German spy drama Deutschland 83 hits the ground running, throwing both audiences and its newbie spy lead in at the deep end of its Cold War culture shock. Here’s what you need to know from the first two episodes to get you up to speed.
Ronald Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech is a great place to start when thinking about a cold war thriller like Deutschland 83. The then-president laid out his view of the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union: the US was good, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies were bad, and he – and by implication, the entire West – would not rest until they were defeated. Deutschland 83 opens with East German intelligence agent Lenora (Maria Schrader) watching the speech on television from her office in the West German capital of Bonn. In her eyes it’s as good as a declaration of war, and she’s got her counter-strike all planned.
While Lenora is the kind of long-term committed spymaster we’re used to seeing in thrillers, her nephew – and the focus of this series – is not: Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is a 24 year old East German military officer working at a border crossing amusing himself by scaring Western students trying to smuggle home cheap black market Shakespeare. He has a sickly single mother, a girlfriend he adores, and a life he’s obviously perfectly happy with. So when his aunt Lenora turns up, he’s not exactly thrilled about the dangerous new job she’s dangling under his nose.
President Reagan is backing up his hard talk by deploying Pershing II missiles on West German soil, and West German General Edel (Ulrich Noethen) is a key part of the operation. He’s currently waiting for his new aide-de-camp Moritz Stamm to arrive, and Lenora wants Martin to take Moritz’ place. Turns out Lenora isn’t above exploiting her sister’s illness to get what she wants (Rauch family gatherings must be a laff riot), and if Martin says yes Lenora will get his mother into a special hospital where they have the Western drugs needed for a much-needed kidney transplant. And just in case Lenora didn’t seem quite evil enough, when Martin finishes his espionage job interview she watches as they mangle his fingers – turns out the real Moritz is a decent piano player and they don’t have time for Martin to pick up the skill.
The real drama once Martin wakes up in the west after a cup of knockout tea – by the way, RIP the real Moritz – comes when he has to break into the general’s office and photograph a bunch of top secret documents. But before that there’s time enough for him to hide out from his handlers in the seemingly insane excess of a West German supermarket.
Having the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” playing might seem a little on the nose, but what’s pop music for if not to express our innermost feelings? Martin initially seems too much a product of the East German system to be lured by the temptations of the west – mostly what’s driving him is his desire to get back and see his girlfriend Annett (Sonja Gerhardt), which causes a few problems when he can’t stop himself from phoning her up – but he’s a young man dropped into a world of previously unimaginable delights. How could anything possibly go wrong?
Martin hasn’t exactly improved as a spy in the second hour, but that’s hardly his fault when he’s meant to have somehow leveled up to bug planting and safe cracking. Despite his flailing about – has any other spy had so many things go wrong during his missions and made it out with his cover intact? - we’re starting to get a few hints that he might actually be good at this whole espionage thing. While his very first scene in the series involved him successfully putting on an act, now he’s constantly having various dangerous and cover-blowing situations thrown at him and he’s keeping his cool throughout. Well, at least until he’s forced into a knock-down, drag-out fight with a sexy assassin: the stakes might be high (the Cold War clips in the opening credits drive that home), but Deutschland 83 is entertainment, not a lecture and the spy action is as much fun (well, Mission: Impossible kind of fun) as it is serious.
While his big spy missions are an immediate source of tension, developments with General Edel’s family start to suggest some long-term problems. Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky) is off living the commune life, but bursts into tears when Martin says her mother’s worried about her. It’s a good speech, but not that good: her commitment to the commune might be a bit shaky. Meanwhile her brother Alex (Ludwig Trepte) is juggling serving in the military with attending peace marches, which is not a combination that usually works out well. And back in East Germany, Annett is skinny-dipping with a hunky new friend, so of course Lenora all but shoves her into taking a job looking after Martin’s mother – can’t have that all-important leverage coming loose now.
This kind of retro series has to walk a fine line: part of the fun comes from seeing all the old gadgets and decorations of the past, but having the characters draw attention to what would be perfectly average to them would shatter the illusion. Deutschland 83’s big advantage is that pretty much everything Martin sees in the West seems as strange to him as it does to us. This time around it’s the basics of hotels in the west that’s got him puzzled. Billing meals to your room? No wonder he takes the waitress asking him his room number as some kind of extremely blunt come on. After all, he is now an international super-spy: these kind of things happen to them all the time.
Deutschland 83 airs every Thursday night at 8:30pm. You can stream previous episodes of the show on SBS On Demand: