Serial Narratives and the Unfinished Business of European Identity #4

by | Nov 7, 2020 | News |

Serial Narratives and the Unfinished Business of European Identity #4

by | Nov 7, 2020 | News |

Location Matters. Berlin in Contemporary Television Crime Series

A multi-episode, virtual journey into European crime narratives.

Location Matters. Berlin in Contemporary Television Crime Series

Thomas Morsch (Freie Universität Berlin)

The choice of location is an important aspect of television series in general, and this is particular true for crimes series. The setting of sitcoms or hospital series are mostly interior spaces, but crime series venture into the streets of the city, and often the stories and characters arise from the particular city that serves as a series’ location. Allan Cubitt, Writer of the series The Fall, set in Belfast, said about the choice of location:

I think the best of these sorts of shows on TV often have a very strong sense of place. In a way, the whole trick with creating a compelling drama is to create a distinct world. Belfast as a location has a very particular quality – a product, perhaps, of its history. A history, in part, of violence. That history casts a long shadow. Allan Cubitt (2013), Writer, The Fall.

Among European cities, Berlin has become or particular interest as the location of films and television series since the fall of the Berlin wall. A mostly low rent for large apartments in old buildings throughout the 1990s and early 2000s drew a lot of young people, start-ups and creatives into a city that was cheap to live in and had a lot to offer. A thriving club and techno scene draws a colorful party crowd to the city every weekend. Immigrants from all parts of the globe, from refugees to scientists to diplomats find a temporary or permanent home in the city that is, of course, also the political center of Germany with a rich cultural scene, a rich history, an abundance of recognizable sights, a diverse architecture from monumental buildings of the past to modern office buildings, with stretches of water and huge forests close to the urban center – a perfect place for crime.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Berlin has become a popular location even for international television productions, like the fifth season of Homeland (2011-2020) or the US production Berlin Station (2016-2019).

Berlin’s Party Scene as Crime Scene

Series like Dogs of Berlin (1 Season, 2018, the second original German Netflix production after Dark), Beat (1 Season, 2018, after You Are Wanted the second original German production from Amazon Prime) and – most successful among these – 4Blocks (2017-2019) choose Berlin as a location for its visual qualities and for specific social demographics that become part of the story. 4 Blocks and Dogs of Berlin milk the existence of organized crime in Berlin, especially clans coming from Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Lebanon or other Arab countries, for their respective stories.

The series Beat chooses Berlin as a location not for its organized crime but for something the city became famous for after reunification and which is a major factor in Berlin’s tourism: its vibrant techno and party scene, epitomized especially by the famous Berghain club, one of the locations of Beat. The series’ title is the nick name of Robert Schlag, a successful club promoter, who is recruited by the fictional European Secret Intelligence (ESI) as an informant because of his acquaintance with a suspect leading a criminal network dealing in arms trading and organ trafficking. At one point, the young club promoter, says: “I have Europe every night in the club”, pointing to a ‘lived’ European-ness as the opposition to the bureaucratic Europe that is embodied by the two agent’s from Brussels who try to recruit him. This is only a minor point in the series, but it resonates with contemporary political analyses of Europe and its failure to establish a true European identity that could serve as a common point of reference across the 27 member states of the European Union.

Dogs of Berlin: An Intriguing Mix of Cultural Identities

Dogs of Berlin is notable for the fact that one of the two main investigators is a gay ethnic Turkish German police detective who has the same background as the members of the gangs he is investigating, and the other main investigator is a former neo-Nazi from East Berlin whose family is still deeply rooted in the right-wing racist political subculture of Marzahn, a district of Berlin known for its large anonymous high rise apartment buildings and its politically polarized demographic. Very rarely this district serves as the setting of films or series located in Berlin, its choice as the setting for Dogs or Berlin is therefore a conscious decision to include a specific social demographic, and views of Berlin that not only rarely surface in film and television, but that most Berliners will have never seen in real life.

Just by integrating Marzahn and its cold, concrete-heavy, urban architecture as a major location Dogs of Berlin strives for a realism, that is, however, betrayed by a largely unbelievable plot about arms trading, organ trafficking and a corrupt cop addicted to gambling. Furthermore, the series throws a Turkish football player, a group of neo-Nazis from Marzahn, a Lebanese clan and a Biker gang into the mix. Overall, the series produced the most interesting mix of cultural identities any German crime series brought to the screen. While the crime plot appeared to some critics and audiences as a bit forced, and the series did little to dissipate the public prejudice against some of the identities making an appearance, it is still laudable for its intriguing on-screen demographic and therefore makes a productive case studies on identity and location in crime series.


