Television

Deutschland 83 Brings Drama and Humor of Cold War Germany to American TV

New Cold War coming of age/spy thriller series premieres on SundanceTV.

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"It's almost like history ends in 1945," said Anna Winger, co-creator of the new SundanceTV show, Deutschland 83 in an interview with Reason. "Then there's a little thing about the GDR (the German Democratic Republic, aka the former East Germany) and that's it."

Deutschland 83 is a meticulously detailed period piece that's part-Cold War spy thriller, part-coming of age drama, and covers a time span rarely depicted on television. According to Winger, so much recent German history and art is devoted to World War II and the Holocaust that the legacy of the GDR and Germany's place as the fulcrum of the Cold War is mostly relegated to afterthought status.

"Young people in Germany often complain about the fact that they don't study it," said Winger.

An American-born writer and photographer, Winger has lived in Berlin for the past 12 years, where she hosts NPR's Berlin Stories and raises a family with her husband, Jörg, a veteran German television showrunner and co-creator of Deutschland 83

We have bananas today.
SundanceTV

The show's primary character, Martin Rauch, is a wet-behind-the-ears low-level Stasi officer given vague assurances that his ill mother will receive necessary medical treatments in the communist East, so long as he fulfills his national service by posing as an aide-de-camp to a West German army general during a time of tense negotiations regarding American nuclear missiles.

When Martin arrives in Bonn, he struggles not only with assuming the identity of an officer from the capitalist West, but also with acclimating himself to the sheer abundance of choices at the supermarket, the fact that there's more than one way to order a steak at a restaurant, and the decadent wonders of synth-pop. Indeed, the show's soundtrack is impressively authentic and serves as a useful reminder of how influential German pop remains on the soundscape today.  

Martin, played by actor Jonas Nay, lives in an era when divided Germany was accepted as an eternal fact of life and people on both sides of the border possess a palpable dread of nuclear war. Born a year after the Berlin Wall fell, Nay is plenty aware of the history, but comes from a generation that finds the prospect of his country being arbitrarily divided by a militarized border inconceivable. Jörg, on the other hand, said, "Growing up, I couldn't imagine the Wall not being there." He adds that this generational gap is "a source of humor in the show." 

Much like Mad Men, a sly sense of satire permeates the series, drawing parallels to present day political absurdities, as well as offering a "what the hell where they thinking?" vibe thanks to more than three decades of hindsight.

Deutschland 83's supporting characters include West German peace activists, East German "true believers," and Martin's estranged girlfriend, who doesn't appear to be too broken up about her paramour leaving her behind as she indulges in the East German tradition of co-ed skinny-dipping. 

"We tried to weave together East and West views and explore this colonial situation," said Anna. "These two countries that didn't really have any agency over what was happening. They were just used as a playing field by the two superpowers (the U.S. and the Soviet Union). The thing about fiction is it's a great place to play with things that in real life are very didactic and difficult to explain without taking one position. In journalism, you have to take a position, in fiction your characters can take a position. So we've tried to explore the politics of Cold War Germany in a three-dimensional way."

Stasi it to me.
SundanceTV

The inspiration for the show was born out of Jörg's early 1980s experience as a radio signaler during his 15 months of compulsory service in the West German army. The job required him to learn Russian, and on one fateful Christmas morning, the Russians they were spying on greeted him and his fellow officers by name. That's when they knew they had a mole among them. Indeed, according to Winger, they had several. 

When asked about the research that went into writing the show, Anna said, "The great privilege is it's living history. People are still around and they want to talk about it. In East Germany, the files are all public. We're really interested in activism, specifically political activism, and the show definitely explores that."

Jörg added, "And the people today don't all agree. The right still thinks the peace movement was completely financed by the Soviets. And on the left, they'd say it was a democratic movement by people who wanted peace." 

For a show that depicts subject matter rarely explored in Germany and pretty much never in the U.S., the show's development process was remarkably smooth. Jörg describes their first meeting with RTL, the largest commercial broadcaster in Germany, as shockingly quick. "After 15 minutes, the head of RTL, brought in all the company's decision makers and ordered eight scripts," he recalled. Then, their international distributor, Fremantle Media, sent Anna's scripts (which are written in English) to Sundance, who came onboard with U.S. distribution before they had even started shooting.

The show is believed to be the first German-language series broadcast on an American network and was also the first television show to screen at the Berlinale, one of the most prominent film festivals in the world. "TV is the new movie!" Anna proclaimed, echoing a current popular sentiment. 

There are no guarantees in television, but the Wingers said their intent is to do three seasons of the show, jumping from 1983 to 1986 to 1989, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.

