An international success that’s captivating audiences around the world, the German neo-noir TV series Babylon Berlin is in a league of its own, with a budget to match: The most expensive series in German history, it premiered to much critical acclaim in 2017, quickly becoming a big hit abroad as well. Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels surrounding the fictional detective Gereon Rath and set during the short-lived Weimar Republic, its hard-boiled crime drama is defined by the political unrest, social upheaval and decadent parties of the interwar period.
Available in over 100 countries, it’s already reached millions of people, becoming one of Sky’s most popular shows of all time.
More Than Jazz and Liquor
Season 3 premieres on January 24 on Sky and will focus on a rougher, harsher side of 1920s Berlin, diverging somewhat from the glamorous and decadent themes of the previous seasons. “The rough and harsh daily life of Berlin was always supposed to be at the core of the show. We never wanted to glance over the hardships people faced and idolize the glamour of the Weimar Republic,” says co-creator and director Tom Tykwer, who first rose to international fame with the innovative Run Lola Run in 1998 and now has another global hit under his belt. He’s excited about the direction the show is headed now that a solid foundation has been laid. “We get to dig a lot deeper with these characters and are able to explore their souls and their underlying desires,” he offers about the upcoming season.
Life Imitates Art
The irony that the world is obsessing over a show set in the 1920s as we’re headed into the 2020s is not lost on the creators, and neither are the shocking parallels to our current political and social situations. “Isn’t that crazy?” says co-creator and director Achim von Borries when asked how the new season illustrates that era’s assault on the free press. “Who would’ve thought that we’d be back here talking about the “lying press?” These parallels are imminent but not intentional, the producers claim, which makes it all the more uncanny that history seems to be repeating itself – nearly a century later.
The Beginning of the End of an Era
Season 3 picks up on Black Tuesday – October 29, 1929 – that fateful day which brought the Roaring Twenties to a crashing halt, then flashes back to several weeks before, gradually leading up to the big event. “We’re trying to remain in the ’20s as long as possible. The crash of the stock market is the central plot point of this season that led to a worldwide depression, and it’s so important for all the things to come,” explains co-creator Henk Handloegten, a seasoned writer and director of crime fiction. Tykwer, von Borries and Handloegten have been practically joined at the hip for the past seven years and their close collaboration shows in every detail of Babylon Berlin, from the set pieces to the period dialogue. A definite end for the show is not on the horizon, but it will conclude some time around 1933. How long it will take them to get there is still subject to change – judging by the show’s entertainment value and binge-watch factor, we won’t mind if they take their sweet time.
The show’s creators aren’t the only ones delighted by its international success. Volker Bruch, who plays protagonist Gereon Rath and his co-star Liv Lisa Fries, whose flapper character Charlotte Ritter has been promoted to the first female homicide detective of the Berlin Police in season 3, are reaping the rewards of the global sensation as well. METROPOLE had the chance to sit them down for an interview after the world premiere in Berlin last month and pick their brains.
METROPOLE: The show explores the seedy underbelly of Berlin during the Weimar Republic through the eyes of Gereon Rath and his trusty sidekick Lotte. This season’s big case is a death at a film studio. Were there similarly dangerous situations for you during filming?
Liv Lisa Fries: I did a stunt myself in season 3 that was very challenging and cost me a great deal of courage. I can’t give away too much yet, but you’ll know what I mean once you see it. It was pretty intense.
Volker Bruch: There was a moment in season 1 when we filmed an explosion and I hadn’t put in my earplugs yet. It went off too soon and was so close to my ear that I ended up getting tinnitus, which I still have to this day. I’ve gotten used to it though, it’s a little Babylon Berlin keepsake that sits in my inner ear now (chuckles).
The show takes place almost 100 years ago. Did you put a lot of research into how to portray these characters in terms of language and overall behavior?
