'Deutschland 83' Mini-series a Reminder of a Dangerous World Without the EU

For the unnerved among you, an American-German mini-series about the Cold War may give you a taste of things to come post-Brexit, and perhaps some reassurance, too.

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Jonas Nay as Martin Rauch in 'Deutschland 83.'
Jonas Nay as Martin Rauch in 'Deutschland 83.'Credit: Courtesy
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

On the weekend following the Great Exit – when Britain’s older population pointed the younger generation toward the fate marked “exit,” leading it back to a past when it was “an island unto itself” – a Brito-phile like me badly needed something to take my mind off the future ramifications, be they immediate or remote.

The hand behaved as an organ unto itself, groped for the remote and started zapping nervously. When nothing of the scheduled programming managed to satiate my jangled nerves (OK, Poland was playing Switzerland, I was born in Poland, and the game dragged on for 120 minutes and was decided by penalties; Poland won 5:4), I turned to HOT VOD. There I binged – for about 7 hours, 8 episodes – on “Deutschland 83,” a German-American mini-series from 2015 whose action unfolds in Germany, East and West, in 1983.

Oddly enough, this fictional recreation of a time in Europe’s not so distant past, at the height of the Cold War, looked like the right thing to watch. It was a very grim reminder of what Europe was like after the end of WW2, what catastrophes it managed to avert by trying to unite itself, and what dangers may lie ahead with Britain leading everyone on the way out of an uneasy alliance into the great unknown.

For those of you who are too young – or too old – to remember 1983, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Yuri Andropov headed “The Evil Empire” – in Reagan’s words – from the Kremlin, the Berlin Wall was still erect, and the fear of nuclear war was real and sometimes seemed imminent. All of which makes this series both the most frightening and at the same time most soothing experience, and in a way relieves both the viewer and this writer from spoilerphobia. The story line and the experiences of the characters spread the overwhelming atmosphere of a world consumed by fear and suspicion. Big Brother is watching you, and all are out to get you, and yet you know by now that the end of the world did not happen, as you are still here to watch the tale retold. But based on the series, the whole thing may still end with Britain, Europe and the world landing safely on their feet, and keep stumbling into the future, sadder but none the wiser.

“Deutschland 83,” created by the wife and husband team of American writer Anne Winger and German TV producer Joerg Winger, was produced by AMC Network’s Sundance TV and Germany’s RTL Television. It tells the story of a 24-year-old East German Border Guard, Martin Rauch, who is recruited into the foreign intelligence arm of the Stasi (the infamous East German Security Services) by his own aunt, a high ranking Stasi officer.

Martin is sent to the West to serve as an aide-de-camp to a West German general. At the time, NATO command maneuvers are simulating an escalation that may lead to either the U.S. or the Soviet Union launching a preemptive nuclear strike against the other. A still divided Germany, and actually all of Europe (not yet the European Union of today) are in danger of being annihilated as collateral damage.

Against the geopolitical backdrop, the series is a crisscrossing maze of personal story lines. It is the initiation story of Martin (Jonas Nay), who in the West impersonates one Mauritz Stamm, murdered by the Stasi to provide a cover for Martin in the West German Army command. His single mother, Ingrid, is suffering from a grave kidney disease, and he has a pregnant girlfriend, Annett. The Stasi general Walter Schweppenstette and his fellow thugs are all paranoiac to the hilt and convinced that the U.S. is going to nuke them.

On the other side of the Berlin Wall, there is the dysfunctional West German family of the well-meaning General Edel, including his independent, beautiful, hippie daughter (Martin-Mauritz falls for her, of course), his rebellious son, also a soldier, and his long-suffering wife.

The series portrays both sides in human terms. It allows Western audiences to see how the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe managed to get their citizens to willingly, and with patriotic fervor, accept a fascist world view – according to which the needs of one’s country take precedence, without fail, over one’s personal views and needs.

Fascist world view

It was aimed at an American audience – i.e. “the West,” now and forever – and the German one. Its American screening – it was the first German language series aired on an U.S. network (with English subtitles) – got very low ratings by American standards: about 66,000 viewers for the first episode, peaking at 143,000 viewers for the 5th episode and 107,000 for the last one. In the U.K. it started with over 2 million viewers – about the same number of Britons who made the difference between the Leave and Remain vote – and ended with about 1.3 million viewers, becoming the most popular foreign language drama on British TV. The critical reception in both countries was very favorable.

Where it did fail was in Germany, with viewer numbers starting at more than 3 million and ending with less than 2 million. The Bild newspaper called it “the failure of the year.” In my view, Phillip Olterman, writing for The Guardian, in trying to explain why the Germans didn’t like the look of themselves in this TV mirror, managed to sum up the pros and cons for the series very well: “It doesn’t just make the viewer empathise with a Stasi agent on a human level – in the way ‘The Lives of Others’ did – it makes us engage with the socialist regime’s worldview, in which a military exercise in West Germany poses a potentially existential threat. Yet as if to make up for such a radical premise, it then backtracks into stereotype. Stasi officers are cruel ideologues who blackmail family members and fake reports for political ends. The West German officers have messed-up private lives, but they are honest. And to top it all, the peace movement in the West turns out to have been infiltrated not just by Soviet agents, but gay Soviet agents at that – a McCarthyite fantasy come true. In Germany, where the Cold War can still send chills, that feels a bit too simple.”

Be that as it may, a second season of the series was given the green light, and apparently will be called “Deutschland 86,” picking up the story three years later. A third season, were it to happen, would take place in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War seemingly ended – only to be rebooted now, perhaps, with the idea of European unity in danger of crumbling.

East and West may never meet, but once in a while they manage to scare each other out of their wits. Enjoy, and do try to maintain sanity and keep a stiff upper lip. The lower one may start to tremble.

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