For those of us who lived through the ’80s and the paranoia that nuclear war was imminent, it’s no consolation to learn that the feeling was mutual on the other side.
In the opening scene of SundanceTV’s “Deutschland 83”, East German agents nervously watch Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and worry about an American first strike. This is how wars happen, with each side assuming the worst of the other and feeling pressured to act first. As another East German says later in the series, quoting Chekhov, “Don’t put a rifle on stage if you’re not going to fire it.” And there were a lot of rifles on stage in 1983.
“Deutschland 83,” a German TV series created by the husband and wife team of Anna and Jorg Winger, plays off that sense of mutual nervousness in giving us an antihero — a young East German spy who has infiltrated the West. Comparison’s to FX’s “The Americans” abound, but young Martin (Jonas Nay) earns our sympathies even as he’s responsible for some terrible things, because he’s idealistic and thinks he’s doing good. This is not a story of good vs. evil, but of two sides who don’t understand each other, don’t trust each other, and could blunder into Armageddon if they’re not very careful.
Martin is basically kidnapped by his spymaster aunt (a chilling Maria Schrader) and sent to West Germany, where, under the tutelage of a debonair Bonn professor and East German agent (Alexander Byer), he’s tasked with impersonating the aide to a West German general (Ulrich Noethen). He feeds information on NATO strategies back to the Stasi in East Berlin.
“Deutschland 83” is an enjoyably odd series in the way it mixes Cold War paranoid and ’80s pop culture, the slinky synth of Eurythmics and snap of The Police playing as background music to Martin’s espionage. (The lyrics to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” make for a great joke in the third episode.) The ’80s spy tech Martin uses is delightfully clunky; his superiors stare at a “floppy disc” as if it might bite them, and his wonderment at the luxuries of the West (the discovery of the Walkman sends him into rapturous delight) is good for a few chuckles.
Just when we’re lulled by the Reagan-era kitsch, “Deutschland 83” suddenly twists the knife on us, as Martin’s subterfuge has real-world consequences on those around him. The fate of a NATO secretary who falls for his youthful charm is particularly tragic, and, back home, his girlfriend is spying on his ailing mother, who may be smuggling black-market books behind the Iron Curtain. As fun as “Deutschland 83” is along the way, we can’t see how any of this turns out well for anybody.
Of course, we know that the Wall is just a few years from falling, and none of this will matter in the end. But that only makes the moral corruption of Martin more tragic, not less. There are rumors that the Wingers might do two more series, one just before German reunification and one after. If so, I’m looking forward to more thrills and twists as the Wall comes down, likely as Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now” plays on the soundtrack.