“Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who blew up Hitler in his film Inglourious Basterds, I know what happened in history and I can’t change it,” says author Volker Kutscher.
The 54-year-old German is six books into a series of nine that superimposes noirish, Berlin-set police-thriller plots onto real events, each charting a single year in Germany’s slide into Nazism and towards war between 1929 and 1938. Two of the novels have been translated into English and the first, Babylon Berlin, has been made into two eight-part series, the first of which begins on Sky Atlantic this week.
Co-written and directed by Tom Tykwer (who made the films Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas and the TV series Sense8), it had a reported budget of £35 million, making it one of the most expensive original language TV series ever made.
The German title of Babylon Berlin was Der Nasse Fisch, which translates as “The Wet Fish”, German police slang for a cold case. Kutscher’s protagonist, detective Gereon Rath, is played by leading German actor Volker Bruch, while Rath’s on-off love interest and would-be fellow investigator Charlotte “Charly” Ritter is played by Liv Lisa Fries.
Kutscher approved of the casting and says he was “very impressed” when he visited the set last year – four complete streets of inter-war Berlin have been re-created in Studio Babelsberg, just outside the city. But, he says, “I don’t want to make the mistake of paying too much attention to the series. They do their project, and I hope it is successful, but I have to concentrate on my novels, which is my project. I am now in 1935 and they are in 1929.”
He hopes, though, that further adaptations of his novels will be forthcoming: “It makes no sense to stop in 1929. They have to at least get to 1933.” That was the year that Adolf Hitler’s rise was cemented by federal elections, and when many, including Germany’s Jewish community, still believed that his totalitarian instincts could be tamed.
Kutscher thinks a fictional examination of the way his nation sleepwalked into fascism feels timely, given the resurgence of neo-Nazi parties and racism across the globe. “For me it is a big question – how this could have happened in Germany. It was a civilised country in the 1920s, and the young Weimar democracy was a good democracy. Many people thought it would work. To understand how it all went wrong is a big question and the answer is not simple. So maybe by writing and reading novels you can get closer to the answer.”
Kutscher was an editor at the newspaper Kölnische Rundshau and had already written “three cosy crime novels – two contemporary and one set in 1795 – as a hobby” when he hit on the idea for the series of novels with the detective Gereon Rath at their heart.
“In 2002, I saw Road to Perdition directed by Sam Mendes with Tom Hanks as a killer, which takes place in Chicago in 1931. The same year I saw Fritz Lang’s M [in which Peter Lorre plays a child murderer], released in 1931. I thought about how to mix up these two worlds: the American gangster world and the Berlin of Alfred Döblin [author of Berlin Alexanderplatz].”
Kutscher wrote Der Nasse Fisch, but then faced 18 months of rejection before it was published. Given the subsequent success of the novels, and the huge amount of money riding on the TV series, the publishers who rejected his book must be kicking themselves now.
Gereon Rath is “a child of his time, born in 1899 – the same year as Erich Kästner. He joins the army in 1918, but before he gets to the front the war is over. He was afraid he would be killed, but he isn’t. So he becomes cynical.
“He doesn’t like politics, whether it is right or left – none of it interests him. And he makes mistakes. He is a liar. One positive thing – he is more interested in justice than in law. If someone has done something wrong, he punishes them.”
Rath’s adventures amid pornographers and cocaine dealers, “Stahlhelm” nationalists and Russian émigrés, take place against a rigid framework of fact, and bring him in to contact with historical figures. Some, such as politician Konrad Adenauer, are well known; others, like the Berlin police commissioner Ernst Gennat, are largely forgotten, even in Germany.
But Kutscher is a stickler for research, even checking contemporary weather reports. “Maybe I am kind of mad,” he says. “But I am curious about it as a private individual as well as a novelist. I am a time traveller and I need to feel at home in this time.”
The next book he will write, the seventh in the series, is set in 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics. The last will take Rath to 1938, “the year of so-called Kristallnacht, when everybody in Germany finally knew that anti-Semitism was about killing Jews, and that they were going to war.”
Although he knows the historical backdrop for this last novel, he is less sure about the plot. “I knew it would be nine novels, and the years they take place, but I don’t have the whole story mapped out: it’s not Harry Potter,” says Kutscher. “I only know that Gereon Rath will survive eight novels, but I don’t know yet if he will survive the last.”
Babylon Berlin is on Sunday 9.00pm, 10.00pm Sky Atlantic