The UK’s ongoing love affair with foreign, and more specifically European, dramas is a much talked about phenomenon; programmes like Borgen and The Bridge have become huge critical successes, with many articles devoted to this trend. The usual home of this has been BBC Four, but now Channel 4 are getting involved, with a whole service called Walter Presents to house their world dramas. The first export they’ve brought to British TV is the stylish spy thriller Deutschland 83, a fascinating tale that takes us back in time (to, unsurprisingly, 1983) and back into the strange world of a divided Germany dominated by the politics of East-West tension.
It follows the story of Martin Rauch (played brilliantly by Jonas Nay), a young East German border guard, happily threatening young escapees from behind the Iron Maiden, providing his mother (Carina Weise) with presents from those escapees and enjoying the illicit pleasures of Western pop music with his friend and girlfriend (Sonja Gerdhardt). That is until he is blackmailed into becoming a spy, by his particularly tactical aunt (an unnervingly brilliant Maria Schrader), and becomes Moritz Stamm, an attache for one of a key West German general as Cold War tensions heat up. The first episode does an excellent job of portraying the split between the East and the West, with some excellent scenes like the first time Martin goes into a supermarket and sees the huge range of products on offer, and Nay manages to portray that kind of culture displacement with ease. It’s also stylish in everything it does, from Maria Schrader’s incredibly 80s suit choices to the perfectly chosen soundtrack, featuring everything from 99 Luftballons to Blue Monday.
A lot of parallels have been made between Deutschland 83 and Homeland and it’s quickly obvious why. Tension and intrigue stalk every moment, with a couple of scenes, particularly towards the midpoint of the second episode, leaving us feeling like both Martin’s mission and the peace of the East and West are on a knife point. The key difference between the two is that our hero, in comparison to the manic motivation and drive of Carrie Matheson, Martin is actually a pretty terrible spy. Most of his key moments of traditional spying usually involve a heavy amount of help from other East German spies, mix-ups and Martin screwing up something. This makes him more loveable and endearing, and also highlights one of the programme’s greatest strengths, the use of its supporting storylines. While the focus is on Martin’s spying career, the programme also gives a good amount to Martin’s mother and girlfriend and their dramas back in the East. Stunning turns also come from Ludwig Trepte, Martin’s torn friend and Alexander Bayer as a peace-advocate in Bonn, and Martin’s handler for the East.
It’s not completely without it’s flaws however, with the show’s level of subtlety being fairly questionable at different times. It suffers from some questionable dialogue choices and a tendency to lay out exactly what characters think in one line (‘I dream of a world without conflict, father’ and ‘We’re in the eye of the storm’ being particularly rocky moments), and does have moments where it goes straight off it’s ‘stylised but realistic’ brief into particularly ridiculous moments of madness. In particular, one scene in Episode 2 completely drives off the deep end of reality, with a scene that could have come right out of any of the Bourne films.
It manages to be nostalgic without feeling like it’s trying to ram the 1980s down your throat, and it delves into historical events without at the same time either feeling tied down by them or lacking in historical fact as something like Downton Abbey does. This, mixed with Jonas Nay’s excellent performance bringing together feelings of cultural displacement, loyalty and plain old homesickness, means that Deutschland 83 feels both historical and genuine.
While Deutschland 83 might be a stellar example of foreign-language drama, it’s no coincidence that this is the flagship of Walter Presents, defining it as merely such is reductive and actually not particularly true. Deutschland 83, despite it’s heavy subject matter, is a programme that leans a lot closer to stylish historical dramas like Peaky Blinders then it does it links to the dark Scandinavian tendencies of a program like Borgen, and this is a huge strength. Whether it rises to the level of fame that programmes like The Killing have had will remain to be seen, but whatever happens Deutschland 83, with its compelling lead and intriguing premise, deserves a chance to reach those heady heights.