How did this sneak by? It’s a combo escapist spy story, engrossing soap opera, and historically accurate Cold War flashback to the time of Duran Duran and Blondie, produced in Germany with a great cast of young and/or unfamiliar actors. Sure, the expected unlikelihoods are there, but so is an essential authenticity. Great fun!
DVD (Season 1)
2015 / Color / 1:78 enhanced widescreen / 336 min. / Street Date September 29, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Jonas Nay, Maria Schrader, Sonja Gerhardt, Ulrich Noethen, Ludwig Trepte, Sylvester Groth, Alexander Beyer, Nikola Kastner, Errol Trotman Harewood, Godehard Giese.
Cinematography Philipp Haberlandt, Frank Küpper
Music Reinhold Heil
Written by Anna Winger
Produced by Joerg Winger, Nico Hoffman, Henriette Lippold
Directed by Edward Berger, Samira Radsi
This is something extraordinary, an exciting TV serial about the misadventures of an East German spy during a high point of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan’s buildup of nuclear missiles in West Germany. The first German-language TV series to air on a U.S. network (The Sundance Channel), this UfA Fiction- produced stunner brings the era to life in startling detail. The highest praise for Deutschland 83 comes from Germans that lived on both sides of the Berlin Wall during the Pershing II missile crisis: they say that the atmosphere, the details and even the way people talk is correct.
The show succeeds in exactly the same way that Mad Men succeeds: historical accuracy and period texture is everything. 1983 suddenly seems very hip indeed — the music, especially.
Although based on real events, and putting a premium on accurately recreating its time period, Deutschland 83 is still an escapist spy story. The young actors in the drama, all born after 1990, had to be brought up to speed on the reality of the old divided Berlin. The greatest praise must go to writer Anna Winger, who has come up with riveting characters, credible situations (for the most part), and a great sense of humor.
The show treats its ’80s soundtrack with loving care. The music score is by Peter Schilling, whose Major Tom is used as the title theme. Other tracks constitute a great collection of what was cool on the continent at this time, even with the East Germans. Much of it is techno-flavored, which is why I resisted it when it was new, but it works well blasting through on cassette walkmans and as transition cues. Where’s the soundtrack album?
It’s 1983, a season of high tension. East Germany is only a little less oppressive than it was twenty years earlier. The communist government realizes that it can’t fully suppress things like Rock ‘n’ Roll, although their police are just as tough as ever. Young border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) enjoys scaring teens that try to smuggle in Shakespeare books from the West. He’s devoted to his mother Ingrid (Carina N. Wiese), who is in need of a new kidney and not expecting one given the shortages and waiting lists on the Red side of the Berlin Wall. Martin’s Aunt Leora (Maria Schrader) is officially listed as a cultural attaché, but is actually a top agent for the East German spy organization, the HVA.
Martin has for his steady girlfriend the beautiful blonde Annett Schneider (Sonja Gerhardt), and so resists Aunt Lenora when she informs him that he is the perfect candidate to go on a spy mission to the West. Against his will, Martin finds himself in the West German army uniform of one Moritz Stamm, working as aide to the top NATO General Wolfgang Edel (Ulrich Noethen). The real Moritz Stamm has been murdered. Martin/Moritz’s contact is Tobias Tischbier (Alexander Beyer), a deep cover Stasi agent and a professor at the University of Bonn; he’s a big wheel in the West German pacifist movement.
To force Martin to play ball, Lenora and her associate Walter Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth) promise to move his mother Ingrid higher on the list for a kidney transplant. Martin’s mission is to steal a top-secret NATO plan. Ronald Reagan has moved Pershing II nuclear missiles into West Germany, a move that has destabilized the Balance of Terror and thrown East Berlin into a panic. The HVA is more or less taken over by a Russian KGB official, who insists that Reagan intends to attack the Soviet Union as soon as possible. The Russian quietly demands that all intelligence, including Martin’s reports, ‘agrees’ with the official line from Moscow.
