Two Must-See Netflix Series That Tell German Cautionary Tales

“Babylon Berlin” and “Dark” were critical and commercial successes. But more than just weeks-long escapes from lockdown, the series provide poignant — and contrasting — insights into the role of memory in Germany today.
August 21, 2020
Godehard Giese in “Babylon Berlin” Photo courtesy Netflix/Filme Creative Pool 2017

If they haven’t already seen them, coronavirus housebound television bingers should watch two of the most addictive series on Netflix: both murder mysteries; both – improbably − German. Produced with seemingly unlimited budgets and starring some of the country’s finest actors, “Babylon Berlin” and “Dark” provide first-rate entertainment. But they also say something about Germany, the role of memory and the legacy of the Nazi past.

Set in 1920s Berlin, steeped in decadence and art deco, “Babylon Berlin” is about many things — larceny, betrayal, homicide — but above all, it is about National Socialism. By telling the story of an unprepossessing detective and his ex-prostitute assistant, the show exposes the economic, political and psychological swamp from which Nazism sprung. As one sequined flapper sings, “To make a man half-machine, you must first destroy his humanity.”

The series features a large number of Jewish characters − some good, others gangsters, but all coping with surging anti-Semitism. There are corrupt politicians, policemen on the take and, in time, Brown shirts. These appear with increasingly frequency over the course of three seasons, recalling the multiplying swastikas in Sally Bowles’s cabaret audiences.

Upright but haunted, Detective Gereon Rath strives for justice in a nation in moral collapse, all the while struggling with his own Great War traumas. Played by sad-eyed Volker Bruch, whose previous roles included a Wehrmacht soldier who witnesses Nazi atrocities in Poland, Rath serves as the viewer’s guide to the origins of the Third Reich. And the point of the series steadily sinks in. “One of the main reasons to make ‘Babylon Berlin’ was to show how all these Nazis did not just fall from the sky,” co-creator Henk Handloegten explained. “They were human beings who reacted to German society’s changes and made their decisions accordingly.”

The impact of the past also is the message of “Dark.” Set in the fictional town of Winden — not be confused, many reviewers remind us, with the real German town of the same name — in 2019, the series does not deal with Germany expressly. Apart from an utter lack of sunlight or a single smile, there is nothing especially German about Netflix’s first German-language production. Yet, like “Babylon Berlin,” the program focuses on a concatenation of pivotal events. 

Characters toggle between times and worlds, reincarnating — daughters become their own mothers, siblings mate — in Kabbala-like cycles. “In the end, there is the beginning, and in the beginning, there is the end,” the audience is tautologically told.

“Dark” flagrantly violates that dictum. While the episodes contain several references to World War I and other historical occurrences, they scrupulously avoid the Nazi period. The characters travel through numerous years — 1921, 1911, 1986 — while leapfrogging those between 1933 and 1945. The gap becomes embarrassing in the sections set in 1953, a mere eight years after Hitler’s fall. Neither the town nor any of inhabitants appear to have experienced the war. Surveying the bodies of two murdered children, a gray-clad, Teutonic policeman asks, “Who could have done such a thing?” One answer might be, “the same people who recently butchered one and half million Jewish children.”

“Babylon Berlin” and “Dark” were critical and commercial successes. But more than just weeks-long escapes from lockdown, the series provide poignant — and contrasting — insights into the role of memory in Germany today. Both serve as cautionary tales for a country debating the ways its ghastly past still determines its present and future.

One side of the debate, the center-left lead by Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats, remains committed to confronting Nazism and combating attempts to excuse or revive it. This is the generation of German leaders who successfully eliminated the “we were only fighting for our country” narrative popular in the first decades after the war, and which, as late as 1985, compelled President Ronald Reagan to visit the scene of SS graves in Bitburg. Monuments to Germany’s war dead have been replaced by memorials to the millions they exterminated. “Remembering the crimes is a responsibility which never ends. It belongs inseparably to our country,” Merkel declared at Auschwitz last year. “It is part of our national identity, our self-understanding as an enlightened and free society.”

The countervailing wave, formally represented by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party but backed by underground neo-Nazi movements, seeks to downplay, dismiss or even celebrate the Third Reich years. AfD leader Alexander Gauland urged his countrymen to “reclaim their past” and “be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.” In the 1,000-year history of his people, Gauland added, the Nazis and the Holocaust were mere “bird shit.” Björn Höcke, another AfD head, went further, condemning the “stupid politics of coming to grips with the [Nazi] past that cripple us,” and the Germans who “planted a [Holocaust] monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”

Such outrages once were rare in Germany, which largely avoided the wave of far-right populist governments sweeping Eastern Europe, Italy and Austria. Until recent years, there was no significant German counterpart to France’s influential National Front. But bolstered by the same anti-immigration sentiments and rising Euroscepticism, the German right has burgeoned. Winning 94 Bundestag seats in the 2017 national elections, AfD became the Federal Republic’s third-largest party. “We will hunt Mrs. Merkel and whomever else,” Gauland exulted. “And we will take our country and our people back.”

Gauland’s words seemed to be backed by atrocities, beginning with the 2019 assassination of Walter Lübcke, a staunch Christian Democrat and Merkel ally. Although a neo-Nazi confessed to the crime, several prominent analysts concluded it and other right-wing attacks were greenlighted by the AfD.  Lübcke’s murder was followed on Yom Kippur five months later by the attack by another pro-fascist gunman on the Halle synagogue, killing two. Ten people died when a neo-Nazi opened fire February 2020 at shisha bars in Hanau. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer branded far-right extremism the “biggest security threat facing Germany.”

The government has since cracked down on neo-Nazi organizations, outlawing three with the foreboding names of Northern Eagle, Combat 18 Deutschland, and the United German Tribes. But, spurred by the coronavirus crisis, the radical right continues to expand, infiltrating the police, the army and special forces — even, it is feared, the military unit charged with investigating them. Arms caches belonging to this “shadow army” have been uncovered, as well as mass Nazi memorabilia. “We are dealing with an enemy within,” one state intelligence official warned, although increasingly, that enemy is taking to the streets, protesting the COVID-19 lockdown in a self-proclaimed “Day of Freedom” — the name of a Nazi short film from 1935.

Merkel’s supporters have rallied in response, and most right-wing demonstrations are met with even larger liberal protests. Some polls indicate a decline in the AfD’s popularity, but reports also suggest a burgeoning Neo-Nazi underground that is preparing ideologically and tactically for “Day X,” when the German state collapses and rightist forces move in.

Still, the degree to which Nazism will continue to color German politics today and tomorrow remains a source of contention, a bellwether for both the left and the right. Similar tensions are roiling in Poland as well in the Baltic states, where history again has become a battlefield. All this should now sound familiar to Americans who also are engaged in acrid disputes over their country’s past and questioning the meaning of monuments.

For those with Coronavirus time on their hands, it would be instructive to watch these two series. Babylon-Berlin shows how a society that forfeits it values and sense of self can gradually slip into chaos. Dark illustrates how handily history can be ignored − but at the risk of losing hope. “There is no free will,” one of its characters laments. “We were born in the darkness, and we will die in it.”

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to Washington, D.C., and a Member of Knesset, is the author of “The Night Archer and Other Stories” (“Wicked Son” forthcoming).

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