Review: Deutschland 83 and 86

Published

Credit: Channel 4

Chris Dobson
Writer

The Cold War thriller recently returned to More 4

East and West Germany were key battlegrounds during the Cold War, and it is this ideological conflict which is the focus of Deutschland 83 and its second series, Deutschland 86, which recently returned to TV and laptop screens. Created by husband-and-wife team Anna and Joerg Winger, the series is a co-production of AMC Networks’ Sundance TV and the German RTL. Both series are part of a trilogy depicting the decline of the East German state, and a final series – Deutschland 89 is scheduled for release around 2021.

In 2015, Deutschland 83 was the first German-language series to air on a US network and in 2016 it came to UK screens on Channel 4. Ironically, despite being almost entirely German-language, Deutschland 83 failed to resonate with German audiences but proved a cult hit abroad. It stars Jonas Nay as Martin Rauch, an East German spy in West Germany with a mission to infiltrate NATO. Martin doesn’t actually want to be a spy, but he is forced into the role by his Machiavellian aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) and estranged father Walter Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth), both of whom work for the Stasi. This is not, it’s fair to say, your typical family.

The series is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a political thriller, and Deutschland 83 works best when not taken too seriously. Through its soundtrack and its characters’ stylish costumes, the series conveys a vintage 80s feel. If you want nuance or historical accuracy, it’s best to look elsewhere, but as a fun, at times cartoonish spy thriller, it’s highly enjoyable. Although many of the characters seem like cardboard cutout caricatures, such as the villainous East German operatives, Martin feels very real and layered as he struggles with conflicting interests: where do his loyalties lie, in his home, the undemocratic east, or in his new home, the liberal west?

Martin inevitably falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the general he is spying on, and he also befriends Alex (Ludwig Trepte), the general’s homosexual son. Alex is another of the few nuanced characters and over the course of the first series he explores his sexuality and becomes engaged in left-wing activism. The eight episodes of Deutschland 83 build to a riveting climax in which Martin must prevent nuclear war inadvertently breaking out.

Deutschland 86 takes place three years after Deutschland 83 and indeed it aired three years after the first series’ release. In March of this year the whole boxset was released on Channel 4’s online video streaming platform All 4, with ten episodes compared to the first series’ eight.

Deutschland 86 is more ambitious in scope than Deutschland 83, covering not just East and West Germany but also the wider world, for example Angola, France and Libya. It casts a critical eye on the apartheid regime in South Africa and on East Germany’s Faustian dealings with dodgy despots. The terrible AIDS epidemic, meanwhile, is central to Alex’s storyline. We see cracks beginning to appear in the ailing East German state, for instance doctor Tina Fischer (Fritzi Haberlandt) and her family try to escape to the West.

Both series are at their best when they are unselfconsciously silly and fun, so Deutschland 86 struggles at times with its attempts to integrate more serious themes and storylines, important though these subjects are. It is also sloppy in its representation of race, for instance the only fully (or at least partially) realised African characters we meet in the series are a black Angolan child, whom Martin teaches German; Rose Seithathi (Florence Kasumba), an ANC operative in South Africa who is undoubtedly badass but lacks a real personality; a racist white South African man whose main role is to muck up things for Martin; and a Libyan terrorist who plants a bomb in a West Berlin nightclub. Africans are presented therefore either as marginal characters or as dangerous terrorists, which serves only to fuel racist stereotypes, even if this wasn’t intentional.

In terms of its gender dynamics Deutschland 86 fares slightly better, with plenty of strong and nuanced female characters, although Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson) is a bit of an odd one: both dentist and spy, she falls head over heels for Martin, despite him seducing her just in order to steal her diamond necklace. The depiction of two homosexual relationships, meanwhile, is laudable, although both are sidelined.

Ultimately, Deutschland 86 is a fun enough sequel to Deutschland 83, but it is not quite as slick. When the series returns for Deutschland 89 in around three years’ time, it will be fascinating to see where it takes its cast of characters, as the East German state finally comes tumbling down.