How Babylon Berlin Turned 1920s Germany Into a Wild, Historical-Fiction Fantasy World

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

It’s a grey, rainy day in Berlin, and on the banks of the river Spree, next to the famous electronic music club Kater Blau, filmmaker Tom Tykwer is sitting in an office with his two colleagues discussing story lines, characters, and what could have happened at this very place 90 years ago. Tykwer (Sense8, A Hologram for the King), one of Germany’s best-known directors internationally, has teamed up with Achim von Borries and Henk Handloegten to write and direct all of the episodes of what has become Europe’s new prestige drama show, Babylon Berlin, both seasons of which are now available in the U.S. on Netflix.

It’s a complex, dark, sometimes unsettling period piece that deals with crime, sex, and politics in late 1920s Berlin, just before the Nazis’ rise to power. “Cabaret on cocaine,” as NPR described it. Tykwer, Borries, and Handloegten tell the story of two police detectives, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), who are investigating a case of political blackmail in Berlin’s porn scene. They get caught in the crossfire of street clashes between communists, Nazis, and police, and they discover a political conspiracy that aims to destroy Germany’s young democracy. In between, Babylon Berlin presents an almost magical world of dance clubs, flapper girls, violence, and dark shadows in an otherwise vibrant city.

Tykwer took a break from writing the show’s third season to talk to Vulture about the show’s political implications, how the Wachowskis influenced him, and why Babylon Berlin soon will dominate the way people imagine what the 1920s looked like. (Achtung: This interview contains some minor spoilers.)

Let’s start with that amazing music sequence at the end of the show’s pilot. We see this very fascinating character Swetlana, a Russian woman living in Berlin and working with Stalin’s intelligence officers. But now she’s up onstage in a music club as an androgynous singer, performing a timeless song called “Zu Asche, zu Staub.” It captures the show’s vibe so perfectly — it’s rooted in the late ’20s while at the same time feeling so present day. Did you direct that particular scene?
Yes, but that doesn’t really matter; it would have turned out to be equally interesting if Achim or Henk directed it. It was the ambition of the entire show, and in particular of sequences like this, to make the borders vanish that separate the periods from each other. To have these overlaps between today, and previous important important pop-cultural periods — and the ’20s. This was a general headline that was guiding all creative conversation: How can we create something that merges all the periods? How can we make our time echo in the ’20s and the ’20s echo in our time?

How did you get this strange, timeless song?
You say, “Let’s create a song that could play in the ’70s, that could play today and that could play in the ’20s.” There’s an in-between state. We want people to say, “I’ve heard this before, and I can imagine that people back then also heard this song.” We know that in the ’20s there were already first electronic instruments, there were really modern dance theater choreographies, there were super-experimental performances. On every cultural level, experimentation was the spirit of the time. I believe that culturally, everything that came later in the 20th century was already present back then somehow — and that’s something we wanted to express with this scene, with our show. Particularly considering how horrifying the idea is that all this cultural experimentation, that inventive and explorative energy, never came to blossom because it was killed so soon after.

It’s quite hypnotizing to see how people in the club are dancing to that song.
Most of it is just ’20s Charleston, mixed with some experimental elements. The Charleston dance culture had many colors, crazy stuff was happening. People had unexpected moves and unexpected dynamics. We wanted to show that, and combine it with moves that you could see in an electronic music club even today.

It seems like you still go out to clubs in Berlin, and have been inspired by the city’s club culture today.
I do, yeah. I would say I know what’s going on. And the clubs I love do have a clear language and a clear idea, a cultural code. The ’20s club on Babylon Berlin where Swetlana performs her song onstage is probably a mix of my favorite clubs, Kater Blau and Berghain, and also Heideglühen. The most important thing is this spirit of liberty, the idea that women and men were mingling without having any predefined roles, unlike in the outside world. It’s a different way of meeting and connecting. And this idea was so advanced in the late ’20s, too. It was about freeing yourself from gender definitions. Especially in Berlin, even more than in Paris. In Berlin, there were places for all kind of special interest, for all sexual desires and preferences. We had LGBT issues 90 years ago. All of that fell apart, of course. Basically it later had to be rebuild over the course of half a century. I guess back then in Berlin and in a few other places in the world, we were pretty close to where we are now.

In terms of queerness?
And the acceptance of it. A part of society was building knowledge and acceptance towards the issue in the ’20s.

