Martin Rauch, a border guard in East Germany, leans over the table holding a multi-volume set of Shakespeare’s collected works. Two nervous men squirm in their chairs while Rauch glares at them.
“What about these books?” Rauch asks. “They don’t sell Shakespeare in the West?”
“Yes, but they cost more,” one of the young men explains. “Students like us can’t afford such expensive books in the West.”
“You couldn’t afford them here at the official exchange rate, either,” Rauch says. The boys are from West Germany. It’s 1983. The boys bought the books on the black market in the East and planned to sell them for a profit in the West. Rauch caught them.
“These two felt they deserved a better deal,” Rauch says as he stands. “The greatest privilege of socialism is freedom. Freedom from greed. The kind of greed that caused you two to break our laws to get a better deal.”
“Ever thought about that?” Rauch asks as he leans over the boys. “Of course not, you’re much too busy thinking about yourselves.”
This is Deutschland 83, a television show that just finished its eight-episode run on the Sundance channel. Rauch is the show’s protagonist and — despite his lofty speeches — also very selfish.
“The next time you decide to take East German laws into your own hands,” he says. “Ask yourselves — who will win? You, the greedy capitalists or we, the socialists, who work together for the collective good?”
In the coming months, East Germany will ask a lot from Rauch, and it will push his beliefs in those values to their absurd endpoints in one of the most compelling and well-written shows I’ve seen.
Deutschland 83 opens on Lenora — an East German intelligence agent and Rauch’s aunt — watching U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan’s famed Evil Empire speech. His rhetoric frightens her. She’s worried that he’s laying the groundwork for a preemptive nuclear strike.
To ensure the continuation of East Germany, she and her cohorts plan to infiltrate the West German military and place an agent as the aide-de-camp to Gen. Wolfgang Edel, the official in charge of dealing with NATO and the Americans.
Lenora wants Rauch for the job. He’s the same age as the aide-de-camp they’re replacing, speaks the same languages and has the same interests. Lenora also knows Rauch’s mother is sick, and that she can use that as leverage to control him.
Which is convenient for Lenora because Rauch doesn’t want the job. He wants to stay at home with his girlfriend and care for his mother. When Lenora and her goons show up to tell him it’s time to serve his country, he says he’s already serving it … as a border guard.
But Lenora isn’t asking. Rauch is the only fit for the part, so the spies drug him and drag him away. When he wakes up, he’s in the West German capital … and in the lair of his spymaster.
Anna Winger and her husband conceived and wrote Deutschland 83. She lives in Berlin and has written about it many times, but this is her first television show. Her writing on Deutschland 83 coupled with Edward Berger and Samira Radsi’s direction capture a time and place in a way that I haven’t seen since David Simon’s The Wire.
The music, costumes and sets all work together to pull the viewer into a period when tensions were high and the future of the world uncertain.
I think one reason the show works so well is its deep and abiding respect for East Germany. I grew up in the ’80s and popular culture always depicted East Germany as a filthy, poverty stricken nightmare crushed under the heel of communism.
The East Berlin of Deutschland 83 is different than the West, but it’s not disgusting. The people are clean and live their lives. They have fewer material goods and they struggle, yes, but it looks much like any other European city — just with older cars and fewer advertisements.
It’s certainly an oppressive police state, but an efficient police state isn’t obvious.
The other reason the show works is its treatment of ideology and moral gray areas. Despite Rauch’s ability to spout the party line, he doesn’t want to work toward the perceived greater good of his country.
Lenora and his spymaster constantly call him selfish and self interested. He does the work and he’s good at it, but only because they’ve promised him a new kidney for his mother. He’s a socialist agent working for his own self interest rather than the good of the collective.
The rest of the characters are similarly nuanced. The show reflects the politics of the time and those politics are complicated. Opening with Reagan’s Evil Empire speech is perfect, because it highlights a Western politician’s attempt to frame the tensions between East and West as a grand game of good vs. evil.
But the world is far more complex than the simple narratives politicians attempt to impose on it. Deutschland 83 and its characters reflect that.
Edel must negotiate with NATO and America as they make a case for the Pershing II missile defense system. The general fears this will provoke the East into a conflict. It’s easy for Reagan to call out an Evil Empire when he’s 3,500 miles away, but Edel understands that the people on the other side of the wall are still people. He doesn’t want to push them toward action.
The general’s son — Alex — is an ideological foil for Rauch. Alex is in the military because his father is in the military, but he doesn’t want to be. He’s constantly reading Green Party literature, questioning the rationale of allowing an American military presence in West Germany and attending peace rallies.
My favorite character is Tischbier — Rauch’s spymaster. Tischbier built his entire career in East German intelligence as an agent in the West. His day job as a prominent college professor masks his job as a spymaster for East German intelligence. He lives in a large mansion with records and books, but doesn’t seem to enjoy it.
He also has the best lines. “The true luxury of the West,” he explains to Rauch early in the young agent’s training, “is that no one pays attention to you. They call it freedom.”
Tischbier stirs dissent by using his status as a college professor to lend credence to the West German peace movement. He’s anti-nuclear and anti-American. I have only watched the first two episodes and I do not know if he’s a true believer of if he’s playing a different game … but I can’t wait to find out.
I do now this — that Deutschland 83 will not disappoint me with simple narratives and convenient ideology. Perhaps I am as naive as Rauch, but I believe in Winger and her writing.
Deutschland 83 just finished its run on the Sundance channel and you can still catch the last few episodes streaming on its website. The whole season is available to stream right now on Amazon. Do it.