Deutschland 83 s1 ep 7; s1 ep 8

The Cold War is about to go hot. The West has started a huge military exercise, named Able Archer. In order for it to provide a realistic assessment of NATO’s readiness for war, it has to be as accurate as possible. Unfortunately, it’s that very accuracy which means that the Warsaw Pact countries don’t recognise it as a war game; it’s convincing enough to persuade some in the East that the first strike they’ve been anticipating is about to arrive, and to put their own strategy – Operation RYaN – in place. (Like many things in Deutschland 83, this is more or less how it happened in real life.)

Martin knows that the East is preparing for war. He also knows that Able Archer is no more than an exercise. Unable to convince anyone in East Germany of this – in part, because Schweppenstette, for reasons which remain opaque to me at least, is maintaining the fiction that the West is about to attack – he then has to try and persuade NATO to stop the exercise before it leads to a nuclear conflict. And that means blowing his cover; in the process of telling Edel what the Soviet bloc is thinking and doing, he essentially has to admit that he’s a mole. So Martin has to go on the run: on foot, then in a stolen car, then concealing himself in a family car returning from a daytrip, all trying to get back across the border to the East. His big problem is that, uniquely, he’s now a traitor to both sides.

Historical dramas – at least, those which stick to the known facts – have to overcome the difficulty that we know the ending. And in this case we know that, one way or another, the East and the West will manage not to start a nuclear exchange. This is largely achieved through the stolid, wry figure of Fuchs, who patiently excavates for the truth – in this case, an unedited copy of the NATO report provided by Martin, which he’s then able to compare with Schweppenstette’s revised version. I wasn’t mad about the montage which followed the world stepping back from the brink – launched missiles reversing and so on – although the show’s been good enough to be forgiven the occasional stylistic misstep and ninja assassin.

Meantime, the revelation that Schwep had a relationship with Ingrid, and that Martin is his son, wasn’t wholly surprising, although it was one of a number of developments which tied the show’s main narrative threads together nicely. That relationship allowed Ingrid to insist to a bewildered Annett that yes, the forbidden books were in her basement, so of course she knew about them, and that neither she nor Thomas would be going to prison despite Ingrid’s best attempts. And Lenora, who has come across as one of life’s survivors, has a secret lover and a future in Mozambique to look forward to.

For the Westerners, the news isn’t particularly good: Alex, whose position in the army is untenable, has also found out from Tischbier that he might have AIDS; and Alex’s father General Edel returns home to discover that his wife has left him. We hear a shot from the Edel house, but whether father or son commits suicide or murder is left unclear. My gut feeling was that Alex killed himself, but on reflection I think it was the General. Put another way, I have no idea.

As for Martin, the show’s main character, his future is unwritten. He now has one foot in both camps, ideologically at least: his reaction on discovering that Annett is on team Schweppenstette – “Are you working for them?” – isn’t what you would expect of a committed spy operative. But he’s back in the East, reconciled with his mother, protected from blowback by his connection to his father, and about to become a parent himself. I’m quite happy to leave him there, on the verge of personal and political developments which will change him for ever, although I’d also be delighted were a sequel to be made, perhaps picking up later in the 80s around the time of the Wall coming down.

No decision has yet been taken on whether there’ll be more Deutschland. If we’re done, then I’d say the show has to go down as a success: not without flaws, but enjoyable and thought-provoking, making a good job of balancing the personal and the global, and relishing its period setting without playing it for cheap laughs.

Deutschland 83 s1 ep 6

Martin is in hospital in East Berlin for his mother’s kidney transplant, and he doesn’t want to go back to Bonn; he’s appalled by what he’s let himself become, and he wants to stay with Annett and be a father to their unborn child. But Schweppenstette – significantly, after being briefed by Annett – manages to persuade Martin to return to the West, on the basis that there’s a first strike coming and East Germany needs to know about it. And as the episode makes clear, yet again, this was a time of increasing geopolitical tension: as well as the deployment of Pershing II missiles, which to many in the East was the preface to the first strike they expected and feared, the temperature is turned up by the Soviet Union shooting down a Korean Air passenger jet.

Although this incident gives the episode its context, the main event of the week features Alex Edel. West German intelligence has started to work out that there’s something going on with young Herr Edel, and even his father finally works out that he’s not hiding in his room with a virus. (Although the AIDS hint dropped last week will be picked up in another storyline, and one which might yet lead back to Alex.) Having been cleverly wound up by Tischbier, over the last few episodes, to a pitch of revolutionary frenzy, Alex decides that direct action is appropriate. Last week, we saw him offering his services at the East German embassy, although in doing so – as Lenora and Schweppenstette immediately realise – he becomes useless as an asset, because the West knows who’s going in and out of that embassy.

