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Babylon Berlin Stars on S4 of the epic German series on MhZ Choice

Babylon Berlin Stars on S4 of the epic German series on MhZ Choice


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For U.S. fans of Babylon Berlin the wait is finally over. The epic, ground-breaking German series, a noirish crime drama set during the Weimar Republic, was unceremoniously dropped by Netflix, which had been streaming the show stateside, after three seasons. Season 4 premiered in Europe in late 2022 but American viewers had to wait until specialist streamer MHz Choice finally picked up the show earlier this year. Season 4 launched on Tuesday, June 25.

For the uninitiated, Babylon Berlin is the story of Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a police detective traumatized by his experience in the trenches of World War I, who joins the Berlin force. The German capital is at the cutting edge of social and artistic experimentation — with a giddy, hedonistic nightlife — but is also a political tinderbox as sky-high inflation and rampant poverty meet a rising movement of far-right nationalists. At Rath’s side is Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a brash Berliner and the sole breadwinner for her derelict family — she tops up her secretary temp jobs at the department with occasional sex work— who, thanks to her street smarts and her native talent as an investigator becomes an essential part of the Berlin homicide squad.

Based on Volker Kutscher’s historical crime novels, each season of Babylon Berlin follows Ritter and Rath as they investigate a single case — the theft of a train carrying a fortune in gold, a mysterious series of murders at the Babelsberg film studios — while the world around them transforms. Season 3 ends with the global stock market crash of 1929. The Nazis, barely seen in S1, have been working behind the scenes, slowly gaining influence and power as Germany hurtles towards the brink.

By season 4, our two leads are in a very different place. The darkness that has begun to engulf the country is seeping into their lives. But they still find time for joy. The show’s scenes set in dancehalls and nightclubs — both Rath and Ritter know how to bop and boogy — are one of the series’ great delights.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, stars Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries had a lot to say about the dancing, and the politics, of Babylon Berlin, and about having to say goodbye to their characters after the fifth and final season, which begins shooting later this year.

Season 4 of Babylon Berlin aired in Germany two years ago and is only just now premiering in the U.S. It must be strange revisiting the show after such a break.

Liv Lisa Fries It’s definitely very strange. You’ll have to remind me of the plot [of season 4] because it was really a long time ago for me. But I still like talking about it and I think it’s cool that it’s finally being shown in the U.S.. It was frustrating when it was taken off Netflix there, because so many people saw it there. I’m constantly being asked [by U.S. fans] when the next season was coming, and I was waiting along with everyone else. So I’m happy it’s finally being shown again.

Well if I can remind you: Season 4 takes place a year after season 3. It’s New Year’s Eve, 1930 to 1931. How has the Berlin of the show changed in the interim? And how has that changed your characters: Charlotte Ritter and Gereon Rath?

Liv Lisa Fries We don’t go much into detail on what’s happened in between, but you can tell from the costumes and the make-up that we’ve reached the 1930s. Charlotte is a bit older, her fashion is getting a bit straighter, the cuts of her outfits, the hats, everything. She’s become more mature in the best sense, which comes as well from her work as a detective. Things change again in the 4th season, but I’ll try not to give too much away. What makes this character so exciting for me is that she really faces existential challenges.

In S4 is all about money. She is broke and needs money to survive, literally to eat. So she takes part in this dance marathon. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film, what is it called in English, They Shoot Horses Don’t They? with Jane Fonda, about these 1930s dance marathons? They were a bit like modern-day casting shows but much more precarious. It was really about survival. So I’d say in season 4 things are getting more and more series for Charlotte. Like in the society at large. Because the fascists are getting stronger. And it’s not clear what side Gereon is on.

Volker Bruch plays Gereon Rath in Babylon Berlin

Volker Bruch The story of Babylon Berlin throughout the show, I think, is how the world is getting crazier and crazier. That’s what happens between the third and fourth seasons. The Nazis are getting stronger, there is a state of emergency. A lot is happening with Gereon too. I can’t give too much away but he is still searching and trying to stay true to himself.

Liv Lisa Fries For Charlotte, it’s always family that comes first. So her sister Toni (played by Irene Böhm) plays a big role. Some of the so-called “bad decisions” Charlotte makes in season 4 have to do with her family. She has such a strong need to belong. Another thing I think that’s a real change from the first season, is that Charlotte is really reaching her limit. In S1 she is so strong, always on the move, always keeps going. By season 4 we see she’s actually pretty distraught. There’s a great scene at the dance marathon where she’s so weak and Christian Friedel (who plays police photographer Reinhold Gräf) has to hold her up. You can see she’s at her limit.

Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) and Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) in S4 of Babylon Berlin

Germany also seems at the breaking point. The Nazis, who were mainly in the background in the first seasons of the show, are starting to take center stage.

Volker Bruch But you could always sense them. I liked the way the show has dealt with that history because it was never really about politics, it was always more about human relationships. And politics is never really about you see in the newspaper headlines, it’s about what’s happening in the background, which is more complex than we can ever understand. That’s as true then as today. It’s incredibly difficult to predict the consequences certain events will have. The series and our characters don’t act as if we know what’s coming. Everything takes place in the now. The politics are there in the background and as they intensify it has an impact on the characters. But they don’t know where the journey is going.