"At lot of material in Germany deals with World War II," Anna said. "It always starts happy and ends in total misery. With our show, we begin with the misery but you know it's going in a happy direction."

It seems that just over a quarter century following the collapse of Europeans communism is the ripe time to explore, and occasionally laugh at, the era of mutually-assured destruction. 

Deutschland 83 premieres June 17 on Sundance TV.

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  1. “Young people in Germany often complain about the fact that they don’t study it,” said Winger.

    Hence the misplaced nostalgia for the rule of those commie fucks. But I liked this show better the first time I saw it, when it was called The Americans.

    1. I liked this show better the first time I saw it, when it was called The Americans.

      The review I read said this one is better (I haven’t seen The Americans).

      1. I’m into the second season on Amazon Instant. I like it but it could be due to either the temporal appeal to my childhood or all grown up Keri Russell. Which would also be an appeal to my childhood. Thank god she got through that shaved head period.

  2. “[…]The right still thinks the peace movement was completely financed by the Soviets.[…]”

    According to the lefty Tony Judt, the right is pretty much right.

    1. Actually, both sides have a point, although the Left is more delusional. The Right is correct that the “Peace Movement” was funded and directed by various Soviet agencies. The Left is correct that a lot of the people involved were totally sincere people working for their beliefs. What the Left misses is that that doesn’t make the Peace Movement activists idealists. It makes them dupes. Singularly gullible dupes, since that particular play out of the Soviet playbook had been exposed on multiple occasions.

      The difference between a Silver Shirt fascist fan of Hitler in the 1930’s and a fellow traveller political activist at any time past about 1948 is not really noticeable to the naked eye.

      1. Well, those who have a soft spot for Ronnie the FBI snitch Reagan think that he was responsible for the dissolution of the USSR notwithstanding the fact that it was on its death throws long before the B actor shouted, “I am paying for this microphone.”

        1. Oh, my, lets not credit Ronald Reagan with anything Good! What that would be Just Dreadful.

          Am I to take it that the snide remark about “FBI snitch” has to do with his largely praiseworthy effort to extract the Screen Actors’ Guild from the toils of communist sympathizers funded by the USSR?

          I get just a little weary of the laughable fiction that there were no real Communists among the blacklisted, or in Hollywood, and anyway they were all such nice people. They were idiots, and God alone knows what their KGB handlers though they were going to accomplish, but they were also a nasty Stalinist clique that tried hard to ruin the careers of people they felt were “deviationist” or whom they didn’t like. The dirty secret about the naming of names before the HUAC is that a grreat deal of it was well deserved payback.

          1. Come off of it, Ronnie, by his own admission, voted and supported FDR – the guy who gave us the New Deal and all of its communist manifestations like the SEC, Social Security, CCC et al.

            Ronnie was a trade unionist. Unionism is communism. Collective bargaining is communism.

            At any rate, any person who is an FBI snitch is a piece of garbage. The FBI is a communist organization itself and its operation are wholly untethered to the spirit of 1776 and the principles undergirding the founder generation’s decision to make war against and secede from the British Empire.

            That Hollywood had fellow travelers is not in dispute. That, however, does not justify being a snitch for sub-human reprobate scum like J. Edgar Hoover. Same thing with HUAC.

            1. Of course, those who proclaim that it was Gorbachev, alone, who courageously terminated the USSR are also delusional.

            2. Libertymike|6.17.15 @ 6:52PM|#
              “Come off of it, Ronnie, by his own admission, voted and supported FDR – the guy who gave us the New Deal and all of its communist manifestations like the SEC, Social Security, CCC et al.
              Ronnie was a trade unionist. Unionism is communism. Collective bargaining is communism.”

              Yes, and then he realized what a mistake that was.
              Did you have a point?

              1. Sevo, do I detect a soft spot for the Gipper, the guy who oversaw one of the largest expansions of government -evah?

                The guy who injected some bad ass PEDs into the drug war?

                The guy who injected some bad ass PEDs into asset forfeiture?

                The same guy who injected some bad ass PEDs into the war on cash?

                The same guy who could not put subject to predicate to object without a teleprompter or that hideous wife of his?

                1. Sevo, see Reagan’s promises to REDUCE the size of government!

                  See Reagan’s promises to eliminate the Dept. of Education and other agencies.

                  Not only did he fail to fulfill his promises, he created more bureaucracies – typical of communist republicans.

                  1. Sevo, ever read Murray Rothbard’s takedown of Reagan after the latter left office? Devastating!

                    1. Rothbard, devastating?

                      k.

