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New York Times: Escaping Into ‘Babylon Berlin’ and ‘My Brilliant Friend’

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Mar 26 2020

New seasons of two top-notch international series, on Netflix and HBO, offer comfort viewing that's outside the comfort zone.

For some, comfort viewing during the Covid-19 pandemic will take the form of familiarity: shows they've watched before, or shows that take place in their own everyday worlds. Why challenge yourself when daily life is challenging enough?

But comfort is wherever you find it, and for me it means going somewhere else — being lifted out of my New York apartment and losing myself in another place and time. I've spent the last few days immersed in new seasons of two of the best escapes available: "Babylon Berlin" (its third season premiered this month on Netflix) and "My Brilliant Friend" (its second season is playing Monday nights on HBO).

The shows take place in very different worlds, 1920s Berlin and (in the new season of "Friend") 1960s Italy, not widely separated by time or geography but falling on either side of the stark dividing line of World War II. "Babylon Berlin" is a murder mystery, "My Brilliant Friend" a drama of friendship and family, and they're radically distinct in their styles and storytelling approaches.

But watching them has similar pleasures, both stimulating and narcotic, and you begin to notice what they have in common. Each show devotes uncommon attention and expense to its period details — costumes, décor, automobiles and even large sets and soundstages — recreating Weimar Berlin and postwar Naples, the better to envelop us in the illusion.

Both shows also have a solid structure, a reassurance of narrative logic and psychological consistency — no matter what extreme course events may take — which they probably owe to their literary underpinnings: the mystery novels of Volker Kutscher for "Babylon Berlin" and the wildly popular "Neapolitan novels" by Elena Ferrante for "My Brilliant Friend." (The new season is subtitled "The Story of a New Name" after the second novel in the series.)

In "Babylon Berlin" those events are extreme indeed, and not only because they involve the inexorable approach of Hitler and the Third Reich. Nazis have been largely offstage in the series, more talked about than seen, though as the current season builds toward the stock market crash of 1929, they become more of a presence. Still, the antagonists of the homicide detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and his assistant, Charlotte Ritter (the wonderful Liv Lisa Fries), are primarily from the monarchist and industrialist classes who believe they can use the Nazis as hired thugs and then sideline them.

But Nazis, even if unseen, have a way of both cranking up the tension and making whatever else is going on seem normal, or at least easier to believe. So "Babylon Berlin" cruises along like a particularly eventful amusement park ride — Weimar Fever Dream — that practically negates the concept of suspension of disbelief.

Season 2 ended (spoiler alert) with Rath's discovering that the mysterious doctor-mesmerist-lecturer, Schmidt, was actually the brother Rath had abandoned for dead on the battlefield in World War I. Season 3 steams ahead through the oily waters of decadence, anxiety and political violence. Criminal telepathy, electroshock, performative group sex and a secret society with Asian houseboys all figure in the season's 12 episodes.

A conclave of Berlin's criminal gangs looks like a scene from a Dick Tracy cartoon; an orgiastic ceremony in a shuttered mansion is "Eyes Wide Shut" with a didgeridoo. The central mystery plot involves the haunted production of "Demons of Passion," a musical spectacular with Expressionist touches whose leading ladies keep getting bumped off by a towering figure in a phantom costume. (Clips from the film-within-a-film, with its references to Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," are an amusing, and sometimes surprisingly moving, bonus in the later episodes. Also keep your eyes out for a pointed homage to "The Third Man.")

The movie mystery proceeds in parallel with the continuing investigation into the bombing that killed a high-ranking police official and staunch Weimar Republic supporter in Season 2, a crime for which Ritter's friend Greta Overbeck (Leonie Benesch) sits on death row. A scene in which Ritter races to the prison carrying a reprieve is a chilling encapsulation of the dire situation the characters don't yet realize they're in.

Parallels to our current situation can probably be found everywhere if you look hard enough, but the picture in "Babylon Berlin" of honest cops trying to do their jobs while the social order collapses around them is certainly apt. While the incipient fascists, as well as the writers of "Demons of Passion," look forward to perfecting the human race in machine-like terms, one character after another — an obsessive forensics technician, an overextended detective — snaps and melts down in violent rage. The center cannot hold, but luckily the Gereon Rath novels do, and a fourth season is planned.

"My Brilliant Friend" is also marked by violence, but it's of the domestic variety, at home or close to it, hanging in the air like the smell of gas and threatening constantly to ignite. Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Gaia Girace), best friends and conscienceless rivals since they were the two smartest girls in first grade, both hope to escape the suffocating grip of their poor neighborhood in postwar Naples.

In Season 2, the women's paths continue to diverge and intersect. Lila, the force of nature, marries and becomes embroiled in the domestic and commercial drama surrounding her family's shoemaking business, while the more retiring but equally ambitious Elena pursues her education against all odds, eventually attending university in northern Italy. (Her time in Pisa yanks the series away from Naples and its nearby islands for the first time.)

The love affairs, family discords, jealousies and betrayals of "My Brilliant Friend" have a melodramatic, even tear-jerking quality that is held in check by the studied formality of the pacing and the direction of the actors — everything seems to happen a half-beat slower than real life, and the characters' long pauses and slow reactions can take on the weight of classical drama. (Saverio Costanzo, who directed all of Season 1, shares duties in Season 2 with Alice Rohrwacher.)

And the show feels completely distinctive because of the way it proceeds less in terms of action and plot than in terms of mood and emotion. It doesn't move forward so much as oscillate, tracing the ever-shifting, sometimes bewildering course of Elena's feelings about Lila, the person who both inspires her deepest feelings and drives her to her pettiest and most wounding treacheries.

Actions that would, in other shows, function as sad or squalid commentary on the characters — as emotional and moral shorthand — are revealed as necessary steps in coming-of-age and coming to terms, however successfully, with the options the environment offers. And the fierce attachment to the female point of view has the effect of turning the male characters' rage and violence into a tragicomic opera buffa, a stylized performance of endangered pride. (Giovanni Amura, as Lila's beleaguered husband, Stefano, is particularly good at finding this theatrical quality.)

And Ferrante's story — she's one of the four credited writers of the series — provides layers of complexity still uncommon for series television. The doublings and redoublings in Elena's and Lila's actions toward each other parallel the destructive and seemingly unending patterns among fathers and sons, a crucial factor in Season 2 when it comes to Elena's childhood crush, Nino (Francesco Serpico), and his father (Emanuele Valenti).

The formalized intensity of "My Brilliant Friend" isn't an easy thing to sustain, and Season 2 doesn't hold your interest quite as easily as Season 1 did. (The entire series will take place in the shadow of the first season's first two episodes, in which the 11-year-old Ludovica Nasti gives a mesmerizing, feral performance as the young Lila.) Anyone who's already in, though, is unlikely to escape its grip before the four novels, and the friendship, have run their course.