Feb 4, 2020
Deutschland 83: 99 Luftballons of Fun
Deutschland 83, the new spy thriller on Sundance, takes up where The Americans left off. Literally. The season three finale of The Americans was named for the date of Ronald Raygun’s infamous “evil empire” speech, and that’s exactly the point at which Deutschland 83 starts—with America’s first Movie-Star-In-Chief trash talking the Soviet Union on television.
The yet-to-be-canonized St. Ronnie is being watched by Lenora Rauch, a no-nonsense East German Stasi agent. Two years into his presidency, and the East Germans, like their Soviet overlords allies still don’t quite know what to make of the Gipper. Mad man? Genial saber-rattling idiot? Or evil genius? As we’ve learned from The Americans (or the Wikipedia), 1983 was the year the road to nuclear annihilation got a little shorter. The US was deploying its newly designed Pershing II missiles in Western Europe (Pershing II—now with even more apocalyptic potential than Pershing I!). So Lenora and her cronies decide they need mo’ betta intel fast on what exactly the US and its allies are up to. Who do they decide is perfect for the job? Lenora’s nephew, Martin.
Martin, a baby-faced 24 year old, is having a not terrible time as an officer in the East German military. When we first see him, he’s busy scaring the crap out of West German slackers who came over the Wall smuggling books for the black market. Martin’s just having fun making them sweat. It’s like townies messing with the frat boys. Sure beats fighting a war! Plus, he gets to keep the confiscated goods, which he gives to his mom natch, because that’s the kind of good son he is.
Mom has kidney issues, and because anti-rejection drugs have to be imported from the West, only very special people are on the transplant list. When Lenora shows up with a couple of other Stasi officers to recruit Martin, getting his mother a new kidney is one of the enticements. The other is saving his country from the crazy person in the White House who will totally do a first strike because he’s that insane. Martin will be a mole, planted in the office of big shot West German General Wolfgang Edel, who’s working on weapons procurement with his American counterpart. Martin will be impersonating Morritz Stamm, who was just assigned to the General as an aide de camp and happens to look a lot like Martin. What happened to the real Stamm? That’s a question Martin asks, but it’s never answered. Let’s use our imagination.
Stamm is/was Martin’s age, follows soccer like Martin, plays chess like Martin, but also plays the piano, which Martin doesn’t. No problem! They just break a couple of his fingers. Martin still hasn’t exactly said yes to the mission, but they’re not asking his opinion. Whatever Stasi wants, Stasi gets. They drug his coffee, and next thing he knows he’s waking up in West Berlin. (Unlike the time something like that happened to me, he doesn’t also find a long fresh scar on his stomach.)
Martin reluctantly goes along with the plan. It’s just this one assignment, right? When he’s done, Mom’ll get a kidney, and he’ll go back to his girlfriend Annette and his nice little life. Sure, kid. Would your government lie to you? It’s not very reassuring when he realizes his first trainer, a university professor, hasn’t been back east in twenty years.
He gets a crash course in Espionage 101, which doesn’t include any behind the frosted glass door sexing up ugly people like some spies have to do. It’s basic how to brush by your contact passing along extremely important microfilm, how to pick locks, read plans upside down, etc. Unlike Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, he doesn’t have to do all this while speaking in a foreign tongue, as both sides of the Wall sprachen de deutsh—a lovely language in which everything sounds like it has something to do with invading Poland. He does, however, have to practice a few regionalisms, the equivalent of knowing the correct word for an oblong sandwich is hero, not grinder or hoagie, and the “o” in coffee is pronounced like the “aw” in saw. (Repeat after me, “K’uh I have a cuppa cawfee ta go?” Always remember never to say please!)
Things go well enough on his first day. He even manages to snap some pictures when the visiting American General Jackson conveniently leaves his briefcase of top secret plans in Edel’s office when they go to lunch.
But then he messes up big time at a party at Edel’s house. He tries to sneak a phone call to his girlfriend in East Germany. He reaches her message machine and manages in 30 seconds to confess enough to get him thrown in a cell forever, and the General’s sister-in-law overhears everything.
He tells his mole-handler, who’s also at the party, and it gets taken care of, but not in the oh shit now we have to kill everyone way that the Jennings would have dealt with it.
So far, Deutschland 83 racks up the suspense without taking itself too seriously. Plus, they’ve got that 80’s soundtrack down. 99 Luftballons is playing constantly, but this is the type of show where when you hear it in the military cafeteria, a character will say, “What’s with that song? They play it all the time.” Martin’s no superspy. He’s like us if we were spies, or at least we can tell ourselves that. He’s not a crazy ideologue. He doesn’t want to go back to a totalitarian communist state because he hates the decadent West; he wants to go back because it’s his home. He’s not spying for East Germany; he’s doing it for his mom. And wouldn’t we all do as much if our mom needed a new kidney? It’s distant enough that no matter what our politics are, we can root for Martin to succeed.
Deutschland 83 is exclusively on Sundance TV. The next episode airs Wednesday night (tonight!). If you missed episode one, you can catch it on Sundance On Demand, assuming you have the right cable company. If you don’t—or just to relive the good times—these minicaps will be a regular feature.