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Babylon Berlin: Pastiching Weimar Cinema
SARA F. HALL (University of Illinois Chicago)
T his essay was originally published in the journal Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research (2019); 44(3): 304-322, as part of a special issue on current trends in remaking European screen cultures edited by Eduard Cuelenaere, Stijn Joye and Gertjan Willems. It received the 2019 Society for Cinema and Media Studies East/Central/South European Cinemas Essay Award and has been adapted for web publication with the generous permission of De Gruyter Mouton. The author would like to acknowledge Phill Cabeen and Monty George for their assistance with the conversion.
Abstract: Centered on Richard Dyer’s model of pastiche, this essay posits that the German television series Babylon Berlin engages in a unique and timely practice of cultural reproduction shaped by a specific combination of historical subject matter and the present media-historical moment. Through digital effects, narrational layering, and multivalent location choices, Babylon Berlin pastiches Weimar cinema, and self-consciously invites comparisons between the so-called golden age of German cinema and the present. It activates cinephilic recall, establishes an intermedial dialogue between analog and digital forms, and affectively engenders a historically oriented conversation about the fragility of modern democracy in the Brexit/Trump era. Its cultural work of pastiche warrants the series’ inclusion in the conversation around the European remake.
Keywords: Weimar cinema, Babylon Berlin, remake, digital effects, democracy, pastiche
This essay analyzes the first two seasons of the German television series Babylon Berlin in order to understand the relationship between its production process, its formal attributes, and its reception history. It is through techniques of pastiching, as defined by Richard Dyer (namely gestures of likeness, deformation, and discrepancy), that the series draws attention to the historical specificity of the emotions of its characters and induces the viewer to reflect on the relationship between fear and politics in the present moment.
According to Dyer (2007, p. 131), pastiche draws on perceptions of the thing it pastiches and thus pastiches not just the substance but also the ‘idea’ of that which it imitates, which makes it “always and inescapably historical”. In the case of Babylon Berlin, the entity that is pastiched is not a single film or even a single genre but rather a catalog of work that has come to be considered a discrete entry in film history despite its kaleidoscopic diversity: Weimar cinema. Babylon Berlin displays a refined awareness that segments of its viewership will come to the series with expectations about Weimar cinema, and it correspondingly affirms that such an entity exists (at least as a construct) and “imitates what it perceives to be characteristic of its referent, perceptions that are temporally and culturally specific” (Dyer, 2007, p. 128). Predicated on the audience’s awareness of Weimar cinema as part of today’s inherited cultural vocabulary of fear, pastiche facilitates the revivification and repackaging of that corpus for contemporary audiences, earning Babylon Berlin a place in the conversation around the culture of remakes in contemporary Europe.
Remakes and pastiche
In their 2012 volume Film remakes, adaptations and fan productions: Remake|re-model, Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis present a multi-faceted conversation around cultural reproduction, which moves both intentionally and flexibly between terms such as adaptation, allusion, genre, parody, quotation, recycling, remediation, remixing, revision, revival, and serial translation—along with remaking. Loock and Verevis (2012, p. 2) enter from a new angle the decades-long effort to “contest the idea that the remake is a debased copy of some superior original, seeking instead to understand the practice of remaking as one of several industrial and cultural activities of repetition (and variation)”, encouraging a less normative focus on media processes and advocating for the situation of “various forms of cinematic and televisual re-production within a wider context of cultural translation and rewriting”. Following from work in the collection Play it again Sam: Retakes on remakes, which mobilizes the concepts of allusion, citation, intertextuality, palimpsest, and rip-off (Horton and McDougal, 1998), they diversify the terminology around movie remakes and demonstrate that an understanding of the remake requires attention to a “broad range of creative and industrial practices that transform and appropriate existing texts” (Loock and Verevis, 2012, p. 12).
In his book Film remakes, Verevis (2012, p. 2) cautions against terminological essentialism, which he associates with the “exclusion of marginal examples and canonization of favorites” and an obscuring of the specifics of diverse audience responses and their familiarity with “previous texts and intertextual relationships” and of significant “historical specific institutional factors” and “broader discursive activity”. Rather than seeking to determine a delimiting definition, the aforementioned books foster discussion around cultural practices that might be compared or contrasted with remakes and textual strategies found at work within them.
As skeptics of such a move toward the “antitaxinomic”, Rüdiger Heinze and Lucia Krämer (2015, p. 10) caution against an openness that “expands the notion of the remake to a degree that renders it quite useless as a critical category” or one that might “rob the concept of the remake of its potential for textual analysis”. Nonetheless, they concede that a conversation about remakes can be enriched by an in-depth consideration of the different valences of “varying practices of ‘differential repetitions’ ... the particular medium and art form in which they materialize and thus can tell us a lot about the history, cultural context, function, and perception of a medium and art form” (Heinze and Krämer, 2015, p. 11). Citing Eckart Voigts, Heinze and Krämer (2015, p. 11) usefully distill from the scholarship on remakes a tendency to use the verb form more broadly than the noun form, writing: “It seems both useful and important, therefore, to distinguish between the noun ‘remake’ as a cinematic category, and the practice of ‘remaking’ which also applies to other media and cultural spheres”. They thus invite further exploration of the questions of the “how” and “why”, as much as of the “what”, emphasizing especially the double temporality, transformative power, and dialogism at work in the remake.
