I was a day away from throwing in the towel on Netflix. My remaining goal was to locate the switch in order to deactivate my account. Then some mysterious impulse led me to click an icon with two audacious looking flappers, and sparks began to fly.
I’d discovered a German noir export called Babylon Berlin. Due to its creepy English dubbing, I barely made it past the first few scenes, but I persevered. And then came the payoff: Liv Lisa Fries.
The series is set in Berlin, circa 1929, in a city wracked by cultural, economic, and political conflict. While the Nazis are not yet in power, they pose a definite threat, poised for the right opportunity to exploit the vulnerability, if not desperation, of the unemployed. Sensing Berlin’s imminent implosion, I pinned my hopes on the show’s two leading crime fighters, Gereon Rath and Charlotte Ritter—survivors who have already been beaten down by war and poverty, and wouldn’t know when to quit.
“Babylon,” I muttered to myself. Maybe I’ll finally learn why Berlin has always been compared to this biblical city ruled by the villainous Nebuchadnezzar, who, according to the Old Testament, was responsible for conquering Jerusalem, destroying Solomon’s Temple, and herding the disobedient and undesirable Jews into a walled-in corral. What has emerged in Christian theology is a futuristic metropolis of immoral degenerates led by the ultimate of cult leaders, Lucifer, toward some sort of orgasmic moment of immolation.
Perhaps the Weimar era’s “Babylon Craze” had to do with the rapid influx of Jews. Or was it due to the popularity of Berlin’s blockbuster archaeology exhibition of the actual Ishtar Gate, which had just been excavated. There was also that gigantic smoking ziggurat in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927.
All I can say is thank you Netflixchadnezzar!—for linking me to this gem, which also happens to be the most expensive foreign television series of all time. I felt like a pubescent teen up all night under the sheets with a flashlight reading a coveted dystopian comic book, wishing the sexy heroine was my actual living girlfriend. After bingeing all three seasons, I still couldn’t get enough of the show’s elegant lead (Fries). Which is when I began to skim cyberspace in search of an interview where I might hear her speak to me in her real voice.
The show follows chief inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch). He is strung out and suffers from shell shock due to the trauma of combat in WWI. He regularly shoots up his prescribed dose of heroin, and flashes back to the hypnosis he received from a spooky mad psychologist with acne. Meanwhile, he’s on a serious mission to dismantle a government extortion ring being run by a conspiring international cabal.
But due to the show’s counterpoint, I was always switching back to the sensational female lead, Charlotte Ritter (played by Fries)—the ambitious 20-something Rath has secured as a clerk in his department. This resourceful, intuitive, and irresistibly naughty rookie comes from a broken home and is willing to do just about anything to climb her way out of poverty and help her family, friends, and loved ones succeed. Adding substantially to her allure is the fact that she’s a flapper, making good money each night when she flies into a fancy cabaret, wins admirers on the dance floor, gets totally mangled on cocktails, and prostitutes herself in the private sex den downstairs, without the least bit of guilt.
We don’t judge her. We get behind her. And cheer her on. Admiring her approach: Do it!
Charlotte works hard to rescue her prepubescent little sister from being pimped out by her extraordinarily nasty older brother-in-law. And for the cash needed to properly bury her mother (she died of syphilis). And for another charitable deed: funding her sister’s eye surgery (the operation is sadly botched).
Charlotte is striving to become the first female crime inspector in all of Berlin! It is a feminist coming-of-age story. And with her natural curiosity and the fearlessness of a bona fide comic-book hero, she is clearly on her way. It doesn’t hurt that she is the sexual daredevil of our kinkiest dreams.
I held my breath through all three seasons, witnessing things I’ve seen in past movies, but never done quite so well—like a near-drowning reminiscent of The Stuntman (1980) involving an underwater rescue from the passenger seat of a submerged car (followed by some heart-pounding mouth-to-mouth resuscitation); and an admirable remake of Peckinpah’s epic train heist in the Wild Bunch (1969) that is every bit as exciting as any Saturday morning Super Friends cartoon I ever remember seeing (1973).
Babylon Berlin’s mise-en-scène springs into action when the two lead characters accidentally crash into one another while stepping off the vintage Paternoster elevator into a very convincing replica of police headquarters. When the two workers collide, the files they are each holding of confidential police photographs spill out onto the floor, creating a kind of scattered Dada photo collage (think Hannah Höch).
As they crouch down to collect their embarrassingly exposed private materials and nervously chatter we catch glimpses of their taboo pictures—his hardcore S&M photos taken to blackmail dignitaries of the old guard (he’s in vice), and her gruesome crime scenes (think Weegee).
Dangerous as the photographs may be (and scandalous as their flirtation is) the real perceivable hazard, at least from my angle, is lurking behind them: How long till some bureaucrat loses a leg in that elevator, which has no doors, and runs all day like a revolving ski lift, without ever stopping at a floor to let anyone off safely. (Incidentally, I found the exact same piece of deco-age engineering in Fritz Lang’s M.) Indeed, with its artful interiors, and “Mack the Knife” back alleys, the show borrows from all the masters of the silent film era (especially from Lang and Josef von Sternberg).
Babylon hits all the marks; as the pot boils, the pulpy story gets increasingly more intense. We watch a very sympathetic Jewish police chief (a mensch if there ever was one) and his adorable daughter get blown to smithereens, in their lovely home, by a conspiring maid who is tricked into the act of terrorism by a manipulative Brownshirt. But I was seduced less by the show’s violence against Jews, and more by the sensuous details of Berlin’s decadent nightlife in the Roaring ’20s. High couture and culinary arts continue to rhythmically unfold before our eyes, as cocktails are served from behind crowded cabaret bars, while an androgynous singer with a deadpan expression and boobs corseted under a sleek tuxedo holds the stage, and a fancy chef cuts through an ice block of octopus.
The show’s real thrills come with every twitch and pulsation, every micro-expression on Fries’ face, with every glimmer in her sparkling brown eyes, and especially every time she smiles. She looks so great in each frame—in her cloche, in her sweaty Gatsby dress, in her pumps—that when we eventually see her wrapped in only a towel (and for a millisecond, in even less) in a public bathhouse, we sense that we’ve somehow already experienced it.
But the show’s bonus is not its style or strife; it’s the transparent secret they keep from one another but not from us: their deep compatibility. Finally, one fateful evening, a colleague throws a birthday party at his home. As their boss, the new police chief (a sympathetic man and compulsive snacker) tenderly plays his accordion, the cross-dressing darkroom technician croons to his guests in the gorgeous dress he’s been saving for the occasion and our secret investigative lovers sneak off behind a door and share a magical first kiss. It is the show’s first and only true Fassbinder moment. God bless it.
The kiss was packed with so much emotion and conviction that at home in bed I could feel their knees buckle. It was an impressive rush for a guy on Xanax and a few glasses of Malbec staring at his dusty MacBook Pro under tented covers during a goddamn worldwide bioterror event called COVID-19. How much more noir can this life get?
So was my remarkable Netflix show an exaggeration? A distortion? If so, why did I feel like I was attending a graduate seminar on the factual machinations of Berlin as it went bonkers, and then went totally bust.
Clearly the show’s creators’ research was thorough and meticulous, and their goal was not to merely entertain, but to provide a cautionary tale to us present-day Babylonians. I was finally able to grasp the incremental maturations of a catastrophe that keeps coming across as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or as an overbudgeted work of bewildering, expressionistic German cinema that could only have been carried out (and pulled off) by that era’s German film industry, known as Ufa.
The true story of Berlin may be even more epochal and fantastical (even less believable) than the Netflix content I was consuming. Inspired to do more research, I was thrilled to discover Mel Gordon’s The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity, and his more recent Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin; and to see the documentary Legendary Sin Cities: Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, put out in 2006 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, featuring Gordon and other Weimar commentators, which profiles the blossoming and rotting of Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s.
Indeed, the film clarified exactly what made the “sinful city” of Berlin flourish, and what may have been pumping through its veins and arteries. I’d speculate that this exact documentary was used as a resource for Babylon Berlin’s creation, for it brought me right into the exact same milieu, into the same context, into the same rooms and onto the same street corners, at the moment before the infamous club-footed minister of propaganda (Goebbels) came to town with a truck full of swastika flags and a gang of thugs ready to burn some fucking books.
I learned that despite Europe’s armistice after WWI, Berlin remained stuck between warring factions—the National Socialists and the communists, the Brownshirts and the red. Germany had lost the war, but the hand-to-hand combat was still raging for the power to shape Germany’s future. The culture was up for grabs.
Otherwise Berlin was much like today’s beloved Big Apple—a progressive center of capitalism, with superb art museums, orchestras, theaters, newspapers, office buildings, shopping centers, and spirited, skilled workers. The sciences were pushing for progress in the world’s most sophisticated laboratories, medical facilities, and universities, using the world’s leading technologies.
Berlin was itself much like a theater—transforming itself every night between acts, from a typical downtown industrial center into an outrageous emporium of strip clubs, casinos, basement sex shops, and romper rooms—into a gender-blurring carnival of straights, gays, lesbians, cross-dressers, or transgenders, either supplying or demanding sex, while riding the razor’s edge of addiction and thrill. Public theaters were not just for operas and movies and plays. They were exhibition halls for frenzied, spectacular showgirls, performing in naked chorus lines—lifting their legs high enough to make even a can-can dancer blush. All forms of nudism and expressionism were licensed. Dance floors everywhere were packed with all types, all ethnicities, in a collective death wish “at the edge of a volcano.” Everything was upside down and spilling out on the floor. Anything went—in cinema, theater, literature and, of course, in life!
