Rome Film Fest: Tom Tykwer on What's Next for 'Babylon Berlin'

Babylon Berlin
Tom Tykwer

The German director says he is moving ahead with season three of the period show, which he believes holds an important lesson for contemporary Europe.

Rome Film Fest, a longtime supporter of prestige television, previewed Babylon Berlin, a $45 million period crime drama set in 1929 Germany. Newly appointed Berlin jury head Tom Tykwer co-wrote and co-directed the show with Henk Handloegten and Achim von Borries. The show is produced by X Filme, ARD Degeto, Sky and Beta Film. Bryan Ferry contributed music. 

In the first episodes, multiple storylines converge as a young vice squad detective, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), who is investigating a porn ring run by the mafia, crosses paths with an ambitious woman, Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries), who leads a double life. All the while a mysterious freight train hijacked by the Soviet Union is barreling toward the city. 

With lavish sets and costumes bringing to life the Golden Twenties, Babylon Berlin eloquently paints a picture of a world on the brink of global change.

Netflix has snapped up U.S. rights for the show, which will initially air as 16 episodes across two seasons. In Rome, Sky Atlantic’s Italian director Antonio Visca confirmed that a third season is in progress.

Tykwer announced that one topic he will further explore in the third season is the role of amphetamines in German history, as this period in time was marked by the lavish use of drugs. Already Rath takes a morphine and tranquilizer mix to treat a war injury, which becomes part of a larger storyline.

“We knew that heroin, in various forms, you could actually buy it at the pharmacy. It was given to you as a prescription by the doctor. We investigated that. It is an undercurrent of the story because our protagonist is involved with the subject,” said Tykwer.

“Methamphetamines will only become more relevant to us as we get closer to the '30s because they became more ever-present in the mid-1930s. They were experimenting in those days, but they were experimenting with any kind of drug,” he said. “It was quite common in the nightlife of Berlin, as it is today…although less legal.”

“We’re going to dig deeper into that subject in the upcoming seasons that we’re quite ready to go for,” he confirmed. “There will be more. This story can continue for a long time.”

While the historical use of drugs proved interesting for Tykwer, he said what mainly drew him to the project was an investigation into the fragility of a democracy, as he sees many similarities between the Weimar Republic and Europe today.

“When there’s a shift, things can so quickly fall apart that have seemed to be stable for such a long time. And we’re looking around and we’re seeing it everywhere right now,” he said.

“The parallels today, while we were writing, became more and more apparent and more and more unsettling. But it’s an artistic instinct. You can’t really make a period picture about anything if that period doesn’t reflect your time,” said Tykwer. “The reason why you go into certain areas of history is because they give you insight about where we are today.”

Tykwer believes the show mirrors the fragility of Europe today, both economically and socially. “It’s so obviously under attack, and we don’t really know how to handle it. We wouldn’t believe that it could be gone in five years, but we also didn’t believe what kind of president could take over the United States, or what would happen to Great Britain, or that the third-largest party in Germany would be a radical right-wing party,” he said.

“All that was impossible to imagine five years ago, and that’s what’s so interesting and terrifying about Babylon Berlin, because these people live in 1929 and none of them have any idea that they’re three-and-a-half years away from a radical change of the entire society,” he continued.

“The name Hitler is mentioned once in the entire 16 episodes, and that’s in a joke, because nobody actually thinks that he will be of any influence at all,” said Tykwer. “And that’s the truth. This is how it was.”