The latest import featured on the Sundance Channel is the German spy drama Deutschland 83, where the “Evil Empire” is the hero of the story.
The year is 1983. US President Ronald Reagan just gave a speech where he, in no uncertain terms, referred to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Eastern Bloc as an Evil Empire. Although the US was a prominent figure in the Cold War, the actual front lines of the tension could be found in what was then East Germany and West Germany. This is where Deutschland 83, the latest drama imported to the US by the Sundance Channel.
The story follows East German soldier Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), a devoted socialist and defender of the East’s way of life. Unbeknownst to Martin, his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) nominates him for a spying project in West Germany. Though reluctant, the leverage used to get him to comply is a promise that his mom will get the necessary medical treatment for her kidney condition which requires imports from the West. Well, that and he gets drugged and disappeared to Bonn and not given much choice.
In West Germany, Martin takes on the persona of Mortiz Stamm, a soldier who serves as a personal assistant for General Wolfgang Edel (Ulrich Noethen). The general is working on a deal with American General Arnold Jackson (Errol Trotman-Harewood) to purchase missiles to bulk up defenses…or offenses. Though an amateur at spycraft, Moritz manages to uncover information that reveals his country and way of life could be in extreme danger.
What makes Deutschland 83 so much fun is the way it turns around several tropes of televised storytelling. For example, the picture above comes from a scene shortly after Martin/Moritz regains consciousness in Bonn. He is given blue jeans, a Puma t-shirt, and sneakers to replace his beige-on-beige ensemble. He makes a break for it and ends up in a supermarket, where choices and colors flood his field of vision. Unlike, say, The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy exits her house and enters Munchkinland, Martin/Moritz is troubled by the overwhelming selection.
Another minor switcheroo involves General Jackson, who provides the only English other than Reagan’s speech. Deutschland 83 has been imported from Germany, so be ready for the subtitles.1 Like on American TV, the non-native speaker speaks the language with idioms and all but drops in the occasional phrase from his own language when he can’t find the words in ways that are totally incongruous with learning a foreign language. Military intelligence rolls off the tongue, but somehow he doesn’t know how to say “ich habe hunger” (“I’m hungry”)? I LOLed.
The biggest reversal, which makes the show pop, is that we know how the story ends and that Martin/Moritz is not on the winning side. Although he isn’t a villain per se, Martin/Moritz represents the opposition. What makes a villain/opponent truly compelling in any story is the idea that the villain/opponent truly believes he is the hero of the story. Deutschland 83 is taking this concept and running with it, even getting some Joseph Campbell into the mix.