Sunday, September 25, 2022

1989: a Spy Story, on MHz

Before 1989, if you were named in Stasi records as a mole or an informant, you could count on that intel staying secret. After 1989, you were potentially in a heck of a lot of trouble. That is the position Saskia Starke finds herself in as a mole in America’ West German embassy in Sven Bohse’s 1989: a Spy Story (a.k.a. Wendezeit), a film produced for German television, which premieres this Tuesday on MHz.

Actually, Starke is not the original name she was born with. However, as the daughter of a high-ranking Stasi agent, she had to do her duty, assuming the identity of a West German leftist, who defected to GDR. The real Starke had been estranged from her former National Socialist parents, so it was easy for her imposter to re-start her life fresh in West Berlin.

Eventually, she married her husband, a diplomat in the West German embassy and wormed her way into an in-country analyst gig with the CIA. Yet, it was only by luck that her colleague Betsy Jordan blabbed during a dinner party about an operation to pick up a Stasi defector who could burn her. Starke manages to liquidate him before his rendezvous with the CIA, but that tips off the Agency that they have a mole in the embassy. It will be Jeremy Redman’s job to find the deep-cover Stasi agent. Supposedly, he is the one who sleuthed out the Walker spy ring—and he immediately suspects Starke.

She was once a true believer in Socialism, but Starke's faith has been shaken. However, she still ardently believes in staying alive and at liberty. Given her circumstances and shifting beliefs, her reactions to current events in the GDR are quite conflicted, but she has to put on a happy face at work. She also totally freaks when she learns her rebellious daughter has been secretly seeing an East German punker, for so many reasons.

is a really smart and sophisticated espionage thriller (written by Silke Steiner) that has a lot of le Carre-esque betrayals and shifting loyalties, but is consistently critical of the Communist experiment in misery. It definitely looks and feels like 1989 (wasn’t that a great year) and Bohse keeps building the suspense as Redman gets closer and closer to uncovering Starke’s secret mission.

Someone else will have to judge Danish thesp Ulrich Thomsen’s German accent, but for those relying on subtitles, he is terrific as Redman. The cat-and-mouse games he plays with the cerebral Starke (nicely played by Petra Schmidt-Schaller from
The Marnow Murders) are definitely what make the film so gripping. Alexander Beyer also brings a lot to the table playing Kai-Uwe Henning, a Major in the Stasi, who gets caught up in Starke’s twisty survival scheme.

This is quite a satisfyingly murky spy vs. spy thriller, featuring what was at the time one of Thomsen’s best performance in several years (predating the excellent Good Traitor). Steiner spun out an intriguing yarn from some real Cold War mysteries, but it is important to note it never invites sympathy for the Stasi or the East German Communist regime. Highly recommended,
1989: a Spy Story starts streaming Tuesday (9/27) on MHz.