‘Deutschland 83’: American TV’s First German-Language Series Is a Light, Stylish Cold War Spy Thriller

Mark your calendars! Today is an historic one in the history of Germany — United States relations, for this evening at 11 p.m. (EDT), a German-language series will air on American television for the first time. Billed as “a gripping coming-of-age story and spy thriller set in Germany in the ‘80s,” the Sundance Channel’s Deutschland 83 opens with the voice of Ronald Reagan (who is delivering his infamous, Cold War-escalating “Evil Empire” speech). And by the time the second episode has come to an end, the viewer will have heard Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” — in both German and English, in both East and West Germany — at least three times.

But rest assured, American viewers who are accustomed to “foreign television” that comes prepackaged with British or Scandinavian accents will find a home here, even if the show’s first German-language moments are disorienting. Why? Deutschland 83, with its insistent 1980’s europop soundtrack, is cleverly familiar. In fact, you might describe the show as a pure combination of those two German-to-American crossover indie hits: Goodbye, Lenin and The Lives of Others. (It certainly retains the wide-eyed fascination with ideology of the former and the East/West German spy politics of the latter.) Or you could compare it to a BBC war drama featuring young, attractive actors (only this time they are German). Or at least the 1980s East German portions of the show retain enough of the cigarettes and clean lines of Mad Men’s 1960s America to assuage those who “don’t like subtitles.”

And, anyway, for a show about nuclear conflict during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 is pretty light — probably because we know, in hindsight, that these events don’t lead to nuclear holocaust. It also moves quickly while retaining its ideological complexity. Within moments of Reagan’s speech, we meet our protagonist, the young and handsome Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), an East German soldier who we find busting West German college students for trying to buy Shakespeare on the black market. Rauch is, in other words, a good soldier, and his Aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader), a committed East German spy who spends her time flitting between both sides, quickly recruits him for a mission to serve as an aide-de-camp for a West German general who is close to the Americans. The German Democratic Republic needs to know more about the soon-to-be installed (and perhaps nuclear ready) Pershing II missiles.

Only Rauch doesn’t want to go to West Germany, with its instant coffee and supermarkets and nightclubs. He’d rather spend his days in the East, making out with Annett (Sonja Gerhardt), his beautiful schoolteacher girlfriend, and caring for his mother, who is dying of kidney disease. But when he protests, an East German hardass smashes his hand and drugs him with tea.

When Rauch wakes up, he finds himself in West Germany. He promptly, naively attempts to escape, in a chase scene that I found hilariously weird. Soon enough Rauch is intercepted by East German operatives who explain that, if he completes the mission, his mother will be placed on the list for a kidney transplant. (They also offer the good socialist a car and a house, but he demurs.) He is then trained — in a slick montage — to pick tiny locks and read things upside down. Martin Rauch is now Moritz Stamm, West German soldier, East German spy-extraordinaire.

And he’s pretty good at it! After being embedded with one General Edel, Stamm uses tiny cameras to photograph an American officer’s classified secrets on the Pershing II missile. The unfortunate side effect of this early success is that he will have to remain estranged from his girlfriend, who, not knowing where her good soldier has absconded to, is currently naked in a lake, having sex with one of his friends.

Nevertheless, there are other distractions for Stamm. The General’s daughter, Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky), is a beautiful hippie-chanteuse who must be rescued from an ashram. And her brother, Alex (Ludwig Trepte), Stamm’s tag-along, is a disgruntled “green party” pacifist at odds with the West German war machine. They’re all attractive and prone to antics and intrigue.

And when Stamm finds himself in a grand hotel (in a scene reminiscent of those 1930s war films set in Nazi hotels) — in the middle of a geopolitical summit between the West Germans and Americans — things get really tense in the “espionage cinema” type of way. He even gets caught up in a Tarantino-esque catfight with a spy for the Chinese just moments after he recovers a “round thing with a hole in it” called a “floppy disk.”

All in all, it’s on account of the Deutschland 83’s relative ideological complexity and real-ish political backdrop that it can take itself so unseriously — that it can be so fun. But will it emerge from its later episodes with a political perspective? Or will its eye candy continue to romp through pre-unification Germany unabated and unclothed? I’m hoping for the former (though I wouldn’t mind the latter). Either way, as long as they cool it with the “99 Red Balloons,” I’ll be there when the wall crumbles.