In Film remakes, Verevis (2006, pp. 21–22) underscores the necessarily intertextual nature of the remake, and its tendency not only to repeat narrative units but to rework those units through their repetition. He thus contributes to more recent scholarship that suggests that we think of processes of remaking as occurring on both the macro (text integrally) and micro (text internally) levels. For example, the scalable metaphor of the meme, as explicated by Iain Robert Smith (2017, pp. 31–32) in the introduction to his study of transnational cinematic adaptations, proves useful in conceptualizing the idea of the source element (in contrast to the source text) as a smaller unit of culture with its own potential to replicate, transform itself, and be transformed to fit within its new habitat. In Smith’s model, the meme (which is capable of meming and itself being memed) might refer to the entire text or a specific element within it. Parallels to remakes and remaking thus follow.
Another term that recurs in the scholarship on remakes, which (similarly to the meme) functions as both a noun and a verb and is scalable, is “pastiche”. Patricia Aufderheide (1998) uses the word pastiche for the phenomenon wherein a single film alludes to or quotes more than one source film and in so doing remakes them in the new textual environment. The word pastiche is used to describe a combination of references drawn from source texts in several of the analyses anthologized in Forrest and Koos’ 2012 collection Dead ringers: The remake in theory and practice. For his part, in his analysis of Psycho II in Film remakes, Verevis (2006, p. 66) mentions pastiche (alongside imitation) as one of the techniques used to rework aspects of the Hitchcock classic. In his book entitled simply Pastiche, Richard Dyer (2007) explores more systematically than anyone before the diverse denotations of the term in specific historical and cultural contexts, which he argues have converged in a contemporary valence that centers on a process of knowing and signaled imitation or borrowing meant to be recognizable as such. Dyer’s discussion of pastiche films intersects with studies of remakes, especially where it centers on questions of genre and history and the socio-historical-political ‘point’ of pastiche. This is the case for his close reading of Todd Haynes’ Far from heaven, a film that Rachel Carroll (2009) argues can be elucidated through a double-lens as at once a remake and an adaptation, and that Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky (2008), citing Dyer on its use of pastiche, describes as going beyond the homage and belonging to a species of remake that nostalgically ‘redoes’ a source film in order to ‘redo’ the past. Dyer’s vocabulary has also proven especially fruitful in recent analyses of formal engagement with the economic and cultural forces that are both determinant of and resisted in remakes produced in cross-cultural and non-Hollywood contexts including India, Hong Kong, and Indonesia (Tambunan, 2018; Wilkinson-Weber, 2010; Wong 2012; Wright, 2009).
According to Richard Dyer’s account, an entire work may be labeled a pastiche or an aspect within a work can function as pastiche, whether or not the surrounding work is itself a pastiche or a remake (as in the cases cited above). Pastiche can indicate one or a hybrid of the following: the combinatory principle of pasticcio (an intertextual combination of elements taken from previous works that maintain “memory of the autonomy of the original materials” (Dyer, 2007, p. 11)); an imitation of a work or its style that is not a direct copy, or an effort at unmediated reproduction (Dyer, 2007, pp. 21–25). Pastiche can also be used to describe a framing device that accentuates from a distance “the sense that the medium or mode of the framed work is being used differently to its use in the framing” work or that displays a marked stylistic difference in the form of the frame versus within the frame (Dyer, 2007, p. 64). Dyer provides examples of films-within-films to make this case. On a wider scale, he also shows how the term pastiche is used to characterize the return or re-adoption of broadly identifiable qualities of specific kinds of work, such as oeuvres, genres, or styles from earlier periods in film history, as is the case with film noir (Dyer, 2007, pp. 120–130).
Dyer (2007, p. 3) observes that pastiche can be identified through a combination of contextual and paratextual indications as well as textual markers. The latter include likeness, deformation (i.e., selection, accentuation, exaggeration, concentration), and discrepancy (i.e., stylistic inconsistency, inappropriateness, anachronism) (Dyer, 2007, p. 4, pp. 54–60). The difference between the antecedent texts and the pastiche may be more or less heightened depending on the context and the intentions of the pasticheur, who can use the differences to aesthetic, expressive, and political ends (Dyer, 2007, p. 4). Dyer (2007, pp. 8–9, p. 53) takes issue with the definitions that assume that pastiche is intrinsically trivial or pointless and pushes critics to ask why a particular subject matter or context lends itself to pastiche, describing pastiche as “extraordinarily flexible and productive” as a means not just of using past works but also of expressing attitudes toward them (Dyer, 2007, p. 84).
