Monday, June 15, 2015

Deutschland ’83: Undercover in the West, On the Wrong Side of History

It must be a weird full circle experience for an East German defector like Sylvester Groth to now play a Stasi agent, but it is a role he would understand better than most. Groth’s Walter Schweppenstette is in fact the sort of spymaster who can dislodge poor Martin Rauch’s finger with perfect casualness. As a result, the shocked East German will now have an excuse for avoiding the piano while impersonating a West German General’s new aide-de-camp. Rauch did not ask for this assignment, but he will obey as best he can during the course of Deutschland ‘83 (promo here), which premieres this Wednesday on SundanceTV.

Rauch was a loyal Communist border guard serving on the Wall Pres. Reagan will soon challenge Gorbachev to tear down. His aunt Lenora is a high-ranking Stasi strategist, who is pretty freaked out by Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and his decision to deploy Pershing missiles in West Germany. Rather cold-bloodedly, she picks her nephew to impersonate Moritz Stamm, an orphaned junior officer loner who will soon report for duty under Gen. Wolfgang Edel, a prominent NATO liaison. Of course, Rauch is reluctant to leave his almost-fiancée Annett and his ailing mother Ingrid, but Lenora promises to arrange a transplant for her if he agrees, not that he has a choice.

The first two episodes of D83 screened at the Berlin Film Festival and they hang together as an initial arc pretty well. We can see perhaps hints of doubt being sown when Rauch, the ardent Marxist first encounters a western supermarket. His superiors and colleagues are not exactly the reassuring types either, especially Aunt Lenora. However, it might be the freedom exercised by young West Germans that ultimately shakes Rauch’s convictions. After all, the peacenik chart-topper “99 Luftballoons” is a constant presence throughout the first two episodes.

As Lenora Rauch, Maria Schrader could well surpass Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood for stone cold Machiavellian villainy. Right from the start, she makes the show. Jonas Nay also shows promise as Rauch/Stamm, convincingly portraying his early overwhelmed naivety, while hinting at the resourcefulness and moral confliction to come. As Schweppenstette, Groth (best known for playing Goebbels not once, but twice in Inglorious Basterds and My Fuhrer) appropriately exudes malevolence and Ulrich Noethen quickly establishes Gen. Edel’s contradictory human dimensions. Unfortunately, Errol Trotman-Harewood seems to be trying for the cringiest ugly American stereotypes as blustery Gen. Arnold Jackson.

The period details of D83 are spot on, extending far beyond the music. Even in the early going, helmer Edward Berger keeps it tight and tense. The limited series also boasts a wealth of memorable performances from smaller but key supporting players, such as Lena Lauzemis as Rauch’s shadowy hotel contact. However, it is unclear how writer-co-creator Anna Winger will ultimately treat Pres. Reagan. There do seem to be indications we are supposed to sympathize with the resistance to his Pershing deployment. Still, there is no denying he shook things up.

Overall, Deutschland ’83 shows considerable potential judging from the first two episodes. It must be the first German programming to air directly in America since the History Channel broadcast Dresden so it is nice to see SundanceTV taking chances. Espionage fans should be advised, it commences this Wednesday (6/17) on SundanceTV.