History books can often be the ultimate spoilers for television’s period pieces, be it AMC’s Mad Men or FX’s The Americans.
In Deutschland 83, an eight-part program airing on SundanceTV and set in Germany in 1983, warheads are poised and aimed at other countries in a worldwide standoff while Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” is droning on the supermarket speakers.
The Berlin Wall is still standing and the communist East and capitalist West Germany couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. The threat of mutually assured destruction makes everyone exceptionally paranoid, and the real-life history hardly defuses any tension.
The show’s protagonist, Martin, (played by Jonas Nay) is a 24-year-old, sleepy-eyed worker for the East German military who has an encyclopedic predilection for soccer and playing chess. He’s planted in a West German military base to serve as the general’s right-hand man and gather information on NATO’s plans to deploy missiles.
His aunt Lenora, an ice-cold operative in the Stasi secret police, who bribes him with the incentive that, if he complies, his mother (her sister) will be pushed up the hospital’s kidney transplant list.
Upon being tossed across the Iron Curtain, Martin is bombarded with an assault of new information in a beautifully disorienting montage. He’s taught how to adjust to life in the west and not blow his cover, including how to pick locks; how to read texts upside down and what to call oranges, deodorant and hairspray.
“From now on, you eat Brötchen not Schrippen for breakfast,” he’s told. “Plaste is called Plastik and the Kaufhalle is called Supermarkt.” For those who aren’t partial to reading the screen while you watch TV, this miniseries is, naturally, subtitled in German.
It’s easy to peg the series as the other side of the coin to FX’s The Americans, which depicts Soviet spies posing as Americans during the Cold War, but Martin is no ultra-competent spy the likes of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. Martin still fumbles with his tasks and makes missteps in other tricks of the spy trade. He remains self-serious while on assignment, but his youth still shines through when he hears Duran Duran through a Walkmen and gushes.
When he tries to run away, he finds himself in a West German supermarkt, filled with canned goods and produce (bananas were non-existent in East Germany). The desolate aisles are filmed with immaculate and daunting symmetry. The pacing and elegant visualization of Deutschland 83 is comparable to the likes of a Martin Scorsese production.
While adjusting to his digs in the west, Martin gets to better know his war general boss, as well as his angelic daughter and defiantly pacifist son. For them, it’s not the global conflict that will be their undoing, but the war they’re fighting at home.
This is the heart of what makes Deutschland 83 so charming and human. There aren’t any proper villains here; even the most intimidating characters are just looking for a semblance of relief in these volatile circumstances.
The show premiered on SundanceTV on June 17. Its pilot episode, “Quantum Jump,” is available for free on iTunes. Wunderbar!
This story was originally published for The Daily Emerald on Aug. 6, 2015 at http://www.dailyemerald.com/2015/08/06/of-spies-and-men-deutschland-83-is-wunderbar/
More stories I’ve written for the Emerald can be found here.