On the Sofa

David Thomson

Lucy and I had been through the whole of Babylon Berlin – or so we thought – all sixteen episodes, swallowing three a night. We were bingeing, and greedy for more just to get away from that other consuming and insoluble show, playing on MSNBC night after night, where Rachel Maddow and the others were trying to persuade us that it was all beginning to be over, the Trump thing, that it would all be over very soon, because of the investigation, the Mueller thing.

As Maddow preached an hour a night, brimming with verve and need, she slipped from glee to bravery and even to tears. We sometimes feared that this ‘being over soon’ was itself over. We had unnerving thoughts that Rachel might just be talking to a few friends in the studio. So it was a relief to get away from that dread to the vivid whirlpool of Babylon Berlin, and Weimar in 1929, where every desperate character was certain that doom was coming – bring it on!

So when our binge was over, and we faced the emptiness that there wasn’t any more – not yet – we did the only sensible thing, we started over again. This seemed entirely reasonable, for we knew we hadn’t followed the storylines exactly – how can you when the narrative is like a pit of snakes? (Are they embracing or strangling each other?) Still, it was a moment of wild joy when we came across one episode – it was number 11 (with a secret flight to Russia) – that we’d never seen before. In our first binge, somehow, as frantic as the characters, and in the flux of narrative momentum, we had missed an entire episode. We were horrified at our error, but we had something new now that would be the same as all the other episodes! This has always been the drab passion of TV, where we would watch anything so long as the set stayed on. For 45 minutes we had our episode 11. We watched it on the day the Supreme Court approved Trump’s ban on Muslims, and the day before Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement and Germany were knocked out of the World Cup.

Not that episode 11 provided any answers; not that the series was confident about its questions. As fellow-victims will know, and in the pattern of many long-form television series, Babylon Berlin starts every episode with ‘Previously on …’, introducing a montage of fragments. Generally on television, as part of its fraudulent air of being user-friendly, the montage does help place you in plot terms. But Babylon Berlin doesn’t really care whether you are keeping up with its ‘one damn thing after another’ or merely being swept along in its toxic slipstream. The preamble entices you; it makes you afraid of being lost and therefore very watchful; and it tells you you haven’t got a chance – the doom really is coming down. If there was sense to be made of it all, we wouldn’t be there.

The binge, you see, is more fundamental than the show; it’s the message. With my last breath of critical purpose and utility I could try to tell you that Babylon Berlin is a television mini-series created by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten. I looked up this information, and in theory it is possible that I could have extracted it from the show’s credit sequence – except that you can never quite read the credits: the lettering is small, and it is presented in a kind of hypnotic vortex with distracting glimpses of the story breathing behind it. The credit sequence is less information than nightmare art – a cross between Magritte and Schiele. (This is not a pipe; it’s a threat.) Lucy and I are addicted to the credit sequence because it never lets itself be read in calm or simplicity. The first condition of the binge is evident in this miasma. You won’t make sense of what is coming – so let it come.

I could tell you with lofty approval that this series is inspired by the torrential action of early Fritz Lang films – Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922), or The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933). I could explain that Lang made The Testament as Weimar slid towards Hitler; of how Goebbels banned the film but was so impressed that he offered Lang the role of chief filmmaker for the Reich; and of how, a little more slowly than he liked to claim at first, Lang worked out that it was time to get out of Berlin. This could be a very helpful essay in film history, backed up by eminent professors of the period explaining that Babylon Berlin is actually quite good history in its depiction of a society increasingly squeezed between leftism and rightism until the centre, the place of normalcy and decency, burst like a balloon. This could be so helpful as to expose such help as a nonsense and a sham.

For you have to recognise that it is in the nature of the binge that you are sick, running a fever, and so frantic that history is as obscure and infernal as this show’s credit sequence. Don’t bother with the history, just recognise that it is in the nature of the binge that Babylon Berlin must compete with so many other compulsions that are available – like the two-week fizzle of the North Korean rapprochement; like the prolonged penalty shoot-out of the World Cup (games should begin with extra time); and like the desperate suspense of the Thai kids in that serpentine sequence of underwater caves, with oxygen tanks, lines of fragile links and the pressure of getting them out.

I daresay I could supply an elegant paragraph or two showing that the characters in Babylon Berlin are all unreliable, torn by guilt or duplicity. I could unravel the dishonesty of the central character, our resourceful Inspector Gereon Rath, who has come to Berlin from Cologne, who loves his widowed sister-in-law and is tortured over the loss of her husband, his brother. I could tell you that he is gaunt, lean, brave, anxious for integrity but a slave to morphine and lies (in long-form television, the policemen are always wrecks, as well as wreckers). And I could dwell on how in this turmoil of deception one character is true: Charlotte Ritter, the girl of abject poverty and worse family circumstances, who is a part-time whore in the city’s pleasure dome but who yearns to be a policewoman, a detective like Nancy Drew. And I might propose that Liv Lisa Fries has made Charlotte maybe the most endearing woman on TV since Edith Bunker. I could even argue that she owes something in her conception to Miss Mend, a Soviet spy film made by Boris Barnet and Fedor Ozep in 1926. But at 250 minutes, that’s another binge and I wonder do the Thai boys have that long?

So what! So what? We are beyond the mercy of critical lucidity and valuable scholarship. The nature of bingeing is to commit to the frenzy without any hope of rational control or order. That is why Donald Trump is the exact leader for our time: he is so blind to order and meaning because he is inextricably caught up in the binge of himself, of being Trump every moment, and of knowing that every moment is both new and exactly like every earlier moment. He is not so much a leader as a primordial suck, the ego pit into which we are all tumbling. Since his only need is watching television, so his life is being on television, or quite simply being TV – being on. He is remarkably like Lang’s Mabuse, a psycho-charismatic in search of power or dominance in a boyish plan to destroy the world he embodies. Why destroy? It saves on having to think about it. And thinking gets in the way of knowing every now will soon be another now.

It is in this state of horror that the narrative profusion of BB can fill a night before the Zolpidem kicks in. Lucy and I watch every night, and we are irretrievably faithful to the binge impulse (face it – marriage is a kind of binge). I dream of how this Babylon is fertile invasion territory for the Peaky Blinders gang. Going further still, I wonder if Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Paul Anderson and Tom Hardy might not come to the wrecked Weimar of 1929 and install Claire Foy of the Crown to ward off the lethal arrival of Adolf H. That’s silly, of course, but no sillier than a feeling in 1932 that things would be all right. You can’t do that you’ll say; you can’t mix one binge with another; you can’t fall into thinking these figments have lives of their own as distinct as the novels in the Great Tradition. Do wake up, that’s what’s up! They are all one water that creeps under the door and is filling up the room. Don’t you see how your screen, your 44-inch plasma or whatever, soaks up every image or show you call unique. They are all seething in the plasma, like underwater creatures, like the weird subterranean species that may be shapes in the water for the aghast Thai boys as they are drawn through caves measureless to man, inhaling and imagining they are breathing and staying alive.

We were dead already.