This essay follows on that scholarship by positing that the recent German television series Babylon Berlin warrants a place in the conversation about contemporary European remake culture. It engages through pastiche in a practice of differential repetition that is rooted in the specific combination of its historical setting and subject matter (Weimar Berlin and its celluloid cinema) on the one hand, and its own media-historical and political moment on the other. By pastiching the current perception of Weimar cinema writ large, the series self-consciously invites critical comparisons between the so-called golden age of German cinema and the present, comparisons that hinge on a sense of fear, as mediated by film and television.
Mediating (film) history
From its very opening, the 2017/2018 German television series Babylon Berlin engages in a “knowing form of the practice of imitation” (Dyer, 2007, p. 2). The initial episode begins with a stylized credit sequence made up of gold letters on a black backdrop. A steady, almost imperceptible, metallic drumming on the soundtrack draws attention to a subtle visual rhythm—the words on the screen shift ever-so-slightly left and right, as if projected from celluloid. The segment has been mastered to mimic “gate weave”, the horizontal darting that occurs when a warped film’s perforation does not hold snugly to the sprocket. This effect recalls the experience of watching a silent-era movie projected from celluloid onto the big screen, awakening the historical awareness of the spectator.
The image cuts to black, and a deep quiet voice fills the void. Hypnotherapist Dr. Arno Schmidt directs the subject in an attempt to organize his thoughts, when a large graphic presents the place and time: “BERLIN 1929”. This text recedes center-screen, drawing the here-and-now TV spectator into the narrative world of the late-Weimar German capital. The words of the therapist unleash a shot-counter-shot and montage sequence, which functions dialectically as both a series of flashbacks on the part of the protagonist, police detective Gereon Rath, and as a flash-forward to some of the plot revelations that lie ahead for the home viewer. The voiceover insists, “I will now take you back ... to the source. To the source of your fear. I ... will guide you ... step by step. Step by step ... all the way to the source of your fear. To the truth.”
The viewer/listener is situated to interpret all that follows in terms of mediation, history, and emotion, concepts resonant with Richard Dyer’s vocabulary of pastiche. The two seasons to follow can be read in terms of what Dyer (2007, p. 180) sums up as “affective frameworks, the structures of feelings, past and present, that we inherit and pass on (...) [that] can enable us to know our- selves affectively as historical beings”. The aesthetic of imitation, emulation, and homage is foregrounded throughout the series to such a degree that it triggers in the spectator not only historical sensibilities but also what Dyer (2007, p. 35) has called a heightened “intertextual awareness”.
Upon preview and release on Netflix in the United States in early 2018, Babylon Berlin generated numerous English-language interviews, think pieces, blog entries, and Reddit posts identifying a “who’s who” of musical, artistic, performance, literary, cinematic, and televisual influences, including Anita Berber (u/pillgrim, 2018), Josephine Baker, Otto Dix, Kurt Tucholsky (Isenberg, 2018), Jeanne Mammen, Rudolph Schlichter (Vallen, 2018), and Kurt Weill (Fuller, 2018). Such signals of inspiration and likenesses are central to the operation of homage as a function of pastiche and can be traced contextually to the historical curiosity, historiographic literacy, and research skills of the series’ creators. Volker Kutscher, the writer on whose detective novels the series is based, has described (Curtis, 2017) his main character as “a child of his times, born in 1899, the same year as Erich Kästner” and cited (Greengrass and Kutscher, 2018) Hans Fallada, Irmgard Keun, and New Objectivity more broadly as his literary reference points. Kutscher has recounted about his book’s origins (Curtis, 2017), “In 2002, I saw Road to Perdition directed by Sam Mendes with Tom Hanks as a killer, which takes place in Chicago in 1921. The same year I saw Fritz Lang’s M [in which Peter Lorre plays a child murder], released in 1931. I thought of how to mix up these two worlds: the American gangster world and the Berlin of Alfred Döblin [author of Berlin Alexanderplatz].” And while writer-directors Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten, and Tom Tykwer have emphasized the creative liberties taken when adapting the storyline from its source (Tykwer and von Borries, 2018), they are similarly cognizant of a cultural landscape already teeming with visual and auditory fantasies and nightmares about Weimar Berlin as the site of hope and experimentation on one side and economic insecurity and political down-spiraling on the other (Renner, 2017).
