I was 10 years old in 1983. It seems hard to believe these days - especially if you're of a younger generation - but back then we didn't worry so much about global warming or post-capitalism or many of the things that we worry about now, but instead worried about the last flowering of the Cold War, of Nuclear Armaggeddon just around the corner. The inevitability of this conflict seeped into any vision of the future you cared to mention; even ones that weren't blasted landscapes assumed, as a matter of course, that some sort of nuclear exchange would happen, because a future where we decided not to launch the missiles just seemed so outlandish. So it's been a fascinating journey back to that time whilst watching Deutschland '83.
I nearly missed this completely, because for some reason I picked up the impression it was some sort of Social Realist show about life in East Germany, which isn't something I felt I was in the mood for. Thankfully, I got prodded into watching it by a couple of strong recommendations, and I'm very grateful for them, because whislt there is an element of Social Commentary in Deutschland '83 it sits in a show that is, at heart, a very well executed spy thriller set on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Our hero is Martin, a young East German border guard recruited to go undercover in the West as an aide to a West German General in the build up to the deployment of Pershing II missiles to Germany and a major NATO exercise. Martin isn't an ideological servant of the state; he has a reflexive loyalty to his family, including his Aunt, who works for East German Intelligence, and the pregnant girlfreind he is leaving behind. Over in the West, he's quickly involved with the Generals family, which have their own complex set of problems, not to mention the already difficult job of, y'know, being a spy.
There is a certain conceit in some of this setup, as it quickly becomes apparent that there is going to be a degree of historical tourism as the show goes on, some of it more successfully blended in than others. The soundtrack is an fantastic mix of great 80s pop hits, and little touches like Martin's walkman and nicely integrated. With the story being about the build up to Able Archer '83, the dose of nuclear paranoia, the peace moment, and strange subcultures all work well, as do the occasional reminders the horrors of World War 2 are a lot closer than they are now. Less well integrated are the late-arriving AIDS story, which feels in part more like a setup for a second series than part of the first one.
At the core of the show though are uniformly fantastic performances, and grounded views on both sides of the Wall. Life in the East isn't some dystopian terror, but the fear of the state - and how it co-opts and corrupts you - is a major theme of the series, as is the social upheaval brewing in the West as the new generation look for better and fresher ways to live their lives. There isn't a major character I felt was wholly unsympathetic, nor one that was an unqualified hero, matching the shades of grey that Martin's life has become.
Deutschland '83 is a success then on multiple levels - as a spy thriller it's tight and efficient, as a social drama it's varied and interesting, and as a look back on a time it's easy to forget it's well drawn and engaging, different yet memorable. It's a really good show; one of my favorites of the year so far, and if it's the vanguard of a wave of quality German TV hitting the UK then I look forward to more!