As the titles pretty clearly state, SundanceTV’s Deutschland 86 picks up three years after Deutschland 83, but viewers have also had a three-year gap since the premiere of this excellent German series. In its initial limited run, Deutschland 83 focused on a young man, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), serving as an East German soldier. He’s pulled from a rather boring patrol job into becoming a spy for the Stasi, through his always splendidly attired aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader), who becomes his primary handler. But from the start, the series mixed in plenty of humor to Martin’s transfer to the West, which begins with some adolescent dilemmas and escalates to him becoming the key to preventing nuclear war (via the very real Abel Archer exercise). To do so, Martin had to blow his cover, which caused East Germany to banish him to their territory in Angola.
That’s where we find him three years later, when Lenora seeks him out to help her with an arms deal in South Africa. It should be noted, of course, that South Africa at that time was in the middle of Apartheid, with the world’s communist powers supporting the African National Congress (of which Nelson Mandela was a member), while the West enacted sanctions. And yet, it’s just one example of the proxy wars taking place across Africa, as the United States armed one side against Russian-backed opponents. The lines were often muddled, especially concerning illegal arms deals, and the ultimate result was an exceptional amount of violence.
It’s hard to see where Deutschland 86 could find humor in this historical setting, and it’s true that much of it is reserved for politics back in East Germany. And yet, one of the series’ greatest strengths is its sincerity. And while humor is included, often, thanks in particular to little flourishes in the script and performances, what makes the story work is how earnest it is in educating viewers to the topsy-turvy politics its presenting — ones that may not be particularly well-known to American audiences.
All of this time and these circumstances have changed Martin, as well. He’s hardened and not so wide-eyed, and is less trustful now of those who want something from him. And yet, he hasn’t exactly turned into Jason Bourne. He’s skilled, but he can still be awkward. He doesn’t trust his aunt, but helps her. He’s focused on returning home to meet his son, but he’s also struck up a fatherly relationship with a young Angolan boy who becomes crucial to the story.
Things in East German are similarly fraught; the government is unable to pay its bills as Glasnost takes hold in the Soviet Union, and so it makes some horrible compromises for money (including selling arms to its enemies and allowing human trials with unregulated drugs). There is still a desire to keep the citizens there complacent through lies (“No one in East Germany is lonely!”), but cracks are starting to show everywhere. Even Martin’s father, a higher-up in the Stasi, goes home and watches The Love Boat on an illegal West German TV station.
Even after all of this, I still haven’t even mentioned the AIDS crisis, which yes, Deutschland 86 does deal with in a compelling narrative thread that crisscrosses with all of these others. It’s an exceptionally smart and ambitious season, one that is clearly working to be accessible, and yet, also requires a lot of attention from viewers (and not just because of the German subtitles — though some is in English). There is so much happening in Deutschland 86, but the series’ greatest coup is making each of these arcs personal. It’s not necessary to have a member of Stasi put forth an idea to his colleagues to invite workers and farmers to camp and view the spectacular night sky from one of the darkest forests in Germany, but it’s a beautiful touch. He thinks it would be an inspiring reward, something to boost morale. Instead, the group decides to buy an old cruise ship from the West, given the popularity of The Love Boat.
It’s these little moments that are not only delightful, but help balance out some of the other very dark moments of the series. For example, a scene in an Angolan oil refinery where a briefcase full of American dollars is accidentally launched into the air, raining money down upon several rival groups of soldiers currently battling. At first everyone is full of bliss, gathering the money and dreaming of what it could buy them. But as another moment passes, the instinct to seize control of all of it — the same impulse that led to the takeover of the refinery — sees guns all coming out at once, with a hailstorm of bullets that feels snipped from an early Guy Ritchie film. Deutschland 86 is beautiful and brutal, humorous and provocative, satirical and sincere. It’s also unique and informative, but never feels like TV vegetables, as it chronicles the last days of communism (which will continue in the third series, Deutschland 89) with wit and heart.
It’s possible to not have seen Deutschland 83 and dive in to this new season; the show does a fine job over the first few episodes of reintroducing characters (many of whom I’d forgotten) and their circumstances. You’ll naturally lose some of the wonderful shading and context to some of the characters’ relationships, but with everything going on in Deutschland 86, those are rapidly changing anyway. Either way, if you want some truly interesting, even challenging television that’s thrilling and never too dark, give this Peak TV gem a chance.
Deutschland 86 premieres Thursday, October 25th on SundanceTV.