Martin wants to stay loyal to Annett. But he’s instructed to seduce one woman, and also finds himself attracted to Yvonne Edel (Lisa Tomaschewsky), the General’s daughter. Her brother Alex Edel (Ludwig Trepte), also a soldier in his father’s command, is a confused rebel who associates with anti-war activists when he’s off-duty. Lenora and Walter target both Yvonne and Alex as potential conduits to compromise their father. Martin/Moritz goes after the NATO battle plan. Sooner or later he’s likely to be exposed as an imposter.
Deutschland 83 is a big step forward for Cold War spy thrillers. Enough time has elapsed that no German under thirty can remember living in a divided nation. The reunified country has given us terrific movies about 20th century history, offering new insights on the appalling, soul-crushing political climate that once prevailed in East Germany — The Tunnel, The Lives of Others.
Martin Rauch is very much a hero. If it seems unlikely that a solitary East German agent could defuse a world-threatening nuclear standoff, then one needs to look up the Russian soldier Stanislav Petrov, recently lauded in the Kevin Costner cable movie The Man Who Saved the World.
Deutschland 83 is critical of all sides in the conflict. The Americans are bullying the West Germans with their Reagan-ordained missiles. The high-ranking American general with NATO, a German-speaking black man (Errol Trotman Harewood) is not a very flattering character. The HVA spymasters initially seem to have their act really together — they’re incredibly efficient at infiltrating the West. But their oppression of their own citizens is intolerable. Even the possession of banned Western books is a major criminal offense.
But much worse is the fact that the top East German brass is in Moscow’s pocket. Pig-headed Soviets have given instructions to ignore new intelligence unless it agrees with their preconceived notions. Martin pulls off miracles to send back the truth — the NATO war games are only war games — only to be told that what he’s learned is going to be ignored because Moscow is looking for an excuse to strike first. The downing of a Korean passenger jetliner is presented as a sign that the Russians have become paranoid about a pre-emptive U.S. attack. The posturing on both sides is entirely credible, as is the fact that the western anti-nuke movement is a haven for East Germany’s agents.
I guess we are finally beyond the ‘old’ Cold War — an American network has broadcast a show, in German, in which a Communist spy is the hero. It’s almost refreshing now to see the 1963 East German portrait of a heroic HVA spy, a ‘humanist 007’ in For Eyes Only — Top Secet, for comparison. That East German agent is also trying to obtain evidence of a hostile NATO war plan. In the DDR’s slanted version of reality, West Germany is just a collaboration of Americans and ex-Nazis.
Deutschland 83’s East German soldier-spy Martin Rauch is really everybody’s hero. Even when innocent people die, Martin is just doing what he has to do to save his country. He’s actually a great guy with a strong instinct for fair play. He’s a chess player, and the fun of Deutschland 83 is watching him talk his way out of tight spots. He also thinks for himself. Martin was chosen because he has top marks in both fighting skills and intelligence, and because he’s a dead ringer for a new guy on a NATO general’s staff. Walter breaks Martin’s finger to give him an excuse not to play piano, as the real Moritz Stamm is a virtuoso. Like everything the HVA does, they break the finger first and tell him why only later. When it’s obvious that Martin will be caught in a burglary, his handlers — without telling him — send in a special agent to not only throw NATO off the scent, but also to slash Martin’s face so he won’t be suspected. Martin has only a brief contact with another high-level HVA agent-at-large. That’s a good thing: her primary job is to commit ultra-slick murders, like that of the luckless young West German Martin is impersonating.
Deutschland 83 pulls in many interesting elements. Yvonne Edel takes a trip East to sing backup with a rock band. Because Martin is away doing spy work, Annett becomes an informer, thinking she’s protecting his mother. A NATO secretary has a penchant for Art Deco furniture. The HVA’s ignorance of the latest computer developments becomes a joke when Martin delivers the all-important NATO guidebook — it’s on a floppy drive that nobody in East Germany has seen before. General Edel has a big problem in that his own son and daughter want nothing to do with him. Yvonne has run away to a commune, while the unstable Alex’s thoughts turn to outright treason — his grandfather was a Nazi, and as far as he’s concerned, his father is too. And a new problem has arisen to give people pause: the first cases of HIV and AIDS are showing up in West Germany.
