A lot of hype has surrounded Deutschland 83, as those promoting it have worked hard to present the latest ‘must watch’ spy drama. However, there is no denying that this attention is well deserved. The German import combines intense action and poignant emotional sequences with striking historical accuracy, all to an authentic 80s soundtrack.
The drama focuses itself around a young male protagonist, Martin Rauch, who is forced to go and work as a spy in West Germany in order to obtain important information about US military plans. Under the supervision of his aunt Lorena, an employee of the East German Secret Service, he adopts the name Moritz Stamm and poses as an aide-de-camp to General Edel: the individual charged with working alongside the Americans on the deployment of Pershing II missiles. The sense of vitality that surrounds these characters is striking, which may well be expected from a drama situated at a time of heightened political tension. There is no avoiding the omnipresent sense of a highly possible Third World War, a feeling that seems to add meaning to every step that Martin, or Moritz make.
From the first moments, the series demonstrates how it maintains universal appeal without compromising depth. As episode one opens, we move from the tense regard of aunt Lorena and the promise of violent political threat to a birthday party with cheerful voices, the mellow lightness of 99 Luftballons and a tender exchange between two young lovers. This swift alternation between the broad, international concerns and the close and personal scenario of Martin’s mother’s birthday party pulls the audience into the action, allowing us to understand how the grand interactions between the great powers can have consequences that extend into the most personal corners of an individual’s life. We escape our detached retrospective view, and perceive events as a contemporary.
Deutschland’s individual perspective is one of its main drawing points. As a young person, much of the programme’s appeal originates from how the viewer feels as if they are being granted exclusive access to a period of history that is often talked about, and yet only seldom explored in much depth. Perhaps this is because of how the events of the Berlin Wall are too far in the past (albeit only just) for our generation to fully appreciate. The informative effect is due to the commitment to aesthetic and factual accuracy: the scenes in the Stasi headquarters are filmed in the original headquarters, and the producers consulted prominent historian Vaas Kloss. But it is by no means a documentary: a steady stream of comic turns lightens the atmosphere and keeps the whole thing digestible, whilst also serving as another reminder that this history consisted of humans with a capacity for humour, rather than the distinctly humourless nuclear threats hanging over these citizens. We are further drawn by the sensuality and eroticism that fires through the air, with a fervent nod to youthful lust and the entanglements that it brings.
As a spy drama, there is no shortage of fast-paced action with many a surprising twist and outcome. Skilful camerawork often positions the audience at secretive angles, heightening the intensity of crucial moments. However, the series manages to avoid the simple error of an excess of action at the expense of sophisticated narrative, notably by illustrating an honest and credible portrait of the serious topics of homosexuality, AIDS and even residual fascism. Given the heavy implications of these aspects, it would be easy for them to be represented in a crude way, with too great a reliance on stereotypes. Instead, the interactions between characters and situation seem honest and credible, even to the extent that we can muse as to whether it could have been a true story.
The excellent soundtrack is the final element in assuring the highly authentic quality of Deutschland. A series of 80s smash hits electrifies the constant sense of movement, with the electronic sound of the era reminiscent of the very technological advances that created the risk of a nuclear war. We are bathed in Bowie, Eurythmics and New Order amongst others, whilst the opening sequence is made up by the English language version of Peter Schilling’s hit Major Tom (Coming Home). The score even inspired me to re-explore the 80s musical scene, as the events on-screen gave it a whole new significance.
There’s no denying that the detail in Deutschland makes it a programme very much worth devoting attention to, and so does require concentration. However, once past this, it offers rewards of so many kinds.
Words by Nadia Crocker
Originally published in Indigo.