A Waterstones Exclusive Q&A with Babylon Berlin's Volker Kutscher
Jazz-Age glamour, sex, murder and the rise of Nazism: the captivating world of German author Volker Kutscher's thrilling historical Noir, Babylon Berlin. Set in the dying hours of the Weimar Republic, it's a heady mix of Jazz Age glitz under which murky waters run deep. Described by the Guardian as a compelling blend of "fabulous debauchery and naughtiness, a political maelstrom and a ticking timebomb", the series has now inspired an internationally successful television adaptation. In an exclusive Q&A, we meet the author of the bestselling series taking the world by storm.
1. Your protagonist, Detective Inspector Gereon Rath, is a fascinating and sometimes elusive character in these novels. Newly brought into the Berlin Vice squad, he’s both an establishment figure and an outsider. Why do you feel it is important that Rath should occupy that dual position? How crucial is it to giving the reader a way into the world you’re creating?
The most important thing to me is that the reader should view Weimar Berlin through the eyes of contemporary characters, people who don’t know what the future holds. For Gereon Rath who, of course, is the main character, I wanted a guy in Berlin who’s not a Berlin native, who doesn’t know his way around, to whom everything is new, and who is curious. Beside that probing curiosity, he is also kind of naïve. He is not interested in (or better: disgusted by) politics. Like too many Germans back then, he thought, ‘Why should I care about politics when the most important thing is to live a normal, everyday life?'
2. At one point, early on in Berlin Babylon, Rath states he wants ‘nothing to do with politics, only criminals’. How important was it for you to expose the complex cross-pollination between the political fracturing of society in Berlin, burgeoning criminality and a wider social picture? Did you want to create a sense that political impact was all-permeating?
The main thing is to show that it doesn’t help to say that politics are not of concern. Politics don’t ask whether we like them. Contemporary affairs, public affairs, are ever present and we must deal with them in the present.
3. You’ve chosen to root these novels in the dying hours of the so-called 'Golden Twenties', it’s a period that seems to be frantically, almost feverishly, alive with possibility and intent. That spirit is something you conjure very successfully in these novels; to what extent were you drawn to that cocktail of intoxication and danger the period seems to offer? Do you think it makes a particularly rich backdrop for crime fiction?
Of course, it is a rich backdrop, especially for gangster stories, but the Gereon Rath novels form a series and, as a whole, are not only about the Twenties. The freedom and opportunities presented by the democratic Weimar era were new and unexplored in Germany. The ways they were used in the Thirties led to the most terrible dictatorship of the 20th century, Nazi Germany. In 1929 nobody could have anticipated that, not even the Nazis.
4. With its combination of political turbulence and instability, both in Europe and internationally, and rich artistic and cultural output, critics have drawn comparisons between the Twenties and today. Is that a parallel you were conscious of when writing these novels or, perhaps more explicitly, when adapting them for the screen?
I started writing the first novel thirteen or fourteen years ago, with no thought of such parallels. My characters, over the course of the series, will come to understand how fragile a democracy can be. I didn’t expect to see this again in my own lifetime. Born in Western Germany in 1962 I took democracy for granted, progress which couldn’t be turned back. Okay, I was wrong.
5. Berlin itself seems to almost be a character in its own right in these novels. How important are the streets, the physical structure of Berlin, to your novels?
This authenticity is very important to me, because the novels are not only about Gereon Rath and Charlotte Ritter, they are also about Berlin. I first visited in the early Eighties (when there still were two Berlins, divided by a wall) after reading about it in the books of Erich Kästner, Alfred Döblin, Hans Fallada and Irmgard Keun.
6. There are echoes, particularly in the backdrop of the protests and police response at Alexanderplatz, to the influential novel and subsequent Rainer Werner Fassbinder television mini-series adaptation Berlin Alexanderplatz in Babylon Berlin. How important are their lasting cultural influence on the portrayal of Berlin in your novels?
Rereading Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (and Kästner’s Fabian, Keun’s Das kunstseidene Mädchen and many more) was one of my first research steps when I came up with the idea of a Cologne Detective Inspector hunting murderers in Berlin from 1929 to 1938. Yes, I revere the literature of the so called ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’.
7. From the complex hierarchy of the Castle, to the detail of everything from clothing to adverts for Juno cigarettes, these novels live and breathe their period. The research must have been extensive. Were there any discoveries you made that particularly surprised you?
I always enjoy doing research because I’m very curious about that period, especially about Berlin, regardless of whether the results find their way into the books. What surprised me most? Well, I think it was how quickly people in Germany (not all, but far too many) got used to the new conditions after 1933. It is frightening how quickly they gave up the achievements of democracy.
8. These novels prompt questions about the relationship between surface artifice and underlying brutality: how important is looking at how those aspects interact to you as a novelist? Do you think navigating how those layers interact, both within character and society as a whole, is a crucial aspect of the pull of Noir fiction as a genre?
Yes, this is an important aspect of the genre, but I think it is crucially important that, when your subject is society, you tell the stories of individuals. This is even more important in a society changing as drastically as did Germany’s between 1929 and 1938.
9. The concept of truth is a tricky element in your fiction and you frequently confront your readers with scenarios where the truth is manipulated. At one point, Rath comments that ‘the truth is a pliable commodity’. How interested are you in interrogating that idea in your fiction?
We are not the first to live in an era where it is difficult to discern between truth and lies. If too many people sell us lies as truth and smear well-researched newspaper articles as fake news, it is up to us to sharpen our minds and discern the facts. This is what people in Germany had to do from 1933 to 1945, and it’s the same with my novels. The readers must distinguish facts from fiction, I don’t tell them. If they want to know, they must learn more about history, which can only be good. I am a novelist, I write fiction, but what is fiction? It’s a way to lie, but it’s a special art of lying to get as close to the truth as possible.
10. Which books have you most enjoyed in 2017? Are there any German novels you would particularly like to see translated?
Yes, there is one: Marc-Uwe Kling’s Qualityland. As far as I know it has not yet been translated into English, but it should be.