Babylon Berlin returns for a third season, taking us back to the hectic and hedonistic days of 1929 Berlin. This season (or series as the Brits say; staffel fur die Deutschen) follows Detective Gereon Rath and his assistant/sidekick Charlotte Ritter as they investigate the strange murders on a movie set, committed by a mysterious and nightmarish Phantom. With them are enough side characters and subplots to give Deadwood a run for its money.
My review of Babylon Berlin seasons 1 and 2 was actually the first post on this blog, so check that out also. Season 3 opens with the German reaction to the stock market crash, just as chaotic in Berlin as it was in New York. We then flashback to a few weeks before in September, where filming has begun on a new movie Demons of Passion. But this is a talkie, the first of its kind in Germany. However, while rehearsing a musical number, the lead actress – Betty Winter – is struck by a defective stage light and killed. Initially thought to be an accident, someone spots a sinister, black figure stalking off above in the rafters.
Gereon Rath heads the investigation and it is soon learned that his old enemy and gangster boss Edgar Kasabian aka The Armenian, is funding the film. Rath and Kasabian theorize that rival gangsters might be behind it in an effort to sabotage the film, hurting the Armenian finically. Rath tracks down one of the prime suspects, a lighting technician, but he’s shot through the head by an unknown party, putting Rath back to square one. Even worse, the Phantom continues to emerge from the shadows, slaughtering each of the replacement lead actresses one by one.
Season 3 was based on the second Gereon Rath novel – The Silent Death (Der stumme Tod) by Volker Kutscher. While I have not read it, I’ve talked to a few people who have and apparently the changes have been pretty substantial. One of the main differences is shifting the year from March 1930 in the book to September 1929 in the show. This might seem trivial, but the first sound movie produced in Germany was The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich, which premiered April 1st, 1930. So, it’s a little odd that in this show’s timeline, the fictional Demons of Passion predates The Blue Angel as Germany’s first talkie.
Another major difference, which I’m told, is the identity of the Phantom killer, who sounds more interesting in the novel than the show. Added to that, his literary crimes are far more grotesque, which makes me a little glad they didn’t stay that close to the source material. In the show, his murders are grisly, but not stomach-churning.
As said, there are many different storylines and subplots, all of which overlap and interconnect. Still, I feel it best to break each of these down one by one and give my thoughts on them. Keep in mind that these aren’t even all of them.
Greta Overbeck and Colonel Wendt – carrying on from seasons 1 and 2, Charlotte’s friend Greta was coerced into helping with the assassination of a Jewish police official. It turns out her Communist boyfriend was actually a Nazi Brownshirt, whose real name is Richard Pechtmann. He and his friend – Horst Kessler – are working for Colonel Wendt, who replaced the Jewish police official. A diehard Nationalist, Wendt is not a Nazi, but seeks to tear down the Weimar Republic by using brutes like Pechtmann and Kessler to do his dirty work. Of course, this is close to what actually happened, when right-wing conservatives like Franz von Papen claimed they “hired” Hitler when they helped him gain the position as Reichskanzler.
Gereon and Charlotte are determined to prove Greta’s innocence and prove Wendt’s double-dealings. Rath even tracks down Pechtmann and brings her to face Greta in person. However, Greta isn’t cooperative, insisting that the Communists put her up to the assassination. That’s because Wendt visited her in prison, along with the veiled threat that the baby she put up for adoption was in mortal danger if she revealed who really was behind the conspiracy. Wendt is probably the most interesting antagonist of Babylon Berlin, his refined demeanor masking a cold brutality. His motives are more in line with the “Conservative Revolutionary movement” than National Socialism. The Conservative Revolutionaries are a tricky bunch to define, since they shared many beliefs with the Nazis, but saw themselves as a distinct alternative. Some historians have labeled the movement as a sort of “non-Nazi German fascism,” which makes some sense, but only if you overthink it like I do.
Wendt was a major villain in seasons 1 and 2 and maintains contact with General Seegers and the Reichswehr. Loathing Weimar democracy, Wendt, Seegers, and others in the Reichswehr still seek to overthrow it, using the Nazis as their weapons now. Pechtmann’s friend – Horst Kessler – had a small role in earlier episodes, but he becomes more prominent in this season, and it’s soon obvious he is a stand-in for the real-life Nazi martyr Horst Wessel. Again, here is where some anachronism stew begins to bubble, since Wessel was killed in 1930, not 1929. But that brings me to the next subplot.
