Babylon Berlin

“Dad says the anticipation of having something is often more fun than actually having it. I think he’s crazy. I hate waiting for things. I like to have everything immediately. I can’t think of anything I’d rather anticipate than have right away. Can you?”

“Death comes to mind.”

“I don’t know why I bother trying to have a little conversation with you when you’re always so morbid.”

–Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson


I’m a sucker for political thrillers– Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; L’Affaire Farewell; Zthe collected works of Alfred Hitchcock. Movies like this work by building a sense of… anticipation. The most important tool these stories have is to tell the audience something bad is going to happen… and then make them wait for it.

Babylon Berlin, now streaming on Netflix, twists its cranks and turns its gears in heart-pounding set pieces that find our heroes breaking into a vicious gangster’s safe, hanging out of a malfunctioning airplane, and racing to return home before a bomb blows up.

But beyond the machinations of the plot, the show’s premise is about suspense. We are in Weimar Germany, in the year 1929. In four years, Germany will be in the grip of an authoritarian dictatorship. In ten years, it will be at war again. Like the ancient capital of Babylon, Berlin is on borrowed time.

We all know what happens next. The interesting thing is how we get there. We will wait through most of the series before we see a single Nazi uniform (trust me, it’s worth the wait.) Until then, life goes on.

Berlin is a boiling stew of civil unrest. Political groups of all stripes vie for influence, and the metropolitan police must maintain order– often with violent tactics, and a couple cover-ups as necessary to make sure the gruesome stuff doesn’t hit the papers. Communists stage a demonstration on the First of May, and are met with batons and machine guns.

World War I looms over everything that happens in this show. Only a decade out from the largest armed conflict in human history[1], almost every male character is a veteran of some kind. Several bear physical injuries that are unremarked upon. Doctors struggle to treat others battling “shell shock,” or PTSD.

A group of veterans drink a toast to the friends they lost in their unit, solemnly claiming that the German army was never defeated on the field. They want another chance to prove themselves– and they’ll get one, very soon.

The show is based on a series of crime novels by Volker Kutscher. Tom Tykwer, Achim von

Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries)

Borries, and Henk Handloegten  shared writing and directing duties. Tykwer is the best known in the U.S., having worked on  Sense8, and directed films such as Cloud Atlas, and Run Lola Run, another thriller built on a tightly suspenseful premise.[2]

In a sprawling cast, our two main characters are Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a vice cop from Cologne in Berlin on a special assignment, and Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a typist at the police station who lives in a squalid apartment and dreams of bigger things.

Their investigation finds them chasing down mob bosses in the city underworld, and searching a train smuggling gold and weapons-grade poison gas from the Soviet Union.

Yes– this show features, in its opening scenes, a steam locomotive and tanker cars being hijacked by Trotskyist expats. The train is nothing: there are period costumes on hundreds of extras, packed into rowdy night clubs and dozens of sets. After all that, period-appropriate planes, trains, and automobiles are the icing on the cake.

The world looks gorgeous– the cinematography is reminiscent of crime films from the 1940s, like The Third Man, which also loved giant silhouettes on brick wall. It also comes from M, a film made in Germany in 1931, and which proved highly influential to the genre we’d call film noir during and after the war.

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) Gentlemen, it’s not all about the hat.

We get a taste of the lively cultural center that was 1920s Berlin as well– characters go to the movies, and visit nightclubs to hear jazz music (Cabaret fans, eat your heart out). Sex and drugs are treated liberally– the government has to keep track of syphilis cases, Charlotte works as a prostitute in one club to help make ends meet, and Gereon breaks open vials of morphine to cope with losing his brother during The Great War.

Speaking of Gereon– gentlemen, do you see that hat he’s wearing? That is a fedora. You see how gritty and cool and damaged he looks? It’s not because of the hat. The hat only works because of everything else he’s wearing. So unless you want to wear a three-piece wool suit and a trench coat in June, don’t wear that hat.

