“Zu Asche, zu Staub”: Babylon Berlin and Weimar Nostalgia

The new German television series Babylon Berlin, the most expensive ever to come out of Germany, has been a popular as well as critical success, celebrated for its high production values and style. Based on a series of detective novels by Volker Kutscher set in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, it has raised questions about the German past and the way it is represented today. Why does a television series like this come out now? And what does this say about our world today? These were questions, I was asked recently by the Wall Street Journal about the series. For me, Babylon Berlin raises another issue I’ve long been interested in, the question of Weimar nostalgia.

Personally, I always had a soft spot for the Weimar era, partly thanks to reading novels and autobiographies from the time at an impressionable age. But although I would like nothing better than walk the streets of 1929 Berlin for a day, I’m not sure this qualifies as nostalgia. The only time I went to a 1920s retro parties, I felt extremely uncomfortable. The whole event struck me as inauthentic and impious, well fed millennials trying to impersonate 1920s Bohemians. But isn’t that how nostalgia always works: singling out a positive aspect in what is otherwise unremarkable or even terrible?

If so, this is not the case when it comes to Babylon Berlin—or our obsession with Weimar in general. We know that whatever we may cherish or adore is ultimately doomed. The metaphor of the dance upon the volcano is so ubiquitious in the Weimar literature, it hardly bears repeating. In Babylon Berlin, the dance hall is on top of a seedy brothel, the pleasure hiding a world of poverty, prositution and political corruption.

Weimar has long become a myth—a myth historians are trying hard to debunk: the history of Weimar should not be reduced to the contrast of glitter and doom, the history of Weimar should not be written from its end, the history of Weimar began long before 1918, they say. And of course  they are  right.1 All the same, the myth has, as Babylon Berlin shows, endured. This raises the question when and how this myth developed and why it has proven so indestructible. To answer this question, we would need a history of Weimar’s afterlife.

Though buying into the myth, Babylon Berlin does something interesting: instead of striving for complete accuracy and authenticity, like most period dramas, it consciously throws them overboard at times. For instance, instead of using songs from the 1920s, the producers decided to give the soundtrack a more contemporary feel. This is never more obvious than in the dance hall scene at the end of the second episode. Not only does it mix up all kinds of Weimar clichés—nude dancing, Josephine Baker’s banana skirt, Bauhaus decoration—it mixes them up with contemporary elements. The dance hall is closer to a techno club than the original Moka Efti and the robot moves of the singer are more reminiscent of Kraftwerk than any interwar dances. These are, of course, conscious decisions by producers, who are on record for saying they aimed to avoid the usual “papier-mâché retro nostalgia”. In addition to the dark tone of the series this refreshing approach may explain, why Babylon Berlin is not discussed in terms of nostalgia like other period dramas. Indeed, the term hardly comes up in any of the reviews.

Finally, something people often forget when it comes to Weimar nostalgia is that Weimar, despite its association with modernism, was itself a rather nostalgic place for many people. The belle epoque became really belle only in the rearview mirror. After the war and in a present characterized by political and economic instability, the pre-war era suddenly looked rather bright. This nostalgic logic is best exposed in Midnight in Paris (2011), where a nostalgic writer time travels to 1920s Paris only to learn that people there are pining for the 1900s, where, as it turns out, artists are glorifying the renaissance—a reminder that nostalgia is a yearning that can never be satisfied. Those who are not satisfied after watching Babylon Berlin, may be interested in Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which has just come out in a new translation. It was first published in 1929 and it is no coincidence that Babylon Berlin begins in that year.

Links

Lars-Olav Beier, Schluss mit Pappmaché-Retro-Nostalgie! Tykwer, Handloegten und von Borries über “Babylon Berlin”Der Spiegel (12 October 2017)

Anja Samy, Where to go in Berlin for a taste of the Weimar Republic, The Local (18 October 2018).

Kate Connolly, Babylon Berlin: lavish German crime drama tipped to be global hitThe Guardian (29 October 2017).

Siobhan Dowling, Sex, Drugs and Crime in the Gritty Drama ‘Babylon Berlin’New York Times (7 November 2017).

Tobias Grey, A Hit Drama in Germany, ‘Babylon Berlin’ Crosses the AtlanticWall Street Journal (28 January 2018).

Lars Weisbrod, How Babylon Berlin Turned 1920s Germany Into a Wild, Historical-Fiction Fantasy WorldVulture (12 February 2018).

Adrian Daub, What Babylon Berlin Sees in the Weimar RepublicThe New Republic (14 February 2018).

  1. Jochen Hung, Godela Weiss-Sussex, Geoff Wilkes, Beyond Glitter and Doom: The cCntingency of the Weimar Republic (München: iudicium, 2012); see also Jochen Hung, “Bad” Politics and “Good” Culture: New Approaches to the History of the Weimar Republic, Central European History 49 (2016), 441–453. []