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Bombed-out Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War provides the grim, gripping backdrop to The Defeated (Netflix). This brutally efficient whodunnit is set in a city where nearly everyone is guilty of something – whether that be a Nazi past in the case of the Germans or rape, indiscriminate violence and looting on the part of many of the Allied occupiers.
A thriller unfolding in the shadow of Europe’s apocalypse, The Defeated plays out like True Detective crossed with Laurence Olivier’s The World at War. But even the cruellest capers require a hero. And in the eight-part series’s noir-ish Neverland of burned-out buildings and scorched-earth morality, one of the few unambiguously upstanding characters is, inevitably, a square-jawed American.
Max McLaughlin (Taylor Kitsch) is a Brooklyn detective reassigned to the US part of the occupation zone, where it bumps up against territory claimed by trigger-happy Soviets. His orders are to lend his expertise to the fledgling police force headed by former school teacher Elsie (Nina Hoss, a star in Germany and best known to English-speaking audiences from Homeland).
Kitsch was once regarded as a future Hollywood A-lister. Yet for all his matinee idol looks, he has a soul of purest ham. That was fine in TV shows such as Friday Night Lights. However, it became an issue when he was required to shoulder would-be blockbusters such as John Carter and Battleship.
In The Defeated his B-movie cheesiness hits the spot. It helps that the story is spun from purest pulp. As they strike up an uneasy chemistry, Max and Elsie quickly realise the biggest threat to law and order is not the Soviet occupation but a local crime lord. He’s a shadowy mobster referred to by Berliners as Engelmacher, or “Angel Maker” (played by Sebastian Koch, from The Lives of Others and Bridge of Spies).
“Angel Maker” is German slang for a provider of back-street abortions. With more than 100,000 rapes estimated to have been committed after the fall of Berlin, the Engelmacher is exploiting human misery on a near industrial scale. Women seeking his services are required in return to do his bidding – whether that be committing crimes of revenge against occupiers or becoming prostitutes.
The Defeated is a German-Canadian collaboration and originally aired in Germany last October (under the murkier, Joy Division-inspired title of Shadowplay). For a non-Hollywood production it is lavish.
Alongside Kitsch, if features big names such as Michael C Hall, as Max’s American commander, Tom Franklin, and Tuppence Middleton, as Franklin’s flirtatious wife. Perhaps the most impressive casting of all is Berlin itself, recreated brick-by-brick in an old Soviet sugar factory outside Prague.
With the mass rape of Germans one of the historical themes, the tone is certainly bleak. There’s an equally dark subplot in which Max’s GI brother, Moritz (Logan Marshall-Green), goes rogue and embarks on a revenge mission against former Concentration Camp guards.
As with Weimar Republic romp Babylon Berlin, The Defeated’s most notable quality is the German perspective it brings to familiar history. The unrelenting gloom is meanwhile likely to strike a winning register with fans of Scandi noir (The Defeated is from the producers behind Scandi classic The Bridge). There’s little humour or light relief. But The Defeated serves up a new twist on the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, and weaves in a compelling mystery to boot.