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Deutschland 83

I can honestly say until very recently I’d never watched a show that originated from Germany. Sure, I’d viewed loads of series from other countries but I don’t think that I’d ever watched one that was in another language with subtitles before.

deutschland_eighty_threeThat was until I checked out the show Deutschland 83 on Sundance.

My understanding up to now was that German TV wasn’t up to snuff. That whereas English speaking countries like the US, UK and Australia were producing more nuanced and thoughtful TV series, the Germans were stuck on big bombastic shows. But after watching Deutschland 83 I couldn’t believe how wrong I was.

Like The Goldbergs and Halt and Catch Fire that takes place in the 1980s, and another that focuses on spies and the Cold War in that decade with The Americans and The Assets, Deutschland 83 is set in a very different Germany than is there today. Now Germany is an economic powerhouse that is a core member of the European Union. But back then it was a divided nation between east and west with the Berlin Wall still six years away from falling. Halved after WW2, West Germany was aligned with the US and NATO while East Germany was with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Which meant that a divided Germany was ground-zero for the Cold War and would also literally be ground-zero if a real war ever broke out between the superpowers.

Enter Moritz Stamm (Jonas Nay), a 20-something East German soldier who just so happens to look like a West German aide to an important officer in the planning of any conflict with the east. So Moritz becomes Martin and enters into the spy-game expected to steal secrets and stay one step ahead of the people hunting him in order that his mother stay on a kidney transplant list back home.

Jonas Nay and Sonja Gerhardt

Jonas Nay and Sonja Gerhardt

To say that Moritz is unequipped for the job would’t be an understatement. He’s literally kidnapped in the first episode and transported to the west in order to train to become an agent. But he does what must be done and puts his life on the line for his side which, even after having spent time in the west, he still believes in.

As Moritz spends more time undercover his position becomes more and more exposed. Will Martin’s friends from the past show up and find Moritz out? Will Moritz slip up and be caught copying documents? Will a spy from another country eliminate him to steal his secrets?

With the hindsight of history it’s interesting to see how the creators of Deutschland 83 (American Anna Winger and her German husband Jörg) are setting their fictional story with real-life events. In the second episode there’s mention of the “Able Archer” military exercises that really took place in ’83. While these were held for NATO prepare for the possibility of war, the Soviets thought they might instead be a secret lead-up to a real war and started planning for conflict.

In fact the US and the USSR were so close to war during the exercises that the USSR was ready at a moment’s notice to attack west. And it was only because of the realization of this from the US and the pullback of some of the exercises and the fact that there were no false alarms on the USSR side, which seemed to happen quite frequently during the 1980s, that the world wasn’t incinerated to a nuclear ash because of Able Archer.

Jonas Nay

Jonas Nay

Every fictional modern take on the Cold War gives the perspective from the west — even with The Americans that has Soviet agents operating in the US still takes place in the US with US sensibilities. But Deutschland 83 comes from a totally different perspective. Here in the US we were at least somewhat removed from the realities of the east/west conflict back then. Sure, if a war ever happened New York would be just as devastated as Berlin but enemy tanks weren’t literally on our border ready to cross at a moments notice.

Germany in 1983 didn’t have the luxury of distance that we had. If a war ever did happen, even a “limited” one, it would mean a devastated and probably radioactive Germany for years to come. That’s why the events of Deutschland 83 are so interesting. Not only are spies like Moritz trying to find out the secrets of the other side; they’re doing this agains their own countrymen. People that had fought alongside each other just a few decades prior in WW2 were now sworn enemies in the Cold War.

It was a weird time in Germany’s history which I think is why Deutschland 83 is one of the most interesting series on TV.

Deutschland 83 is an eight episode series that airs Wednesday nights at 11 (EST) on Sundance. If it continues on its current schedule the series should wrap up sometime in early August.