Summer 2015 Review: Deutschland 83

6 Jul

Deutschland 83

Deutschland 83 has the proud distinction of being the first German-language series to air on a U.S. network, which is kind of cool. I’m not sure whether the Germans behind it realize this, but it is yet another in a recent string of shows that seem to be modeled in the wake of the fantastic The Americans. Deutschland 83 is better than most of the other contenders, and has some important differences, but it’s still hard not to have The Americans in mind, as a point of comparison, while watching the pilot and it’s unsurprisingly not in that class.

Deutschland 83 takes place in, well, 1983, just about the same time as The Americans. The Cold War has tensed up again for one last moment before the thaw of the second half of the ‘80s, but to those at the time unaware of what the future would bring, it may have as if it could last forever and get inexorably worse. Lenora and Walter work for the East Germany spy organization, the Stasi, while outwardly working for the East German embassy in West Germany. They see Reagan’s tough talk, which increases their concern about the Americans’ and West Germans’ actions, and decide they need a spy placed very close to an important West German general. Ideally, they need someone who could take the place of a young man who was recently appointed this general’s aide-de-camp. Luckily, Lenora has just the right person in mind! Her young newphew, Martin, a devoted East German, currently in the East Germany military.

As a party celebrating Martin’s weekend leave, Lenora gives him the tough sell, with a combination of positive and negative reinforcement. After interviewing Martin, she and her superior kidnap him, bring him to West Germany, but then promise him a house for him and his girlfriend and surgery for his sick mother if he completes just one important mission. Her and a local spy posing as a professor teach him the spy tricks of the trade in a short montage that presumably takes a few weeks, and he’s ready to go, filling in as aide-de-camp acting all natural and West German-like, while waiting to take a photo of some important documents to relay back to his handlers.

He gets the job done, but that’s when things get tricky, He makes a novice blunder at a party held by the general, being overheard by a relative, and realizes he’s in the big leagues when his contact tells him he has to drug the woman, and may have to kill her. He’s doubly thwarted when his boss tells him he can’t go home just yet after all – the content of the photos scared his superiors, meaning his job isn’t done.

The similarities with The Americans are obvious– a communist spy plying his trade in a Democratic country in the early ‘80s. There are some differences as well. Martin is a novice. He’s not a trained spy, and it shows –every bit as experienced and veteran Elizabeth and Philip are, Martin is not, both in his tradecraft, and his emotional responses to his work. While the USSR and the US are seen as polar opposites, West and East Germany are siblings, with as much the same as different. They’ve only been separated by 30 short years of history, but a lifetime in some ways, and literally Martin’s entire lifetime. Martin is overtaken by the indulgent and lackadaisical way West Germans live.

From one episode, I don’t know exactly which direction the show is going to go in. The most obvious would feature Martin having to fall deeper and deeper into the world of espionage, figuring out where his own personal moral boundaries are and how strong his devotion to his country is. Another less likely but possible direction could have him end being somewhat seduced by Western culture and lifestyles. He doesn’t have the years and years of training of Philip and Elizabeth, making him more susceptible to the types of moral quandaries that they’ve hardened to.

The show was decent but not spectacular. It’s somewhat unfair to judge shows in the wake of similar shows that come before, but only somewhat; the existence of The Americans that anything similar has an uphill battle to climb, and in one episode Deutschland 83 doesn’t quite do it. The German aspect though is definitely an interesting parallel to hold on to; there’s something far rawer and more real in the battle between two halves of a divided country that share a border and a history. Watching further will be on some faith that subsequent episodes will develop further the more compelling possible aspects of the show, and deeper Martin’s character, and I could really see the show, while never being terrible, having an equal chance to really impress or limp along in averageness.

Will I watch again? Yes. I wasn’t blown away by any means, but it’s short, which is important, at only eight episodes, and I’m intrigued by watching at least one show from different nations, which admittedly is not in and of itself a great reason to watch, but it really was at least pretty decent, if not great, so a way to break a tie.

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