                2. Libertymike|6.17.15 @ 7:22PM|#
                  “Sevo, do I detect a soft spot for the Gipper, the guy who oversaw one of the largest expansions of government -evah?”

                  Libertymike, do I detect a contrarian ever hopeful that someone will find his bullshit insightful?

                  1. Yeah, pot meet kettle on being contrarian.

                    As for the bullshit? What is bullshit in the preceding posts? Do you contest the veracity of that which I posted regarding Reagan?

                    1. Libertymike|6.17.15 @ 11:35PM|#
                      “Yeah, pot meet kettle on being contrarian.”

                      Cite missing.

                    2. Oh, and:

                      “As for the bullshit? What is bullshit in the preceding posts?”

                      Cherry-picking positions held by someone many years ago? That sort of bullshit?
                      Naah, LM isn’t cherry-picking to make a bogus equivalence. Not LM! Not at all!
                      LM, pull that shit on someone as dumb as you are.

                    3. How can you be so dense as to characterize that which I posted as “cherry-picking” regarding Ronnie Reagan?

                      They were features of his big government presidency. Apparently, it is cherry-picking to point out a plethora of totalitarian, police state policies Ronnie spearheaded DURING HIS TENURE IN OFFICE.

                      As for cherry-picking “positions held by someone many years ago”, by your logic, Chairman Mao should not be assailed for the positions he held because, after all, he’s been dead 39 years now and those positions he held were so “many years ago.”

                      Again, as I have pointed out to you before, you quickly descend to Warty type communication rather quickly instead of duking it out on the merits.

          2. It’s pretty funny watching libertarians justify j. Edgar’s snoping and Reagan’s military buildup. I want more of this, please.

            1. american socialist|6.17.15 @ 10:23PM|#
              “It’s pretty funny watching libertarians justify j. Edgar’s snoping and Reagan’s military buildup. I want more of this, please.”

              It might be, if anyone had done so.
              It’s far more amusing watching lefty shitbags justify mass murder, shitbag.

              1. Ooops:
                “and Reagan’s military buildup”
                You are correct.
                His buildup bankrupted the USSR and meant we all, the world over, got to live under far less of a nuke terror.
                So, yes, I’ll justify that. And I’m sure a lefty shitbag like you can come up with some reason to gripe about that.

  3. Indeed, the show’s soundtrack is impressively authentic and serves as a useful reminder of how influential German pop remains on the soundscape today.

    So that’s why pop music today sucks so thoroughly?

    Hockey’s over. I might actually watch this. Thanks, Anthony!

    1. I would submit that 80s German pop is influential on modern niche music like synth-pop and EBM – not so much on modern American pop, which is indeed shit.

  4. You know who else complained about a gap in German history?

    1. Boris Becker?

  5. “These two countries that didn’t really have any agency over what was happening. They were just used as a playing field by the two superpowers ”

    To quote Alexis Gilliland “When you lose a war, bad things happen to you”

    And when you lose two wars in a row, that you started in the first place, and distinguish yourself in the second of the two by living down to the propaganda your enemies spread about you in the first one, those “bad things” are likely to go on happening for quite a while.

    1. Indeed. Which is also one reason I have lost all sympathy for the poor, oppressed Palestinians. “Wah! We haven’t been able to kill all the Jews, despite trying for generations! Help us, we’re victims!!”

      1. Hey, the Palestinians DID get screwed over. Just not by the Jews. They got suckered into siding with the Arab countries that tried to wipe out Israel, amd then those same Arab countries left them hanging out to dry, because their wretchedness was a useful tool.

        If tomorrow the Palestinans declared everlasting hatred against Those Arabs, and asked for aid, I would have to give them my serious consideration.

        1. If they gave up violence and Jew-hating, they’d get some of my sympathy, but they won’t.

          1. What always gets me is how the Kurds got pretty much the same raw deal (only having Kurdistan split up between 3 governments), but because they aren’t nearly as violent (there is some terrorism, but not as much) or Jew-hating, no one pays any attention to their plight.

      2. Jews, Palestinians, Europeans, Turks, and others have been making a mess of that region for thousands of years. Trying to blame anybody for that mess is pointless. The eastern Mediterranean is a lost cause. The lesson for Americans should be not to pick winners and stay the hell out of it.

        1. Conversely, we could pick a winner, and let the Israelis do what they damn please, shielding them from the outrage of the “International Community” (which on examination appears to be composed of equal numbers of Intellectual nitwits and opportunistic thugs). Properly backed the Israelis should be able to drive the Arabs and assorted other idiots into the seas or the deep desert in about three years.

          The Israeli government isn’t perfect, but no Arab government since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has been worth a bucket of warm spit.

