by Giles Gough
Historical crime drama The Defeated was released last August on Netflix, making comparatively few ripples in the pop culture pond. But this show generously rewards viewer’s attention.
Set in Berlin in 1946, Taylor Kitsch stars as Max, a Brooklyn cop sent to one of the most deprived police precincts in Berlin’s American sector. Tasked with the job of turning this sincere but severely inexperienced group of people into a coherent police force, Max has another reason for coming to Berlin – his brother, a soldier in the US army, has gone missing and he has to track down his whereabouts. Nina Hoss plays Elsie Garten, a semiotics professor turned police superintendent who sets her team to catching the ‘engel-macher’ (the angel-maker), a crime lord who performs under the table abortions in exchange for unquestioning loyalty from his patients. To top it all off, a series of grisly murders keep happening that go largely unnoticed by all but Max.
A show set in the ruins of post-war Berlin was never going to be a super optimistic, but it would be hard for anyone to be prepared for the levels of moral ambiguity present in this show. Set right after the war, Berlin was split into four sectors, British, French, American and Soviet, and it’s fair to say that the justice you received for any injury was decided by just how big an army you had to back you up. So for the unscrupulous, many of the German people were easy targets. Germans were not permitted to carry guns, so the police are armed only with wooden table legs and in a city where lawlessness runs rife, only the worst crimes can be investigated.
The casting is, from start to finish, exceptional. It is led by Taylor Kitsch, who has not always had the easiest time of it in his career. Two big box office bombs in quick succession stunted his career more than they had any right to, so seeing him excel in a leading man role feels like a victory for everyone who has been following him since Friday Night Lights. True, his Brooklyn accent feels a little affected at first, but it either gets better, or you get used to it.
Produced by Björn Stein and Måns Mårlind, the same creative team who made The Bridge, this show does a great job of spinning a lot of plates. It’s only on reflection that you remember there’s a hunt for a criminal mastermind, a serial killer whose victims don’t always inspire much sympathy and a story about political corruption all happening at once. But the plot thread that perhaps sticks in the mind the most is that of Karin, deftly played by German actor Mala Emde. Seeing a young woman who is a victim of a brutal assault be twisted and contorted into an instrument of destruction by the people who are supposed to be helping her, produces lines you won’t forget. ‘You’re only a whore if you have a choice’, sums up the level of cold-blooded exploitation.
Netflix have clearly spent a lot of money on the show, and just occasionally that can be a stumbling block. The gritty subject matter is occasionally at odds with the beautiful lit scenes, gliding camera moves and the movie star handsomeness of much of the cast. But these criticisms are fleeting. Not since the end of the first season of The Wire has a victory felt so much like a defeat, leaving you quietly grateful that season two is coming and the promise of a resolution. The Defeated is absolutely compelling viewing, providing a glimpse into a world largely ignored by TV and film, that will have you furiously pressing the ‘play next episode’ button.
The Defeated is available on Netflix now.