Apologies (groveling apologies) to JFK, there are so many shows who make Berlin their primary locale via streaming services that, as an American , it’s hard not to think back to that speech. But seriously, these three shows account for sixty-six hours of content and they all take place in Berlin. One is very good, one is not so good and getting worse, and one of them is absolutely terrific. Sadly the terrific one has been cancelled. Gratefully, the not-so-terrific one has been put to pasture, as well. Regardless, there is much to be gained from spending some time with these shows.
“Babylon Berlin” (Netflix)
Created by Tom Tykwer, Henk Handloegten and Achim von Borries
When one is out of things to watch, and the effectiveness of Moviepass is on a hiatus, you start to scramble a little bit. Wander off the beaten path of stuff to watch. And so it was one cold day this winter. I had just completed “Killing Eve” and “Hidden” and was avoiding about a million tasks and a thousand things I’m “supposed” to watch. Gratefully, at long last Netflix had updated its user interface, making it much easier to trod that menu less traveled. I bumped up against some show with a great logo (and an even better summary) called “Babylon Berlin”. A procedural noir, of sorts, “Babylon Berlin” takes place in 1929 Weimar Germany, and spans some of the more important moments leading up to the inevitability of the Nazi Party’s rise. Readers of this blog will know that some of my Top Five films in any language over the last four years all revolve around the Second World War (2015 and 2017 Hungarian masterpieces “Son of Saul” and “1945”, 2016’s “Land of Mine” from Finland, and 2018’s TWO German offerings, “Never Look Away” and “The Captain”), and more specifically, the European Theater. Thus a show such as this looked right up my alley. Hence, at 9pm, I began episode one. I finally went to sleep around 2am. Woke up early the next day and by that afternoon had completed all sixteen episodes. (important note: if you want to watch it right, then change your settings to German with English subtitles. It defaults to terrible dubbed English)
Is it that good? Well, yes and no. It is brilliantly produced, recreating a Germany of the past better than many films, For the record, it is the most expensive non-English language series ever produced with a budget of $45 million dollars, which counts for naught if it’s not good. Luckily, it possesses a script that, as political-noir goes, is effective and earnest. The performances are spot on (assuming you’re watching WITH subtitles), and the tension and suspense is legit. The not so good? Well, topping that list is the ending. A bit underwhelming, it doesn’t match the journey we’ve been on in terms of weight. However, the watch-ability of it is in no way diminished by this. That I consider it a failing could simply be a product of how accustomed we, as an American audience, are to cliffhangers and/or gigantic endings. It’s not a bad ending, just meh. There is also a major action point in the latter episodes that strains all credulity…in a manner that it does not anywhere else. And did I mention a certain, newly-elected member of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame makes an appearance as a debauched cabaret singer?
Mr. _____’s appearance aside, the performances are top notch. Our lead, Volker Bruch, who I first saw in the 2008 epic (and Oscar-nomimated) “Bader Meinhoff Complex”, and later, in 2013’s terrific limited series, “Generation War”, is terrific. He has an innocence and emotional investment about him that lifts the show well beyond its noir categorization. He also portrays the PTSD lingering from the echoes of WWI combat in a respectful and realistic manner. Equally terrific is Liva Lise Fries as a young journalist-wannabe who finds herself in the middle of something too big even for her own ambitions. There’s also a natural beauty and strength about her that makes the unspoken romance between them sizzle. And Peter Kurth (“In the Shadows”, “Goodbye Lenin”) is in it. That’s enough reason to watch all by itself. He’s one of the best German character actors alive. As Bruch’s mentor, you are never sure where he stands in all the hubbub, but he’s always compelling. Finally, Lithuanian actress, Severija Janusauskaite, who has the unenviable task of being a poorly written, cross-dressed cabaret-singing Bolshevik, can’t overcome the position of being a living plot device. It’s too bad, because it’s quite evident she is a terrific actor.
As stated, this is an exit way down the Netflix highway, but it’s one I recommend with more than a little certainty. It is gorgeous, suspenseful, well-acted, and has a third season coming along this year. And, again, change your settings to German with English subtitles. Otherwise it will feel like you are watching a Kung Fu film from the seventies.