They are undeniably aware of the legacy of Weimar Germany’s cinema as the country’s entrée into transnational commercial movie culture on a grand scale, and as a high point of its internationally recognizable aesthetic of individual and social crisis and anxiety (Elsaesser, 2000). Celluloid memories of Germany’s silent and early sound film “golden age” thus figure prominently as reference points, contributing a powerful sense of likeness between the antecedent films and the twenty-first century cultural product. Art critic Mark Vallen (2018) observes that the editing of the train sequences brings to mind Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin – Die Sinfonie der Großstadt [Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis] and that the same director’s abstract Lichtspiel Opus series has been repurposed as the closing credits. Scholar Adrian Daub (2018) remarks that:
At one point, a detective finds a producer watching Marlene Dietrich’s dailies [sic] for The Blue Angel in a building that looks an awful lot like the one in which the child killer Beckert hides in Fritz Lang’s M. The local mafia is directed by a shady psychiatrist figure who recalls another one of Lang’s creation, the thousand-eyed hypnotist Dr. Mabuse. (Daub, 2018)
For his part, cameraman Phillip Halberlandt recounts (ARD Mediathek, 2018) that the crew watched numerous titles from the period to begin to understand both how Berlin felt at the time and how films of the era looked.
Weimar cinema’s canon is thus readily detectable as palimpsest. Stylistically, the double-exposure, montage, kaleidoscope effects, and bleeding tints of the full opening credits mimic techniques perfected in the production laboratories of mid-to-late 1920 s UFA. The set-up and pacing of chase scenes in planes, trains, and automobiles recall the Stuart Webbs and Mia May detective and adventure serials. Slanted rooftops and long shadows harken to Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari [The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari]. Scenes in back courtyards bring to mind the so-called Hinterhof [courtyard] variety of the silent Kammerspiel [chamber play] genre. Within that field of association, the appearance of dogs alongside a callous butcher chopping meat beneath a scene of prostitution comes straight from G. W. Pabst’s Die freudlose Gasse [Joyless Street]. Triangular telepathic connections that wake women in their sleep invoke Nosferatu. Cross-cutting between a back-alley print shop and an accomplice climbing a telegraph pole to send word of the successful train heist in a plot involving a purported Russian countess could just as accurately be a sequence from Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler [Dr. Mabuse the Gambler]. The geometrically designed shop window, beside which Rath makes a call pointing to his own possible culpability, calls to mind the famous shop window in which the murderer in M sees both his victim and himself reflected.
This underlying consciousness of film history presents itself contextually at the outset in the series’ title. While the phrase Babylon Berlin derives first and foremost from an enduring but ambivalent analogy portraying the German capital’s size, dynamism, diversity, and worldliness (Polaschegg and Weichenhan, 2017), the phrase also bears distinctly cinematic associations. The diamond-shaped design on the cover of the English-language release of the book on which the series is based, which appears in the video/television title sequence, resembles the triangular marquis on the storied Babylon movie palace (Buhrstein, 2018). It opened in Berlin on April 11, 1929 in the exact timeframe of the first season of the series (Hanisch, 2017) and was situated in the city center not far from the police headquarters at the center of the action.
A second movie palace that opened in 1929 also plays a supporting role in setting the mood of the show, in this case providing the shooting location for the interiors of the lavish Moka Efti nightclub-restaurant where the paths of so many characters cross after dark. Although slightly smaller than the Babylon (with 870 seats to the Babylon’s 1299), the Delphi was also a first-run theater and site for occasional premieres. It now operates as a venue for a variety of entertainment events (Theater im Delphi, n.d.; see also RBB24, 2018c) and some say it was a visit here that in part inspired Quentin Tarantino to make Inglorious Basterds (Jage-Bowler, 2017).
Deepened in meaning by such geographic and intertextual reference points, the plot of Babylon Berlin hinges self-reflexively on film as both a bearer of narrational significance and as a physical object. Gereon Rath has transferred from Cologne’s constabulary to Berlin’s vice squad to uncover the pornography ring blackmailing the more conservative city’s mayor (who at the time of the action was Konrad Adenauer, the future Chancellor during West Germany’s post-World War II economic recovery). Rath’s colleagues are introduced, in medias res, raiding an illicit movie shoot mid-take. Between the tense action shots, the camera lingers nostalgically on vintage hand-cranked equipment and stacks of nitrate reels. The storyline soon leads the investigator to the Geyer-Werke [Geyer Works] production house, a bedrock in early German film technology history (RBB24, 2018a). Local lore tells of film stars coming and going to watch their screen-tests and dailies at this facility in the Neukölln neighborhood, as in the Marlene Dietrich scene cited above.
