Monday, October 5, 2015

Deutschland 83 - a review

East German spy's first experience in a Western supermarket
Deutschland 83 is a made for German television series in eight episodes.  Picked up earlier this year by Sundance TV,  it is the first German-language series to make it to American TV.

To get to the show’s website, click here.

If you get hold of a rental copy of Deutschland 83* on DVD – and I hope you do – be sure to watch the extras at the end, particularly the interview with the two writers of the series, Anna and Joerg Winger, and three of the main stars, Jonas Nay, Sonja Gerhardt and Ludwig Trepte.

Trepte, you may remember from Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter), where he played the Jewish member of the group of five friends struggling to hold together despite the pressures of World War II.  Both Generation War and Deutschland 83 were produced by UFA Fiction. This more recent series was directed by Edward Berger and Samira Radsi.

Jonas Nay plays a 24-year-old East German border guard, Martin Rauch, who goes undercover as Moritz Stamm, aide-de-camp to General Edel (Ulrich Noethen - Downfall (2004), The Harmonists (1997)) in the West German army.  He is pressured into this job not entirely unwillingly, since he accepts the ideology of the GDR.  But he is kept there once things get rough and he begins to want out, because his mother’s chances of getting a kidney transplant in the GDR are nil without his cooperation.  A bit too soap opera for comfort, you might think, but it kind of works.

He also leaves a pregnant girlfriend behind without warning or explanation, who also gets pressed into service along the way.

Despite a first impression that this may be just another plodding and overly earnest German production, the story takes hold and in short order becomes quite gripping.  The lead character, Martin/Moritz is totally sympathetic and you don’t have to be a pinko commie to find yourself rooting for him each time he makes a narrow escape photographing documents or placing wiretaps.

Your desire to root for an East German spy speaks volumes about the writing skills of the creators of this marvelous piece of popular history – and that’s why I urge you to make an effort to listen to an interview with them.  They are a German man/American wife team.  He’s got the historical direct connection with the period; she’s got the American desire to lighten things up.  Both wanted to find a way to teach their German children about Germany in the Cold War years, and they realized they needed as much time as they could get away with for the events to unfold properly, and for there to be growth and changes in understanding.  Hence the series format.

In the twenty-five years since the wall went down and the two Germanys came together, a whole new generation has grown up.  That includes Jonas Nay who was born in Lübeck, a North German city just to the west of the GDR border, after the events of 1983 and even after the fall of the wall.  Jonas speaks for the new generation that has never experienced a divided nation, restrictions on self-expression, foreign travel, or the right to leave one’s home without permission.

Jonas has an easier time getting prepared for the role than the older actors.  In preparing for the role, reading history, consulting with NATO expert Steffen Meier  and talking with other people from East and West, he simply adds new information to his post-reunification understanding of the world. Older actors, however, sometimes have to contend with emotional scars.  Sylvester Groth (Inglourious Basterds (2009), The Reader (2008) and Stalingrad (1993)), for example, who plays Walter Schweppenstette, the East German Stasi agent heading up Martin’s (Jonas’s) spy operation, was among the thousands who in real life committed the treasonous crime of Republikflucht (“flight from the (GDR) Republic to the west”).  The filmmakers managed to get to use the actual Stasi headquarters for sets, including furniture.  And this meant Groth got to sit in the actual chair of the man who once had his fate in his hands – or would have had, if he had not escaped.  One can only imagine the effort it takes to accomplish the assumption of the persona of your nemesis for an acting job.

Knowing the background of the events, and the personal lives of the actors gives the film a certain edge.  It tests the success of the reunification process, the degree to which the concepts of “east” and “west” have lost their power to generate hostility.  In Generation War the actors had to put themselves into the shoes of their grandparents; here it’s their parents they are playing, and in some cases their own selves from another time frame.

