by ALEX CARNEVALE
creators Anna Winger & Joerg Winger
Germany in 1983 was a very special time and place to be a part of. Sundance Channel’s Deutschland 83 begins where last season of The Americans ended — Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech. No one takes Reagan the least bit seriously in East Germany, if they could even watch the speech, which was mostly about the evil of women aborting their children. Enlisted East German soldier Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) has bigger problems: a blonde named Annette (Sonja Gerhardt) whose sexuality is a beacon in this grim time.
Martin doesn’t take communism very seriously. Annette is more devoted to the cause. When she finds some banned books in the house of Martin’s mother, she immediately takes them to the Stasi. “That’s a good book,” Walter Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth) tells her upon seeing a paperback copy of 1984. “But it’s not permitted in East Germany.”
Martin is deployed by the Stasi as an aide to a West German general named Edel (Ulrich Noethen), the disobedient son of a Nazi officer. Edel is the real hero of Deutschland 83, a man trying to unite his country in a good faith democracy and turn back the communists. Every single person around him, from his wacky wife, to his commune-residing daughter, to his turncoat son Alexander (Ludwig Trepte), seems focused on impeding that goal.
Martin is not much of a spy. At an important NATO meeting he is almost killed by an American operative. His sloppy work leads to a floppy disk no East German computer can access. Tasked with seducing the secretary of a NATO representative, Martin can’t bring himself to let her drown when a cleaning lady finds a microphone he has placed under her desk. (Another agent runs her over with a car.) It is precisely because Martin is so goofy that the West Germans don’t suspect he is endangering all their lives.
Nay only has three or four main facial expressions, but he vacillates between them at a moment’s notice. He is blackmailed into his service by his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader), who insists that his mother will be moved up on the kidney transplant list through his continued service with the Stasi. Martin continues his work even after his mother gets his own kidney, recognizing that he is in too deep with these people to simply abscond.
Filming Deutschland 83 in the native language of the period adds a lot to the diegesis. The German language is gorgeous and practical in the right tones, but screeching and inhuman when elevated through anger or pain. Unlike English, it very quickly ceases to make sense when stress is put on it — a facile metaphor for Germany’s national character in the late part of the 20th century.
Deutschland 83 presents a nuanced view of the country. No one comes across very bad: the worst thing you can be in a serious time is silly, and no one has ever accused the Stasi of that. There is a lot of humor here, but it is always a broader comedy, never at the expense of the individuals involved. The German state is ridiculous — the people that comprise it are only doing their best.
The husband-and-wife team behind Deutschland 83 marches the German versions of 80s music over the proceedings like it is the first time anyone has thought of using “Boys Don’t Cry” ironically. It’s actually the millionth time, but there is a certain triumph in the innocence of Deutschland 83 — nothing here is especially new, but the series doesn’t do its viewers the insult of assuming you have seen and heard it all before. It is more important to be in the spirit of a period that may have never really existed, than to get it all down right.
Despite the fact that he believes she is carrying his child, Martin becomes disillusioned with Annette. Instead he begins a relationship with General Edel’s daughter Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky). Yvonne is a backup singer who has escaped her society by taking up with the nonviolent Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh worshippers. She is the most beautiful thing in the entire world, so it is not a surprise that Martin is drawn to her after his fourth or fifth murder.
While the music and dialogue might feel a bit familiar, the wonderful sets, striking color and wildy different scenarios of Deutschland 83 all add up to an experience not previously possible in television. The series brings a sense of absurd fun to historical events that has evaporated from dull jaunts like The Hour and Aquarius. There is really nowhere to go with the show from here except to explore darker and more horrifying avenues, and that may ruin it. The Wingers seem intent on preserving the history itself, reminding us that it is more important to remember things as they were, before going on and on about why they ceased to exist.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Unstoppable” – Lianne La Havas (mp3)
“Green and Gold” – Lianne La Havas (mp3)