when she’s doing a little light breaking and entering, she’s dressing for the job she wants, not the job she has.
Speaking of light breaking and entering, I desperately love that whole sequence for how it clarifies the way that the two worlds of the show are finally chasing each other. With Gereon and Lotte closing in on the various Soviet players, it feels like the show is narrowing down in a way I find really compelling, even as it’s technically expanding and expanding and expanding — these episodes contain our first overt references to the rising Nazi party and to Adolf Hitler, I think. The show has confidence in its ability to keep certain historical realities in the back of the audience’s mind, so it can zero in on the mystery of the train full of gold, the missing film, and Gereon’s reasons for being in Berlin. That’s my favorite kind of period piece storytelling, and I love that Babylon Berlin trusts us enough to fill in the blanks, even though I’m not always sure what the blanks are.
One thing I did know was that the political response to Blutmai didn’t rebound to the favor of Germany’s communist party (called the KPD), but these episodes suggest how easily it could have. Gereon’s dilemma is a classic dilemma from a noir story, where the authorities are all crooked and the one good cop is faced with some agonizing choices. I hope he doesn’t write that report; I know he probably will, because the world is broken, and history is inevitable. The Nazis are going to come to power. It’s the idea that hangs over every frame of this show, and I suspect if I were an expert in German history (or just a German citizen), I would see much more of this looming threat.
Really, everything that’s going on in these stories is a smart deployment of noir tropes. Noir is often about confusion, about only seeing some small pieces of a much larger whole and beating your head against a wall trying to knit them together. (Weirdly, a genre it has a lot in common with is Lovecraftian horror, and maybe Babylon Berlin should include some Old Ones in season four.) Gereon and Lotte can’t yet see everything, but because they’re working together, they can start to piece the puzzle together.
I know noir well enough to know that by the time the detective makes the big final realization, it will be too late. But that’s kind of the idea of this show in a nutshell — everybody is focused on the wrong things. (Also: This is a noir where there’s always a musical going on in the background, a creative choice I adore.)
What do you think about how this show uses the specter of fascism? And how do you feel about Babylon Berlin specifically as a detective story?
Emma: There is a strong Edgar Allan Poe vibe to Nikoros’s wonderful drag king aesthetic. So much so, I am wondering where James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon are (this might be the deepest and most terrible Poe reference I could make, and I am very sorry).
Historical hindsight definitely fills every frame with dread, since this post-war period doubles as a prewar period these characters are blissfully unaware of. A character mentioning they are Jewish instantly fills you with dread, because it is impossible to not think about what is coming. But I agree it’s impressive that the series has kept the Nazi references to a minimum at this point. The writers don't ever feel like they are coyly winking to the audience in this respect, which would cheapen the story.
These cops are so crooked they will take an officer who was accidentally shot by his son (it is worrying when you think that kid will be coming of age right at the start of WWII) and use him as the poster child of brutality against the police. Gereon's post-Sunday mass trip back to the scene of the May Day shooting is misguided, even though his heart is in the right place. I am surprised something worse didn't happen to him, and he keeps ending up in predicaments where being a policeman is a danger rather than a form of protection.
I'm so glad you brought up the detective mystery because those are my favorite kinds of stories, which is why I think I ended up falling so madly for this show. (It always helps to have a couple to ship and musical numbers to bop to as well.) The historical aspects add flavor and tension, but all the sprawling pieces of the various investigations and how they thread through these factions is what sets Babylon Berlin apart.
The narrative benefits from major changes in techniques — the film stock analysis alone by Gräf is fascinating — and everything feels new and exciting (with the undertone of dread dampening the mood). Gereon also manages to avoid the sad detective trope that both UK and US dramas tend to languish in. Yes, he is using drugs to self-medicate his PTSD away, but he doesn't let that consume him. Maybe all the True Detective dudes need is a dance party?
One final thing I do want to mention is the final scene of “Episode 6,” which ends on a surreal and disturbing visual of the injured men from WWI who have been forgotten. It has been over 10 years, and the physical and mental scars have still not healed. It is an ominous moment that underscores the fractured rift in this society.
Emily: Sometimes I think these two episodes are all ominous moments that underscore the fractured rift in this society. There’s an eerie calm before the storm to both of these episodes, and that sunny day on the riverbank takes on a new tinge when you think about what is coming. Even the pauses on Babylon Berlin are fraught with implication.
Emma, thank you so much for joining me! Where can people find your work?
Emma: Plug time!
I do have a Babylon Berlin piece coming out soon for SYFY FANGRRLS discussing how this show bends genres, as well as separate looks at German Expressionism using horror to reflect the state of 1920s Germany. So look for those! This is also where you will regularly find me writing about everything ranging from costume design to women in horror. I also freelance for Little White Lies, Collider, and Primetimer, I am very thankful for TV keeping me busy. You can also find me on Twitter! I cannot wait for you to see what is to come and I do believe I managed to not spoil any storylines.
Thanks so much for asking me to do this, Emily! This was wonderful!
Emily: And I hope all of you, dear readers, join me on Wednesday, April 1, when Allison Keene and I will chat about the last two episodes of season one! Until then!
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