With such sinister threats on a global front it almost seems “quaint” to look back at the Cold War of the 1980s when the West was on the brink of nuclear war with the East.
Of course there was nothing quaint about it. The arms race was a terrifying prospect and many lived and died in its looming shadow. But a third world war that ultimately failed to eventuate is the setting for Germany’s period drama, Deutschland 83.
This is an engrossing foreign-language drama told from the point of view of the East, and has become the first German-language drama to screen in the US on the Sundance channel. It’s not hard to see why.
The Berlin Wall serves as a great cultural divide between two Germanys in this 8 part drama. In East Germany under Communist rule, they listen to Nena’s 99 Luft Balloons, chain smoke and read Karl Marx. In West Germany life is coloured by Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Shakespeare, Toblerone and all kinds of grocery options.
The series opens with a broadcast of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, quoting C.S. Lewis view that evil is conducted in “clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”
It sets the tone of this intelligent, spy series. To infiltrate the plans of the West, East German Embassy’s Cultural Attache Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader) nominates her nephew, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) to become embedded with West German forces.
Like most loyal young soldiers, Martin would do just about anything for the State, but the idea of going undercover in the West, and leaving fiance Annett Schneider (Sonja Gerhardt) is a tall order. Lenora promises to put his ailing mother on dialysis treatment if he obliges. Reluctantly, he is thrust behind West German lines, under a new identity as Officer Moritz Stamm.
Suddenly young Martin finds himself as a spy in a foreign Germany, expected to collect intelligence on NATO plans to station Pershing II nuclear missiles in West Germany. All with next to no training.
Strategically placed as aide to General Edel (Ulrich Noethen) in the Bundeswehr, there are several scenes of Martin covertly trying to snatch state secrets under the noses of his ‘bosses’ -and plenty of tense near-misses.
His operatives warn him against the ways of the West, which “puts chemicals in food, no-one pays attention to you and they call it ‘Freedom.'”
Yet Martin is also curiously compelled by this intoxicating new life, where ordering steak comes with several options, where young students freely protest for peace at a local ashram and where the latest walkman puts pop music in your pocket.
Meanwhile back home girlfriend Annett doesn’t understand his sudden absence and is befriending a new beau, while Lenora manipulates her sister for her own political design.
Jonas Nay is captivating as the young Martin in a role requiring espionage and depth. He adroitly juggles a young man pursuing state directives whilst conflicted on a personal front. As his aunt, Maria Schrader impresses as a duplicitous figure pulling most of the strings.
As a period piece Deutschland 83 pulls back the (iron) curtain on a drab, brown-hued world and contrasts it with liberation and colour. Visually it makes the most of both Mad Men-style offices and sumptuous European buildings with chandeliers, ballrooms and Art Deco. And there are moody landscapes to boot.
Language barriers notwithstanding, it’s an engaging espionage drama with attention to detail, performed by a solid ensemble.
Not a bit lost in translation, this is a must-see.
Deutschland 83 begins Friday on Stan.