Trailer here (without dialogue, because the other one is dubbed…terribly)
“Berlin Station” – Season 3 (Epix)
Created by Olen Steinhauer
Oh, “Berlin Station”, you’re always so close to being good (my review of season one is here, and season two is here) but in the end, never quite get there. I’m not sure what it is – well, maybe I’ll effort to lay it out for you in a minute. It’s still an interesting bit of television, but each season the actors burn down a little more scenery than the year before. The plot this year, which could have been good – had they the chutzpah to let it breathe – ends up being ridiculous. And worst of all, they mind-numbingly forgot about the most interesting aspect of the show…BERLIN! If not for the magnetic Rhys Ifans…
I enjoyed the first season of “Station”. It set up a world, much like last decade’s ten-season, BAFTA winning, spy stalwart, “MI-5”. But, dare I say it, “Mr. Berlin Station, I’ve met MI-5, and you, sir, are no MI-5”. Granted, “MI-5” (which is streaming on Hulu) had to save the world in sixty minutes. “Berlin Station” has a ten-episode arc to cover the one gag (with two utterly underwhelming sub-plots this time ’round), so I’ll give it a bit of a break. But not much of one. Revolving loosely around a Russian oligarch’s plot to take over Estonia, there’s some decent fight scenes, lots of tech wizardry…
…and some MASSIVE over-acting, especially from “Ray Donovan” investigative priest, Leland Orser. What was a hilarious and interesting performance in the first season, possessing some of the snappiest banter in some time, is now a wretched self-involved mess of emotions that after ten minutes becomes too exhausting to watch. And Richard Armitage, who was much better in season two, has utterly lost the bit here. I’m guessing it’s not his fault. He is placed in absolutely ridiculous situations, and ends up screeching quite a bit. Even the great Richard Jenkins seems to have lost touch with any sense of reality. One new character, the de facto James Bond of the show, has appeared this year in the form of another “Ray Donovan” vet, Ismael Cruz Cordova. He’s…fine? But while he manages to keep the acting histrionics to a bare minimum, his character is a little too immortal to be believed. Hopefully this show will propel him to other work. Of the male members of the cast, only Rhys Ifans seems like a human being, no matter what he does (even if, again, the script asks the worst of him). Oh, I should mention that Nikolai Kinski and Adi Kvetner make for pretty good Russian bad guys. Finally, and this should give you a pretty-good idea of how much the show tries too hard, the great character actor, Dejan Kukic, who plays a Russian intelligence station chief, likes to wear American cowboy outfits in all his scenes. Why? No idea. In spite of this he somehow manages to give a decent performance.
The women fare MUCH better. Michelle Forbes and Keke Palmer, especially, stand out as real people in the midst of these mile-high, elevated situations. And while they try like hell to ground it all, alas, it’s out of their control. That said, the amount of energy necessary to watch the show lessens immeasurably when they are on screen. Ashley Judd returns, and while I hated her character last year, she is, again, at least trying to keep a human lid on the goings-on. Katarina Cas, as Estonia’s leader-to-be, is fine, if not quite believable.
Not so surprisingly, just yesterday, the show was cancelled by Epix, which is a shame because it’s such a wasted opportunity. There is such a dearth of good spy shows right now. If they had simply allowed “Berlin Station” to breathe instead of filling every second of the show with over-the-top importance, it might have continued on. As it stands, watch the first two season and call it a day.
Trailer here (a terrible trailer that proves my point)
“Counterpart” – Seasons 1 & 2 (STARZ)
Created by Justin Marks
Another recently cancelled show is the terrific Starz entry, “Counterpart”. A Reese’s Cup combo of science fiction and espionage, this show takes place in the city that houses a connection between two parallel worlds, Berlin, and tells the stories of the spies who roam back and forth between those two worlds. It is unique, hypnotic, believable, and addictive. No idea why it was cancelled. Okay, no one was watching it, but that hasn’t stopped STARZ from renewing shows of quality that were much more expensive than this one (I give you the amazing “Black Sails” as Exhibit A).
Regardless, the complexity and care with which the scripts are written are what make this thing go. The cast is fantastic, as well. And how nice is it to put great actors in a show that’s so well written. lesser thespians could still probably sell it. This, in stark contrast to “Station”, which tries to cover up a bad script with great actors. And keep in mind they had to write a complex, emotional, and believable mystery that has two of each character? And imagine writing so good, you are always aware who is from which side…unless they want you to be confused. AND, finally, each of these characters is allowed to evolve (or devolve) in ways that are incredibly human. It’s a master class in plot and character development.
As for the people inhabiting those characters? JK Simmons is simply incredible. L The subtle emotional differentiation of his character delineation…at least in terms of their empathy and ability to change as events unfold…is amazing And impossible not to watch. Harry Lloyd (one of the few Game of Thrones side-character performers to make the most of his post-Thrones career) is brilliant. From rather hateful to utterly sympathetic, he carries the weight of the plot with ease…and his character’s “other” is a perfectly twisted yin to the yang of the man on this side. Olivia Williams is in it…so that’s great (and so is she). Nazanin Boniadi (“Homeland”, “Scandal”), is also terrific here and shows a range that ensures we’ll be seeing a lot more of her. James Cromwell, in season two, gives an integral and mouth-dropping performance in the show’s compelling origin story. And I’d be remiss not to give a special shout-out to Sara Serraiocco. She is both bad-ass and heartbreaking, giving the consequences of living in such a world all the grounding needed to keep you uber-invested. But, truly, there is not one bad performance.
Finally, Jeff Russo’s music (especially the terrific theme song) only adds to the solemnity of the environment.
Listen, you already have STARZ so you can watch “Outlander”. Take a week and plow through the show’s twenty episodes. It’s the most challenged your mind will be by a non-anthology series in years, and the acting is other-worldy…no pun intended.
Trailer here (season 1 – a brilliant trailer, btw)