It is impossible to spoil Titanic. Yes, at the end the ship is going to sink. It is similarly impossible spoil the new German TV series Babylon Berlin. At least if you’re someone like me. The action begins at the end of April 1929 – so any card-carrying communist knows it’s going to center around the Blutmai, the “Bloody May Day” massacre, at some point.
Directed by Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame, Babylon Berlin is a co-production of premium channel SKY and the public broadcaster ARD. At a reported €38 million, it’s the most expensive German TV series ever produced.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s detective novel Der naße Fisch (The Wet Fish), Babylon Berlin follows Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne with PTSD who is sent to the capital to investigate a mysterious film reel. As he navigates through the endless conspiracies of Weimar Berlin, he meets an Armenian mafia boss running a dance hall, a director of black-and-white pornographic films, a psychiatrist experimenting with hypnosis, a general of the Reichswehr smuggling weapons, a Soviet spy and many more – future German chancellor Konrad Adenauer even seems to make an appearance in an SM film.
In the fourth episode, we finally experience the Blutmai. Hermannplatz, back when the Karstadt department store was much more grandiose, is filled with thousands of communist demonstrators linking arms, waving flags and throwing stones. (That scene alone was worth a few million euros in my eyes!)
And then the carnage begins. Berlin’s Schutzpolizei don’t just attack the demo with truncheons and horses. Before long, the Schupo are cruising around the streets of Neukölln in armored cars, shooting machine guns at anything that moves. They fire into apartments, murdering several people in their homes.
Sound more like an action movie than a historical drama? These scenes are more or less accurate. On May 1, 1929, all demonstrations for International Workers’ Day were prohibited. This was under an SPD government – the party that had organized the first May Day rallies in Berlin back in 1890. Many thousands of workers, especially in Neukölln and Wedding, defied the ban. To keep “order”, the Berlin police killed between 32 and 38 civilians. They used at least 11,000 rounds of ammunition during the day.
The police claimed die Roten (the Reds) had shot first, but they couldn’t present any evidence. No confiscated weapons, no injured officers. A few days later, they trotted out one cop with a bullet wound – but the press soon discovered that he had injured himself with his own gun days before the riots. The authorities blamed the Communist Party, the KPD, but less than one-tenth of the 1200 people arrested were party members.
No police officer was ever charged with a crime – there wasn’t even an official investigation. It’s up to a television show to remind audiences of this horrific event by the Berlin police and the SPD. Thank god for TV.
The show does raise my eyebrows every now and then, though. When the protagonists use broken English to flirt with expats in a basement club, the whole scene looks more like 2017 than 1929. But the story of this awful massacre and the shameless cover-up is straight out of the history books.
This is television funded by an international media conglomerate and the German state. I was expecting a typically anti-communist diatribe. But Babylon Berlin presents the reds as basically good people fighting for justice, while the police are nationalist fanatics paving the way for fascism. In other words: This is TV to warm a communist’s heart.
Where to watch? For now, only SKY subscribers can watch – from October 13, two episodes have come out each Friday. And it all ends this Friday. Season two starts immediately after and continue until December 1. It will be shown on the ARD next year.