While set designer Uli Hanisch (RBB24, 2018a) has casually called the use of the setting of the Geyer Works production house a “nostalgic bit of fun”, it also serves to draw the attention of those who know movie history to the analog materiality of Weimar film. At various intervals throughout the first season, characters pore over photographs and film rolls, discerning how to make legible the one damaged frame that promises to speak the truth not only about the blackmailing case but also about the events of Rath’s past that are causing his mental and physical anguish. Rath is a World War I veteran whose hands and body tremble violently at moments of intense sensory input or fear (a so-called Kriegszitterer [war quiverer] in German). The creative recreation of 1920 s human fragility exists symbiotically with the recollections of analog Weimar cinema that punctuate it. In the early days of the medium, flicker was a product of the lower frame-per-second (fps) rate of recording and projection, which has since been designed and remastered out of most visual media products and re-releases (Mitchell, 2013, p. 12). Gate weave and jerk are caused by wear-and-tear on the print or projection at the wrong speed, all of which conservationists, preservationists, and restorers seek to mitigate (Brownlow, 1994, pp. 1–4). Rath’s symptoms parallel the jerky movements and flickering projections associated with silent and early sound movies, making his character an embodiment of the imbrication between shell shock and the medium as identified by Anton Kaes (2009). Just as Rath seeks treatment to calm his disorderly body, the medium of his time has since been smoothed and refined by new technologies.
A dialogue between the historical apparatus of analog projection and today’s digital practices of production, restoration, and reception manifests in the scenes in Babylon Berlin in which characters watch moving pictures. These scenes constitute examples of Dyer’s (2007) “pastiche within” (pp. 64–86), and through their qualities of deformation and distortion encourage meta-reflection on the power of film to deliver both emotional truth and evidentiary truth (sometimes at odds with one another) in a single socio-historical moment. Although of varying lengths and moods, each sequence of this type involves a similar shot vocabulary and editing syntax, alternating between over-the-shoulder images of the silhouetted audience in the dark; medium shots and close-ups of spectators revealing their responses to the images; canted close-ups of the screen with the image almost filling (but still framed by) the dark edges of the TV screen; shots of ancillary personnel typically involved in film exhibition at the time (projectionist, accompanist, lecturer, etc.); and the beam of the projector integrated elegantly into the shot design. The apparatus is on full display.
These episodes take place in various social and institutional milieux in which film figured historically, always with characters at the center. Toward the end of Episode 3, Charlotte Ritter sits in a crowded movie house watching Menschen am Sonntag [People on Sunday] (1930). A scene of sunny lakeside action underscored by cheerful piano accompaniment provides a poignant contrast to her wistful tears. She and her friend Greta will all but act it out in Episode 6, only for Greta to fall prey to the manipulations of the charming young men they meet while boating and swimming. In Episode 5, while in pursuit of information about the film stock used to manufacture the positive of the pornographic film in question, Rath interrupts Josef von Sternberg and Carl Meyer’s imagined viewing of Marlene Dietrich’s dailies at the Geyer Film Works. It is clear from Rath’s lack of familiarity with the star that he is no movie fan, a detail that allows the writers to script a line that helps explain to today’s audiences the significance of who and what they see in the room.
In the opening of Episode 7, Dr. Schmidt presents a series of short films displaying the symptoms of shell-shock patients being treated at his Institute for Suggestive Therapy. Speaking over the clattering of a hand-cranked projector, he explains contemplatively the spasms and convulsions as legitimate cases of shell shock to mixed reactions from a large lecture hall filled with students and administrators. In a melancholy sequence in Episode 8 (the finale of Season 1), Rath experiences a painful revelation when he and his hardened and shady supervisor Inspector Bruno Wolter screen the problematic films they have been pursuing in the previous weeks.
In Episode 11, Greta and her new love interest Fritz enjoy a date at a small, smoke-filled working-class neighborhood movie house, where they watch two newsreels: one about the communist uprising on May 1, 1929 (an event previously integrated into the storyline) and one about a diplomatic visit in Berlin between German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann and French Foreign Secretary Aristide Briand, who together won the Nobel Peace Prize for the reconciliation of Germany and France after World War I. Filmed on location at a somewhat improvisational multi-use locality in operation since the late 1930 s (RBB24, 2018b; Neue Kammerspiele, n.d.), this encounter illustrates the complex relationship between mass culture, political mobilization, class-based identity formation, and quotidian life in the late 1920 s (Kracauer, 1963). Fritz inserts his own “intertitle” of “Communist kisses chambermaid” as a come-on, while indistinct scenes from People on Sunday flicker before them. The problems of knowing, feeling, and acting politically are intertwined thematically.
These scenes are compelling not only for the way they integrate film clips to flesh out characters’ emotions and relationships to drive the plot forward, but also for the differences in their material qualities, differences related to their derivation. The footage associated with theatrical feature films (People on Sunday and The Blue Angel) is crisp and rich, bearing all the signs of a quality restoration process, most likely using digital technologies to remaster and virtually perfect the image. According to the closing credits of the respective episodes, these two repurposed snippets from authentic sources were obtained from establishments known for the collection, restoration, and distribution of historical materials for contemporary audiences. The People on Sunday passage is credited to a company called Praesens-Film, known as “Das Traditionshaus”, a 90-year-old Swiss production, distribution, and marketing firm specializing in art-house and prestige fare. The Dietrich clip is used with permission of the Marlene Dietrich Collection in Munich and the Filmarchiv Austria. The fact that its narrative context has been read by critics and commentators alternately as a review of a screen-test or as a viewing of dailies attests to its contribution to an aesthetics of deformation and distortion.