Did I mention it’s the most expensive TV show ever produced in Europe? I feel like Babylon Berlin uses its budget more effectively than something like Game of Thrones, which seems to save its budget for a few key episodes, mostly involving dragons. It doesn’t cost much to create a suspenseful scene– it could be as simple as Rath crossing a narrow plank between two rooftops, or a housemaid sneaking her boyfriend into her employer’s study. The expense goes into the world building, which is pervasive and enveloping.

And in order for the suspense to work, the world building must be pervasive and enveloping. If it isn’t, your concentration is removed from the story, and you start asking questions. Annoying questions. Questions the filmmakers would rather you didn’t ask. Like, “Why doesn’t she just tell him, already?” or “How did he get in there without anyone noticing?”

The evening’s entertainment at a Berlin nightclub.

The neat thing is that even if you know the story, even if you know our heroes aren’t going to get caught, you’ll still feel that twinge of anxiety when they’re in danger. It’ll work on the second, or twenty-second viewing. And I think Babylon Berlin will stand up to multiple binge watches.

The specter of death hangs over everything from this time. The deaths that came with The War to End All Wars, and the deaths that will come in the next one. I suppose experiencing a suspenseful story is about confronting death itself– the effect works best when the characters are in mortal danger.

Will Charlotte and Gereon survive the coming war? I don’t know. First they have to survive the next ten years of political upheaval.

  1. [1] Just you wait, just you wait…
  2. [2] Lola must save her boyfriend, Manni, by somehow pulling together 100,000 Deutsche Marks in 20 minutes.
Posted in How Movies Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BLAME at Tribeca 2017– Nadia Alexander Wins Best Actress!

This is a long overdue update, but BLAME has had its World Premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival! The whole event was a blast, and it was real treat to finally see the finished movie on the big screen.

The biggest surprise, though, came at the end of the Festival, when one of our stars, Nadia Alexander, won Best Actress for her brilliant performance as Melissa. I knew awards were always a possibility for a movie like this, but I try not to get my hopes up. Congratulations, Nadia, and the rest of the cast and crew on a job well done!

For more information, and to see some of the response to BLAME, click here.

Further updates to come…

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on BLAME at Tribeca 2017– Nadia Alexander Wins Best Actress!

What Happens If You Don’t Take Out a Splinter?

Turns out, splinters can do more than just get under your skin.

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What Happens If You Don’t Take Out a Splinter?

BLAME at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

BLAME, the indie feature I worked on a couple summers ago, is having its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival! Congratulations to the cast and crew, especially writer-director Quinn Shephard! I saw an early cut a while ago which was really good– I can’t wait to see it now that it’s finished.

Tickets are going on sale today, so if you’re interested in any of the screenings (April 22, 23, 24, and 29), click here to get yours before they sell out.

Per the festival:

When precocious and emotionally unstable Abigail (writer-director Quinn Shephard) is cast as the lead in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible over mean girl Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander), Melissa and her friends only amplify their abuse. Substitute drama teacher Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) isn’t completely oblivious. He intervenes and sees talent in Abigail’s total commitment to her new part. When Jeremy’s intentions become cloudy, Melissa spots an opportunity for more potent machinations.


Posted in Announcements | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on BLAME at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

Flashbulb Memories!

Think about the most vivid memory you have. It’s probably about an emotionally charged event– your first kiss, or the death of a beloved pet. It feels really fresh, like it happened yesterday. Since it’s so vivid, it’s gotta be accurate, right?


Posted in Announcements, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Flashbulb Memories!

The 5 Second Rule

Should you eat that snack you dropped on the floor? Before you do, check out this episode of SciShow I wrote:

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on The 5 Second Rule

Andrew’s Oscar Predictions 2017!

Update: 9/24! I think that’s worse than usual!

It’s that time of year again. As usual, I have seen a few of the nominees, but not all, and not nearly enough. So I should be even more qualified than ever!

Best PictureEveryone’s saying La La Land, but I’d kinda like to see Moonlight get it. But I haven’t seen either one.* Editor’s note: I’m going to say I got this because I need the score boost.

Best Actor: Denzel WashingtonFences. Because obviously.

