There are very few television shows which can get me hooked simply from the title card, but Deutschland 83 is my new addiction.
When it comes to world cinema and television, Germany seems to have no other history except for World War II. This became even more profound with the highly controversial Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (English Title: Generation War) which divided historians and couch-critics like never before. It’s not helped with Amazon’s newest boat-rocker, The Man in High Castle and the upcoming TV miniseries, SS-GB. And even when it’s Germany in the Cold War, it’s still about the Nazis (looking you, The Man from U.N.C.L.E).
Germany, as it seems, has a vacuum in history from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War. At least, according to television.
The brainchild of husband and wife team, Jörg and Anna Winger, Deutschland 83 is newest spy show to hit our screens, and it is one that can only get better.
The first German-language television show to air on any US television network, Deutschland 83 is set in… you guessed it, 1983, and follows East German border guard, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay of Homevideo fame), as he is forced to spy on the West for State Security, also known as the ‘Stasi’. The eight-episode series is sleek and smart, and has plenty of room to move in one of the most interesting periods of the Cold War period.
Set in during one of Germany’s most tumultuous involvement in the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Eastern Bloc, Deutschland 83 portrays Cold War Germany in a way that the West doesn’t like to acknowledge: relatively normal.
The Berlin Wall has been built and life goes on, and that, by itself, is terrifying in a way where you find yourself uncomfortable at how uncanny it is. Through the lens of history, we often forget that life can go on, and that is something which Deutschland 83 forces us to remember, however much we don’t want to. With our introduction to East Germany being a sunny lunch party for Martin’s mother, Ingrid, and the booming of ’99 Luftballons’ over the television, we are given the comfort of a carefree GDR, far removed from the barbed wire and Stasi terror we are used to seeing. Light moments are produced by the trivialities of the East. Dry humour in amidst serious situations often helps us to remember the normality of daily life.
Every episode of Deutschland 83 is watching Martin taking a turn in Russian Roulette.
Posing as the aide-de-camp of Bundeswehr General Edel (Ulrich Noethen), Martin’s hasty training by under undercover agent Professor Tischbier (Alexander Beyer) after his kidnapping from East to West Germany allows for well-orchestrated high-tension drama. With a pregnant fiancé and terminally ill mother back home, Martin has no alternative but to strafe the minefield of Cold War politics.
Watching a Cold War drama, our perception might automatically assume that Martin would be a willing officer for the Stasi, but Martin’s reliability echoes the dubious nature of a military upbringing in East Germany. Although his boss, Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth) might ask him whether he is prepared to sacrifice everything to the GDR, and Martin agrees with blind allegiance, it soon becomes clear to Martin that the realities of life outside alters his perception of the world – violently and abruptly. Deutschland 83 is not afraid to criticise youthful bravado, whether that is in the military or through political involvement.
As Martin becomes Lieutenant Mortiz Stamm of the Bundeswehr, we are treated to how masterfully Nay illustrates the human experience of wonder. His initial shock and subsequent cautiousness on his first visit to a West German supermarket wearing branded clothing allows us to experience the overwhelming nature of the world outside the East. Later, his fascination with the Walkman, despite having access to micro-cameras and radio-transmitting bugging equipment, his childish bouncing on a soft hotel bed, and his cluelessness at how to order at a formal restaurant is endearing, but reminds us of the true discordance between the East and the West.
Both directors, Edward Berger and Samira Radsi, use colour in Deutschland 83 which is unlike any other Cold War drama. While our expectations of the GDR would be pride in the red flag with the hammer and sickle, East Germany has just as many colours as the West, only subdued. Muted tones and desaturated washes help to drain some life from the GDR whilst bright and loud colours help to represent the vibrance of West German society.
Deutschland 83 eases us into Martin’s world with each episode raising the stakes higher and higher but never loses its human edge.
The show forces us to consider what most espionage shows fail to master: the portrayal of the isolated world of a spy. As Martin experiences his personal disasters, losses and challenges, Nay does an excellent job of Martin’s desperate attempts to connect, to someone or something. Deutschland 83 forces us to suffer with Martin as he struggles through each day, subjected entirely to the will of the Stasi. His loneliness is exacerbated by his distance from his fiancé, Annett (Sonja Gerhardt) and his initial attempts to contact her which sets a harsh lesson for him for the rest of the series, especially by the aunt who conscripted him, Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader).
As Martin navigates each challenge, Nay has the slightest of movements which alter the direction of the scene. Whilst those waiting for the next exciting peak may miss them, much of the show is dependent upon the subtlety of Martin’s reactions as thinly-veiled expressions would have obvious consequences: after all, he is a spy. This is closely reflected by Schrader’s stellar performance as Lenora, who delivers the heavy-handed authority of the show with her chain-smoking chameleon capabilities.
Deutschland 83 is not a show of bravado with hard negotiators and swanky politicians: it is the dry reality and humour of Cold War negotiations.
Whilst I find General Edel’s rebellious son, Alexander (Ludwig Trepte, who happens to be in Unsere Mütter, unsere Voter), and his Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult daughter, Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky) to be generally intolerable, their presence alongside Edel’s wife, Ursula (Anna von Berg) reminds us of the humans involved in the Cold War crisis, and its impact upon the home front. We are not treated to sweeping views of the White House or the Reichstag, nor are we subjected to shady backroom deals. We are given table-top military meetings without excitement – as it should be.
There are few pitfalls to Deutschland 83. Some viewers may view Yvonne’s flimsy character along with Trepte’s disastrous overacting for Alexander’s fits of fury as being a sign of bad quality in the show, but these are things which can easily be fixed in future seasons. A smart script is sometimes challenged by television tropes: ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ by the Eurythmics was not the only song in existence during the 80s, nor was ’99 Luftballons’.
With Nay at the helm, a more than capable cast and wonderfully talented Anna Winger as script writer, I am waiting for Season 2 of Deutschland 83.
Directed by: Edward Berger, Samira Radsi
Screenplay: Anna Winger
Starring: Jonas Nay, Ludwig Trepte, Maria Schrader, Ulrich Noethen, Sylvester Groth, Alexander Beyer
Watch it: RTL Deutschland, Thursdays at 20:15