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Babylon Berlin Embraces the Chaos in Its Much-Anticipated Return

Season 4 of the extravagant, stylish, and surreal German historical drama is worth the long wait.
  • Liv Lisa Fries and Volker Bruch in Babylon Berlin (Photo: Courtesy of MHz Choice)
    Liv Lisa Fries and Volker Bruch in Babylon Berlin (Photo: Courtesy of MHz Choice)

    The recent Cabaret Broadway revival is far from the only buzz-worthy production depicting the rise of fascism as the Weimar Republic era continues to split at the seams. German historical drama Babylon Berlin throws more kindling on its razzle-dazzle bonfire with its audacious mix of grounded plotting and stylized surrealism. After becoming the most expensive non-English language TV series when it debuted in 2017, there has been no slowing down. The number of jaw-dropping intricate sets expands beyond the familiar nightclubs, the police HQ known as the Red Palace, and Alexanderplatz. But fans will be happy to know that the Paternoster elevator is back to provide the backdrop for more flirting.

    It has been a very long four years since Season 3 landed on Netflix in the United States, and despite critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, it took over 18 months for the following season to find a new home. Now it lands on MHz Choice (a streamer specializing in European mysteries and Nordic noir), where revelry collides in a tinderbox of political extremes, organized crime, and a Depression-set Berlin. Creators Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handlogten have not let up on the gas — Babylon Berlin remains as intoxicating as ever, even when its bombastic choices push the limits of how much certain characters can take.

    Based on Volker Kutscher's bestselling book series, the first three seasons were set in 1929 and culminated in the Wall Street Crash. If the Roaring Twenties had been hanging by a thread, this more than severed that connection. The fourth season kicks off on New Year's Eve 1930, heralding a decade that will end in war.

    While the audience is keenly aware of what will go down in a few years, the series doesn’t overdo its foreshadowing or set characters up as mystics who can see what is coming down the road. Instead, it emphasizes how many players are vying for control, from the old-school military men who want to turn back the clock to 1914 to the conspiring communists trying to topple those in power. It is a collision course of overlapping self-interests, adding new faces to the mix, including a Jewish American wanting to get revenge for his father and a corrupt arm of the law taking matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, murder on a movie set has been replaced by boxing and gangster activity as crimes to be investigated.

    Across its 12 episodes, the various stories crisscross in a sometimes chaotic and contrived fashion. At times, the large gap between seasons may leave viewers wondering if a character or grudge is part of some forgotten plot point. While Babylon Berlin’s imagery is not subtle, it doesn’t spoon-feed an audience either. Even when some characters feel like they are inhabiting a different show, it never spins fully out of control thanks to its protagonists, homicide detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and criminal assistant Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries). You might wonder if either has time to nap, let alone get a full night’s sleep; however, their crackling chemistry and ongoing will-they/won’t-they is an antidote to the more overt political machinations and melodramatic plotting.

    Consider how much Gereon has endured since he was a provincial detective sent to investigate a blackmail plot in the pilot: Unaccustomed to the eclectic Berlin nightlife, he was part noir cop, part fish out of water, and using copious amounts of morphine to stave off severe PTSD from his WWI military experience. Like other TV cops, Gereon’s personal life is a mess, but curiosity stops him from falling into a dour cliche. Dancing separates him from those other investigators, and even as his world gets more dangerous, there is still time to learn choreography to the bop of the year.

    The fourth season’s anthem is heard at a lavish New Year’s party, a dance marathon at Moka Efti, Gereon’s apartment, and a cozy bar. “Ein Tag wie Gold” (“A Day Like Gold”) by Emil Engels (Max Raabe) is equally effective in each location, and Johnny Klimek and co-creator Tykwer’s score taps into the fast plotting momentum. One sequence later in the season, accompanied by an uptempo orchestra, dips its toe again into Mission: Impossible territory, proving that Babylon Berlin is never content sticking to one genre. It’s a jarring but welcome reprieve from heavier twists and turns.

    As the story moves into the ’30s, it’s like a ticking clock to impending Nazi rule. Now, Gereon becomes worryingly close to the parliamentary wing of the Nazi Party, the Sturmabteilung (SA), putting his relationships to the test. In secret, Gereon continues to see his brother Anno (Jens Harzer) in sequences that will make him question if they are a figment of Gereon’s imagination. After all, Gereon has “seen” a giant monster slithering below the streets of Berlin at the end of Season 3.

    The only reason we know Anno (who’s believed to have died in WWI) isn’t a hallucination is we have seen him interact with other characters in his guise as a physician experimenting with fringe science. It doesn’t always make logical sense, but the series always fully commits to the overly symbolic and nightmarish psychological scenes — including another bizarre conclusion.

    The time jump means that Gereon’s soapy relationship with his brother’s wife, Helga (Hannah Herzsprung), is thankfully far in the rearview mirror, with Helga now living it up with eccentric industrialist Alfred Nyssen (Lars Eidinger). Alfred has always been a loose canon, and now his dream of flying to the moon might seem like a fairy tale to most, but Eidinger commits to everything with zeal — including how he wields a cape.

    As with other no-holds-barred titles like Peaky Blinders set during this turbulent period, Babylon Berlin is seductive and unafraid to take some big swings. While it throws too many different factions into the mix, it never loses sight of Gereon and Charlotte at the center, with Bruch and Fries selling a spectrum of emotions. Dread doesn’t subside, but neither do shots of schnapps, dancing the night away with your friends, and the hope that it might get better tomorrow — even if we know it won’t.

    Babylon Berlin Season 4 premieres June 25 on MHz Choice. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Babylon Berlin, MHz Choice, Achim von Borries, Hendrik Handloegten, Liv Lisa Fries, Tom Tykwer, Volker Bruch