Deutschland 83: Stylistic German Spy Thriller Hits the US

1983: Two juxtaposing sides of Germany are at the brink of a Nuclear War. Ignited by Ronald Reagan’s totalitarian speech, America’s stance on Communism, and the increased threat of Western Germany, The East were having to use covert espionage in order to ensure the safety of their state and the continued spread of socialism. The Cold War was colder than ever and the divide in the country was stark in contrast. Whilst the democratic West thrived as one of the economic superpowers of Europe, The East’s GDP and living wages were in a rapid decline. Deutschland 83 is a humorous glimpse into these two sides through a young Eastern comrade named Martin Rauch.

This coming-of-age spy thriller see’s Martin (Jonas Nay) sent on a mission to the West to be the aid of General Edel, a close ally of NATO and America, and report back any information that will help keep East Germany safe. Under the promise of a life saving operation for his mother, Martin is tasked with finding important files – brought to Germany by American General Arnold Jackson – as they may prove to be the key to preparing against an imminent attack.

The pacing is much quicker than most Eastern European programming which I believe is why it was able to be shown on a US channel. Through montages and smaller compiled scenes (for example the death of the real Mortitz Stamm) it is able to stylistically condense narrative exposition. Although it simplifies some prior historical references, I believe that it does it well in order to press the story forward and keep the pace which can often be pivotal for a exported European programme.

Whilst most broadcasters would conventionally turn this into a dark war drama about the struggles of Eastern Germany under a totalitarian rule, this show has an upbeat comedy aspect subverting the tired old assumptions of Germany. Martin’s lackluster spy skills provide a hearty laugh and periods of mistakes provide a much needed laugh in dire situations. However don’t get this mixed up with a sitcom – this is a thriller with a sharp, witty, almost bleak humour that will keep you entertained.

In regards to making a clear comparison between the two Germany’s, I don’t think the East and West are a complete Juxtaposition because we don’t see the poverty that we imagine. But – with the knowledge of life in the West – I think people would question their beliefs when faced with their prosperous neighbours. But even in this so-called “divide”, Martin’s house – shared with his mother – has many of the household items you would see in a house on the other side of the border. I think this unclear division works well but will change over the next 8 episodes to a more certain belief that a Democratic Germany is superior.

Even with this knowledge, some Eastern Germans still believe that Socialism is the way forward for a fair and affluent state. When we meet Tobias Tischbier, an East German spy working as a Professor, he is appalled by the governmental working of Democracy, even saying “Western Governments want to keep their citizens fat, lazy and complacent” – perhaps an ironic statement as far as Communism is concerned. But it’s this deep belief, even in the face of the growing success of Eastern Germany, which is dangerous. Perhaps Martin has the same attitude, but his reasoning is to keep his family safe rather than to undermine and attack the West. Martin is more of a sheep – doing what he is told without thinking too much about the overall consequences.

80’s Germany has rarely been introduced as a Drama on our screens; If it has then it’s been from the perspective of the Americans. However what you find in this programme is deep Historical Realism with locations and events key to the Cold War preserved around this fictitious story. We also see real historic footage used for exposition like, for example, the opposing speeches by the Eastern and Western leaders urging disarmament – giving the audience that much needed exposition.

The mise-en-scene is incredible in Deutschland and is one of its best assets. One scene I loved was Martin’s first adventure into the West. We notice the colour from the signs in the stores, the police officers green sweaters, and even the stark primary coloured fruit in the supermarket and the perfectly stacked shelves with row after row of the same brightly coloured jars. They’ve even paid attention to Berlin Wall-era fonts and created signs and labels using these clearly distinguishable typefaces. This is one of the greatest strengths of Deutschland 83 – we can immerse ourselves in this period drama, believe that this is how it all looked, and not be underwhelmed by the mise-en-scene. It does as good a job, dare I say it, as Mad Men.

Another key scene for graphic designers and font enthusiasts is the montage of Martin becoming a spy. The scene is laden with East and West comparisons – from the name of Plastik to the the new idea of a Western Supermarkt – alongside their respective typefaces. The art designs of food boxes, hair-spray, washing powder and drinks bottles are enough for a graphic design enthusiast to start a Cold War scrapbook. You can also see the differences between the fonts, especially in the FRG’s products, which creatively flourished with the influence of new technologies and American packaging.

Overall Deutschland 83 is a stylish period drama showing us a new perspective on The Cold War and the relationship between the GDR and the FRG. Ideologies between the two countries are so vast and translates well in this drama. What makes this a great success is it’s style; It’s ability to create a historical drama which feels innovative. All of its props feel as if they are taken straight from the eighties – even the sets look exactly how I imagine they would look 30 years ago. The storyline is full of historical references and Deustchland ’83 twists these and uses them to ingrain the drama is social realism. Jonas Nay’s performance is outstanding – blending Socialist confidence with teenage ineptitude inducing a dry comedic undertone. After only one episode I feel as if this drama will be unrivalled in stylistic quality, but sense the amount of viewers will be low because of its anonymity in the US. It needs to be drafted to the UK for Sky Arts or BBC4 to gain the viewership it deserves.

Currently Deutschland 83 is available to watch Wednesday’s 11/10C on SundanceTV.

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