Liv: The research process was a lot more thorough for the first season, by now we’ve pretty much got the hang of it. Before filming started, I read a ton of books on the subject and watched movies from the era. I paid close attention to how people in these films would express themselves, both verbally and non-verbally. I also studied old photos very closely, but what helped me the most was an exhibition at the Ephraim Palace a couple of years ago: They had original objects and perfumes that really transported me back. It was really important for me to experience it in a haptic and olfactory way. We’re so influenced by our surroundings without even noticing it, so all this stuff from that actual period helped me get into the right mindset. So I did some research by myself but I also talked to the directors about it, and a lot of it is also embedded in the scripts. We would have a jour fixe on Thursdays with experts as well. They would tutor us on the different aspects of the time. It took months of preparation to really nail it and make it authentic.
Did we notice a shift in tone this time around? It seems like rising political tensions are about to put an end to the glamorous parties we saw in the first two seasons.
Volker: You got that right, yes. It’s already a theme in the book but even more prevalent in the show. We’re still in 1929 but the pressure is rising and will only continue to rise going forward. There are so many different players in this game and they all use each other to get to the top in this power struggle. The Nazi party is slowly growing stronger and even people who don’t condone their practices and their positions would use them for their own personal gain. The cup is about to run over.
There are increasingly feminist undertones, especially in your storyline, Liv, which mirror our current sociopolitical situation. Is that intentional or do you think it’s a natural cycle that is prone to repeating itself?
Liv: That’s an interesting question, I’m not sure if it’s intentional or a natural progression of events. All I can say is that when we talk about Charlotte’s storyline now, we categorize it in a much larger social context, but when we’re making the show we’re really looking at it from a very individual manner – one character’s story. We’re simply seeing Charlotte Ritter in this situation for the first time.
Volker: That was a huge movement back then, so it’s no coincidence we’re picking the topic up in the show.
Liv: Exactly, it’s no coincidence. I mean, Charlotte is the only woman in the Berlin Police. The other women are stenographers, it’s unheard of to have a female detective, so she’s a real pioneer in that field. I think it’s a rather difficult discussion to have – these things are always so laden with meaning – but in the end, it does concern us as a society.
Volker, your character’s journey this season is tinged with a dose of occultism that’s equally thrilling and eyebrow raising. Did you do some digging on the background? Is that storyline based in reality or purely fictional?
Volker: I was unsure myself! (laughs) I thought it was super weird and I approached the producers and asked them if they had lost it! Turns out, there was extensive research and it was actually a huge deal, a huge trend in the Weimar Republic to solve criminal cases with clairvoyance and telepathy. The show picks up so many of these peculiarities and details we aren’t necessarily aware of. Also the part about the day and night sleepers, for example – strangers sharing an apartment, one would get it during the day and one at night – I love how there’s so much to discover and learn.
Berlin was a major hotspot for the film industry in the 1920s. In season 3, we’re witnessing the switch from silent movies to “talkies.” Do you think we’re on the cusp of a similar change in today’s movie business that actors might still be unaware of?
Liv: You mean back to silent films? (laughs)
Volker: Well, it’s constantly changing already. In the ’20s, it was the product that changed. Sound was added, but you still consumed it at the movie theater. Later on, TV burst onto the scene and changed the way people consumed film. Now you don’t even need a TV, it’s all about access to other kinds of platforms and broadcast television has to make way for streaming. I guess time will tell what’s next.
As you might know, METROPOLE is the major English-language media network in Austria, aimed at the city’s vibrant international community. Babylon Berlin is definitely a hit abroad as well. Did you expect it to be such an international success and have you noticed any of it personally?
Volker: International success is more theoretical at this point. We do hear that it’s huge in other countries like Spain, for example, but it remains rather abstract. It hasn’t really affected my daily life.
Liv: The one thing I notice is that there’s an increasing amount of offers coming in from abroad and I didn’t have that before. I always thought, why would people in other countries care about me? (laughs) So in that sense, it’s definitely opened some doors for us, which is very exciting.
Immerse yourself in the excitement and excess of the Weimar Republic and catch up on seasons 1 and 2 now via Sky’s streaming service Sky X before season 3 premieres on January 24.
Images: © Frédéric Batier/X Filme Creative Pool Entertainment GmbH/ARD Degeto Film GmbH/Beta Film GmbH/Sky Deutschland
This is an unpaid editorial article about the third season of Babylon Berlin and four episodes were watched in advance. For the sake of transparency, we would like to mention that Sky is a regular advertiser in METROPOLE.