In this week’s column, Lynden Barber takes in a detective story set in Weimar Germany, Babylon Berlin, a Spanish thriller – Money Heist – and its spin-off documentary Money Heist – The Phenomenon and the alternative history series The Plot Against America.
Detective stories are the most common TV crime sub-genre, ranging from the “anyone care for a biscuit?” mundanity of Midsomer Murders to smartly written top end UK series such as Broadchurch, Line of Duty, Happy Valley and The Fall. In between there’s an awful lot of icily blue-grey Scandinavian police tales, mostly on SBS, and the odd interesting series from elsewhere such as France’s Spiral.
But for my money the best detective series of them is German. Co-written, executive produced and directed by the creator of 90s international hit film Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer, Babylon Berlin is based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher set in and around Berlin during the turbulently unstable Weimar Republic.
Like the first two seasons, the series’ new third season is set in 1929, when the devastation wrought by the Great War – social, economic and political – was still deeply felt and the Nazis were but an ugly street gang only just starting to reveal their sinister hand.
The criminal cases explored by morphine addicted, guilt-ridden and PTSD suffering war veteran and detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) provide the usual genre pleasures of a puzzle that must be solved piece by piece. But in essence, they are only a device, a means to explore the different facets of this retrospectively fascinating period: a mosaic of social and political contradictions.
These included the on-going humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles amid deep poverty, hyper-inflation amid rampant corruption, and clashes between armed police and massive workers’ street marches marshalled by Communists and radical anarcho-syndicalist movement the Wobblies. And yet for all this instability, the era also saw bracing innovation in art, design, architecture and film (Bauhaus, Otto Dix and Fritz Lang et al) – not to mention nightclubs where gays, lesbians and transsexuals could emerge from their hiding.
In post WW2 culture the period has been peculiarly under-served. Once you get past Cabaret, Christopher Isherwood novels and RW Fassbinder’s television adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the cupboard starts to look a little bare. Which is all grist to Babylon Berlin’s mill. There’s plenty to explore without risking déjà vu.
I’m certainly unaware of any attempt to recreate the Berlin of this period with this scale and detail. It’s not surprising the series is said to be the most expensive series ever produced in Germany since all that money appears to be on the screen – huge nightclubs, massive street demonstrations, entire streets built on backlots, and so on.
But the series’ brilliance is not just about spectacle. One smart decision was to cast faces that fascinate with their imperfection, particularly among the male characters, WW1 survivors bearing scars, facial birth marks or permanently etched scowls. The influence of German Expressionist art, with its fascination for crippled veterans and ugliness, is clear.
Meanwhile Detective Rath’s unofficial partner in crime solving, flapper and wannabe detective Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), remains a satisfyingly ambitious and yet quirky female lead as she doggedly pursues her aim of becoming the first woman detective admitted to the Berlin force. With her cloche hats, unconventionally wild hair and hypnotically expressive eyes, Fries has a commanding screen presence – an ironic counterpoint to her delicate frame.
With the central plot about a mysterious train wrapped up at the end of the last season, season three introduces a new crime: the death of an American actress in a film musical production at the Babelsberg movie studios (a sly, meta decision, as this is where the series was filmed). Plus, continuing from season two, is a second crime involving a Nazi assassination dressed up to look like a Communist atrocity.
Four or five episodes in, the plot developments are coming at a furious rate. You may need a swift finger on the rewind button to keep up.
Netflix doesn’t release audience figures, yet when it has a surprise hit it certainly doesn’t hold back from trumpeting what it claims is a major success. The Spanish series Money Heist, about an outlandishly bold plot to brazenly rob that country’s Mint, now has a 50-minute spin-off promotional documentary, Money Heist – The Phenomenon, which crows about its success worldwide.
Despite steadily losing its audience when it debuted in 2017 on Spanish free-to-air, the series eventually became a hit in regions as wide apart as Europe, North Africa and Saudi Arabia once it aired globally on Netflix. The series (the film claims) has become a cultural phenomenon that inspires fans to dress up in the gang’s red boiler suits and Salvador Dali masks, with some viewers seeing the criminals as symbols of freedom against an oppressive system. Well, maybe. As I said, it’s a promotional film.
Yet one moment is revealing: one of the film’s senior creative team (either a producer or writer – they’re not clearly identified) calls the heist “unbelievable,” quickly adding that viewers want to watch, nonetheless.
Having watched Money Heist’s entire first season, I identify with that statement. It’s not unusual for thrillers to have plots that aren’t strictly realistic. That’s almost a defining feature for the genre. But this series is full of outlandish plot points in virtually every episode.
And yet I kept watching. Why? Partly because the series is dynamic and unusually well structured. The plotting is never short of a twist or a turn, even if these push the limits of human psychology or rewrite the standard police book of hostage negotiation. The characters of the gang members and their hostages are also satisfyingly developed and their interactions take many permutations, some of them surprising. It’s often ridiculous, but it ain’t dull.
Finally, a disappointment. HBO’s The Plot Against America (on Foxtel and its new streaming subscription network, Binge) is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel set in a US where right-wing aviator hero Charles Lindbergh stands for President against Roosevelt, promising to keep America out of WW2, and wins.
The story is told through the eyes of a Jewish New Jersey family that witnesses virulent anti-Semitism rising and is pulled apart by its members’ differing responses. Despite the promising scenario, strong cast (including John Turturro and terrific up-and-comer Zoe Kazan) and rich period set design and glowing cinematography, the six 50-minute episodes are let down by slow and laboured plotting that allows the viewer to be two steps ahead of the writers. It feels like a novel being translated to the screen very literally. Co-writer and executive producer David Simon was partly responsible for the great series The Wire. This is not one of his finest moments.