The complicated plot encompasses a Russian freight train carrying poison gas and gold; secret military maneuvers; and a brutal May Day confrontation between police and Communists. There are Soviet agents and Trotskyist agitators, a cross-dressing jazz singer, an Armenian mafia boss and a rich industrialist in cahoots with a group of army officers.
The star of the show, however, is Berlin. The lavish production lovingly recreates the city’s 1920s streets, cafes and nightclubs. Around 70 percent of the series was shot on location, with the rest filmed on a massive set at the historic Babelsberg studios.
Costing 38 million euros (about $44 million) to produce, the 180-day shoot involved three crews and three writer/directors: Tom Tykwer (of “Perfume” and “Run Lola Run” fame), Achim von Borries and Henk Handloegten, who had all long sought to work together on a project based on this period.
Credit Beta Film
“The three of us had the idea to do a big panoramic view of the society at the end of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic, before we actually knew the novels,” Mr. Handloegten said.
Paul Cooke, professor of world cinemas at the University of Leeds, said TV depictions of this period have been rare. “Most obviously, Fassbinder’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz,’ which was a big hit in the 1970s,” he said. “It’s touched on in Edgar Reitz’s ‘Heimat,’ which was a huge international hit. But it’s later periods of history that tend to be the focus of German productions that do well internationally.”
The makers of “Babylon Berlin,” however, were interested in exploring the prelude to the Third Reich. “All these people didn’t fall from the sky as Nazis,” Mr. Handloegten said. “They had to become Nazis.”
In writing the screenplay, the creators made some key changes to the books. As well as expanding the political elements, they turned Gereon Rath into a more sympathetic character, traumatized by his experiences in World War I, prone to fits of shaking and addicted to morphine.
Charlotte Ritter is no longer a bourgeois law student but a street-smart working-class woman. “We felt very strongly that we should have a main character from this proletarian background, because Berlin was always a poor city,” Mr. Handloegten explained.
Work has already begun on Season 3, and there’s plenty more source material to draw on. Mr. Kutscher has already written six Gereon Rath novels and plans another three, culminating with Kristallnacht in 1938.
The TV adaptation is already a commercial and critical hit at home. Within a week of its German premiere on Oct. 13, the first episode had been watched by 1.2 million people — a German viewing figure bested only by “Game of Thrones.”
“The show is epic, the story is complex,” the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel wrote. “The TV version gives the material what it requires while never taking away the striking images, ambiguous characters and exciting story: everything needed to suck you in.”
The weekly magazine Der Spiegel described the show as a “masterpiece” and a “great, dizzying panorama,” and predicted that it could be “the first big German TV production since ‘Das Boot’ to have really relevant success abroad.”
Credit Beta Film
The praise, however, has not been universal. The Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said: “The period it depicts may have been sensuous, but the show is not. The world of ‘Babylon Berlin’ remains behind glass.”
In Britain, the reception has been positive so far. “It’s all wonderfully gripping, and Bruch has the most pained, expressive eyes you’ll see all year,” the critic for The Financial Times wrote. “With the arrival of Charlotte … drab secretary by day, jazz baby by night, we enter the youthful Berlin of dance crazes and desperate excess.”
Some critics have also drawn parallels to current political events, like the American election of Donald J. Trump, the Brexit vote, and the arrival of the far-right Alternative for Germany in the Bundestag.
“The echoes of the ‘populism’ of the 1930s with what is going on right now is certainly a link that is being made,” Professor Cooke said. “How far this is played out in the show itself remains to be seen. But it is fair to say that these kinds of historical dramas always tend to use the past as a cipher for the present.”
But Hajo Funke, professor of political science at the Free University Berlin, cautions against making too many comparisons. “Economically, socially and politically, it was a totally different situation,” he said.
“In 1929, there was a brief phase of stability after the terrible shock at the end of World War I, the inflation crisis, the economic restrictions,” Professor Funke added. “It was not at all clear if it would be possible to overcome the next crisis.”
At the same time, he agrees that the show taps into the current mood. “It could serve to point to the dangers, to the destructive forces in society and politics,” he said.
For the makers of “Babylon Berlin,” it was crucial that the audience experience the past through the eyes of the protagonists.
In the first season, for example, Hitler is only mentioned once in passing. After all, Berlin was a left-wing bastion, and in the 1928 election, the Nazis got only 1.6 percent of the city’s votes.
“In 1929, there were no Nazis in Berlin,” said the producer Stefan Arndt. “You cannot see or even smell that there’s danger coming.”