By contrast, the credits for the episode featuring Dr. Schmidt lecturing on shell shock point simply to “stock footage” sourced from Framepool library. It is evident, however, that historical images of actual medical patients and combat action have been combined with simulated content made specifically for Babylon Berlin; the actor Henning Pecker, who plays the shell-shocked and drug-addicted former police officer Franz Krajewski, features quite obviously in several long, medium, and close-up shots, dramatically performing his symptoms. What sutures the authentic and made-up film strips together are the exaggerated scratches, marks, and artifacts of wear-and-tear on the cellulose nitrate, some of which is likely native to the bona fide source material and some of which is fabricated to make the fictional footage look authentic. A similar reverse-restoration process is obvious in the imitation S&M movie, simulating scratches and signs of hair and dust along with the graininess and halation typical of amateur cinematography, all to insist that the shots be perceived as true to the era and therefore integral to the narrative.
This hybridized episode at the Institute for Suggestive Therapy is preceded by a fictive opening title card that corresponds to Babylon Berlin’s narrative. The short films watched by Greta and Fritz are also given faux title cards, rendering “Messter”, the name of the main company actually producing newsreels in the period, as the fictionalized “Messler-Film”. Also credited at the end of the episode as stock footage from Framepool, the current events sequences display the graininess and variable lighting characteristic of the historical newsreel. The recording of communist unrest shown during the events of the so-called Blutmai [Blood May] likely derives from the on-the-ground camera team that included Phil Jutzi and members of the Worker’s Union of Photographers, and which has appeared in many partisan and non-partisan documentaries over the past century (Forster, 2002). The footage shot from multiple angles lends urgency and a sense of the precariousness of the activity on the street and behind the camera to the characters’ fictional emotional world.
Past, present, pastiche
That these episodes are not, however, meant to provide a straightforward sense of historical realism is evidenced by their anachronism. For example, People on Sunday was not released until 1930, almost a year after the fictional action takes place; and it was decidedly not a comedy (Isenberg, 2018). The Berlin meeting between Stresemann and Briand from the newsreels did not occur until 1931. Babylon Berlin engages in a self-conscious reordering of the Weimar cinema canon, preemptively inserting these hybrid clips as Weimar cinema memes (to return to Iain Robert Smith’s term) into the world of 1929. The film abounds with many such identifiable historical ‘cheats’. For example, the diegetic soundtrack includes the 1930 dance tune “Mir ist so nach dir [I’m in the mood for you]”. Yet as Graham Fuller writes (2018), “The series takes place in 1929. Composer Mischa Spoliansky and lyricist Marcellus Schiffer’s jaunty, oompahing dance number, sung by Leo Monosson, who was fronting Paul Godwin’s Jazz Symphony Orchestra, was recorded in 1930. Chronology be damned.” In relation to the rendering of the architecture of the Alexanderplatz [Alexander Square], Mark Vallen quips, “The Alexanderhaus would be constructed in 1930 and Jonass & Co. erected [sic] in 1934. Chalk it up to artistic license.” The cheeky tone of online commentators aside, these anachronisms go beyond the usual ‘goofs’ and continuity errors assiduously cataloged by viewers on sites such as IMDB.com. They re-contextualize the source culture, which is thereby “pressed into service for another cause or context” (Dyer, 2007, p. 18). They disturb any sense of the fixedness of the past and challenge a teleological concept of twentieth-century German history in general, and late silent and early sound film history in particular.
Of note paratextually in the proliferating press commentary and online ‘making of’ videos are the descriptions of the intricate and expensive physical and virtual sets, which bridge between the context in which the ‘original’ films were made and the culture in which they circulate today. Babylon Berlin was shot mostly on location, with greenscreen surfaces and post-production CGI used to reverse engineer Berlin’s architecture and traffic patterns; the producers also built from scratch four complete intersecting streets representing distinct socio-economic milieux, taking up 8,000 square meters on the Babelsberg lots (which have stood since the expansion of UFA in the mid-1920s) outside of the city. Executive producer Michael Polle has said that they recreated the 1920 s streets with such realism that they look genuine even close-up, helping the audience to “travel in time” (Alberge, 2017). Repeated mention of the elaborate set construction in press coverage points back to the history of the German art of mise-en-scène and special effects technology that reached a pinnacle in Lang’s over-budget 1927 UFA spectacular Metropolis (Loew, 2015) and the 1929 urban police drama Asphalt.