Maybe Alex realises it too, because his next step is even more desperate: he storms into a high-class brothel and takes Major-General Jackson hostage at gunpoint. He then forces Jackson to read aloud a statement denouncing the West’s military ambitions, which Alex videotapes. This is a high-stakes moment for the show; Alex is kind of an idiot, and occasionally the plot stumbles towards farce. (Although I did like the sex worker wondering whether it was all just a role-play scenario.) But the writers get away with it, just about: the East is listening to the whole thing on a live feed, the West scrambles to deal with it, Martin turns up to get Alex out. And there are consequences, in particular the death of an established character; presumably, also, Alex and Martin will now have questions to answer. As far as Martin goes, in fact, I’m starting to wonder at point General Edel will notice that things have being going wrong ever since “Moritz Stamm” turned up.

But as Deutschland 83 goes on, it’s becoming clear that although Martin is the main character, Walter Schweppenstette’s at the centre of everything: his final act this week is to ensure that the briefing on the decoded NATO report is rewritten to maintain the position that NATO is planning a first strike, even though the information he has makes it clear that isn’t in contemplation. His reasons for doing so weren’t entirely clear to me, although it may be that he’s just another of the people, on both the left and the right, who have found that keeping people in a state of fear is profitable, whether personally or politically. Anyway, this is another excellent episode; as the end of the season approaches, Deutschland 83 is hitting top form.

Deutschland 83 s1 ep 5

Things have changed for Martin after the events of the last episode: he’s had to bury Linda, someone about whom he cared – and to whose death he contributed – and he wakes up in Yvonne’s bed, although that for now is a plot development I can live without. Anyway, he’s decided that he’s had enough of the spy life, and tells Tischbier that he wants out. Unfortunately – on more than one level – his mother has collapsed, and thanks to Lenora’s intervention has jumped the queue for a kidney transplant. This, of course, is dependent on Martin’s continued co-operation. And on his kidney; it turns out that the blood Lenora took from him was indeed just a test to establish compatibility.

So Martin has to get back to East Berlin, and in what looks like a nod to Cold War-era Western plenty vs. Communist deprivation he’s asked to take a couple of tins of coffee home: one ordinary, one decaf. But when he stops off in West Berlin, and hands one of the coffee tins to a contact, within a few seconds a bomb goes off. It turns out that the tin contained detonators, and that Martin’s contact either is, or is working for, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, well-known during that era as Carlos the Jackal, a terrorist of international renown. This particular attack – on the Maison de France in West Berlin – actually took place, but while I generally like it when the world of D83 intersects with real life, I felt that the incident was sold a little short: would the explosion really have taken place a matter of seconds after the handover? And would a famous terrorist (or a member of his team) allow himself to be chased, caught, and beaten up by novice spy Martin?

Meantime, Tischbier manages to engineer a falling-out with Alex, who then manages to pick a fight with his sister and her commune chums. After the spat with his father last week this all provides further evidence for the proposition that as well as being ideologically-driven he’s pretty objectionable. So with no allies left he fetches up at the GDR embassy offering his services, thus going where Tischbier always wanted him to go. And Thomas tells Annett about his secret library of proscribed literature, whereupon she does what (I assume) Lenora always wanted her to do, and grasses him up.

Hanging over it all, and giving the show its context, is the genuine East German belief that the West is about to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Deutschland 83 generally manages to strike a balance between the global and the personal, but this week perhaps the geopolitics were underplayed a little; I liked the episode, but was left with the lingering feeling that Deutschland 83 has been better.

Deutschland 83 s1 ep 4

Spoilers.

Deutschland 83 abruptly gets serious this week: the bug in Linda’s (still ravishing) Art Deco desk is discovered early in the episode, and for the rest of the episode Martin is scrambling to escape the consequences. For NATO, it means that someone in Henrik Meyer’s inner circle – perhaps Meyer himself – is a spy. And for Martin, it means that he either has to “turn” Linda, or “eliminate” her, as instructed by East German intelligence. One of the strengths of the episode is how difficult it is to interpret Martin’s feelings for Linda: does he really love her, or is he just doing his job? He seems a little put out when she surprises him in Bonn, but their scenes together at the lakeside suggest genuine affection; and, of course, when she’s on the verge of drowning he can’t let it happen, even though it would solve the problem that she’s become. I’m going for “mostly love”, which in its way makes Linda’s enthusiasm for their relationship even more touching.

