German television, to date a minor player on the international scene, has scored a coup with Deutschland 83. The series turns on a young East German spy who makes his way to the West under pressure from the communist authorities. The first episode has aired in the US.
Nena’s catchy anti-war anthem 99 Luftballons was constantly on the radio, telephones still had dials and the jeans looked odd by today’s standards – it was 1983 in Germany and the Cold War was a felt reality.
The new television series Deutschland 83 takes viewers back to the Germany of the 1980s – when it was still divided – and the Cold War was in fact escalating.
The series turns on a young East German soldier forced to go and spy in the West. It is being broadcast in the United States even before it goes out in Germany in what is seen as a rare coup for German television. Cable channel SundanceTV is airing the series.
“Fresh and entertaining” was the verdict of the New York Times. The series takes in the major locations like Bonn, Brussels and divided Berlin, but also the weather-beaten East German suburb of Kleinmachnow near Berlin.
It recalls the US spy series The Americans. The eight episodes are to be broadcast during prime time every Thursday evening in Germany by European company RTL. The main protagonist, Jonas Nay, 25, is being tipped for awards.
Deutschland 83’s storyline has the young East German soldier Martin Rauch (played by Nay) forced into service in the West German army by his cold-blooded aunt (played by Maria Schrader).
From this position Rauch is to spy on plans for the Pershing II nuclear-tipped medium-range missiles being deployed at the time, as well as on a NATO manoeuvres.
In return, the East German intelligence services have pledged to place his mother, Ingrid (played by Carina Wiese), on the list for a kidney transplant at East Berlin’s Charite hospital.
Rauch has to leave behind his girlfriend, played by Sonja Gerhardt, as he ends up in what is for him an alien world.
There are evocative scenes, as when he is confronted for the first time with the overladen shelves in a Western supermarket.
A university professor called Tobias Tischbier (played by Alexander Beyer), who is a fellow spy, shows him the ropes of living in West Germany and what a hamburger tastes like.
“Where do they hold the military parades here?” a puzzled Rauch asks when he visits Bonn, the deliberately low-key West German capital.
The young man, now called Moritz and equipped with the identity of a stranger, finds himself on an Odyssey. This is more than a spy story, rather a story of growing up.
The series plot is novelistic and dynamic, and viewers have to watch every episode to keep up, though towards the end, some of the twists prove unconvincing.
Authors Anna Winger and her husband Joerg Winger (producer of German television crime series SOKO Leipzig) have sketched the protagonists and their conflicts with care.
West German Army General Edel (played by Ulrich Noethen) has two children who have no intention of living up to their strict father’s expectations. The kind of rebellion ensues that many families have endured.
The Zeitgeist is everywhere on show, from the Bhagwan commune, to the legendary Udo Lindenberg concert in East Berlin, and Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl on television.
The soundtrack has the New Orders Hit Blue Monday, while both East and West are listening to Nena’s 99 Luftballons sung in German – the English version, 99 Red Balloons, came out in 1984.
The series was the brainchild of Anna Winger, a US citizen living in Berlin.
“When my husband was serving in the West German Army, he had to listen into the Russian troops in the Eastern state of Saxony. And the Russians used to greet the West German soldiers over the radio by name, because they were of course also listening in to them.”
The series provides a glimpse of life in both parts of divided Germany, with little nostalgia for either.
Nay was born in Luebeck, a northern coastal city just inside West Germany, but he is too young to be able to imagine a divided Germany.
“When my parents’ generation, who were represented on the filming team, told their stories, I listened with open eyes and ears,” he says. In the series, he is right where modern German history was made and becomes a hero.
Following its success, a sequel to Deutschland 83 is already in the planning.