Best Actress: Spins wheel… Natalie PortmanJackie.

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali. <shrug>*

Best Supporting Actress: Viola DavisFences. Because obviously.*

Best Animated Feature: Everyone’s saying Zootopia, but I liked Moana more I think. Look out for dark horse Kubo and the Two Strings.*

Best Cinematography: La La Land. Arrival looked really dark and grimy to me. But that could have been the theater.*

Best Costume Design: A period piece about one of the greatest fashion icons of the 20th Century? Why, it has to be Jackie.

Best Directing: Arrival. Which was good. I’m not sure it was better than the others.

Best Feature Documentary: 13th

Best Short Documentary: Joe’s Violin. I have no idea what any of these are about.

Best Editing: Whiplash got Best Editing when it came out. La La Land has the same  editor. So again, maybe?

Best Foreign Language Film: The cynic in me says The Salesman, because its director, Asghar Farhadi, has said he’ll skip the ceremony because of President Trump’s immigration policy. And that’s one less acceptance speech that makes the broadcast run long.*

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: I’m saying Suicide Squad because that would be really, really funny.*

Best Original Score: La La Land.*

Best Song: “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. Lin-Manuel Miranda, here’s your EGOT and– wait, what’s Trolls doing here?

Best Production Design: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Animated Short: Piper. Because if it wasn’t made by Pixar, you wouldn’t know it was animated.*

Best Live Action Short: La Femme et le TGV. I should really call this “Best Live Action Short Title.”

Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Sound Mixing: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book. Okay, technical categories. Don’t let me down again.*

Best Adapted Screenplay: Arrival

Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea. Because it should win something, right?*

Posted in Announcements, The Business End | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Andrew’s Oscar Predictions 2017!

Hidden Fences

An actor once told me, “There are two kinds of movies out there. The kind that tells people what they want to hear, and the kind that tells them what they need to know.”

Hidden Figures, the story of black women working at NASA at the beginning of the space program, is by all definitions, a crowd pleaser. We have our plucky heroines, who struggle against stiffer odds than they should have to, and succeed nonetheless. Their work sent John Glenn into orbit, and paved the way for the intrepid astronauts flying to the Moon, and then, low Earth orbit, all these years later.

The title, of course, comes from the fact that the work of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson has never been lauded as much as that of their white male colleagues.

But as I walked out of the theater, it seemed like part of the story was missing. Our heroines had proven their worth many times over. They had won the respect of their colleagues. Heck, Kevin Costner even invited Ms. Johnson into Mission Control for John Glenn’s launch.

So why had their contributions not been publicized?

I’m sure there’s more detail about all this in the book, written by Margot Lee Shetterly. Movies often just don’t have time. And besides, what we really want to hear is how these women overcame the odds and helped get America in space.

Historical movies always have to take liberties with the truth to tell their stories. Some more than others. Timelines are compressed, and characters composited. Real life is much more complicated and rarely follows a neat three–act structure.

But Dexter Thomas at VICE criticizes two of the film’s storylines which attempt to tell people what they want to hear.

The first is a subplot about Ms. Johnson having to use a colored women’s bathroom half a mile away from where she works. Later, Kevin Costner’s boss takes a crow bar to the sign above the offending bathroom, and assures the assembled staffers that “We all pee the same color.”

This didn’t actually happen– Ms. Johnson says she whichever bathroom was most convenient, and no one stopped her. This, to me, is forgivable, since it highlights some of the indignities created by Jim Crow laws in the South that might not have been apparent to people who weren’t affected by them.

But I see a missed opportunity at the end of the film, when Costner invites Ms. Johnson into Mission Control. This also didn’t happen, although John Glenn did ask for her to check the IBM’s calculations for his trajectory.

Consider: Katherine Johnson has solved her most difficult problem; cleared the last hurdle. What more potent visual metaphor for what actually happened to these women than for her to be locked out of the room where it happens at the most important moment.

It would suck, for us, the audience, definitely. I was reminded of Contact, when Jodie Foster’s character is told she can’t ride on the alien ship that’s only been built because of her work.[1] And of course, that wasn’t the end of the movie.

It’s a tricky thing, making the audience upset at what happens in the story, and not at the movie itself. Many people wouldn’t like it. I don’t know that we get catharsis from downer endings, as Aristotle insists.

But perhaps by tearing down the myth of history as an unending march of progress, that we’re a little better off at the end than we were at the beginning, we can reveal the barriers that these women

  1. [1] Then again, as she says, “They should have sent a poet.”
Posted in How Movies Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hidden Fences

The Solar Storm That Almost Started World War III

Check out this episode I wrote for SciShow Space!

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Solar Storm That Almost Started World War III

And Now, a Flagrant Disregard for Morals and Decency

Old movies have a reputation for being kid friendly, no matter what they’re about. They don’t have any nudity, bad language, or disrespect for authority figures.

This is largely because of the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code), a “voluntary” set of rules the Hollywood studios agreed to abide by, so as not to upset the delicate sensibilities of upstanding American citizens. From the mid 1930s to the 1960s, almost every movie released in the U.S. had to have code approval.[1]

But as with all censorship guidelines suggestion systems, people would try to find a way to get around the rules. Sex and violence sell movie tickets, and if that’s what people really wanted, Hollywood was more than happy to provide it.

1941-lady-eveEnter The Lady Eve, a screwball comedy from 1941. Barbara Stanwyck and her card shark father, Charles Coburn, endeavor to swindle rich beer magnate Henry Fonda out of his family fortune. Hijinks, hilarity, and unintentional romances ensue.

The film is not especially subtle about what’s going on– only someone who has no idea how adult relationships work could miss it, and then they probably wouldn’t enjoy the movie much.

Yet the film always wants to have a plausible deniability. We don’t see Barbara and Henry sleep together, but one night they’re kissing, and the next shot is the bow of the cruise ship plowing through the ocean. So… you know.

I was interested to learn from Matthew H. Bernstein via David Bordwell that Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration worked with director Preston Sturges and the producers of The Lady Eve to allow some racy material into the film– just nothing too racy. The PCA knew that if audiences didn’t feel like they were getting a little red meat, they’d go looking elsewhere, and the Code would be unenforceable.

This is ultimately what happened, when in the late 1950s and 1960s European films not made in accordance with the Code were released in the U.S. Among them were things like Vittorio De Sica’s raunchy, decadent farce The Bicycle Thieves.[2] They made a lot of money, but Hollywood wasn’t able to follow suit.

To take advantage of changing tastes, the Code was replaced with the movie rating system, which, after some revision, is what we have now. Hollywood is free to make movies with sex, violence, and crime– and they’ll tell you ahead of time so you can be an informed consumer.

Among these movies is The Fast and The Furious franchise, which I sampled this summer, fast_and_the_furious_posteron the recommendation of a friend. What struck me most, especially in the early entries, is that these movies openly endorse criminal activity.

Paul Walker starts out as a cop, infiltrating a street racing gang to find a band of car thieves. When he discovers that his friends are actually the ones stealing the cars, he doesn’t just help them escape the Law, he joins them.

I know Vin Diesel is cool, but really?

The Code, of course, would have had none of this. Crime must never go unpunished. Criminals may look cool, but they always get what they deserve in the end.

Except here. I suppose there are worse things one could steal than high performance luxury cars. Sometimes Walker and Diesel steal from vicious drug lords, so we don’t feel that bad. But still, the take away seems to be that if you can steal cool cars and look good doing it, you can get away with anything.

  1. [1] This doesn’t mean that everything that’s old and in black and white is okay for all ages. Before the Code, you could find many of the things it disapproved of in major Hollywood releases, including women of loose character and criminals who are not punished for their crimes. Unfortunately, if you want to get your rocks off to silent, scratched up smut from the 1920s, you’re out of luck: most of the films from this period have been lost to history.
  2. [2] It’s about a poor Italian man struggling to provide for his family in bombed out post-war Italy.
Posted in How Movies Work, The Business End | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on And Now, a Flagrant Disregard for Morals and Decency