Also, huge progress was made when it comes to women’s rights. The show’s female protagonist Charlotte Ritter is a good example for that, a very independent woman who starts working for the Berlin police department.
Germany came from a horrifying war that was lost, with a lot of casualties, hundreds of thousands of dead men. It’s a macabre implication, but because so many men died, there were more job opportunities for women. They could prove themselves. They were basically running society, because half the men were dead, and half of the other half was crippled or psychologically impaired.

When it comes to politics, is it a good idea to to compare 2018 to 1929? Are there any similarities at all?
Yes, and they are too obvious to be ignored, so you have to confront them. The party system in Germany is restructuring; actually, in all of Europe it is, with new parties rising that have a huge influence on politics. And they usually are from the far right. It was the same back then. The sudden rise of a strong right-wing party is what will happen to the society of our show. For quite a time, the Nazis were completely ignored by the majority of society. They did not have any influence, nobody voted for them. They polled at 1.8 percent in 1929. Of course, you can’t simplify historical developments and pretend that this analogy holds for all substantial layers. We’ve lived in a very solid democracy now for more than 60 years. Back then, Germany’s political system was sort of an experiment: “Let’s see how these monarchists handle this new idea called democracy.”

Do you think it could be an issue for U.S. or foreign audience that they might not know that much about the historical context of your show? About the political struggles in the Weimar republic?
I don’t think it’s a problem. The show gives you a lot of details and information. Of course, it’s always just one vision, one interpretation. It’s not a history lesson. We give the audience our perspective on the developments. For instance, on May 1, 1929 — this huge infamous date in Germany’s democracy history — there was this big demonstration in Berlin, the communists had ignored a curfew and were basically shot off the streets by the police, commanded by a social democratic head of police. The liberal left attacked the far left so hard. Ultimately that let the far right profit from all this. It was just tragic how the left forces fought each other so long that they forgot to actually look out for their true enemies.

But you don’t need to know about these backgrounds?
I think the more specific an investigation of history is, and the more detailed it is without always explaining the framing, the more interesting it is. Especially for other countries’ and other cultures’ audiences. That’s why a film like The Lives of Others became so famous, because it was very particular. It became the movie everyone wanted to see because it was a very private, intimate story that still explores an entire system — but without just explaining the system in bold headlines.

Do you think an American audience might see this show more like a fantasy show? A strange, new world which has nothing to do with actual history?
What I’ve seen from other TV shows is rather the opposite, that this will now be taken as the one and only reality of how the ’20s were. That’s another problem, but that’s how TV shows work and how you watch them. Even I do. I watched The Knick and I now think that’s how New York was in 1900 and how hospitals were run. You look at Mad Men, and you feel like it is really representing the period. And I think that’s true to some degree, although we all know the show focuses on certain aspects and ignores others, and has a clear political agenda — a feminist agenda that I support. That’s the way this works.

The last couple of months have been quite a success for fictional German television. Some critics came up with this term “German angst” to refer to your show as well as Dark, a German Netflix production that has found some admirers in the U.S. Is that a term, a brand you can relate to?
I have a bit of a hard time comparing Dark and our show. There’s always this desire to make it a movement or a tendency, and I’m just like, “I don’t know!” I didn’t think about German angst. It is kind of a genre or a flavor, and there’s something about it that’s very attractive of course. Because it’s mysterious and a little unsettling and it has to do with the unsettling past we live with. It’s interesting that the most unsettling part of our past is the future of our show’s protagonists. That’s an interesting dynamic that we are very conscious of.

Do they sense what’s coming for them, for the country, for Europe?
We are very careful to avoid this kind of smart-ass knowledge — that they don’t know what’s happening but that they might “sense” it. We don’t want that. We feel like nobody had a clue. In 1929, no one had a clue that three-and-a-half years later society would turn upside down.

You worked on Netflix’s Sense8 before this. What did you learn about doing TV shows working on that one?
Well, you get less money and far less time than when you do a feature film. But you have an enormous amounts of possibilities. You can take a lot of detours in the narrative. This new canvas is not only larger, it’s in particular inexplicably multi-angled. You can go so many ways.

I had the feeling that Babylon Berlin was influenced by a specific aesthetic that you developed while working with the Wachowskis on Sense8.
Well, in a way we have been influential for each other. We recognized we had really similar interests, both in film aesthetics and in specific subjects. Of course, I learned a lot from them about the way they are very much at ease with developing a sense for a period. The way they can design a science-fiction world.

World-building, that’s what I meant. They are really experienced world builders, and that’s something I have profited from.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Babylon Berlin Created a Wild Historical-Fiction Fantasy