Abedroom on the outskirts of Berlin. At first glance, the details look unremarkable: sports posters, a radio, magazines and board games. But then you notice that the radio is a Prominent Automatik 2000, that the magazines are issues of Sputnik, and on the bookshelf sits The Life And Times Of Nikita Khrushchev. This is the bedroom of Martin Rauch, the 24-year-old at the heart of new imported German drama Deutschland 83. Rauch (Jonas Nay) is an East German sent west to gather military intelligence who becomes embroiled in an international crisis, and can find no way out. His mother’s kidney transplant is dependent on him completing his mission; his Stasi handler will see to that. Her name is Lenora (played by Maria Schrader) and she’s also his aunt. As I listen through the bedroom door on a freezing November morning, there is the sound of a scuffle: Martin has come home and things are getting lively.
This new series is the work of British-American author Anna Winger and her German producer husband Jörg. Set in 1983, it details a world on the brink. The arms race is on and Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Yuri Andropov are ramping up the rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin. Germany is caught in the middle, split in half and subject to the whims of its effective occupiers.
A lot has changed since then, of course. “How do you explain the history of Berlin to its children today?” wonders Anna, a German resident for 13 years. “When we auditioned Jonas, we asked if he was from East or West [Berlin]. He said: ‘I was born in 1990. What are you talking about?’ It’s like a fairytale. These two kingdoms with missiles aimed at each other, and the missiles didn’t go off.”
The series sprang from Jörg’s experiences working in a listening post at a West German base in 1989. “We listened to Russian troops in the East and got calls from them at Christmas, greeting us by name, so we knew we had a mole,” he recalls.
Anna took the mole’s perspective as a starting point but the drama needed placing in time, and the date was chosen for unorthodox reasons. “We wanted it to be fun, an adventure,” she says, “and 1983 was the only time when the world listened to German pop.” Music was unusual in unifying the youth cultures of East and West at the time the era’s Euro hits make an undeniably apt accompaniment. Peter Schilling’s morbid synthpop hit Major Tom (Coming Home) – a song that casts Bowie’s Space Oddity character into the chill of a nuclear winter – is the series’ theme; Ideal’s Keine Heimat (translation: “No Home”) lends its oddball new wave bounce to a montage of Martin learning spycraft; while 99 Luftballons is sung on both sides of the Berlin Wall during the opening episode. With admirable attention to detail, the producer of Nena’s global hit was hired to score the series.
Just like the music this is a Technicolor drama, an antidote to the didactic procedurals and melodramas more typical of German television. The best-known German series – submarine thriller Das Boot, or century-spanning epic Heimat – tend to be exceptional in every sense. While the quality of production and acting in German TV has always been high, Jörg explains, storytelling has lagged behind. Scandinavia provided a wake-up call, with the overarching themes and strong characterisation of Borgen influential on D83. In turn, the Wingers’ series is reshaping the reputation of the nation’s small-screen drama, allying crisply paced US-style storytelling to the technical rigour of Teutonic productions and representing a rare foray into the writer- (rather than producer- or director-) driven series. Perhaps only Weissensee, a soapier serial set in 1980s East Berlin, has married critical acclaim to commercial success so comprehensively.
D83’s ambition bears fruit. It blends entertaining spy capers with a tangible sense of real-world jeopardy, as the serious business of defining personal and national identity throws both the fear of change and a desire for it into sharp relief. It’s a stark contrast to gloomier attempts to tackle the period, such as Oscar-winner The Lives Of Others, even if the mood does gradually darken to reflect the times. “People were afraid of nuclear war,” says Jörg, “but they didn’t know how afraid they should have been…”
Comparisons with Fox’s The Americans, in which two Russian agents go undercover in Reagan’s America, are inevitable but coincidental, says Anna: not only does Martin share the ethnicity and language of his unwitting hosts, but he’s also younger, less cynical and more vulnerable to the allure of capitalism than Philip and Elizabeth in The Americans. The moment when Martin is first exposed to a West German supermarket, shelves brimming with exotic brand names, is both ecstatic and terrifying. Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, inevitably, plays over the Tannoy.
“In the end,” says Anna, “you’re always writing about the time you’re living in. We found a lot of themes were overlapping [between the drama and real life]. When the Malaysian flight was shot down over Ukraine, I was working on an episode set in September 83, when Russia mistakenly downed a Korean passenger plane.” Jörg’s day job, showrunning the venerable police drama SOKO Leipzig, was also thrown into turmoil when its leading man was exposed as having worked for the Stasi for two years in the 1960s. The story was duly worked into the serial.
Anna feels that a sense of historical perspective and an absence of judgment is central to D83. “It’s important to remember that a lot of people were happy in East Germany,” says Anna. “It didn’t work economically, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good to be part of it sometimes. The existence of the East made the West more humane but now, in an era of unbridled capitalism, we don’t have that balance.”
We adjourn to the catering truck for a lunch of Berlin meatballs, where we’re joined by the star, Nay, wearing his regulation 80s brown leather jacket. “When we dealt with this period in school, we only ever saw it in books, never through the eyes of people who lived through it,” he says.
Schrader, sitting alongside him, was born and raised in the West. “I went to East Berlin for a day when I was 16,” she recalls. “It was like discovering a new world; when you’re that age, you’re searching for meaning. The attraction of the East [for West Germans] was identification; this unbelievable conviction that they were doing the right thing for a better world.”
Yet even while potential apocalypse loomed, 1983 also marked a turning point; the darkest hour before the dawn of reunification. “That year, West Germany lent East Germany a billion deutschmarks because they were running out of money and many West Germans had family there,” says Jörg. “It was also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birthday, so that was a pan-German celebration. But it was the beginning of the peace movement, too. People were coming closer together even as America and Russia were becoming more aggressive. It was exhausting but people were sick of it.”
The Wingers hope to follow their characters into 1986 and 1989, This Is England style. “There were over 2,000 embedded agents in the West when the Wall came down,” says Anna. “They faded into their false identities. What does it mean to have devoted your life to something, only to find you’re suddenly representing a country that doesn’t exist?”
“I was at the listening post when the Wall came down,” says Jörg. “We had no idea, even though we were listening to the Russians. We only found out when we watched the TV news that night and were as amazed as everyone else. Our show is like Titanic in reverse: a difficult time with a happy ending.”
Deutschland 83 starts Sunday, 9pm, Channel 4