Deutschland 83 is a German-language spy drama from 2015 that originally appeared in the U.S. on Sundance TV. (Now available with subscription on Hulu and SundanceNow, and for purchase elsewhere). It’s 1983, and Martin Rauch, a young East German border guard, is “recruited” by East German intelligence to find out if NATO plans to launch a nuclear attack on East Germany. He is placed in the West German army as an assistant to the West German NATO general, thereby having access to all NATO meetings.

Coming of Age, As a Spy

Martin is a reluctant and borderline inept spy. He’s just a kid who wants to be home with his mom and girlfriend, and his heart isn’t in it.  But the East Germans have promised that his mother will get a life-saving kidney transplant if he finishes this one assignment, so he sticks it out. He’s an amiable guy, and the general and his family buy into his cover. As expected, being an assistant to a general puts him in proximity to the information he needs. But boy does he stumble along the way. Flummoxed at being assigned to seduce the assistant of the American NATO general, he succeeds, but then blows his cover and needs the Stasi to rescue him. When they do, he’s horrified by the result.

A View of East Germany

Even though in real life the East German Ministry of Security (the Stasi) was genuinely terrifying, Deutschland 83 throws an almost nostalgic lens on them. The scenes of Stasi agents trying to use 1950’s technology for 1980’s spy craft are funny, and there is some buffoonery involved. But the insidious nature of Soviet-style bureaucracy is not funny at all. When Martin reports back that NATO is NOT going to start a nuclear war due to assured mutual destruction, his East German bosses bury it and report to their superiors that the attack is indeed moving forward, and that the East Germans should launch the first strike to show off their superior intelligence skills, even though they will die in the counterstrike. (Death of Stalin, anyone?) Now Martin has a problem. Does he blow his cover to the general in order to stop nuclear war?

German TV

The Germans make interesting TV. They can go REALLY dark, (Perfume, Dark) or they can go a little kooky (Babylon Berlin). Deutschland 83, with its fantastic 80’s soundtrack, skews lighter. The issues are serious, but the idea that we got this close to a nuclear war because of misplaced pride, and that our salvation rests with a bumbling boy-spy is ruefully funny. The show touches on other 80’s topics as well-the nascent AIDS crisis, the Rajneeshee followers of the Bhagwan (if that phrase makes no sense, check out Wild Wild Country on Netflix), and banned books. Deutschland 83 astutely looks back in horror, and yet smiles at the foibles of history.

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