The most enjoyable lockdown box-set binge I enjoyed this year was Deutschland ’83, ’86 and ’89, the three season trilogy of the era-defining German drama that started in the UK on All4’s ‘Walter Presents’ and has now moved to Sky.
It’s been pointed out that the Deutschland series has surface similarities to another show, The Americans. The latter – longer, more character-oriented – has more local relevance to the US, whereas I remember weekends in Berlin in the time of the wall, and loved this nuanced study of an era that pitted East and West against each other in surprising ways. The GDR’s vaunted idealism is exposed from the outset, yet sometimes treated in a drily light-hearted manner that offsets our cynical pre-knowledge.
The story follows young East German soldier Martin working for the HVA, the foreign-intelligence branch of the Stasi, as he starts spying in the West. He’s been pushed there by his aunt Lenora, played by the riveting Maria Schrader, a woman born to stare out of windows with her hand cupping her elbow, blowing strong fag smoke over the curtains.
The series wrong-foots viewers from the start, following the ideologically driven Martin into the evil West – check out his nonplussed reaction when he first walks into a supermarket – then hopping both sides of the wall to present rounded portraits of his family, most of whom are involved with the Stasi state one way or another.
In its depiction of the Pershing nuclear crisis, ’83 manages to balance a complex plot with some James Bond/Bourne antics, newsreel montages, stylish retro decor and an awesome eighties soundtrack, but never becomes glib or predictable.
Loyalties are shown to be forged equally through the family and the party until the lines between good and harmful ideologies have been erased. The East’s attempts to play catch-up with the West are almost endearing – witness them trying to work out what a stolen floppy disc is for, or how to use the Love Boat to entice East German workers. But then we encounter the blank-faced brutality of the regime in Deutschland ’86.
By this time Martin and his aunt are in Angola, Libya and South Africa, flogging arms to support the apartheid regime while their bosses bemoan the AIDS crisis because it has stopped them from exporting blood products from the East. Martin remains a fictional catalyst to real events, especially in the final part, Deutschland ’89, which inventively sees him sparking off the storming of the Berlin Wall. The circumstances are jigsawed into what we now know about the fall that night, making the brew of fact and fiction believable.
What follows after the collapse is the inelegant scramble for the dying regime’s assets as the West sees a fire sale and the East run for their shredding machines.
The series (famously a flop in Germany but a hit abroad) has the filmic grandeur and stylings of a movie trilogy, with the heft of history and the occasional nod to melodrama, not to mention some didactic speeches about capitalism and socialism being tested and found equally wanting. And the family’s flight across the border in a minivan will put your heart in your mouth.
Under the GDR it’s said that people at least knew how things worked. Without it, they were forced into reinvention. Deutschland excels when it explores the form their world took without the old rules.