4 Blocks and Double Identity

The most successful of these three series was 4 Blocks, a pay-TV production (TNT) that was also shown on public broadcasting services in Germany. 4 Blocks is probably the first true example of a German series that might be rightfully labeled as a quality TV series. It makes the most of its location, the district of Neukölln, in which many Arab and Turkish immigrants reside, but that also has been subject to a drastic process of gentrification in the past ten years. Already the title turns a part of Neukölln from a random place in the city to a specific territory, as the title refers to an area of Neukölln that is ruled by a Lebanese clan lead by Toni Hamady who is driven by the desire to finally become a nationalized German citizen after 26 years of living in Germany with his wife and to receive a German passport, but also to become a legitimate business man by trying to get enough money to invest in real estate.

Originally intended as a series about an undercover cop, during its development and its first season became more and more a series that focuses on the Lebanese clan instead of the police investigation. The series is based upon extensive research about the Lebanese community, and it articulates its respect for it already in the title sequence, where the title of the series and the name of the actors appear in Arabic and Latin letters. While it tells the story of organized crime by a Lebanese clan, 4 Blocks still does work hard to dissipate prejudice about the Lebanese population. The second season however deals with the rivalry about different clans, unveiling along the way more and more the autocratic, misogynist and racist convictions that the clans are built upon.

While the longed-for German citizenship is an important subject of the series, it makes very clear that not ‘Germany’, but ‘Berlin’ is the point of identification for the characters, one rap song states this even explicitly. Identity is born out of life-worlds, the life-world of a city, or even just 4 blocks within a district, it is not based on nations, passports, citizenship, and legal rights.

4 Blocks is an example of the contemporary landscape of seriality in television, because its stylistic and narrative means, its daring topic, its treatment of crime and the immigrant subculture is beyond the scope of what would have been possible in European television series only ten years ago. It is an aesthetically advanced series that unfolds a complex notion of identity that is built upon one of two factors: the family (including the extended family of the clan) or the territory (the 4 blocks over which the clan reigns), but not on country or nation, neither Germany, that denies Toni and his family citizenship, nor the distant homeland of Lebanon.


Berlin’s Golden Twenties: Babylon Berlin

The internationally most successful German television series in recent years has been the expensive Babylon Berlin (2017-), a co-production of a private and a public television network, and drafted by three very experienced German film directors, Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten. Based on a series of crime novels of Volker Kutscher about police commissioner Gereon Rath and set in Berlin in the late twenties, giving the series the opportunity to hark back to the rich cinematic history of the city that thrived in the. The series portrays the late 1920s as a lost modernity, under threat by nationalist and fascist forces that are virulent again in contemporary Germany and other countries in Europe. It unfolds a kaleidoscope of urban identities, from politicians to the police, from the hedonistic underground to various types of criminals, from the high society to those living in poverty, from the liberal artist scene to the incipient nationalist-socialist mob.

The most interesting character is the female lead, Charlotte Ritter, an ambitious part-time stenographer working for the police, and part-time escort searching for customers in Berlin’s most glamorous night club Moka Efti. Ritter is ambitious and wants to become a full-time criminal investigator for the police – an unprecedented career for a woman at that time. She achieves her goal at the end of the second season, shedding her disreputable past. Ritter’s character is modeled after the image of the ‘new woman’, a popular female imago of the 1920s.

Rising from part-time prostitute and police informant to an official police investigator over the course of the first two seasons, Charlotte embodies the precarious and changing identity of women, as well as the cultural and social mobility of female identity, symbolizing the rapid changes of Berlin’s urban modernity that will soon revert to the new barbarism of the Nazi regime. Her many identities allow her to lead the police investigators into areas that would be otherwise impenetrable for them.

But other characters are also marked by precarious identities: the main investigator Gereon Rath is investigator, but is being investigated at the same time; for a long time it remains unclear if his superior and close colleague is actually helping him, or if he is in cahoots with the fascists. From individuals to state institutions, all entities are portrayed as lacking a sustainable and stable identity.

Social unrest in Babylon Berlin.

Crime in Babylon Berlin is predominantely entangled with politics and political interests. Therefore, the series, like the literary crime fiction series that it is based upon, is easily understood as a comment on the political circumstances in the late 1920s. The crime investigation uncovers hidden social strata of the city and the forces of history not yet (but soon to be) in the open. The historical setting makes us read the series as a representation of a precarious society in turmoil, of a past long gone, that has to be understood as an allegory of our present, in which we witness anew a growing precariousness of the western social-liberal democracies and of the European Union they formed.


Berlin as a crime scene

Among European cities, Berlin has become or particular interest as the location of films and television series since the fall of the Berlin wall.