At first glance, Deutschland 83 might be mistaken for season 4 of The Americans. The critically acclaimed FX Soviet-spy drama closed out its excellent third season with Ronald Reagan giving his famous “Evil Empire” address. Without missing a beat, Deutschland 83, the brand-new Cold War thriller that premiered Wednesday on SundanceTV, opened its first scene with the very same speech.
The Reagan-speech link between the two series makes for an excellent hook, but other than some familiar-looking spycraft (brush-pass, anyone?), the general Commies vs. Capitalists plotline and the year (1983), the similarities between the two shows taper off pretty quickly. And to Deutschland 83‘s credit, that’s not a bad thing.
Written and created by husband-and-wife team Anna and Joerg Winger—she’s American, he’s German—Deutschland 83 is the first German-language program to be broadcast on a U.S. TV network (the series will premiere on German television this fall). While the initial comparisons to The Americans are going to be inevitable at first, once we move past the Reagan scene, Deutschland 83 takes on an identity of its own, and it’s a show worth getting to know. Unlike The Americans, which is really a story about marriage and family, Deutschland 83 is all about the spy game. As a result, the German TV show suffers from a lack of the human-relationship factor that makes The Americans such an engrossing series, but at the same time, it keeps the parallels at bay.
Instead of two willing Soviet spies posing as a suburban Washington, D.C., couple, we have 23-year-old East German soldier Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) as our protagonist. When we first meet him, Martin is a model example of a communist upbringing, spouting rhetoric like “The greatest privilege of socialism is freedom. Freedom from greed” as he interrogates two students caught crossing the East-West border with, gasp! black-market Shakespeare.
Martin’s aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) is a sophisticated, Elizabeth Jennings-esque Cold Warrior who slinks around in a typically ’80s asymmetrical haircut and smokes more than Don Draper. A spy for the East German side, Reagan’s speech freaked her out, and now she wants someone on the inside gathering NATO military strategy secrets.
And, hey, whaddaya know? Her nephew just happens to fit the profile of the young, unsuspecting guy she needs to get the job done. Oh, he’s not interested? Too bad, comrade, your country needs you. Martin is drugged and shipped off to the West German capital of Bonn, where Lenora and her colleague, Tobias (Alexander Beyer), put the situation in pragmatic terms he can understand: Martin’s mother (Lenora’s sister), Ingrid, needs a kidney transplant, and in East Germany, that means you need to know the right people in order to get on the right list. How can Ingrid get on the list? By letting the well-connected Lenora blackmail her son into a spying gig.
The kidney transplant plotline is important here, because it’s one of the few signs of what conditions were like in East Germany. The Americans and Cold War-era movies tend to portray life behind the Iron Curtain as colorless, drab existences, whereas Deutschland 83 demonstrates how the differences were much more subtle—restrictions on medical care, for example. But, hey, life wasn’t all that bad for East Germany: They still got their Rockpalast transmissions featuring ample doses of Nena singing “99 Luftballons.“
The distinctions between the capitalist West and the communist East are also illustrated in a great scene where Martin stumbles into his very first supermarket in Bonn. It’s as if he’s walked into Munchkinland after living his entire life in sepia-toned Kansas. Except instead of a yellow brick road and ruby slippers, he’s mesmerized by the aisles upon aisles of consumer goods. And by the synth-heavy Eurythmics song filling his ears. Before long, he’s happily stuffing his face with fast food, although it comes with a warning by the veteran spy Tobias: “Western governments want to keep their citizens fat, lazy, and complacent.”
Once Martin accepts his fate—the sooner he completes his mission, the faster his mother will get the medical care she needs and he can go home—we’re treated to a Musical Montage of Spy Training. Martin is taught how to do a brush pass, pick locks, take pictures with micro-cameras—and he’s given a new identity.
Going forward, Martin is Moritz Stamm, a West German officer who serves as the assistant to a general with close ties to NATO. (A brief scene shows the real Moritz swiftly executed on a train.) Once he is installed at the army base, Martin/Moritz spends the rest of the episode starring in a nonstop comedy of errors, making rookie mistake after rookie mistake his first day on the job. Before he even does any real spy work, his technology ignorance nearly gives him away: “Don’t they have phones in Braunschweig?” asks an incredulous secretary after Moritz can’t seem to figure out how the fancy-schmancy multiple-line telephones work.
Things then go from bad to worse as Moritz sets about his mission, leaving a trail of blunders in his wake: He succeeds in photographing important Pershing II missile documents stashed in a visiting American general’s briefcase, but he fails to lock a specific desk drawer where the office keys were, leaving it open for all suspicious eyes to see. That night, during a barbecue at his boss’ house, Moritz not only botches a brush pass, but he recklessly calls his girlfriend back in East Germany—and is overheard by a party guest.
Somehow, despite all of his gaffes, Moritz succeeds in his assignment, and in the final scene, Lenora informs him what those documents revealed: There are 17 targets in East Germany that have Pershing II missiles pointed at them. Translation? “Sorry, Moritz, you can’t go home yet. There’s more work to be done” (and seven episodes left of Deutschland 83).
Now that the East Germans want to know when the Americans are planning their attack, Moritz falls further into Lenora’s entrapment. That promise of getting Ingrid on the transplant list? It’s still on the table, but Lenora’s going to dangle it in front of her nephew to ensure his continued cooperation. Just like her Soviet TV counterpart, Elizabeth Jennings, Lenora is much more concerned with the bigger picture than some silly blood connection. As she tells a horrified Moritz, “the lives of millions of East German citizens” are much more important to her than her own sister.
The question is, will Martin/Moritz’s loyalty to his country—and his mother—be enough to remain a pawn in Lenora’s Cold War games? Or will he be seduced by the West and all its capitalist charms?
Deutschland 83 airs on Wednesdays at 11 p.m. ET on SundanceTV.