Deutschland 83, Season 1, Episode 1, “Quantum Jump”
Written by Anna Winger
Directed by Edward Berger
Airs Wednesdays at 11pm (ET) on SundanceTV
Germany isn’t known for its television programming. While Scandinavia has produced worldwide sensations like The Killing, The Bridge, Wallander, and Borgen, and France exported The Returned, Germany has been largely content to get by on its reputation for fine beer, upscale autos, and rabid soccer fans, while importing most of its TV dramas.
There were some indications that Germany’s long disinterest in television artistry was coming to an end in 2013 when Generation War (Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter) premiered to mostly positive reviews. The World War II drama, which follows an idealistic group of young friends as they are changed by war, was broadcast in Germany and Europe as a mini-series and initially released as a film in the U.S. before landing on Netflix in serialized form. The show received attention for its controversial decision to sympathetically depict its Nazi protagonists and also for its high production values and emotional melodrama, rarities for German TV.
Now comes SundanceTV’s new German import Deutschland 83. Not only is the eight-part espionage series the first German-language TV show ever broadcast in the United States, it focuses on a relatively unexplored area of Cold War history: the East and West German experience leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. From the very first moments of the pilot episode, it’s easy to see why the project caught the attention of an American broadcaster. It’s a stylishly-produced thriller with an infectious ’80s soundtrack– Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” propels the wickedly cool opening credits–that draws easy comparisons to The Americans. However, while The Americans uses the Cold War as an instrument to delve into the intimacy issues of a middle-aged married couple, Deutschland 83 is a decidedly youthful affair, using wartime tensions to explore classic coming-of-age issues such as discovering one’s role in the world and cleaning up the messes left behind by previous generations.
The story centers on Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German border guard who is conscripted into the spy business by his aunt Lenora, a member of the Stasi secret police. Afraid that the U.S. is planning an attack on East Germany, she has Martin assume the life of Moritz Stamm, the new aide assigned to an influential West German general, in order to gain intelligence on nuclear missile locations.
Once deployed, the very reluctant Martin is more interested in phoning his girlfriend back in East Germany than engaging in espionage. But Lenora’s promises to help Martin’s ailing mother obtain a kidney transplant keep him fumbling through his first mission.
The pilot episode is nicely paced and contains several heart-thumping near-misses as Martin learns his craft on the job. There are also moments of absurd humor as Martin deals with the ridiculously difficult situation he’s been placed in, and, like every good coming-of-age tale, the groundwork is laid for future romantic and family dramas. Stylistically, the show is stuffed with nifty period details that evoke both nostalgia–like the repeated appearance of Nena’s peace-anthem “99 Luftballoons”–and curiosity–East and West Germans have markedly different vocabularies for dozens of everyday items.
The episode also benefits from the evenhanded way writer Anna Winger, the American journalist who created the show with her German showrunner husband Joerg Winger, depicts the economic and philosophical differences between East and West Germany. For instance, there is rationing in East Germany, but Martin clearly enjoyed the life he was building for himself there, and while food and fashion are plentiful in West Germany, the dangers of excess are underscored. History already knows which viewpoint will win out, but it will be interesting to see how the opposing political ideologies play out as social drama in coming episodes.
The performances are strong throughout the cast. Jonas Nay, who resembles a young Jeremy Renner, is a true find. He believably depicts Martin’s confusion, terror, and fascination with his new position and prosperity. His first bumbling attempts at espionage have an Everyman quality that are disarming but also demonstrate a determined edge that will no doubt prove pivotal to his character’s future survival.
Maria Schrader also displays great depth as the coolly manipulative Lenora. Much like Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans, she appears to be so dedicated to her political cause that she can justify all manner of dark deeds to herself. But Schrader’s performance suggests there is much more to Lenora than meets the eye, and hopefully her motivations will be more deeply explored in coming episodes.
If this episode is any indication, Deutschland 83 will be compelling entertainment. The pilot strikes a winning balance between breezy historical drama, spy derring-do, and family melodrama. Some viewers may be frightened off by the subtitles, but those who stick with it should be in for a fun summer ride.