Although at first look these sets might seem rooted in an immersive hyper-realist, historically referential aesthetics, contextual and paratextual evidence reveals that the series wears its artifice on its sleeve. A number of shots resemble frames from a graphic novel (and indeed the source novel was adapted into that form by Kutscher and Arne Jysch) in transmedial correspondence with the over-the-top combination of stunts and special effects in the chase scenes. Abundant online extras and making-of videos, as well as a publicly accessible special effects reel by Rise FX comparing the actual shoot to the onscreen enhanced image (VFX World, 2018), lift the veil on the process.
Babylon Berlin thus encourages what Dyer (2007, p. 21, citing Ingeborg Hoesterey) refers to as a “dialectical stance toward history”. Tykwer recalls how parallels between 1929 and the 2010s became more and more apparent and unsettling as he, Handloetgen, and von Borries were writing (Anderson, 2017), and has posited that the similarities are too obvious to be ignored and must therefore be confronted (Weisbrod, 2018). In his view (and that of a range of critics and commentators in Germany, the UK, and the US), the show mirrors the rise of right-wing parties, the economic and social fragility of Europe, and the precarious state of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic. Within that framework, ominous associations between modern democratic social and political forms and the fragile and endangered celluloid of the golden age of Germany’s late silent and early sound cinema emerge. As Paolo Cherchi Usai (2001) has theorized, the threat of obsolescence haunts celluloid culture. Because of its unstable chemistry and delicate materiality, every analog film exhibition projects the fact of the medium’s inevitable deterioration and potential disappearance. Babylon Berlin warns that constitutionally protected, representative governance may be as vulnerable as the film-strip that appears to melt under the heat of an arc lamp in the kaleidoscopic opening animation of each episode.
This visual analogy points to Babylon Berlin’s potential to problematize existing narratives about the Weimar era and its film history, namely through its pointed engagement with the “perception current at [this] given cultural-historical moment” (Dyer, 2007, pp. 54–55). The historiographic task of reassessing and revising Weimar cinema historiography has preoccupied scholars of German film since Siegfried Kracauer published his 1947 retrospective psycho-social study of the period, From Caligari to Hitler. Itself the object of reexamination, recontextualization, and remastery over the past seven decades, Kracauer’s book has been critiqued for its recursively teleological line of argumentation (Quaresima, 2004, pp. xl-xlii), its selective readings of what are now considered the classics of the era, and the taint of confirmation bias in its conclusions about the German national character (Quaresima, 2004, p. xxi; Rogowski, 2010, pp. 1–3). Thomas Elsaesser (2000, p. 76) has likened it to a “Moebius strip”.
Recent scholarship has sought to correct these limitations by zeroing in on the impact of World War I on the industry and its imaginative products (Kaes, 2009; Stiasny, 2009), focusing on popular films and genres that do not square with an argument about authoritarian personalities, male crisis, and blind followers, and taking transnational or synchronic approaches that trouble the characterization of German films as the isolated expression of German pre-occupations extending from the end of World War I into the Nazi assumption of power (Rogowski, 2010). Nevertheless, Kracauer’s account of the unique conditions for the formation of a specifically German cinema and the connections it draws between the psychological health of the nation, mass culture, and the precariousness of democracy continues to be studied as formative to the national cinema approach in film studies, and has recently been re-introduced to art house and home-viewing audiences with the 2014 release of Rüdiger Suchsland’s historical documentary film Von Caligari zu Hitler: Das deutsche Kino im Zeitalter der Massen [From Caligari to Hitler: German cinema in the age of the masses].
The scholarly skepticism toward the 20/20 hindsight that Kracauer’s argument rests on resonates with comments made to the press by those behind Babylon Berlin. Novelist Kutscher (Greengrass and Kutscher, 2018) has described the narrative perspective of his book as follows:
The most important thing to me is that the reader should view Weimar Berlin through the eyes of contemporary characters, people who don’t know what the future holds. (...) The freedom and opportunities presented by the democratic Weimar era were new and unexplored in Germany. The ways they were used in the Thirties led to the most terrible dictatorship of the 20th century, Nazi Germany. In 1929 nobody could have anticipated that, not even the Nazis.
At the same time, he has rejected the possibility of a counterfactual historical trajectory when it comes to his storytelling about the period, saying, “Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who blew up Hitler in his film Inglorious Basterds, I know what happened in history and I can’t change it” (Curtis, 2017). As Siobhán Dowling (2017) has observed, “In the first season, for example, Hitler is only mentioned once in passing. After all, Berlin was a left-wing bastion, and in the 1928 elections the Nazis got only 1.6 percent of the city’s votes.” To emphasize the show runners’ interest in presenting the political world without foregone conclusions, Dowling quotes: “All these people didn’t fall from the sky as Nazis, Mr. Handloetgen said, ‘They had to become Nazis’.” While this dismissal of any awareness in 1929 of the stakes of the rise of the right in Germany can be debated historiographically, it serves nicely the producers’ estimations of the pressing contemporary relevance of their unique take on the Weimar legacy.
