There’s a wild, heady feeling to Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s best new foreign series. Caught between the sexy, free-wheeling party scene of the Weimar Republic and the brutal crimes of a nation in flux, the viewer can easily feel like they’re the one sipping on the absinthe prepared in the Moka Efti sex club basement. But, no matter how high one feels after a Svetlana Sorokina-in-androgynous-drag musical number — and the answer is very, very high — it’s impossible to shake one cold, disturbing truth about Berlin: we’re looking at a Germany that is less than four years away from appointing Adolf Hitler its Chancellor. This is a world that is essentially months away falling to the horrific abomination that was the Nazi party.
That’s why Hitler’s monstrous shadow hangs over the proceedings like a portent of atrocities to come. Yet, the future Führer’s name is only spoken once. You would expect history’s most hated and infamous anti-semite’s name to come up during one of the many times someone rails against the “social democrats,” which usually comes off as a thinly-veiled euphemism for Germany’s Jewish population. But, the Hitler name-drop couldn’t arrive at a moment further from those troubling scenes, which it what makes it so terrifying.
Rather, Hitler is name-checked when Babylon Berlin is at its most idyllic and hopeful. Lead Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) goes on a swimming excursion with co-worker Stephan Jänicke (Anton von Lucke), who is nursing a big old crush on Lotte, and old friend Greta Overbeck (Leonie Benesch). The rowing club is filled with other harmless, carefree young people who have so few concerns in the world, their only priorities are bullying each other and flirting. You know, like the spring break beaches of today, down to the random naked dude, here filled by affable best friend Rudi Malzig (Johann Jürgens).
As everyone is showing off their rowing skills, two new young men appear to quote the thought leaders of the day, as two antisocial young men with no one else to talk to are like to do. “Mass executions are a legitimate tool of the revolution,” says one, who will soon be identified as Fritz (Jacob Matschenz), adding, “Expropriation, too, by the way.” Not only is that simply a strange thing to say, it’s impossible as a present day viewer to not also connect those sentiments with the mass execution and expropriation Germany will soon carry out against its own citizens.
That is why Fritz’s friend Otto replies, “Says who? Hitler?” And, that’s Babylon Berlin’s single Hitler reference.
While neither young man could know in 1929 the politician would actually end up presiding over the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of millions of innocent people, they were already extremely aware Adolf Hitler very much advocated for such topics. So much so, there’s instant name recognition. Yet, the quote isn’t actually from Germany’s future Chancellor. Instead, as Fritz answers Otto’s question, the horrific quote is “Lenin.”
This entire exchange is unsettling for two reasons.
The first is that all this talk of hypothetical murder and looting isn’t hypothetical at all. In fact, these exact young people without a care in the world — the precise right age for military service — will soon either be Nazis, soldiers, criminally complicit sympathizers, or, Holocaust victims. The scene that backs Fritz and Otto’s conversation, of 10 Aryan-looking young people rowing through the water while blonde men bark orders, doesn’t exactly appear so footloose and fancy free anymore. Rather, it looks like a show of Germany’s future might, even with the ragtime musical accompaniment.
On top of this haunting realization, Babylon Berlin forces viewers to deal with just how easily young people can find themselves seduced by fascism. By freely quoting Vladimir Lenin, Fritz signals he’s more in line with communism and, therefore much more closely aligned with the social democrats of Germany than the authoritarian conservatives gaining power in Germany at this time. This idea is further backed by the fact we often see Fritz, who eventually begins dating Greta, railing against the mega-rich and mega-powerful of Berlin. And, yet, spoiler alert, by episode 15, we see Fritz in full Nazi gear in a crowd of fellow swastika armband-wearing, screaming young men.
Just in case we have any questions about why the Nazis are practically foaming at the mouth, we hear them yelling about “jew bods” and how much money a Jewish person has. Clearly, Fritz’s Leninist ideas remain, but his anger has adjusted focus to where Hitler placed his own rage. It’s difficult to not see similar shadings between these young people and the ones who, frustrated by the failings of Bernie Sanders’ socialist wave, found comfort in the upstart, albeit wildly nationalistic and authoritarian, political agenda of Donald Trump. After all, both men supposedly wanted to tear apart the establishment.
Hitler may not have come up during the literal Nazi riot or the obvious proto-Nazi backdoor meetings in Babylon Berlin, but he did come up in the scariest way possible — the one that makes pure fiction seem very, very real.
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