A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Babylon Berlin is a historical drama with plenty of mystery and intrigue. The show is in German with English subtitles, and it takes place in pre-World War II Berlin, so some historical context is helpful, though not absolutely necessary. The tone of the show is edgy: There are gruesome depictions of sex and violence throughout. One main character, a vice officer, busts a smut peddler in the middle of filming pornography, and stills from the films collected from the scene are shown repeatedly throughout the series. Similarly, another character works to catalog pictures from murder scenes, including things like corpses and severed body parts. But the appeal of the show is that it combines a police show with a spy show (as a group of Russians tries to infiltrate Berlin) within the backdrop of stunningly depicted Germany. The scenes of Berlin's nightlife, specifically, are captivating, and often incorporate incredible musical and dance numbers.
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What's the story?
In BABYLON BERLIN, Inspector Gareon Rath (Volker Bruch), the son of a renowned detective, joins Berlin Police's Vice Squad in 1929. Rath and his suspicious partner, Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), immediately bust a smut-peddling ring that Rath has vague ties to. It quickly becomes clear that this pornography operation has ties to a larger crime syndicate in Germany. Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) lives in a slum with her entire family. Her mother is sick, leaving Charlotte to provide for her grandparents, siblings, and young niece. During the day, she work for the police department, cataloguing photos from murder scenes. At night, she lives the life of a flapper, and occasional prostitute, in Berlin's thriving underground nightlife. Meanwhile, a group of Russian spies hijacks a train to Berlin as part of an operation to overthrow Stalin. As the group prepares to carry out their plan, one of them is revealed to be a spy for the Soviet secret police.
Is it any good?
Notoriously the most expensive non-English television program ever made, this series is much more than pure spectacle. It combines a police drama and a spy story with the historical context of pre-World War II Germany in a vivid and compelling way. As you'd expect with a spy show, everyone seems to be working toward different ends. Just when you think Inspector Rath is a good guy, something comes along to indicate he might not be. Rath's partner is suspicious of him from the jump, but that may be because his partner is a corrupt and violent cop ... or it may be because he has cause for suspicion.
Even with all the mystery and intrigue, Babylon Berlin's best moments often come when they depict the German nightlife of the time. Rath drinks by himself in a pub, but when he sees a group of students dancing raucously in the back room, he joins in and surprisingly outshines them all. The best early scene combines the two: After working all day to provide for her extended family, Charlotte attends a cabaret where Countess Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janušauskaitė), secretly a member of an anti-Stalinist cell, is performing in drag. There's an elaborate dance number involving the whole audience, which takes place at the same time a massive hit is carried out on the anti-Stalinist group. This juxtaposition between Berlin's vibrant nightlife and the seedy world of its criminals drives Babylon Berlin, giving it the tone of a pulp novel while providing a window into a critical time in German (and world) history.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the historical context of Babylon Berlin. Why would someone choose to set a show in pre-WWII Germany? What was going on at that time? What does the show say about German culture at that time?
Because Babylon Berlin is a spy show, a character's motivations are often obscured, so that the audience doesn't always know whose side each character is on. What do we know about Inspector Rath? Is he a "good guy" or a "bad guy"? Or something in between?
Do Americans see German history differently than Germans might? How did WWII color people's ideas about Germany?
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