The pastiche of Babylon Berlin is thus predicated on an awareness of Weimar cinema writ large as part of today’s cultural vocabulary of fear, especially fear about the political future. Adrian Daub (2018) argues that its approach is substantively different than other recent historical dramas imported from German television to U.S. streaming services:
Plodding fare like Generation War is made for a German audience, while Babylon Berlin clearly has an international audience in mind. (...) Rather than being framed as particularly German, or as unique to the 1920 s, the show’s overriding concerns seem likewise packaged for ease of transfer. (...) Which is to say, Babylon Berlin is not only concerned with making sense of what Friedrich Meinecke once called “the German catastrophe”. It wants to make broader points about democracy and its institutions, how they survive staggering inequality and a general loss of faith in them. These days Germans are more likely to ask raise [sic] such points about other countries than about their own. German anxiety over the Nazi past has long been an export item—filmmakers, authors, artists submitted German history to earnest examination, and had an easier time reaching international audiences and winning awards when they did. But with illiberal democracy on the rise throughout Europe, with a U.S. president seemingly at war with the rule of law, Angela Merkel’s Germany finds itself as an unexpected island of liberal democracy in far more uncertain waters. Babylon Berlin is less anxious self-examination than knowing warning to others.
It is clear through reading Dyer that pastiche serves to engage wider international audiences in that sense of anxiety.
The series joins what Dyer (2007, p. 138) describes as a body of works “that do what theory has long maintained can’t or shouldn’t be done: to be at once moving and inescapably pastiching”. It thus fulfills “the most valuable point of pastiche”, which is “to move us even while allowing us to be conscious of where the means of our being moved come from, its historicity” (Dyer, 2007, p. 138). For Dyer (2007, pp. 85–86), pastiching can involve the recognition of the potential for emotional truth and expressive intensity in the material pastiched, some of which might be retained in the act of pastiching. Pastiche that is attuned to history can be much more than “empty exercises in style”, instead being “redolent of certain feelings and perceptions” that seem still “relevant and serviceable” (Dyer, 2007, p. 130).
The world of Babylon Berlin is populated by characters experiencing feelings that are retrospectively imbued with political significance. As a work of pastiche and through its text-internal gestures of pastiching, the series invites audiences to connect with those characters through cinematic texts closely resembling those that would have moved the historical audiences of the Weimar era in spaces that are recreated and reimagined as fictionalized settings. At the same time, those films and spaces display signs of deformation and discrepancy that draw attention to the fact that emotions in the period were circumscribed within historically specific frameworks that had severe political and social consequences.
As pastiche, and through techniques of pastiching, Babylon Berlin prompts contemporary critics to connect with the past through its portrayal of the overlap between cinema history, precarious democracy, and individual emotions. It constructs a fictionalized version of the Weimar metropolis as a touchstone for discourses on anxious modernity in a manner distinct from, but conversant with, the practice of remaking. Pastiche facilitates the series’ divergence from historical accounts in the service of what Dyer calls emotional truth or affective power. The remediation, revivification, and repackaging of so much of the Weimar cinema catalog allows the viewership to “feel the historicity of our own feelings” (Dyer, 2007, p. 130). Babylon Berlin thus fulfills the promise made by the hypnotist whose hands cover the eyes of the protagonist and the audience in the opening sequence of the series, taking us back through the movies to the Weimar era as a “source of our fear”.
Sara F. Hall is Associate Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she directs the undergraduate minor in Moving Image Arts. She received her PhD in German Studies from the University of California Berkeley in 2000 with additional coursework in film theory and history. Hall has been the recipient of pedagogy, cultural programming, and research grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of Illinois European Union Center, the German Information Center, the UIC Institute for the Humanities, the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Her translations of early German cinema essays appear in The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory 1907-1933, ed. Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer and Michael Cowan and Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing of the First Fifty Years of Cinema, ed. Antonia Lant with Ingrid Periz. Hall has published widely on law enforcement and inter-war German film, gender and German cinema, historical memory through film, and transnational cinema in journals such as German Quarterly, German Studies Review, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, Modernism/Modernity, Transit: A Journal of Travel, Migration and Multiculturalism in the German Speaking World, and Communications: the European Journal of Communication Research. Her most recent scholarly essays on Weimar cinema have appeared in the edited volumes Different Germanies: New Transatlantic Perspectives, ed. Konrad Jarausch, Harald Wenzel and Karin Goihl; A New History of German Cinema, ed. Jennifer Kapczynski and Michael Richardson; and Fritz Lang “M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder” Texte und Kontexte, ed. Urs Buettner et al. She is currently completing a book entitled Weimar’s Police Film Project, 1918-1925, a short volume and teaching portfolio on Joe May’s Asphalt, and a multi-media project on the Berlin Great Police Exhibition of 1926. Hall begins her term as President of the German Studies Association in January 2023.
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