Martin equivocates about reading Linda in by first pretending to be a member of the BND. But when the investigations into the bug start to get closer to home, and he tries to put the blame on Meyer, he unwittingly overplays his hand; what he doesn’t know is that there’s no way on earth Linda will go along with that, because (the married) Meyer and Linda were lovers at one point as well. This is a beautifully-judged twist which at a stroke gives both Meyer and Linda a morally-complex backstory. In the immediate short term, though, it blows Martin’s cover as far as Linda is concerned; she’s seen enough of Meyer to know for certain that he’s not a spy, which means that Martin is.

Until that point I wasn’t sure how Linda’s story was going to play out. But from then on it has a sad inevitability: she runs away from Martin, correctly deducing him to be the person behind the bug; Martin phones Tischbier in a panic, and is reassured that the problem will be taken care of; and it is. On top of that there’s an unbearably sad conclusion to Meyer’s story as he takes his own life, having been threatened with exposure by Lenora, who has the goods on his affair with Linda. Meyer, of course, as we have seen, was (his dalliance with Linda notwithstanding) a decent man, and the voice of sanity in the NATO room. It’ll be interesting to see how his departure alters the balance of the show’s politics; presumably he and Linda will be regarded as spies, and his desire to avoid war will now be painted as further evidence of his Communist leanings.

The rest of the episode is inevitably a little insubstantial compared with the main plot, although everything else was kept on a simmer. Alex Edel rants (with, I fancied, some Hitlerian mannerisms, although that might be showing my own prejudices) at his father, the General, and then runs into the welcoming embrace of the predatory Tischbier, whose grooming of Alex – politically and sexually – is now more or less complete. Annett tackles Thomas about the proscribed books in Ingrid’s house, and is contemplating involving Schweppenstette, which I’m still speculating might have been Lenora’s plan all along. Renate is still drinking too much, but continuing to voice her suspicions about Martin. And Martin himself, bizarrely, heads over to Yvonne’s commune and makes out with her, although there was a hallucinogenic quality to the scene which made it less than reliable. A very strong episode, with a real emotional heft.

Deutschland 83 s1 ep 3

Martin’s task for the week is to spy on a NATO meeting in Brussels, at which strategist Henrik Meyer is, once again, the voice of reason, calmly but persistently reminding all present that every single first-strike scenario leads to catastrophe; even a “successful” attack on the East might lead to nuclear fallout all over the West. SS-20s, SS-21s, détente: yes, this is how we spoke in the nuclear-war-haunted 80s, even those of us who weren’t military strategists.

For Martin, it means another taste of the pleasures that the West has to offer, none more exquisite than when he buys a hooky Walkman and hears Duran Duran for the first time. But his job is to get close to Meyer’s secretary Linda, with whom we saw him flirting at the end of last week’s episode, and thus to bug Meyer’s office. Linda turns out to be susceptible to Martin’s advances, and I found myself hoping that he doesn’t break her heart.

Martin is able to plant a listening device in her office when the two of them go shopping and she buys a semicircular rosewood Art Deco desk; knowing this, he’s able to break into the furniture shop and hide the device in the desk before it’s delivered. The desk itself, incidentally, might be one of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen on a TV show, human females included.

While Martin is seducing Linda, mind you, an even more delicate seduction is taking place, as Alex Edel starts to fall under Professor Tobias Tischbier’s spell. It starts with Alex becoming frustrated with Tobias’s well-meaning group of student activists, and as someone who was a student in the 80s, I recognised much of it with a squirm of embarrassment: the hand-holding protests, the sanctimony. Edel Jr. points out, quite rightly, that that sort of nonsense isn’t going to make the slightest difference to NATO and that something more, uh, radical might be required if minds are going to be changed. Tobias doesn’t jump in immediately, but lets him start to come to his own conclusions, then gently suggests that if he really wants to make a difference he might want to consider dropping into the East German mission along the road. It’s masterful.

As well as the Walkman and the music, the period detail this week comes from the East German security forces, staring in bewilderment at the floppy disc Martin recovered last week, and wondering what the hell to do with it. It goes in a computer, they eventually decide, but not the primitive ones to which they have access. The best comedy of the episode comes from the taciturn Schweppenstette, having to swallow his pride and concede that an American computer might be needed to extract data from the floppy disc, while still stubbornly maintaining Communist standards under technological, cultural, and linguistic pressure from the West: “Cool.” “Don’t say cool.” “OK.” “Don’t say OK.”

