‘Deutschland 83’ on SundanceTV – Review

Martin (Jonas Nay) with Tante Lenora (Maria Schrader)

By Jonathan Spira on 19 June 2015
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“Deutschland 83” premiered on SundanceTV this past Wednesday. If you liked “Good Bye, Lenin” and “The Lives of Others,” you will not want to miss a single episode of this eight-part summer miniseries.

Once past the overly Americanized pronunciation of the title by the Sundance announcer, we meet Martin (Jonas Nay), a 24-year-old East German soldier who is spirited away from a comfortable position as a border guard at the Friedrichstraße station and turned against his will into a Stasi spy living in the west.  His assignment is not for the faint of heart: he is to assume another soldier’s identity and become an aide to a key West German general.

If you liked Germany in the 80s (that’s when I lived there while at University), you’ll feel comfortable here. Nena’s 99 Luftballons, an anti-war protest song, had just been released and leaders on both sides of the Cold War were spouting scary rhetoric.

Martin’s new assignment in the HVA, an elite unit in the Stasi or East German secret police, isn’t of his own choosing. His controlling and manipulative Stasi agent aunt Lenora, played brilliantly by Maria Schrader, is not above using her own sister – Martin’s mother, who is on dialysis and in need of a kidney transplant – as a bargaining chip to keep him in the west. Once in the west, he meets his handler, Tobias Tischbier (played by Alexander Beyer of “Good Bye, Lenin!” fame) who trains him in passing secret documents and picking secure locks.

Just as East Germans marveled at what supermarkets in the West offered once the Berlin Wall fell, Martin is overwhelmed by his first visit to a West German supermarket. The buttons on the base’s telephone system are baffling and overwhelming. It’s here that the series excels at highlighting the divide between East Germans and West Germans in the years leading up to the fall of the wall, something that is rarely depicted in American television.

While there are many lighthearted moments, having the luxury of being three decades past what was then a critical moment in the Cold War, a time threatening a missile conflagration gives the series a refreshing perspective. “On your maps, Russia may be very far away,” Martin’s new commanding officer tells a visiting German-speaking American general, “but it’s as close to Bonn as, say, Ohio is to D.C. The fallout alone would destroy us.”

“Deutschland 83” is innovative in other ways, too. It may very well be the first German-language production targeted to a U.S. audience and it’s going to be broadcast in Germany by RTL as well. Stay tuned as 1983 is just beginning.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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