And word was getting out, through exports like The Blue Angel (1930), with its hotter-than-hell number “Falling in Love Again” sung by Marlene Dietrich in her raspy, vaguely atonal tenor. Imagine hearing this crude voice on the radio, or seeing Dietrich on the silver screen finding her center of gravity on a barrel in her fishnet stockings and garters, bending one leg at the knee suggestively, and staring out through her woozy eyes and whimpering that she “can’t help it.”
The entire city had become one big red-light district. Even the most dignified old-school Berliners were getting in on the action, renting out their conservative bodies, and transforming their proper dwellings into houses of exotic pleasure for tourists. Papas became the pimps, encouraging their teenage daughters to go out and turn tricks. Prostitutes worked with whatever flavor they could offer, even if they were pregnant (known as Munzies) or hunchbacks (Grasshoppers). And there were mother/daughter tag-teams in the arena of hands-on whoring, as one almost sees in the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz.
Some people mythologized the phenomenon, claiming it had come up from under the swampland Berlin was built on. Others told of a toxin in the polluted air—an atmosphere laced with an amphetamine that, after keeping people up all night, still somehow catapulted them back out there, feeling invigorated, for the next morning’s commute.
The unprecedented level of perversity was also being explained scientifically and explored through clinical research. There was the famous Jewish-gay-liberal, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who opened the Institute of Sex, and acted in the silent film Different from Others about being openly and proudly gay. At the end of the film we watch his character plea for the rights of all homosexuals.
Unlike Dr. Sigmund Freud, Hirschfeld, who was known locally as just Papa, believed that the medical study of sex could, and should, be free of moral judgement. The Institute of Sex also had a library, which offered Berliners a place to read up while sobering up, and it was crammed, as well, with artifacts on display in a museum-type setting, such as vintage chastity belts, sex machines, and other toys and torture devices. The institute was also a haven for transsexuals, transvestites, and even for the casual cross-dresser. It was a safe space, and a center for therapy. It was also a medical laboratory, where Hirschfeld began to perform a primitive form of gender reassignment surgery.
Berlin was the place for anyone to find their true body and true calling. People with ambition also came to simply be themselves—to be the freaks they already were. Those with talent and drive were determined to make it in Berlin—not to rot away within the walls of a contaminated epicenter, as a certain repressed right-wing fascist would have wanted the uninformed German Volk to think. The right wing was attracting small numbers of the disillusioned and malcontent who hated even the thought of what Berlin was becoming, but it was too early for propaganda to have much effect in mobilizing this demographic, and far too soon for Hitler to emerge on his pulpit spewing his reactionary, scornful, demonic manifestoes.
What really made it all click, for better or worse, was rampant inflation—the instability of the value of Germany’s currency. If you were paid in the morning, you would have been smart to run to the store and buy groceries immediately in an attempt to spend the money before it lost its value. There was a genuine fear that a wad of hard-earned bills in your pocket could be worth zilch by morning; so it was therefore wise to spend it that night by any means necessary.
Sex was also on the airwaves. Radios had now become popular, purchased by many and installed in the home. The loudest voice was the lesbian cabaret star Claire Waldoff. She had a saucy irreverent attitude and raucous dialect. (It was an affectation she cultivated in order to sound like a true working-class Berliner, similar to a fake cockney.) It was Waldoff who is said to have trained Dietrich to sing, instructed her how to dress (in a tuxedo, and cravat) and smoke cigarettes. She also taught her how to carry herself with an air of cocky androgyny and brag openly about her sexual abilities with whatever gender she liked.
Frankly it was time—time for the world to wake up and realize women, just like men, have their own sexual desires. And that they crave sex! And that, just like men, they cheat!
The entire city was promiscuously bisexual and congregating in gay bars filled with street-punk hustlers, or upscale private clubs filled with actresses, models, and ritzy socialites. Among the lesbians, the über-predators were called “Sharpers” (according to Gordon)—older, wiser, more sophisticated women preying on younger inexperienced girls (I’m reminded of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’ 2015 film Carol).
There was the fabulous Eldorado, where all the women in the bar were in fact men in drag. But the ultimate playground for forbidden fun was the Rezi (short for the Residenz Casino), a hot pickup spot known for its conveniently installed telephones at each table, which were there to provide customers with the opportunity to call one another and engage in flirty conversation from halfway across the room.
The Rezi was also equipped with a novel device: a system of pneumatic tubes running from table to table used to deliver small party favors (a cigar clipper, or a small bag of cocaine). Perhaps such a gift would be taken as a charming invitation to meet downstairs in the club’s infamous wine cellar (flashback to Charlotte Ritter). Ah, Weimar Berlin. Too bad about what came after.
Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.