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In recent years, UK television audiences have been treated to an ever-increasing assortment of quality European drama. Scandinavia has spoiled us with the likes of Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing, while France has given us Spiral and Les Revenants, and Italy Inspector Montalbano, but Germany has been curiously unrepresented on our screens. Deutschland 83, screened on Channel 4 (as part of the launch of All 4’s new digital channel, Walter Presents) seeks to redress that imbalance.
Written by (German) husband and (American) wife team Jörg and Anna Winner, the series portrays Germany in 1983 as a microcosm of the tensions of the Cold War, a country divided into east and west, between the tenets of Russia and the US. The series possesses the bright slickness of The Bridge, though its main comparator is US drama The Americans. Both are set in the same period, under the spectres of Regan, Andropov and the threat of nuclear war, and both cover communism’s fight against capitalist ideologies. But unlike The Americans, in which deeply embedded and ideologically committed Russian spies infiltrate America, here we have a quite accidental hero pulled into a conflict against his will.
In a charismatic performance, Jonas Nay stars as Martin Rauch, a 24 year old who lives with his mother in east Germany, serving as a border guard. His days are spent on mundane tasks, such as confiscating books from students, who can get them cheaper on the other side of the wall. Although he is fully immersed in the principles of East Germany – allowing the students to “keep Marx, you might learn something”, while taking the rest – he is not portrayed as a militant. He represents, instead, the youth of the day, torn between two opposing generations, living under an atomic cloud that it seems could envelop the world at any moment, but with an utter lack of knowledge of the machinations behind the cold war machine.
His life changes as his stone-cold Stasi agent aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), drags him into an operation – he is less recruited than brutally kidnapped. Further “incentivised” / blackmailed with the promise of the kidney transplant his mother (Lenora’s sister) needs, he is spirited off for some minimal spy-craft training before being swiftly implanted in West Germany, taking over the identity of murdered west German soldier Moritz Stamm.
Taken from his own family and placed in the heart of another, he finds himself in a spy game he doesn’t know the rules to or the players in, a hapless innocent in a world of espionage. He works under General Wolfgang Edel (Ulrich Noethen) and rooms with Edel’s son, Alex (Ludwig Trepte), a soldier with a secret hankering for pacifism. The generational tensions simmer within this family, as Alex’s sister, Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky), a more overt peacenik than her brother, runs off to sing Bob Dylan songs in a rather tame commune, as an act of rebellion against her establishment upbringing.
After getting over the initial shock of his recruitment, our East German hero is quick to discover some of the joys of capitalism – he eats a burger, is transfixed by the choice on display at a local supermarket. The soundtrack, too, is light and fantastic, adding to the playful atmosphere: Nina’s 99 Red Balloons plays both east and west of the wall (in its original German, of course), supplemented with the Eurythmics, The Cure, Bowie, and other such 80s gems. There is, too, humour in this 1983 setting, in which state-of-the-art dimmer switches and TVs with three channels and a remote control are treated with awe. Fish-out-of water-tropes ensue as he is dazzled by free hand lotion in hotels and the choice of different kinds of steaks – at one stage we see him devouring a Toblerone with the kind of enthusiasm last seen by Alan Partridge during his unforgettable nervous breakdown.
Much of the charm and the tension of The Americans stems from the fact that everything is treated as having incredibly high stakes – all the characters are poker-faced even as they don yet another ridiculous wig and put on another pair of terrible 80s sunglasses; while it is utterly preposterous, it is played so straight, and is so macabre, that the viewer is forced to take it seriously. Deutschland 83 is the opposite – it is treated as straight but is increasingly preposterous. Similarly, while in the grey Washington of The Americans investigates themes of betrayal, double crossing and deceit, and how such actions can corrode a soul, such issues are sidestepped in this sunnier series in favour of fun – even as things go wrong, there is no terrible feeling of foreboding, no real worry that someone is going to face a gruesome death because they know too much.
Though Hausch is a complete novice at spycraft, and with nary a dodgy wig in sight to disguise him, luck nevertheless seems perpetually on his side. By the end of Episode 2, after pulling off a Bourne-style set piece, he seems completely at ease in his new world, and it looks as though Martin and we are set to have a blast.
Deutschland 83 in on Sunday nights at 9pm on Channel 4. Episodes are available to catch up with for free after their broadcast on All 4, as part of its new Walter Presents channel.
For more information on the full line-up of Walter Presents shows (many are are available as box sets for binge-watching), click here.