• The wondrous delights of the western supermarket confronts the soldier from East Germany. (SBS)Source: SBS
Germany isn't known for big-budget premium TV shows, but that is set to change with new spy drama Deutschland 83.
1 Feb 2017 - 1:18 PM  UPDATED 2 Feb 2017 - 12:25 PM

Infused with a compelling mix of spy drama and great new-wave 80s pop music, Deutschland 83 is the story of a young East German soldier confronted with the freedoms of the West while working as a spy during the Cold War in the 1980s. 

A co-production between the US and Germany, it’s been hailed as a critical success, picking up a coveted Peabody Award, and a commercial smash when it aired in the UK last year - it soon became the most popular foreign-language drama in British television history.

Like US drama The Americans, another acclaimed 80s-set drama to which Deutschland 83 has been favourably compared, it positions the viewer on the side of the ostensible bad guy.

The main character in this, Martin (Jonas Nay), is a young man living in East Germany who has only known his country as one divided in two by the Berlin Wall. 

While he works as a border guard, it would be a stretch to describe him as a true believer in the ways of what US President Ronald Reagan infamously dubbed the ‘Evil Empire’.

But he is susceptible to being recruited as a spy by his cold-blooded, brilliantly manipulative aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader), an agent of East German intelligence agency the Stasi.

Patriotism plays a small role in Martin’s willingness to take part, but Lenora promising to fast-track medical treatment for Martin’s sick mother is a much greater incentive.

One crash-course in trade-craft later, and Martin is smuggled across the border to pose as Moritz, the assistant to a high-ranking NATO officer on a West German military base. (What happened to the actual Moritz? Don’t ask.)

The abundant and decadent delights of the West dazzle Martin, who is stunned by the array of products lining supermarket shelves.

But he has a job to do – after all, Lenore has briefed him about the build-up of American missiles on European soil, which many observers of world affairs at the time viewed as the closest world superpowers had come to a nuclear face-off since the Cuban Missile Crisis two decades earlier.

So, Martin-as-Moritz works alongside General Edel (Ulrich Noethen) and secretly tries to gather as much info as he can on NATO’s next moves.

But he also finds himself becoming increasingly entangled with his boss’ home life, especially Edel’s activist son Alex (Ludwig Trepte) and rebellious daughter Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky).

Deutschland 83’s approach to the personal and professional tolls espionage can take on the ‘assets’ who undertake it is a little pulpier than, say the works of John le Carre or The Americans.

But its social commentary on life on both sides of the German ideological divide – the grimness of the East, where any small act of subversion has an illicit kick; the seductiveness of the West, where life is seemingly so much easier – has the ring of authenticity.

Husband-and-wife team Joerg and Anna Winger (he’s German, she’s half-American, half-British) draw upon actual incident and extensive research to bring the story together.

“The privilege of writing about the 1980s is that it wasn’t that long ago and the people who were involved in it are still alive,” says Anna Winger.

“We interviewed politicians, people in intelligence, diplomats and also just regular people about their experiences. Also, everyone who worked on the project brought personal memories of that time to it.

If ever we didn’t know something, there was always someone to ask. Everyone working on the show, from the directors, to writers to actors and to crew brought so much of themselves into it. It was a very intimate project, very collaborative. The story just got richer and richer with everybody’s input.”

Deutschland 83 airs on SBS at 8:30pm Thursday nights starting 9 February.

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