          Now, I do understand the political forces that make tho pipe-dream impossible. But the ongoing mess in the Middle East is not caused by our “Picking a winner’. Rather the opposite.

    2. I see that comment, and it stinks of moral equivalency. There isn’t really a down the middle take here for anyone who isn’t deluded. I also saw NPR mentioned. So, haven’t seen this, but what are the odds there isn’t some good old fashioned commie sympathizing here?

      1. I think the comment has some purpose. I’ve read some drivel that depicts the East Germans as particularly vile, while being sympathetic to their Soviet masters. But it’s important to remember WHY the Germanys were that battlefield.

    1. That wasn’t a cat video. You tricked me.

      1. I didn’t trick you. It was an invitation to colonize YouTube, and infect it with the foulest Reason libertarianism you can muster.

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  7. Just heard of this yesterday & totally psyched about it. I have lived in ’80s West Germany and visited East Germany – really interested to see what they do with it.

  8. “Young people in Germany often complain about the fact that they don’t study it,” said Winger.

    Really? How many of them? I know American kids are a bunch of selfie-snapping, oversexed narcissists and Germans are all DER MOZT EFFICIENT VORKERS, JA?, but their kids can’t be all that different from ours, right? What percentage of German youth really cares about what they’re being taught in their history classes?

    I’m just a little skeptical, is all.

    1. Yeah, she’s probably engaging in a little hyperbole but she lives there and maybe has kids that age so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. I do remember growing up in the 80s and we barely touched anything past WWII at all.

  9. “Misery ending in a happy direction”

    Except, you know, if you actually lived there.

    http://m.spiegel.de/internatio…..eferrrer;=

    1. Yeah, the parents who got ratted out by their Stasi children really miss those days. My god, you’re an idiot.

      1. Maybe you should take up your argument with East Germans, who seem to like what they had before better than what they have now.

        1. american socialist|6.18.15 @ 12:08AM|#
          “Maybe you should take up your argument with East Germans, who seem to like what they had before better than what they have now.”

          Maybe you should prove they do.
          They can easily move to places that have shitty socialists like you in charge, but strangely, they don’t.
          Lefty shitbags really don’t understand stated vs. revealed preferences, or they are dishonest enough to claim otherwise.
          So, shitbag, dumb or dishonest?

        2. What a miserable little shit dirt bag you are.

          1. Who needs 28 different deodorants, right?

            When I visited East Berlin, they forced me to convert some DM to whatever their crappy currency was. At the end of the day I still had some of it left because there was nothing worth spending it on.

    2. And I know you’re just trolling for attention, but you know what my most salient memory of East Germany was? It was kids my age marking me as a Westerner because of the (cheap-ass American) jeans I was wearing. The place may not have reached Venezuela or Cuba levels of commie “equality” but wow it was a real shithole.

      1. You’ve inspired an idea, Rhywun – anytime amsoc or his ilk comes around championing the Equality State, why not let’s shout them down with a simple “Venezuela” the way they do with libertarians and “Somalia”?

        They don’t want a real discussion; let’s not give them one.

        1. Nah, we’re above that.

          1. Why? The assertion that Somalia is a consequence of Libertarian policies is absurd, but the assertion that Collectivism runs strongly in the direction of shortages, famine, fascism, and brutal repression has plenty of backing data.

            Further; the Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressive left has no manners, and exploits manners in its opponents.

            1. Further; the Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressive left has no manners, and exploits manners in its opponents.

              On that subject, confession time: when I was about 12 through about 15ish, I identified strongly with Democrats, mostly because they made a lot of noises about caring. But also because it was a Catholic/Hispanic package deal, though of course no one would put that fine a point on it.

              That’s not the most embarrassing part. The embarrassing part was me brow-beating my cousins at that time for their expressing a desire to vote Republican. I gave ’em the business about how their dad voted Democrat, and how could they be disloyal, and some such.

              What a douche. In my defense, I was a few years from adulthood. I have no defense for similarlyaligned people that are a few years from discounts at Denny’s.

            2. Somalia is also a failed socialist state.

        2. “They don’t want a real discussion; let’s not give them one.”

          Not sure commie kid gets one now. Re: Venezuela, he’s pretty much made it clear that ‘they’re not doing it right’, so any reference to it simply gets a dishonest response.
          Commie-kid is practicing a religion; reason is not going to affect his bleefs.

  10. I watched the BBC series on communism in Eastern Europe.

    Each episode was about a country.

    1st episode was East Germany.

    I never imagined how much nudity would be in a documentary about life under communism.

    Then again, the Germans are weird.

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