Thursday, February 8, 2018

Babylon Berlin

Berlin is a wet city.  When I was there recently, construction was ubiquitous and, therefore, elaborate pumping and drainage systems were also everywhere on display.  Lethargic, slow-moving rivers criss-cross the urban landscape and there are many lagoons and canals carved into the muck to drain water away from buildings.  The city sits on a flat plain dotted with big, shallow lakes and the water table is about 12 feet below grade -- in some ways the City's physiognomy is a little like Minneapolis with all the lakes exiled to the suburbs.  The new crime series on Netflix, Babylon Berlin (2018) is similarly wet -- the skies seem to be perpetually drizzly, waterlogged corpses float in the Spree near the sooty dome of the Berlin cathedral, a man who is shot in the garret of a building falls into the air-well, a dismal murky Hinterhof and lands in deep water accumulated as if in a cistern.  The name of the novel from which the series derives in Der nasse Fisch, that is, "the moist fish."  The gloom enveloping the show is not merely picturesque -- it applies to just about every aspect of this lavish production (the renowned German film director Tom Twyker is one of three credited with helming this project):  the plot is lurid but, more or less, incomprehensible and the  characters are shadowy, all of them compromised or damaged in one way or another.  The show is ravishing to behold, but not easy to understand -- it's a bit like The Big Sleep:  after a while you lose track of who is killing whom and why.  So far as I can ascertain, after watching five hours of the immensely ambitious 16 hour show, the show involves a number of plot strands wound around a detective named Gereon Rath.  Rath is a badly damaged World War One veteran -- a so-called Zitterer ("trembler"); when his PTSD is triggered, he falls to the floor helplessly twitching and has to be administered some sort of palliative narcotic.  (He acquires the narcotic by trading pornographic pictures, acquired through his work as a vice cop, for vials of drug supplied to him by a porcine pharmacist.  The pharmacist is not the only character in the film that looks like a pig -- in general, the older men all look distinctly "boarish"; there's a strong element of George Grosz and Otto Dix in the film's visual design:  it's not really expressionist, but rather exemplifies the grotesque caricatured realism of the Weimar Neue Sachlichkeit movement -- this is appropriate because the film is set in 1928 or 1929 at the height of Neue Sachlichkeit.)  For reasons that are not clear to me yet, Gereon Rath has come from Cologne and he provides us with our mode of access to the corrupt world of the Berlin police.  Rath is assigned a fat and swinish "minder" and they work together as vice cops.  Rath is trying to find the source of an image, apparently used to blackmail a political candidate in Cologne -- the grainy picture shows another dumpy older man being ministered to by two fat whores who seem to be threatening to castrate him.  A death squad of Stalinist agents is slaughtering Trotskyite communists who operate a printing press called "The Red fortress"  -- a number of them are machine-gunned in a raid on their print shop, although their leader escapes by hiding in the sewage neck-deep in the privy in the alley.  (This is realistically staged with suitably nauseating effects).  The Communists seem to be fighting over a shipment of Russian gold that is sitting in the train shed at one of the town's Bahnhofs.  This all occurs against a violent backdrop of streetfighting between city authorities and mobs of Communists -- in one sequence, 200 Communists are, apparently, gunned down by armored cars while the two hapless cops are caught in the cross-fire.  (Two women bystanders are shot down on a balcony and this becomes a cause celebre. stirring up more fighting in the streets.)  The police trot out a wounded cop to show that the Communists are inciting violence against the police -- but we have seen that the cop was shot by his three-year-old who got a hold of his service revolver.  The plucky heroine, Lotte, works as a transcriptionist and clerk at the red brick factory where the cops are officed -- her job is review pictures of crime-scenes and create a key-word index of these brutal images.  Lotte, who is gaunt but pretty, moonlights as a prostitute at a club called the Hollaender.  Everyone in the show looks filthy and most of the characters seem to be starving.  The working class are crowded into mephitic tenements, about eight to a room.  Lotte, who might have a kind heart, is trying to help a girl Greta that she knows is starving -- there is a lot of Kaethe Kollwitz imagery of haggard women and children.   Lotte tries to get Greta to work as a prostitute but she's still recovering from a C-section that seems to have been botched and may be infected.  Periodically, the show erupts into big song-and-dance numbers after the manner of a Baz Luhrman musical -- the tunes are anachronistic, woozy Kraut trance music and rap, but the people dance an authentically nasty-looking and athletic Charleston.  This show is very lurid:  but the images are well-designed and authentically disturbing.  After a sexual encounter, the camera shows Lotte fully dressed, buttoning up her blouse -- the corrupt and fat cop she has been servicing lolls on an ottoman, totally naked like some kind of obscene Odalisque. A woman dressed in a man's tuxedo with a narrow moustache penciled over her upper lip, staggers down the streets of Berlin carrying a hand gun.  A corpse that is grey blob in grey waters drifts in a filthy river while Marlene Dietrich intones a song about "Berlin laughs and Berlin cries" -- an old cabaret piece.  In one sequence, we see a clip from Ulmer and Siodmak's movie Menschen am Sontag (partly written by Billy Wilder) and, in another shot we see Josef von Sternberg editing The Blue Angel.  Abstractions that flicker over the closing sequence of each program are from Walter Ruttman's experimental Opus II.  There is a breathtaking reconstruction of the pre-war Alexanderplatz -- costing over 41 million Euros this is the most expensive production in German film history.  It's sordid, ugly, and always interesting and the main characters, notwithstanding their flaws are oddly endearing.  I recommend the show.

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