The starting point, both chronological and philosophical, for this German drama is President Reagan’s era-defining 1983 speech, in which he referred to the Soviet bloc as the “evil empire”. The East Germans think that the West is about to launch a military attack, and want someone on the inside to find out what NATO is up to.
An opportunity presents itself when General Edel (Ulrick Noethen), of the West German army, is about to appoint Moritz Stamm, a young officer, as his new aide-de-camp. East Berlin border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is identified as a suitable faux-Stamm by his aunt Lenora (a powerhouse performance by Maria Schrader, dangerous and sexy), who works for East German intelligence. Martin is initially unwilling, but his mother needs a kidney transplant, and that’s the sort of thing which can be arranged if he co-operates. So he adopts Stamm’s identity and turns up for work at Edel’s office, Stamm himself having been briskly taken care of in a short but brilliant scene. (I did wonder whether Stamm had a family, perhaps, who would miss him, but maybe not.)
Martin gets some rudimentary training in espionage, but is nervous as hell and missing his girlfriend Annett (Sonja Gerhardt): he nearly gets caught twice, once while photocopying the contents of an American general’s briefcase, and once when phoning Annett during a barbecue at General Edel’s house. But he just about gets away with it both times, and by the end it’s made clear to him that he’s going to have to stay where he is; there’s much more for him to do. The extent to which he will find himself seduced by the West remains open for now, although one of this episode’s most memorable scenes occurs when he finds himself in a supermarket, both baffled and dazzled by the shelves groaning under the weight of the products of consumer-driven capitalism.
I really liked Deutschland 83. It’s dealing with very weighty issues – a possible nuclear war, an existential clash of ideologies between West and East – but it’s fast-paced and witty, and grounds its drama at a human level. I’m guessing that the production designers had great fun with the period trappings – those old phones! – and with selecting the soundtrack. But the 80s setting looks and feels right without being obtrusive, something it shares with The Americans, along with the Cold War subject matter. Apart from that, though, the shows struck me as satisfyingly dissimilar – as the show makes clear, for example, the European perspective on the possibility of the Cold War turning hot wasn’t the same as the American one by any means. And there’s a world of difference between the inexperienced, reluctant Martin, and the more worldly Philip and Elizabeth’s lifelong commitment. In any event, ‘Quantum Leap’ had more than enough about it to suggest that this show will be worth watching.