Nazis, noir and Weimar decadence: Babylon Berlin recreates an era for TV detective drama

Volker Kutscher, German author of series of bestsellers now coming to TV, tells how he was inspired by The Sopranos and Raymond Chandler

One of the most expensive drama series ever created for television will be screened in the autumn – a 16-part crime story set in 1920s Germany costing £36m.

The German-language Babylon Berlin series has been adapted from a 2008 bestselling thriller by Volker Kutscher. Set in the glamorous and decadent world of 1920s Berlin, with communists and Nazis clashing on the city’s streets, it follows a young police inspector who investigates a porn ring and uncovers a web of corruption.

It is one of six critically acclaimed novels featuring the detective Gereon Rath and was partly inspired by the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and the hit HBO television series The Sopranos. The German-language editions alone have sold more than a million copies.

Although Babylon Berlin and the second novel in the series – The Silent Death – have been translated into English, Kutscher is still barely known in Britain. He is due to appear at the Edinburgh book festival on Monday. The Observer spoke to him just after he had attended a preview screening of the new drama.

He said: “It really blew me away. It’s really big and exciting TV. How deeply I was dragged [into] the world of Babylon Berlin, how real the 1929 Berlin becomes on screen. I have never seen something like that before on German TV, not even in [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.”

Kutscher, 54, who studied German literature, philosophy and history, conducted extensive research into prewar Germany for his novels: “I’m very curious about this time – an important time, not only in German history. I always questioned how a civilised country, a republic like Germany, could change into this dictatorship. There’s no easy answer to this.”

As the film makers embarked on their shoot, he told them: “You can do anything you want, but please stay with my characters and the heart of my story.”

In an unusual collaboration, Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries and Henk Handloegten are all co-writing and directing, doing parallel shoots with three units. There are also three producers: Stefan Arndt, Uwe Schott and Michael Polle.

The series was shot mostly on location in the German capital, but they also built four entire streets across a vast area of the Babelsberg Film Studio in nearby Potsdam. Polle said they recreated the 1920s streets with such realism that they look genuine even close-up, helping the audience “travel in time”.

The cast is headed by Volker Bruch as Rath, who also starred in the controversial mini-series Generation War, and Liv Lisa Fries, who this year was singled out by Variety as one of 10 new European actors to watch.

Robert Davidson, the managing director of Kutscher’s English-language publisher, Sandstone, praised the books’ attention to historical detail and their exciting plots: “It’s the world of Cabaret, but it’s also realistic. It takes place when the Nazis are infiltrating German society [and] when the communists are seen as more of a threat than the Nazis; when there’s extreme poverty in Germany, and a generation of men who’ve experienced the first world war have this feeling of national failure.”

There are analogies with Britain and America today, he said: “There appears to be in both countries a feeling of national failure, where a fairly large section of society reaches for the exclusion of the other.”

Babylon Berlin trailer (German).

Describing the character of Gereon Rath, he said: “He’s 29 and well-connected because his father is the chief of police for Cologne. He’s something of an outcast, because he was working as a policeman in Cologne when he shot someone – the son of someone powerful – and was lucky to escape going to prison. He finds himself in the vice squad in Berlin.”

Davidson said the producers of the television adaptation have risen to the challenge of matching the quality of American and Scandinavian series such as The Sopranos and The Killing.

Kutscher has just started work on the seventh novel in the series. He said: “The first one was in 1929. Now the seventh is in 1935. I want to go to 1938, then end the whole series.”

Babylon Berlin, which will be broadcast in the UK by Sky Atlantic from 5 November, reflects how high-end television drama is now drawing big budgets, as well as big stars and directors. Other forthcoming productions include an innovative series involving writer Nick Hornby and the television division of See Saw Films, the company behind the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. They are making a series of 10 10-minute episodes that will focus on a couple in the 10 minutes before they go into their weekly marriage counselling session. They will be directed by Roger Michell, whose films include Notting Hill.

Hakan Kousetta and Jamie Laurenson of See Saw Films said that there was no longer a “stigma” about moving between the big and small screen.

  • This article was amended on 10 October 2017 to correct the date of Babylon Berlin’s transmission in the UK from 13 October to 5 November, 2017.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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