And elsewhere in East Germany, something is starting to simmer in the house of Ingrid, Martin’s mother. Despite what Lenora is telling Martin, Ingrid doesn’t seem to be anywhere nearer to her kidney transplant. (And what, incidentally, was that blood sample all about?) Annett has moved in, though, and vomits within minutes of the start of the episode, so we know she’s pregnant, although her protestation that it’s definitely Martin’s might not stand up to a careful parsing of the timeline. The other potential candidate for paternity, Thomas, is still hanging around Ingrid’s house for what looks like no good reason, until Annett sees Thomas leaving the house with some boxes, then finds a secret basement room filled with what look like forbidden books. So is Ingrid involved as well; and, if so, did Lenora suspect something and install Annett to investigate?

‘Atlantic Lion’ might have been a little slighter than the first two episodes, but it was at least as enjoyable. Anyway, it’s more or less impossible not to love a show in which the lyrics to ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ are turned into a plot point, and I’m not about to try.

Deutschland 83 s1 ep 2

The second episode of Deutschland 83 is every bit as successful as the first, mostly because it plays to the same strength: reducing issues of huge import to a human size. In the early 80s there was nothing bigger, of course, than what many people feared was an inevitable nuclear confrontation between West and East, and the episode’s central event is a security conference at a hotel in Bonn at which the possibilities for a Western first strike of some sort are being gamed out. “All roads”, NATO analyst Henrik Mayer (Jens Albinus, Jon in Borgen) drily observes, “lead to escalation”. And the names being bandied about last week and this, many long-forgotten, are helping to recreate the atmosphere for those of us who lived through those times: Weinberger, Strauss, Honecker, Kelly, Wörner, even Pershing II.

Martin’s job isn’t to prevent a nuclear war, though: it’s to plant a bug in Mayer’s hotel room and steal a copy of his report from a safe. There are elephant traps along the way: Mayer almost immediately changes rooms with General Jackson, meaning that Martin has to move his bug. Then Edel tasks him with bringing his daughter Yvonne back from a commune. And an old friend of the real Moritz Stamm is at the conference, wanting to have a catch-up.

With all of that in the background, Martin needs to find a way into Mayer’s new room, get round the fact that he doesn’t know the combination to the safe any more, work out what to do with a report which is on one of these new floppy discs, and so on. Having negotiated all of this – with, it has to be said, some style – he’s then confronted by a waitress from the hotel, who is lying in his bed and apparently waiting for some lovin’. But she’s an operative of some sort as well; she gets away after a fight, and Martin quickly convinces everyone that she stole the floppy disc. We don’t find out for now who she’s working for: Chinese intelligence is one possibility, but (from my recollections of the era) China was much more inward-looking at the time. My guess would be another branch of the Soviet bloc, perhaps the USSR itself?

There are a couple of clouds on the horizon: Annett has found herself a new beau in his absence, and Renate’s recollection of Martin phoning East Germany is, for now, being written off as a drunken and part-sexual fantasy, but one assumes that it will come into focus later. What the episode manages to do, though, is start to give Martin a motivation for doing what he’s doing, beyond the possibility of his mother’s kidney transplant: he’s good at it, he’s starting to enjoy himself, and his lack of ideological commitment can take a back seat for now.

Which means that when, bloodied, bruised, but quietly triumphant, he sits down on a sofa in the hotel, and a good-looking young woman settles beside him and unobtrusively flirts with him, he’s confident enough to reciprocate. This final scene threw me twice, mind you. Firstly, because I was assuming that Martin would, with his girlfriend on the other side of the Iron Curtain, have a Western dalliance. But I guessed it would be with Yvonne, rather than with Linda, Henrik Mayer’s secretary. Not that anything has happened yet, but… it’s going to, isn’t it? And, secondly, because although this show was broadcast in the UK on Sunday night, I watched it on Monday, by which time the use of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ to soundtrack the scene had become unbearably poignant. On top of all of the other reminders we’ve had today of Bowie’s peculiar and unique genius, it served as a manifestation of how well his songs suited a visual medium, much like the use of the same song in the now-classic scene in Frances Ha (2013),  itself an homage to a similar – even better? – scene in Mauvais Sang (1986).

Deutschland 83 s1 ep 1

87f99b76150940b8c078c2b731f6d757The 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.