Babylon Berlin

3 out of 5

Created by: Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, Hendrik Handloeg

covers season 1 and 2

Committed production, seamless design, and rousing acting cannot surmount a main hitch: the show doesn’t really seem to be about anything.  Sex-coverup conspiracies; revolutions masking revenge; political intrigue and gender roles and class commentary; a darn train heist; but, like, what happened over the course of 16 episodes?  I’ll grant that the show excels at a continual sense of buildup, starting off with a “I’ll make you remember everything” flash-forward / flash-back frightmare for lead Berlin copper Gereon Rath, but that buildup has us – guided by confident camerawork and tense and terse dialogue exchanges – focusing on things that are really really important wait not at all.  You’ll notice episodes often end in a similar fashion: the camera zoomed in on something that should leave us cliff-hangin’ but really has no greater import than any images preceding or succeeding.

In part, this might be due to the way the show weaves in and out of history.  I’m by no means an expert on the subject – I’m far, far away from being that, as a matter o’ fact, and kinda hate history – but the way in which events are teased out to breaking points only to be distracted by a march or a riot is suggestive of working within the confines of a pre-existing narrative, i.e. reality.  Viewing it in this manner is helpful, to a degree: as a study on pre-WWII Germany, it’s fascinating (yes, even to ol’ history-hatin’ me), and offers more depth in that sense than the wayward mystery / coverup that’s supposedly at its core.  Another possibility is that the show’s flow is affected by our series creators: Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloeg, whom, at least with Tykwer and von Borries, are film folks, not TV, and Tykwer’s open-ended, paced construction is absolutely all over this.

But the good news is that, even as I became keenly aware of this limitation quite early on, meaning I realized I wasn’t going to be witnessing any jaw-dropping twists or heart-wrenching character arcs, I was still intrigued.  Volker Bruch, as Rath, is mesmerizing to watch, communicating this empathetic mixture of loss and drive through his expressions, and with dashes of charming comic timing when the lighter scenes demand such; Liv Lisa Fries, as aspiring detective Charlotte Ritter probably has the most engaging character arc, and the actress brings a full range to the screen that her complicated role (forcing her way from a lower class, sexually-objectified position into a begrudgingly accepted – unofficial, alas – partner to Rath)… which is why it’s frustrating when she gets sidelined in favor of whatever else the show tries to be about…  But nonetheless, bouncing between these two primaries and the fractured 1930s Berlin setting works for a stream-worthy experience, and when events are finally allowed to boil over in the final couple of eps of the current seasons (there are more to come), we do get some of those twists and heart-wrenches, killer ones, which certainly keeps me on the hook for seeing where this goes.