On Deutschland 83, a Cold War TV show that’s anything but a copy of The Americans

Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire just ended their massive 5+ season runs. The Americans is currently on hiatus, and I haven’t begun shows like Outlander. What’s a series junkie and history professional (or buff) to do? I strongly recommend Sundance’s Deutschland 83. This series centers around an East German border guard, Martin, beginning a new assignment as a spy in West Germany. Deutschland 83 takes place at the height of the Cold War and covers themes that fans of The Americans will find familiar, but since this show is about a novice spy and young 20-something, it builds tension and explores the 80s in a completely different way than The Americans does with its focus on career espionage vs. family life.

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Deutschland 83 is the first German-language series to premiere in the US, especially before its German release. Sundance has been on the forefront of more experimental television in recent years, with the Faulknerian fever-dream Rectify epitomizing the network’s penchant for risk-taking and unconventional programming.

Some reviewers have noted that a German-American couple (Jörg and Anna Winger) helms the series and either imply or outright state that the American half is the reason this show is “different” (i.e; worth watching) than the rest of German television. I’d instead argue that Deutschland 83 is the current culmination of a trend in European television programming that has finally reached Germany. Italy, France, and the Nordic countries have been producing television of HBO-caliber for the past few years. German network and production company ZDF has funded and produced many excellent programs for foreign markets, including the Danish/Swedish crime drama The Bridge. The reason for Germany’s late arrival in the long-form drama game has more to do with the peculiarities of the German television market, the wide availability of dubbed American, British, and other Continental series, and aging television audiences rather than an innate cultural difference.

Deutschland 83 is not without its faults, most of which stem from plot contrivances and a series of very unlikely coincidences, including one case of mistaken identity that is absolutely laughable. Some music choices are a little too on-the-nose, but for the most part the 80s synth-pop soundtrack really fits the show. Although some reviews knock the show down a peg or two due to being humorless (a charge I find questionable at best considering the show’s penchant for camp), it’s definitely more light-hearted than other espionage-themed series like The Americans or Homeland.

How does Deutschland 83 communicate history? Does it do so effectively? I’ve discussed the series with several friends and gotten mixed reactions from Berliners (although all were prior to actually viewing the show). Some were really excited about German TV finally being recognized overseas, others were very wary about the subject matter. I can see both sides, although I find the latter is sort of protesting the inevitable historicization of the GDR and fighting a battle that’s already been lost in the wake of countless films and TV shows about that period of German history (see The Lives of Others, Barbara, Goodbye Lenin, and Weissensee). Additionally, the recent German Historical Museum exhibit on life after reunification is anything but a dry and somber presentation. If anything, that exhibit is more camp–not that there’s anything wrong with that–than Deutschland 83 could ever attempt to be.

There are certainly aspects of the series that are historically suspect or clearly cable-drama fancy. Contrived elements abound, but many of them also employ misdirection. We expect him to be caught after his amateurish attempt at picking a lock, but out of sheer luck on his part or incompetence (or simply disinterest) on the part of his unwitting West German hosts, Martin manages to succeed. Many scenes and subplots are campy and veer into soap opera territory. Nevertheless, the series remains fun. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz this is not. And with Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” as its theme song, how could this series be anything but fun?

Martin in a West German supermarket. Note the prominence of bananas. The scarcity of bananas in the GDR is a common trope in German culture to this day.

Martin in a West German supermarket. Note the prominence of bananas. The scarcity of bananas in the GDR is a common trope in German culture to this day.

Deutschland 83 is at its best when it explores culture shock and the little differences between East and West Germany that Martin learns to navigate. Whether it’s his enthusiastic embrace of 80s synth-pop, ordering a “regular cow-steak” at a restaurant, or simply marveling at the sheer array of fruit in a Bonn supermarket, it’s things like these that make the series feel like a real, lived-in world as opposed to a sound stage. East German life is taken seriously and not portrayed as a cliche, the characters feel real as opposed to cardboard cutouts. Although the audience ultimately knows the end of the Cold War, the showrunners portray its outcome as anything but inevitable.

Hopefully Deutschland 83 remains part of this new wave of long-form (that is, a show where each episode is a chapter in a larger narrative rather than a self-contained story ala CSI) German television that shows like Weissensee and Generation War pioneered. The next big German television drama on the horizon is Tom Tykwer’s Babylon Berlin, an adaptation of Volker Kutscher’s series of crime novels set in Berlin during the 1920s and 30s.

Bonus: Sundance has even provided its viewers with a Clickhole-style (and error-filled) German quiz: Klicken Sie hier

Note: 2 Episodes watched for review.

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