In many ways, Deutschland 83 is the perfect coda to The Americans’ third season. For one, the eight episode Sundance TV series (the first German-language series to ever be broadcast in the U.S.) picks up right where FX’s spy drama left off with Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. Two, it features a young East German man, Martin (Jonas Nay), who is recruited on a spy mission to West Germany largely against his will. Like the Jennings in The Americans, Martin is living in enemy territory in order to serve the people back home, while also being immersed — for better or worse — in an entirely different cultural experience.
Deutschland 83, created by Anna and Joerg Winger, focuses on a time during the Cold War when Germany was caught in the eye of the storm between the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Its position between the two, and its separation by them, made it an ideal staging ground for threats of nuclear war. As each world power postured and planned to potentially annihilate the other from German soil, Germany was largely left out of the discussion. The series makes it clear that Germany, both East and West, was never more than a strategic interest.
But Deutschland 83 makes East and West Germany come alive, both in the person of Martin — who must exist in them both — and in its deliberate choices of how viewers encounter both worlds. The 24-year-old Martin goes from being a border guard with a fairly simple life to becoming a spy, all in rapid succession over the course of the first episode. But the series doesn’t make Martin a superhero, and the obligatory training montage doesn’t immediately make him a super spy. He’s smart and resourceful, but he also makes mistakes.
However, Deutschland 83 keeps the right balance between Martin getting away with those mistakes and having to face the consequences of them. Doing a momentous job of shouldering the series, Nay is awkwardly charming and relatable as he navigates the extraordinary position Martin has been put in, and the demands he must contend with. After the East Germans killed a West German soldier in order for Martin to replace him, effectively stealing his identity, he is seamlessly positioned as a General’s assistant in order to gain access to secrets regarding the West’s missile defenses and possible plans for attack. But other complications, both personal and professional, immediately arise. He befriends the General’s pacifist son, who he works with, as well as his wayward daughter, but he also raises the suspicions of their aunt who is convinced he is a spy.
Just as Martin is able to secure some key information for his mission, though, an old school friend of the soldier whose identity he stole shows up. It’s set up to be an immensely problematic moment for Martin, but the show deftly subverts that tension by throwing unexpected peril — and ultimately triumph — that completely reroutes viewer expectations. It’s the perfect example of how the show creates a tone and atmosphere that is both light and deadly, keeping viewers engaged through its many twists and turns. But the story’s spy angle differentiates itself by being grounded in a world believably full of bumbling miscalculations.
Like The Americans, Deutschland 83 can be dense, as it incorporates reams of news footage, jargon, and political references from the time to link its story to real history. Its politics are equal, though, in the way they disparage the weaknesses of both capitalist and socialist culture, and challenge the sacred notions of both. What arises from that conflict, though, is the much more intimate story of Martin’s rapidly changing life. By the end of the second episode, Martin is chuffed by how things have unexpectedly worked out for him in West Germany, but what he doesn’t know is that his ill mother hasn’t been given the treatment he was promised she would (as part of the leverage to keep him on the mission). The sweetness of those final moments is undercut by tragedy, and the series is never better than when it’s juxtaposing those kinds of conflicts.
Ultimately, Deutschland 83 is tense, stylish, engaging, and engrossing. It’s not only a different kind of spy tale, but it’s something a little different for Sundance TV, too, whose dramas can sometimes be overwhelmingly dark and meditative (even excellent ones like Rectify). In comparison, Deutschland 83 is fast-paced and even peppy, sprinkling in a quiet humor and a number of pop culture references without making them the focus, all while establishing a firm emotional connection to Martin and his story. As he explores his new life, so too do we. The series finds balance between East and West, old and new Germany, and Martin’s splintering commitments and desires. And even though we have a leg up on knowing how history unfolds regarding the overarching story, Deutschland 83 pulls us fully into Martin’s point of view, where the stakes have never been higher.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
Deutschland 83 premieres Wednesday, June 17th at 11 p.m. ET on Sundance TV.