Some have compared the series to Mad Men because such pains were taken to recreate the look of the 80s and the differences between East German and West German styles and objects, right down to the sickly green color of the East German telephones and the click of the dials.  Mostly the contrasts work, although when Martin gets his first glimpse of a West German grocery store, it’s a bit overdone.  Yes, they had bananas.  They probably didn’t have this many bunches just hanging there.  A slightly more troublesome limitation is in the plotline.  As is common in thrillers, too few people are portrayed in decision-making positions and their connections are just a tad too coincidental.  Like the fact that the agent who presses Moritz into service is his own aunt, his sick mother’s sister, played by Maria Schrader (Aimée & Jaguar – 1999).  Adds tension, but stretches credibility.  

As is common in stories with thriller or detective or political plotlines, many decisions are made quickly and without extensive consultation.  But then reality would only bore you, so exaggerating the number of fruit offerings in stores and limiting the number of roles hardly constitute flaws.  More like candy for film buffs who get off on this kind of thing.  The only “flub,” if you will, that actually bothered me were the speech patterns of Errol Trotman Harewood, who plays the character of General Jackson, the American counterpart to General Edel.  At some points you see him using English and stumbling over the simplest German phrases.  At other places, he’s clearly a fluent speaker of German.  They might have hired a linguist, or maybe even used a bit more common sense, but they evidently calculated that their audience needed a bit more help in identifying a black man in a U.S. Army general’s uniform as an American.  

Again, not a major drawback, and easily compensated for by gripping action, superb acting and the care with which the soundtrack was selected:  the song “99 Balloons,” popular in the day, and offerings by David Bowie, New Order (“Blue Monday”) and Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”), Fischer G, Grace Jones, and others, including a great scene where Martin learns what a Walkman is, and listens to Duran Duran (“Hungry Like a Wolf”).

Generals Jackson and Edel are responsible for arranging the stationing of American Pershing II Missiles on West German soil.  It’s this decision which is the event of 1983, and thus the reason for 83 in the title.  It’s a Ronald Reagan move, and it’s done at a time when the Soviets have a particularly paranoid leader in Yuri Andropov.  From a German perspective, making West Germany a target for a deterrent attack by Soviet nuclear weapons makes this moment a high point of the Cold War, a stand-off event similar to the problem Kennedy had with Soviet weapons in Cuba.  

What’s missing from the story is the fact that the Pershing II missiles were set up in response to Soviet SS-20 theater missiles, and the fear on the part of the West German and American “militarists” had some foundation – the peaceniks were making the Americans the bad guys, not the Soviets.  But seen in retrospect now, even modern-day Americans (other than hardliner Reagan supporters) can feel sympathy for the peaceniks, and ultimately for the East German spy who (without spoiling the plot) rises above his role to become a player in the larger game.  

It’s not Americans against the Soviets, in the end.  It’s warmongers against diplomats, and an opportunity to plant a foreshadowing of the notion that people in the two Germanys are going to have reason to seek common solutions to cold war standoffs.   The fact that the story was put together by a German and an American supports the notion as well that the lines between East and West may not matter as much as the ones between those invested in maintaining antagonism and those committed to breaking down barriers.

Deutschland 83 thus provides a rich source of discussion material for those seeking to trace the path through past antagonisms to where we find ourselves now, where kids in Berlin walk back and forth across now imaginary lines and have been known to ask, “Wall?  What wall?”

It’s also a series that will satisfy countless numbers of binge-watchers for years to come.

in German, with English subtitles

photo credit

·     * It’s available on Netflix.   Also, according to one Indian website, “following its US success, the series has now been placed by FremantleMedia International with Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia (Italy), Hulu (US), Sundance TV (English-speaking Canada), Super Ecran (French-speaking Canada), RTE (Eire), Stan (Australia & New Zealand), Telenet (Belgium), RTL Klub (Hungary), Hotvision (Israel), TV4 (Pan-regional Scandinavia) and Kino Lorber (US – DVD and iTunes)” - 

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