‘Babylon Berlin’ Review: Dancing While the World Begins to Burn

‘Babylon Berlin’ Review: Dancing While the World Begins to Burn

The balls stay in the air with the mesmerizing rhythm of one of the cabaret acts at the show’s fictional nightclub, Moka Efti; the effect can be, to use the favorite descriptor among “Babylon Berlin” fans, addictive. The series — and the fourth season in particular, which has a story line involving the gathering of Berlin’s criminal gangs — has been compared to “M,” the great 1931 thriller by the German director Fritz Lang. But a better comparison would be to Lang silents like “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler” and “Spies,” intricately assembled thrillers that are some of the most deluxe entertainments ever put on film.

It helps, of course, that the place and time the show inhabits are Berlin in the Weimar era of the 1920s and early ’30s, a ready-made backdrop of artistic, cultural and sexual ferment in a city headed toward political and social catastrophe. The action hopscotches from police labs to the soundstages of expressionist films, from munitions factories to beer halls, from baronial manors to squalid tenements, with a studious devotion to the quality and evocativeness of costumes, sets and locations.

Season 4 jumps ahead to New Year’s Eve in 1930, a little over a year after Season 3 ended amid the chaos of the stock market crash. Newsreel footage of bread lines and of angry crowds of the unemployed is used as a counterpoint to scenes of the show’s characters joining in the celebrations as 1931 begins.

In a season-long motif, Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), the former prostitute who has worked her way onto the police homicide squad, happily dances down the street to a peppy new tune, “A Day Like Gold” (actually sung by the contemporary German jazz singer Max Raabe). Later she will compete in a dance marathon, and she will end the season hoofing to “A Day Like Gold” once again, proclaiming, “Tomorrow is tomorrow, and now is now, and now I want to dance.” The obviousness of the metaphor is mitigated by our knowledge of how completely the world is about to burn.

The new season is typically replete with story lines. On the crime drama side, the murder of a civil servant spurs an investigation of the city’s ringvereine, criminal gangs with connections to boxing clubs. On the social history side, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), the police detective and former heroin addict who is Ritter’s on-and-off-again love interest, is enmeshed with the SA, the brown-shirted Nazi paramilitary.

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