Babylon Berlin and the study of an interwar city

By ARIELLA SHUA | April 5, 2018

B5_Babylon Berlin
MARTIN KRAFT/CC BY-SA 3.0 German director Tom Tykwer is one of the co-creators of Babylon Berlin.

On Thursday, March 28, Samuel Spinner, an assistant professor in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literature, held a screening and discussion centered on the first episode of the Netflix series Babylon Berlin. Spinner also discussed the class he will be teaching in the Fall 2018 semester, Berlin Between the Wars: Literature, Art, Music, Film.

Those who came to the event got an extra dose of German culture as well — freshly baked soft pretzels, seltzer, apple juice and an assortment of German chocolates.

The atmosphere in the room was light and pleasant, with several of the professors and students conversing casually in German, although once the episode began, the show quickly grabbed everyone’s attention.

Babylon Berlin is a German television series focused on Berlin and larger German culture during the interwar years, between World Wars I and II. An adaptation of Volker Kutscher’s novel series, beginning with Der nasse Fische (The Wet Fish), the show primarily centers on Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a police inspector secretly suffering from tremors who has been transferred from Cologne to Berlin. 

Set in 1929, Berlin is depicted as being in an uneasy state of calm, with signs of trouble brewing. Several subplots were introduced in the first episode, including those of underground Trotsky sympathizers, the psychological impact of war and a mafia-like criminal.

I found the show quite interesting to watch. Babylon Berlin seems to be part crime drama, part historical fiction. Though I’d often learned in history classes about German culture during the World Wars, I’d never focused on the country during the period between the wars. The show makes sure to dramatize the situation while also being historically accurate. 

Spinner noted that the episode hinted at events and mood shifts that will likely appear in future episodes, such as Jewish men hanging around outside a press building and young women attempting to secure day-long jobs with the police department. As the show advances, more direct focus will likely be given to the themes and attitudes toward Jews and the rise of a gig economy for women as their relevance in history grew.

Babylon Berlin, which is co-directed by Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries, is the most expensive non-English television drama ever produced. 

Spinner pointed out that the show also had an obvious American influence. In some ways, it seemed like a mafia adventure, chasing after criminals with complicated pasts and connections to others. Spinner noted that the Dick Tracy-style hats and prohibitionist-era themes shown in the episode may be more reflective of American — rather than German — 1920s society.

After the screening, Spinner expanded on the subject of his fall class. He will be focusing on Berlin’s culture during the Weimar Republic and how the city became a hub for literature and the arts. He presented images of art pieces and movie posters from the era. 

In particular, I was interested in the promotional poster of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which Spinner described as perhaps the first horror movie ever produced. 

Another fascinating poster shown was for the 1919 movie Nerven, which had been considered lost until the prints were recently found. Nerven focuses on the psychological impact of trench warfare and the crushing effects of living in big cities such as Berlin. I was reminded of Babylon Berlin’s Gereon, who attempts to hide his tremors from his co-workers by discreetly taking medications to calm his senses.

Some of the paintings shown had strong political themes attached, which Spinner said was reflective of the atmosphere at the time. “There were more left wing politics — a critique of art, a critique of society,” he said. 

In his class, Spinner will mainly address these left-wing aspects, with some focus on right-wing and fascist works as well. His main passion, however, is the powerful impact of Jewish culture during the time period. 

“One of the reasons I love teaching about interwar Berlin is because some of the best Yiddish writers were there,” he said. Spinner described how nearly all Yiddish literature from the 1920s came from Germany. 

Babylon Berlin’s first episode was an intriguing look into the Weimar Republic’s influence on German citizens. For anyone at all interested in the topic, I highly recommend checking it out on Netflix — and taking a class with Professor Spinner.

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