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Throwing its weight behind a growing festival trend, this year’s Berlinale has provided a red-carpet launchpad for new high-end TV drama as well as cinema. Scheduled to air later this year both domestically and on the Sundance channel, Deutschland 83 will be the first German-language series ever broadcast on a US network.
Created by the German-American husband-and-wife team Anna and Jörg Winger for the local broadcaster RTL, Deutschland 83 is an eight-part miniseries set during a crucial year when Germany was at the center of escalating nuclear brinkmanship between NATO and the Soviet Union. The subject may be serious but the tone is engagingly light, recreating the cultural and political furniture of Cold War Europe through a Mad Men-style filter of knowing hindsight.
The first of the two opening episodes shown to a packed Berlin gala screening begins with President Ronald Reagan‘s historic speech in Florida in March 1983, when he memorably branded Soviet Russia as an “evil empire”. The back story to the series is the arrival of US Pershing II ballistic missiles on European soil, and the build-up to the huge NATO war-games exercise “Able Archer”, which led some Moscow hard-liners to conclude the US was secretly planing a real showdown between East and West. This tense stand-off was the closest the superpowers came to World War III since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Into this real historical context, the Wingers inject a fictional spy thriller plot involving a zealous young soldier from Communist East Germany, Moritz Stamm (Jonas Nay), who is smuggled across the border and given a false identity as the aide to General Edel (Ulrich Noethen) on a military base near the West German capital of Bonn. Working for Edel puts Moritz close to NATO’s nuclear secrets, but also makes him a target for suspicion and surveillance. Also in the mix are Edel’s anti-war soldier son Alex (Ludwig Trepte) and hippie peacenik daughter Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky), conveniently well-placed to generate political and sexual tension later in the series.
Sunny and slick and full of twentysomething eye candy, Deutschland 83 is as much glossy soap opera as Cold War espionage thriller. Forcibly separated from his East German girlfriend Annett (Sonja Gerhardt), Moritz inevitably struggles to resist the pampered princesses of the capitalist West. In the second episode, a waitress at a heavily guarded NATO conference sneaks into his bed, leading to a spectacular action scene worthy of a Jason Bourne movie. The seductively retro soundtrack is a mixtape of early 1980s Europop, from New Order to David Bowie to Eurythmics, with German pop diva Nena‘s smash-hit anti-war anthem 99 Red Balloons serving as a knowingly kitsch motif.
Like most high-gloss TV miniseries, Deutschland 83 is not exactly subtle. The political complexities of the Cold War’s final decade are sanitized and simplified into very broad strokes. The background chorus of cigar-comping military hawks, malevolent enemy agents, sexy female assassins and tree-hugging hippie idealists struggle are mostly cartoonish cyphers. Between the pop hits, the strident orchestral score is intrusive and bombastic. And the script is full of clumsy contrivance, like the rushed phone call that Moritz makes back to East Germany from General Edel’s house, an idiotic error with no dramatic purpose besides artificially stoking tension.
Such are the schematic rules of most small-screen drama, of course. But look beyond the built-in limitations of the genre and Deutschland 83 becomes a fun remix of recent history, reeling you in with its good-looking, nostalgic, lightly ironic pop-culture spin on potentially apocalyptic events. On the strength of these taster episodes, I look forward to more.
Production company: UFA Fiction
Cast: Jonas Nay, Maria Schrader, Ulrich Noethen, Sylvester Groth, Errol T. Harwood, Sonja Gerhardt, Ludwig Trepte, Alexander Beyer, Lisa Tomaschewky, Nikola Kastner
Directors: Edward Berger, Samira Radsi
Producers: Henriette Lippold, Jörg Winger, Nico Hofmann
Screenwriters: Steve Bailie, Andrea Wilson, Ralph Martin, Georg Hartmann
Creators: Anna Winger, Jörg Winger
Cinematographers: Philipp Haberlandt, Frank Küpper
Editor: Sven Budelmann
Casting: Cornelia Mareth, Maria Rölcke
Unrated, 92 minutes (2 episodes)
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