It’s no small thing that we hear Nena’s 99 Luftballons during two separate scenes in ‘Quantum Jump,’ the first episode of German drama series, Deutschland 83. Firstly, it’s the backdrop to a birthday party in East Germany. Young people dance and sing along. Later, it features more sedately, at an army barracks cafeteria in the West, where an officer rightly observes, “This song is playing everywhere.”
99 Luftballons (later released in an English version as 99 Red Balloons) is a protest song. It appeared at the height of Cold War anxieties, written after Nena’s guitarist saw balloons released in the sky at a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin and imagined them as aircraft slipping over the Berlin Wall into Soviet territory. Thematically, the song evokes the sense of panic and danger one misplaced balloon – as a more poetic stand-in for a missile – might cause, and how precariously the world’s peace was balanced during this time.
Deutschland 83’s protagonist, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) – a 24-year-old East German border patrol guard sent on a spy mission into the West in 1983 – is like one of these balloons. Set loose by the Stasi on the other side of the wall he has no real idea of what awaits him in his new West German identity as Moritz Stamm, the aide-de-camp, to Major General Edel. When he first arrives he’s disoriented by the differences he sees. Finding himself in a supermarket, he’s overwhelmed by the choice. As Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by Eurythmics plays, he stands dumbstruck before the bright, abundance of the fruit and vegetable display. He’s lived his entire life in the East. The plenty of this sweet dream is almost a nightmare.
Through Martin, Deutschland 83 exposes the cracks in the Berlin Wall. East Germany was effectively a totalitarian police state, shaped by fear and daily compromises. Deprivations were both economic and cultural, and influences from the West were blocked. Deutschland 83 plays with the idea of freedom from its opening scenes, when Martin and a colleague detain two East German university students who have purchased a volume of Shakespeare’s plays on the black market. Martin lectures them, “The greatest privilege of socialism is freedom,” but he doesn’t mean freedom of thought, so much as freedom from the enslaving greed of capitalism.
Any yearning for ideas was deemed harmful to the regime, especially if they were ideas critical of the Communist ideology on which the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was built. Along with books and journalism, popular cultural products like film, television, and music were routinely censored. Pop music, with its language of freedom and ‘indecency’ was especially suspect – inside the GDR, song lyrics could have a corrupting effect, wilfully used by Americans to weaken and degrade youth.
Deutschland 83 makes its argument against this state of affairs, in part, with its soundtrack. In addition to Nena, the series features other homegrown classics, including Peter Schilling’s ‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’ over its opening credits, and music from GDR rock acts City, Metropol, and Puhdys. But the influence of music beyond German borders also creeps in. Alongside Eurythmics, the soundtrack reflects the diversity of the early part of the decade – The Cure, David Bowie, The Police, Duran Duran, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Tyler, Tears for Fears, Grace Jones, Billy Idol, and ZZ Top.
Music is part of Martin’s journey of discovery, but it’s also employed more slyly. The music of the 1980s, often maligned, yet now nostalgically revered, flies a flag against conformity. With its multi-coloured tribes, it provided fans with a real sense of community and connection. Whether you were a Goth, a punk, or a mod, you knew who your people were. It’s easy to see why, in a culture that demanded obedience and sameness, that asked its citizens to spy and report on one another, pop music had the potential to rip the whole socialist enterprise apart.
Deutschland 83’s first episode ends as Martin runs deeper into the darkness, in a scene scored by arguably the greatest song released in 1983, New Order’s ‘Blue Monday.’ You can’t help thinking he’s running towards its hypnotic beats and the dance floor.
Experience Deutschland 83 on Thursday nights on SBS with double episodes on Thusdays from 8:30pm. Or catch up with the show, streaming on SBS On Demand: