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DVD: Babylon Berlin Series 1-3 | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Babylon Berlin Series 1-3

DVD: Babylon Berlin Series 1-3

The grit and surface glamour of Berlin in 1929, peerlessly acted and filmed

Grime beneath the gilt: Volker Bruch as Gideon Rath and Liv Lisa Fries as Charlotte Ritter

There are bad times just around the corner for the characters of Babylon Berlin, though 1929 is grim enough.

Focusing on the moment to take away the easy option of hindsight for the viewer and making its vast line-up, played by actors of supreme skill and nuance, deeply sympathetic or obnoxious according to the role, this extravaganza is much more about the gritty reality than the glamour of all those dances on the volcano. Not that there aren't glittering, decadent club sequences, but the harsh facts behind them never escape the directors' eyes.

"Directors", because there are three of them, Tom Twyker, Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, who also originated the idea and wrote the scripts, derived from a much-admired series of crime novels by Volker Kutscher (seemingly more than just that, if the screen homage is faithful to them; even with the known endings of the first two books, it looks like they'd be worth reading after watching). Add to that the astonishing work of 16 cinematographers, and it all works as a dizzying unity, interweaving smaller and larger themes with a virtuosity that always delivers the necessary climaxes; I'm still reeling from the fallout of the last two episodes in Series Three, the new plotline developing unexpectedly from seemingly sillier episodes of expressionist film and dabbling in the occult.

The 16 episodes of the supposed Series One and Two in the first box actually ran together as a single sequence in the original German release, bracketed by the mystery and the result of the male protagonist's hypnosis (in my Acorn set, there's a serious mislabelling: "Series One Disc Two" is actually the second disc of Series Two, so swap them round before you start). Policeman Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) arrives from Cologne to solve the mystery of a dignitary caught in a pornographic film, but a bigger picture opens up of lethal clashes between Bolsheviks and Trotskyists, and between Communists, Police, old militarists and - Nazis. The coup of keeping it all "in the present" is that we don't see a swastika until the end of Series Two; there are no images of Hitler or references to him until Series Three. The fallout from the First World War is apparent in Rath's controlled morphine addiction to alleviate post-traumatic stress - there are later flashbacks to the trenches - and former officers pushing for German rearmament and a return to a mythical former glory. Liv Lisa Fries as Charlotte RitterSo the democratic state totters at every point, and there are countless citings of the old German proverb "one hand washes the other" as unlikely allies use each other for politicial gain. Real figures like doddery old Hindenburg (played by Günter Lamprecht, star of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz) and Stresemann appear in the action; this really is a German War and Peace, not easily slotted into the crime-drama, neo-noir category. But how it delivers its suspense, and what amazing casting.

Bruch's hero is mesmerising, a battered face that can become beautiful and sensitive, a damaged personality softened by his acquaintance with the briskly beguiling Charlotte Ritter. This girl from the slums makes her money by night as best she can but by day takes a job as a police stenographer in the hopes of becoming the first female police inspector in the Berlin force. Bei Gott, is she good, and infinitely various in the bewitching hands of Liv Lisa Fries (Bruch and Fries pictured above). In the accompanying documentary, Fries says that the character is "developed in such deep and complex ways that I could play her until I die"; the casting choice could not have been more vivaciously rewarded. You care deeply for the fates of these two as they undergo extreme trials and tribulations. Moka Efti scene from Babylon BerlinBut then everyone proves note-perfect, down to the cameos. A more dangerous female presence in the first two series is Russian Countess Svetlana Sorokina, embodied by the strange beauty of Lithuanian actor, singer, composer, designer and fashion model Severija Janušauskaitė; she commands the obvious set-piece highlight of Series One, daring in its musical mix of old and new. Here she cross-dresses to become "Nikoros", star of the Moka Efti nightclub (pictured above) run by the handsome, dangerous Edgar Kasabian (Croatian-German actor Mišel Matičević), gangland supremo, known as "The Armenian". The other dominant "guest" of the first two series is the immensely charismatic Peter Kurth as Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolte, worthy of any Hollywood noir.

Moments of tenderness and ease are few, but there's a lovely fillip when Rath's lover Helga (another unusual beauty, Hannah Herzsprung) arrives from Cologne in Series Two; in a brief homage to Pennies from Heaven, their morning dance routine to a popular song embodies the believability of a couple truly in love and totally comfortable with each other.

Like the brief raptures, the comedy is unusual, too, and often fraught with tension; but it is superbly embodied in the quirky phrases of the intellectual journalist with whom Rath initially shares digs, Samuel Katelbech (Karl Markovics) and the expressive facial nuances of their landlady Elisabeth Behnke (Fritzi Haberlandt). Christian Friedel as gay police photographer Gräf brings a radiant sensitivity which culminates in another tender moment, a birthday lovesong.

Serious stage experience is strong among the cast; Haberlandt acted in Robert Wilson's Berliner Ensemble production of Danton's Death and Lars Eidinger, here the quirky son of a big steel-magnate family, was as brilliant a Richard the Third for the Schaubühne Berlin as any I’ve seen; he brings the same sense of unpredictability, comedy and threat to damaged Alfred Nyssen. Younger actors realise the pathos of innocence compromised or betrayed in the shape of Anton von Lucke's Stephan Jänicke and Leonie Benesch in the heartrending, slow-burn tale of Greta Overbeck, a childhood friend of Lotte's (pictured below). The teenagers, Moritz Rath (Ivo Pietzcker) and Lotte’s sister Toni (Irene Böhm), add an extra layer of what happens to even more vulnerable youth; we watch them growing up and fear for them. Court scene in 'Babylon Berlin'Better stop there before the catalogue of remarkable acting becomes a shopping-list. It would be good to spend just as much time on other aspects – sets, locations, costumes, make-up, music – as the finely-produced accompanying documentary. Music and location, it's worth pointing out, coincide in a performance of The Threpenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm where it premiered, for a high-tension assassination scene; Brecht is much lauded, Weill doesn't get a mention, and they saved on an orchestra, while the only singing is that of "Mack the Knife". Anyway, probably best to save the extra until you’ve seen all three series - a fourth, by the way, is scheduled - because watching it midway through will give away some of the tricks, not least the redressing of a single street built on the Babelsburg Studio site. That said, Berlin remains the big star of the whole series: not some nostalgic recreation, but an embodiment of the everyday sweat and night-club seductiveness, the grime and the glamour, which still percolate the city to some extent. Magnificent, and infinitely re-watchable.

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