Dogs of Berlin review: Netflix crime series keenly explores its setting to show a Germany beyond the brochures

Nimish Sawant

Feb 06, 2019 09:49:49 IST

Whenever you think about a TV show or a movie set in Berlin, eight out of 10 times it will either be a historical drama, some war movie or a spy thriller. Hollywood has a whole range of them (Jason Bourne series, Mission: Impossible series etc), where Berlin has been used as a backdrop for some important mission before the action moves elsewhere.

We saw an entire season of Homeland set in Berlin, there is a show called Berlin Station, a spy thriller, set in Berlin. A German series called Same Sky uses Berlin as the backdrop to tell us about a secret Stasi initiative called ‘Project Romeo’. More recently, Babylon Berlin, a period drama takes us to the glorious 1920s Berlin, shows another historical side of the city while staying within the noir genre. The first season on Deutschland 83 (one of my favourite shows for its ability to spin stories around real-life events in Berlin before the Wall came down and its intelligent use of '80s pop tracks) also takes place in Berlin at a time when the Cold War tensions had escalated between the Russian and Allied sides of Germany.

Dogs of Berlin review: Netflix crime series keenly explores its setting to show a Germany beyond the brochures

A still from Dogs of Berlin

Rarely has the Indian interwebs world seen a Berlin-based show, which reflects the current day reality of a capital which earned its motto to be “arm, aber sexy” (poor, but sexy) at a time when it was an isolated island of Western Germany surrounded by the Socialist Democratic Republic of Germany, popularly known as East Germany.

Dogs of Berlin aims to change that narrative. In a nutshell, If you liked how Mumbai was an important character in Sacred Games, then you will appreciate what German-language Netflix crime series Dogs of Berlin does with the German capital.

Berlin Clans (mafia). Check. Tensions between the Germans and the country’s biggest minority of Turks. Check. Football. Check. Betting dens masquerading as Casinos. Check. Underground parties. Check. Abandoned places full of character. Check. Neo-Nazi hooligans. Check.

Dogs of Berlin shows you the unapologetic underbelly of Berlin, a side which you will not find in any travel guide. This is Netflix’s second German language original, after the mindblowing time travel thriller Dark, which was seen towards the end of 2017.

The Plot

Berlin cops Kurt Grimmer (Felix Kramer) is a former neo-Nazi sympathiser turned (corrupt) cop who has a weakness for womanising and betting. Erol Birkan (Fahri Yardim) is a German of Turkish origin, gay and one whose integrity cannot be questioned. These unlikely characters are reluctantly teamed up to investigate the murder of a lead player, Orkan Erdem, who could have been playing in an important football match against the Turkish national team.  

As Kramer recognises that Erdem’s murder has the potential to fire up a race conflict, he keeps it a secret. Like everything Kramer does, not entirely to the benefit of his work, but to cut a deal for himself and use this inside knowledge to get himself out of gaming debts on match-day.

Parallely, his superior Gert Seiler, is asked to put a Turkish-origin cop on the case to avoid the suspicion of any racial bias during investigations and keep the life of the multi-culti capital at peace. Enter Erol Birkan, who is pulled up after his botched underground operation to compromise a Clan meeting.

Match day.

At the stadium, we are introduced to Lebanese Clan members of the Tarik Amir clan — which has interests in drugs and handle certain territories of Berlin. One of the brothers, Karim Tarik-Amir, ambitious but always under the shadow of Clan boss Hakim, is invested in betting and claims to have the “German team in his pocket” wants to expand his betting empire. Enter rival Polish betting Clan boss Tomo Kovac, a man cold as ice and not afraid to even go after Berlin cops if they owe him money. Karim wants to partner with Kovac.

Kovac also ignites the sidelines of the conflict in Dogs of Berlin, as Grimmer owes him money. Because of this, Grimmer approaches his brother, Ulf, for cash to bet with promises of huge returns. Ulf is a leading member of a neo-nazi gang of hooligans from the Marzahn neighbourhood of Berlin. This neo-Nazi gang is a stand in for the rising right wing faction of Germany who are anti-immigrants, anti-Jews, anti-Muslims and super proud of their Nazi past.

Birkan has grown up in the same fictional neighbourhood of Kaiserwarte (a definite stand-in for the Berlin borough of Neukoelln, which has a lot of Clan associations) as the Tarik-Amir brothers. Birkan is hell-bent of taking down the Clan and even goes to the extent of hiring a 15-year old upcoming rapper Murad to spy for him.

The investigations take Grimmer and Birkan through the Berlin underbelly. For most part of the show, you do not know for sure whose side Grimmer is on and that is a conflict that Birkan experiences, but never shows till the final episode of the series. Grimmer is taking big bets, both literally and metaphorically throughout the show. This is something that keeps the show on the edge. The politics inside the Tarik-Amir Clan is another interesting insight into Berlin mafia. Certain neighbourhoods of Berlin are filled with these betting places called ‘Automaten Casinos’, which are basically a front for money laundering activities. The show does not try to sugarcoat it in any way.

There are many parallel threads, that of Grimmer’s lover Sabine trying to make ends meet, that of Grimmer’s wife Paula getting assaulted by her out-on-bail intern and then eventually accepting the unsolicited protection offered by a Turkish biker gang member from the neighbourhood where her boutique is located, that of Ulf being prosecuted by his neo Nazi members and then being put on a pedestal, that of the ways in which German footballers are blackmailed by Karim Tarik-Amir and much more. Everything leads to something. Yes, there are a few loose threads and unnecessary segues. But tell me one show that does not have these fillers.