People have drawn parallels between the history in the series, the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis, and the politics of the present day. How do you see it, especially in the rise of the far-right in Germany since you started this series back in 2016?

Liv Lisa Fries On the one hand, it’s an obvious question because it’s true, that the far-right has gotten much stronger. On the other hand, I fundamentally cannot understand at all what is happening now, because the times, the history, are so different. Especially here in Germany. I can’t understand it because we know our past, we know what happened: That everything was destroyed. Doing this series, it’s made me if anything more aware of how much was destroyed, what was going on culturally at that time, the artists and architects and filmmakers at the time who had to go into exile. What was happening in terms of the sexual revolution. It was all destroyed. I just don’t understand what is happening today because in Germany we know our history. When I went to school, the Nazi era was covered in great detail. It’s not as if the history of fascism hasn’t been thoroughly researched. But it feels like we are just as stupid as we were back then. We know what happened and we are still doing it again. It’s really, truly scheiße.

Babylon Berlin isn’t just about crime and politics. It’s also, to a surprising degree, about dancing. You mentioned the dance marathon in season 4, but there are big dance sequences in every season.

Volker Bruch It’s one of the best things about the show. It’s really wonderful. I can still remember when we had the idea of Gereon Rath dancing. It was six weeks before we started filming the first season. We thought: ‘What if Gereon Rath was a fantastic dancer?’ I was like ‘what…?’ At first I couldn’t square the way I saw the character and this idea of him hitting the dance floor. I couldn’t see how it fit. But every change brings an opportunity. Dancing became an interesting balance, a physical contrast to his obsessive intellectualism as a detective and a release valve for all the pressure he is under. Some great scenes came from up. And I love physical scenes anyway, even fight scenes, of which there are some pretty intense ones in this season. Those are a bit like dancing too.

Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries in season 4 of Babylon Berlin

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Have all these years in the series improved your dancing?

Liv Lisa Fries Definitely. I learned the basic steps for the first few seasons and we’ve changed quite a bit, going from the Charleston to the Lindy Hop and adding some modern elements. This season, because of this dance marathon, it was really, really intense. In addition to working with the choreographer and with all the different dance partners, I had a personal trainer because I’m not a dancer, I just don’t have the muscles I needed for the scenes. But it was great to dance with Max Mauff and Christian Friedel. It’s completely different from doing a speaking scene and I really enjoy the choreography. The challenge is how to tell the story organically. So it’s not just dancing and then stop and say your line but how to make it organic, incorporating the physical movements into your spoken performance. It’s really demanding because you’re using different parts of the brain.

You mentioned the costume design, which is extraordinary. But I have to highlight the make-up as well. You two look as tired as photographs of 20-somethings from the era, who look they are over 50.

Liv Lisa Fries Yes, there was such a physicality to the faces from back then. I was totally impressed by our make-up artists.

So do you have any anti-anti-aging tips, for anyone who wants to look as old and tired as someone in the Weimar Republic?

Liv Lisa Fries Well in the dance scenes, we used a lot of eye make-up, which then smears and blurs, but in general it’s about anti-beauty. Using no make-up or putting dark circles under the eyes to make you look worn out. Just don’t enough sleep. That’s my tip.

The producers have finally confirmed that there will be a final season 5 of Babylon Berlin, that will take the show up to 1933, Hitler’s election and the burning of the Reichstag. Are you ready to say goodbye to Charlotte Ritter and Gereon Rath?

Volker Bruch From the start, we never knew how long we’d be doing this, so each new season is like a gift. But after all we’ve done and the experience we’ve had together it would have been a real shame if we couldn’t break it to a perper end. I haven’t read the scripts [for Season 5] yet but I’m really excited to see how it continues and how we bring this mammoth project to a conclusion. Even if, as we all know, it’s not the end.

When it comes to Gereon, there is a big difference between the Gereon I play when we are filming and the Gereon that I meet when the show is broadcast and I talk about him. The Gereon I play, he is very close to me but I let go of him on the last day of filming. The other Gereon is almost a public figure, I have more distance to him. But shooting a season of Babylon Berlin is a marathon, it’s like 7 months. So there is still plenty of time to say goodbye.

Liv Lisa Fries I’m definitely ready to say goodbye [to Charlotte Ritter]. I’m really grateful for this character. She’s known around the world and I think she’s a great female character, someone I can identify with and I’m happy everyone likes her. But it’s been a really long time. We started in 2016, so by the time season 5 is out I’ll have been living almost 10 years with Charlotte. Of course, it’s been great. As an actor, you usually don’t know what you’re doing next, so it was incredible to know I’m just filming Babylon Berlin and I could concentrate on that. And working with our three directors is a benchmark for my career. I’ll measure all of my work from now, everything I do, against what I did with them. It’s been incredible for my career. I did Freud’s Last Session with Anthony Hopkins and I have Babylon to thank for that, because so many people in America saw it and that opened up other opportunities for me. So I’m incredibly grateful. But for me and my artistic work, I’m ready to say goodbye.

Check out the season 4 trailer for Babylon Berlin below.

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