Alfred Nyssen and Helga Rath – Nyssen was part of the Reichswehr conspiracy of seasons 1 and 2, and is somewhat adrift in season 3. He yearns to ingratiate himself back into political power but is kept under his wealthy mother’s thumb, emasculating him. However, he correctly guesses that the stock market is on the verge of collapse, and hatches a complicated scheme to bet against it, which will net him over a hundred million Reichsmarks if successful. It’s obvious that to use this historical backdrop, the show had to move the year from 1930 to 1929 to make it work.
He also begins a romantic relationship with Helga Rath, Gereon’s sister-in-law and parttime lover ever since his brother went missing in World War I. This subplot was a welcome change, and humanized Nyssen quite well, as he connected with Helga in their mutual unhappiness with life. Like Horst Kessler, Nyssen seems to be something of an amalgam of the Krupp Steel Company, along with the wealthy industrialist Fritz Thyssen, but his personality seems to be wholly original.
The Armenians – the aforementioned Edgar Kasabian features prominently in this season, along with his wife – Esther – and their friend, Walter Weintraub, recently released from prison. Eager to salvage the production of Demons of Passion, Kasabian and Weintraub search the Berlin underworld for any potential leads and enemies. Meanwhile, Esther eventually takes over the starring role after the other replacements are murdered by the Phantom of the Cinema. These scenes are most interesting for their peek into the Berlin underworld, but unfortunately the characters felt a bit flat. Apparently, the Armenian is a new addition created for the show. His novel equivalent is Johann Marlow, which I suspect is a nod to Raymond Chandler. I’m not sure if the book version is any better, but he does continue coming back in many Gereon Rath novels.
The Phantom of the Cinema – basically, this plot functions as the spine of season 3. It’s an interesting and creepy mystery, but fades into the background for episodes at a time. However, when it resurfaces, it’s like a waking nightmare rushing straight for you from the darkness. There are multiple suspects, not least of which is Betty Winter’s gay husband – Tristan Rot – who is found in a strange occult orgy, trying to contact her spirit. The ritual is led by a mysterious Dr. Anno Schmidt, who has apparently cured Gereon’s drug addiction, which featured heavily in the first two seasons.
I loved the occult atmosphere in Weimar Germany, and wished more of it was shown. There were many strange occult religions circulating in the aftermath of the war, as people sought out new beliefs that tapped into Germany’s pre-Christian past. Like Berlin’s organized crime gangs, these occult religions have been glossed over in fiction, in favor of portrayals of the Nazis. While I understand that the Nazis are a hard subject to avoid, I’m pleased by how downplayed they have been so far. After all, it wasn’t until after the stock market crash that membership in the NSDAP ballooned. Before that, they were a tiny fringe party, unknown by most Berliners.
The Phantom’s identity is, unfortunately, a bit of a letdown, but I won’t spoil it. I found it a little forced, but I suppose it fit with the overall pulpy atmosphere. I preferred seasons 1 and 2 for their political intrigue, crime plots, and grand scale, but season 3 was still an enjoyable time spent and kept me hooked from episode to episode. I will gladly return for Babylon Berlin season 4.
- Given the large cast and numerous subplots, this is a series that is best binge-watched. That way, you’re not asking yourself “wait, who’s that?” if you let time lapse between episodes.
- As said, please include more German occultism, Berlin crime gangs, and political intrigue for season 4. I would also love more of Berlin’s seedy underbelly, particularly in the lower-class “Red” Wedding neighborhood.
- I didn’t talk about them much, but Gereon and Charlotte are strong, likable characters, who carry the series well. Given Charlotte’s double life as a prostitute, I would like to see more of Gereon’s dark side, other than being a drug addict, which seems a little forced.
- Likewise, I glossed over Dr. Schmidt, but he really is the greatest enigma of the season. Who is he and what is his ultimate end goal?
- Homosexuality features prominently in this season, which makes sense because Berlin was a sort of “gay capital” in the 1920s and early 1930s. However, some of the characters (even the more conservative police officers) are a little too accepting. This is still 1929, after all.
- For anyone interested in the sexual underbelly of Weimar Berlin, the book Voluptuous Panic is a must.
- At one point, Wendt mentions Ernst Junger, author of the World War I memoir Storm of Steel and intellectual of the Conservative Revolutionary movement.
- Demons of Passion seems to be inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, in that a woman is turned into a robot, like a reverse of Maria.
- Although I didn’t go into it, I loved the subplot of General Seegers’ Communist daughter and the reporter exposing the Reichswehr building secret air force in conjunction with Lufthansa. Military and political intrigue is like catnip for me.