Convincing performances but female characters could have been more pivotal to the plot

In terms of performance, Felix Kramer and Fahri Yardim deliver the goods. Sinan G, the actor essaying Hakim Tarik-Amir, brings in his mean side in very subtle ways in the first half of the season and then goes all out vicious towards the climax. The interactions between him and the other Clan members sheds some light on the challenges and everyday realities of Clans operating in a world capital like Berlin —  how close to reality that is, is something only a Clan insider can tell. On the whole, the performance of most characters is on point.

A still from Dogs of Berlin

A still from Dogs of Berlin

Dogs of Berlin starts off with rushes of what appears to be a riot and we are then taken through a flashback approaching that event, for majority of the season. As a stylistic element, this keeps things pacy. There are very few ‘slow burn’ moments. Some of the plot points, which do not really lead to anything may seem unnecessary on the surface, but could very well be bread crumbs to be elaborated on in following seasons.

It is really sad to not see strong female characters in the series. Women actors are relegated to the sidelines. On paper, they are powerful — such as the lesbian Police chief who is Geiler’s boss or Grimmer’s wife, Paula, the successful businesswoman with her own boutique store. Paula is put into situations which do not really add anything to the main narrative — apart from maybe making Grimmer realise that his happiness lies with being true to his family. Even the character of Sabine rarely has a moment of redemption, and is irrelevant after the first episode.

Same goes for Grimmer’s Nazi-sympathiser mother, representing the frustration of those who were left behind when socialist Germany had to adapt to the capitalist West. Apart from a few scenes where she is showing her hate towards Jews or outsiders, she overall does not really add much to take the plot ahead. Surely, series writers could have written their character arcs more strongly. Babylon Berlin, Same Sky, Deutschland 83 and Berlin Station are filled with strong female characters that actually take the narrative forward.

One thing the women characters in Dogs of Berlin do for sure, are keep the promise of showing us the real capital. Whether it is Paula’s hipster boutique in an increasingly chic Berlin neighbourhood to Sabine’s setting in the forgotten ghettos of the capital, we are shown sides of Berlin which do not intersect with the settings of the main investigations.

Parallels in real life

What stands out with this rather grim show, is a side of Berlin that is rooted in current day realities. The friction between the Germans and the Turks, the need for second generation Turks to prove their German-ness is still a hot topic. The dead star footballer almost alludes to former German mid-fielder Mesut Ozil, who also has Turkish origins. Ozil’s departure from the German national team citing discrimination finds resonance in the series.

Ozil had said in his tweet, “When we win, I’m German. When we lose, I’m an immigrant.” This tension is depicted in the show quite well, when the German national team’s black footballer is cheered on by the crowd for his goals, but booed out out of the stadium — by fans mimicking monkey sounds — when he loses a critical penalty.

The Clan politics depicted in the show also throw light on a side of Berlin that is not known to the international travellers nor visible to the average Berliner. Last September, news of the killing of a Berlin Clan member Nidal R, was splashed in all of Berlin’s local news dailies. His funeral which was to take place in Berlin also saw increased cop presence around the cemetery — nothing untoward happened. There is a scene in Dogs of Berlin where the funeral of Erdem sees participation by rival clan members. Cops are monitoring the proceedings closely. Inside the cemetery, the Turkish biker-gang members are called in as security by Erdem’s family members, to prevent Clan members from starting a fight in the cemetery. Nidal R’s funeral also saw a lot of police presence around the cemetery.

Marzahn, a neighbourhood in north-east Berlin, is known for its poverty and neo Nazi sympathisers. There have been many cases of neo Nazi sympathy across Germany, with the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) giving these members of the society some form of legitimacy thanks to its divisive politics. Thanks to the multi-culti nature of Berlin, situations do not go out of hand that explicitly in the capital. But just last August, and not very far from Berlin, in a town called Chemnitz, around 5,000 right wing supporters (some flashing the Nazi salute) called for the removal of immigrants from the city after it was alleged that two refugees were suspected of murdering a local. So yes, certain parts of Germany are boiling hot and situations can escalate before you can say the word escalate.

Murad, who is an upcoming rapper impressed by the gangsta lifestyle and wants to rap about his neighbourhood Kaiserwarte (a fictional place by the way, but can draw parallels to many Berlin neighbourhoods, or Kiez as they are called in Berlin), also has a real-life parallel. It is none other than the actor essaying the role of the buff, mean Hakim Tarik-Amir — Sinan-G. He was a rapper in real life who also served a three-year prison sentence in 2007.

Series maker Christian Alvart has showcased Berlin with all its warts and moles. You will either love Dogs of Berlin, or hate it. I doubt there is a middle path. But if you want a break from all the spy thriller and historical dramas that Berlin-as-a-setting is renowned for, do give Dogs of Berlin a try.

There is no news if Dogs of Berlin is slated for a second season, but I, for one, would not mind it at all. There are, in fact, many take off points from the first season to justify a second outing. But we shall wait for an official word on the matter from Netflix.

Also, if Dark and Dogs of Berlin are any indicators, Netflix should indeed get more German original content on its platform.

All images from YouTube.

Updated Date: Feb 06, 2019 09:49:49 IST

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