Cocaine-driven gang wars. Political extremists and terrorists. Police officers getting away with violence against street protesters. Cops who bend the rules and break the law in an effort to bring culprits to justice.
Contemporary Detroit? Paris? Mexico City? Medellin?
No, the setting is 1920s Germany. Babylon Berlin, to be precise -- a fitting moniker for the German capital during the Weimar era, that ill-fated (and oft-romanticized) inter-war period characterized by unprecedentedly libertine society and doomed democratic struggle.
Babylon Berlin is the first of a series of wildly successful German mystery novels by Volker Kutscher, set in the Weimar period and following the fictional exploits of Berlin police inspector Gereon Rath. He's a dashing cop with a dirty past; he shot and killed a wealthy, well-connected industrialist's son in the line of duty back in Cologne. Targeted by the establishment, he's reassigned to the Berlin vice squad where he raids porn sets and keeps the nightlife under control. But solving murder mysteries is in his blood, it seems, and no sooner has he arrived in Berlin than he's drawn into an elaborate plot involving drug-dealing gangs of Russian ex-pats (fleeing the Communist Revolution), police corruption, missing gold, missing persons, and plenty of mysterious corpses.
Now a 216-page graphic novel beautifully presented by writer and artist Arne Kysch, Babylon Berlin is both a novel (its original form) and has recently been adapted into a live-action television series (the most expensive non-English language television program yet produced, you can check it out on Netflix). Both these mediums probably allow for a fuller telling of what is a complex story; it's easy to see how a single comic could be drawn into a multi-episode TV program. The characters, setting, and plot are all so involved they probably benefit from being drawn out in slower-paced mediums.
That said, Babylon Berlin avoids the fate of many other comic adaptations in offering up a satisfying and often thrilling read. Enough detail is retained from the original novel to make it absorbing and to allow the plot twists to achieve their effect; what is a very complex plot is presented in such a manner as to make it coherent even in an abbreviated medium like comic adaptation (that is not to say, of course, that comics convey less detail than prose literature -- far from it -- but that adaptations all too often suffer from an effort to condense detail originally designed for a very different medium). Babylon Berlin avoids many of these pitfalls and remains thought-provoking, absorbing fun.
The plot is complicated and involved but only half the fun; the depiction of complex, sordid Weimar-era Berlin is equally absorbing. It is perhaps here that the comic adaptation is at its strongest and reveals its strength over other mediums: the beautifully presented artwork successfully conveys the stark contrasts of Weimar Berlin. There are the dark and dingy alleyways and bleak working-class neighbourhoods; the grandiose Imperial edifices of state such as Berlin police headquarters (known as the 'Red Castle' and gorgeously depicted); and the liminal spaces that emerge in between, namely the ornate and seedy cabarets and nightclubs which have come to characterize this fascinating period in popular memory.
The artwork consists of firm, ardent pen and ink drawings successfully and realistically presented. Backgrounds often fade into indistinct sketchwork (in bar scenes where action centres on front-of-scene characters, for instance) but retains exquisite detail when appropriate (presentation of streetscapes, buildings and architecture). The black-and-white character of the illustration is eminently appropriate and helps underscore the dark and seedy atmosphere of societal decay. Kutscher has said that his original novel was inspired heavily by the HBO television series The Sopranos as well as the 1931 Fritz Lang film M, and the book indeed comes across as a strong blend of these two works.
While Inspector Rath struggles to make headway in his investigation, social turmoil rages. Communist organizations, poor workers and labour unions march in the streets; right-wing Nazi gangs lend their services to all sorts of nefariousness. To his credit Kutscher doesn't draw a distinct separation between the backdrop and his plot; extremists on both the Right (Nazis) and Left (Communists) are woven directly into the tale -- political struggle defines society in this period and leaves its imprint just as equally on the playing out of crime and police investigations. Kutscher achieves this effect artfully and not in any overly didactic manner. His original novels were meticulously researched and hints of this emerge in the graphic novel (references to the 'revolutionary' period that ended the First World War, for instance; the intense, vengeful comradeship of war veterans and the torment of characters who struggle to adapt their personal ideologies to the shifting spectrum of inter-war political parties).
There's a strong element of noir and hardboiled detective fiction to the tale, but it's immensely enriched by the unavoidable politics of the era, which prevents the work from turning into boring, apolitical detective fiction. It's not precisely a political thriller, but insofar as life in the Weimar era was defined by politics, it can't help but contain strong elements of the genre.
Babylon Berlin is fun. The plot twists are absorbing -- it's a great, satisfying mystery -- and the world it depicts is fascinating. It's still worthwhile checking out the novel and the television series, as both would provide far greater detail and probably a more fulfilling experience, but the comic is a wonderful complement to the work's other mediums and particularly worth the read for those who prefer a less time-consuming exposure to the work.
As the contemporary world lurches ominously toward fascism and the rise of political extremism even in traditionally stolid democracies, this inter-war period of European history has seized popular consciousness once again. Babylon Berlin reminds us that while political struggles rage, and left and right alternate in ascendancy, certain human vices -- greed, corruption, criminality -- remain universals regardless of political backdrop. That's not to say that politics doesn't matter -- had democracy not defeated the Nazis a graphic novel such as this would probably never have seen the light of day -- but works like this remind us of the deeper universals within an ever transient and ephemeral present.