Binge-watching Netflix seems to be an acceptable pastime for once. Not only do we have more time on our couches (now that we’re not commuting for an hour or going out after work) but we all need to escape the grim reality, at least for a few hours.
Offering plenty of scandal, sex and adrenaline-rushing escapes, Babylon Berlin is a show designed for binge watching, and (for better or worse) ironically foretells our current predicament.
The show is set in Berlin in the “Golden Twenties”, a zeitgeist by both political instability and cultural hedonism and progressivism.
It is a world where cross-dressing nightclub singers moonlight as Soviet-employed assassins. Where nudist lake outings and police massacres of left-wing protesters occur simultaneously. And where a shell-shocked grizzled army veteran produces illicit lewd films.
Into this melange steps Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne who has been temporarily summoned to Berlin under surreptitious circumstances. Although ostensibly working with the vice squad, Rath ends up being drawn into a homicide investigation that unravels a complex web of conspiracies (I haven’t reached the end yet, so I can’t reveal how it unfolds) involving mutinous Reichswehr (army) officers, pro-Trotsky communists, a mafiosi nightclub mogul, a trove of gold and even Rath’s police department colleagues.
The plot and cinematography are so furtively adroit, revealing major backstories and side plots-in pieces-through a glimpse of binoculars or a brief flashback, as to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. The fact that nearly every character has some fishy doppelganger heightens the suspense.
And yet, the most powerful part of the series is the strange hindsight it offers in our current predicament.
Only a-month-and-a-half ago I was frequenting gay nightclubs on a weekly basis. The West Hollywood nightlife-almost as libertine as Weimar Berlin’s-carried on with full force despite the ominous illness seeping into the country.
Like the Berlin of Babylon, our republic was in a precarious state. Politicians routinely flouted democratic norms and connived with foreign powers. Inequality ran rampant. Gun violence was a part of daily life.
But if you were part of the middling urban bourgeoisie, with just enough of a paycheck to indulge in cocktails or pour-over coffee on the weekend, you could rationalize everything away, or forget it even existed.
Until the economy stopped…
Anyone with a basic knowledge of European history knows what will happen next in the Babylon story: the 1929 Stock Market Crash will lead to totalitarianism, which will lead to the bloodiest war in Germany’s history.
We’re past the crash phase now. Which is why watching Babylon arouses such a strong feeling of nostalgia.
Life is short. History is long.
When will I be able to frequent nightclubs again without the risk of contracting a terrifying illness? Where will our turbulent geopolitics take us?
These thoughts don’t usually linger. I am always too giddy to move on to the next episode.
And even when they do, my feelings ultimately move from despair to contemplation.
One discreet message I pick up from Babylon:
A corrupt society is probably not worth retaining, regardless of its temptations.