The Inescapable Cold War: Deutschland 83

The German television series is a reminder of the impact the Cold War had on ordinary people’s lives.

Publicity photo of Jonas Nay and Maria Schrader on the set of Deutschland 83
Publicity photo of Jonas Nay and Maria Schrader on the set of Deutschland 83 (UFA Fiction)

Deutschland 83 is Germany’s answer to the highly successful American television drama The Americans. Whereas the latter follows two well-trained KGB “illegals” in the United States, Deutschland 83 centers on a young East German border guard who is unwillingly thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.

The two series have a powerful theme in common: the way in which the extreme polarization of the Cold War could destroy families.

Set at a time of heightened East-West tension, when Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech convinced the Soviets an American attack was possible and NATO’s decision to deploy middle-range Pershing II missiles in Western Europe to offset the East Bloc’s SS-20s triggered mass antinuclear protests, the world of Deutschland 83 is almost unrecognizable. Rampant smoking and elegant 1980s clothes and decor amplify the show’s alienating effect.

The series starts when East German intelligence agent Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader), undercover in Bonn as a diplomat and alarmed by Reagan’s belligerence, convinces her superiors to enlist her nephew, Martin (Jonas Nay), to spy on the West Germans. He is reluctant but persuaded when the Stasi promises to arrange a much-needed kidney transplant for his mother.

Personal lives and the politics of the Cold War remain intertwined for the rest of the series. Martin befriends the West German general Wolfgang Edel (Ulrich Noethen) whose aide-de-camp he impersonates — as well as his children. The general’s daughter is in a Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult. His son, despite being in the army himself, is a pacifist and ultimately falls for the charms of the peace movement and one its leaders, another Stasi agent.

Tensions mount when Martin’s and Lenora’s superiors in East Berlin learn of an operation called “Able Archer” and refuse to believe it is really a military exercise. The Soviets are convinced the maneuvers are cover for a NATO first strike. Martin’s role in preventing the worst seems a bit overstated and where the series has expertly built up to this moment for seven episodes, the eighth and final installment feels rushed and unsatisfying.

The series weaves together so many subplots that there isn’t time to resolve them all with the same calm and determination that made the earlier episodes so brilliant. Some, like Martin’s involvement with the general’s daughter, seem like a waste of time in hindsight. Another, centered on a gay character’s infection with AIDS, captures the mood of the time but leads nowhere. One father-son storyline is unresolved. Another ends uncertainly.

But — other than indulging us in Cold War nostalgia — Deutschland 83 does succeed in its central mission: to show what an impact the conflict had on the lives of ordinary Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s not just Martin who struggles to keep his cool behind enemy lines; his relatives back home are forced to chose between family and their loyalty to the state while the Edel home is torn apart by political differences.

At a time when polarization is rising again, between East and West as well as within Europe, Deutschland 83 is a powerful reminder of what politics can do when the stakes are so high.

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