Martin’s introduction to the miracle of the Walkman is a natural gateway for more great music, like Stevie Wonder’s Master Blaster (Jammin). Martin is up to his neck in deception and skullduggery, but he still smiles like a schoolboy to hear Duran Duran and Hungry Like the Wolf over a pair of ear buds. Like I said, where’s the soundtrack compilation?
Jonas Nay makes Martin Rauch instantly likeable. All Martin wants to do is serve his country and keep his girlfriend, yet his new job is to lie and steal. He victimizes an innocent West German secretary (Nikola Kastner). Seeing Martin discover the ‘decadent’ joys of Western consumerism is delightful.
The other young cast members offer distinctive looks and personalities. Frankly, they’re more interesting than most of our new American actors. Of the older generation, actor Ulrich Noethen is sympathetic as the general who tries to do his best, and instead alienates his family. Carina N. Wiese brings warmth and integrity to the role of Martin’s mother. Sylvester Groth has probably the most interesting part. His HVA chief Walter ruthlessly deceives young Martin, and he must also trick his own countrymen. He’s kept his job for so long by never questioning an instruction from Moscow. When it’s made clear that Walter has other ties to Martin’s family, things really get interesting. Groth has a small role in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
And, men of a ‘certain’ age will find that that the sexiest character in the story is the spymaster Lenora Rauch, a woman pushing fifty. Lenora is capable of juggling three false realities at the same time. She carries this all-understanding, all-knowing, all-deceiving look on her face that’s irresistible. Forget Mata Hari and forget Pussy Galore. Sell the house, sell the kids, it’s me ‘n’ Lenora all the way, even though she’ll surely have me killed when my usefulness is ended. I’ll be looking for more movies by actress-writer-director Maria Schrader (Aimée and Jaguar).
As with most escapist spy movies, one must overlook a few things. Does nobody think to compare the Moritz Stamm who shows up to work, with the photos in his personnel file? He looks similar, yeah, but, I mean… And the confrontation in which Martin Rauch bursts into a room of high-ranking Red spymasters, winning them over like James Stewart in a Capra film, is something we’ll just have to accept. This is supposed to be only season one of a continuing series, and I’ll absolutely be looking for more. I tuned in to enjoy some spy nonsense, only to find that Deutschland 83 is one of the best-constructed fun spy adventures I’ve seen. This first season is 6.5 hours of sheer enjoyment.
The Kino Lorber’s DVD of Deutschland 83 presents the first season’s eight episodes on three discs. The episode titles are all named after NATO military exercises conducted on West German soil in 1983: “Atlantic Lion” “Brandy Station” “Able Archer.” No wonder that both the West and East Germans were freaked — they’d be the first targets in whatever conflict might break out.
The shows looks and sound great, especially considering that there’s as yet no Blu-ray release. My review copy had no flaws. The music mixes are especially interesting — in some cases I think the licensed cues have been slightly remixed from the old radio and MTV versions.
The third disc makes room for the extras, which center around three of the young actors who accompanied the show creators to New York earlier this year. Jonas Nay, Sonja Gerhardt and Ludwig Trepte seem refreshingly unfamiliar with U.S. self-marketing phoniness. Nay is just as interested in his music band, Trepte seems a bit overwhelmed and Ms. Gerhardt feels more comfortable talking in German. But we really respect their chops as actors, as we do the show as a whole. I’m very glad that I was able to catch up with Deutschland 83 — in the snarl of entertainment fighting for our attention, I never would have found it any other way.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Interviews, featurettes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (not removable)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 8, 2015