I remember a while back attending a talk by a noted TV exec, where he mentioned Life On Mars, the retro detective series about a man transported back to the Seventies. Its appeal, he said, lay in the fact we were looking back at his adventures from the smug position of the twenty-first century, and this made us feel comfortable. It’s arguably the same quality that’s sustained Deutschland 83, the Cold War spy thriller from Germany which has gone on to earn record viewing figures for a foreign language drama here in the UK.
Jonas Nay plays Martin, a young border guard in the Communist hotbed of East Germany. His first scene involves him reprimanding two students for reading literature, seen as decadent and unhealthy for a citizen’s outlook. In another show he would be a repressive villain, but creator/writer Anna Winger presents Martin as a likeable young man, confident in the knowledge he’s doing the right thing. Everything looks bright, or at least as bright as his drab surroundings can be, for the lad. His mother is seriously ill but he has a lovely girlfriend and stretching ahead of him a role serving the country he loves. All this is roundly kicked into touch when his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) abruptly recruits him into working as a mole for the secret service in exchange for medical care. Her act of blackmail makes him realize that ongoing tensions over the Wall with West Germany encroach into every aspect of his life.
This is one of the ways Deutschland 83, despite being set in the recent past, is on the nose when it comes to current events. The political resurgence in left-wing ideology means capitalism is being scrutinized in a way it hasn’t experienced for years. There’s a sequence where Martin (or rather Moritz Stamm, his new alter ego) first arrives in enemy territory, to find himself surrounded by large amounts of fruit and produce. In this context the West, with its supermarkets and personal stereos, is the Devil’s lair. Ronald Reagan’s face – frequently seen in grainy resolution – issues words to reassure the Free World via television, statements the East see as a deadly threat. (Ironically the series was first broadcast Stateside, with its European premiere happening some months later.)
You have the blending of historical events, the jukebox of hits on the soundtrack and crucially the laughable Eighties fashions. But at the same time you have good acting, a gripping set up and a fair degree of warmth for a piece set during a chillier phase of East-West relations. Family is the cornerstone of the show, its complications unfurling across the eight episodes. Not only do you have the strains put on Martin’s family and friends in the East, you meet Wolfgang Edel (Ulrich Noethen), the boss at the base of operations where our hero is posted. Inside the West German military machine he meets Edel’s son Alex (Ludwig Trepte), who it just so happens harbours anti-government sentiments of his own. And it isn’t long before Martin/Moritz is intermingling with Edel’s whole family, including his photogenic hippy daughter.
As with various of the new Euro sagas Channel 4 have acquired in the past months (such as The Saboteurs – Our review here) there is sex and violence, but presented sparingly and in a more mature way than American and British output. There you expect a torture or rape scene, a long and loud copping off sequence and a titillating lesbian storyline to pop up once a week. Here it’s restrained but effective, particularly regarding a brutal fight between Martin and a most unexpected assailant in a luxury hotel. Also Winger and co-creator Joerg Winger place the obligatory moment where Martin gets caught out in the very first episode, leading to an elaborate cover up before you’ve even caught your breath.
The performances are all strong, but Nay anchors the concept as Martin. He conveys his character’s mix of vulnerability and desperation with great skill. Special mention should also go to the theme song, an A-Ha-style pop beat and one of the catchiest signature tunes of recent years. The action goes on cruise control for later episodes, with soapier elements coming to the fore, though the feature-length finale puts meat back on the bones.
Deutschland 83 is a worthy addition to the roster of overseas product that UK viewers have taken to their hearts. Character and information rather than gloss and sensation drive the scenario, making this a refreshing change from the glut of precision-engineered Bruckheimer procedurals constantly shown on British screens.
This review appeared on The Hollywood News.