The German-language drama revolves around an East German soldier who is recruited in 1983 by the Stasi secret police to go undercover in the West German army. The series, the first entirely German-language drama to air in the U.S., has garnered “best-show-you’re-not-watching” attention from influential pop culture observers.
“Deutschland 83” creators-exec producers Anna Winger and Joerg Winger hope to tell the Cold War saga over three seasons, with three-year time jumps each season leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.
Jonas Nay stars as Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German who experiences great culture shock after he’s sent over to spy on the other side of the wall. He’s recruited to the espionage game by his aunt, played by the respected German actress Maria Schrader. Martin’s mandate from the Stasi gets him tangled up in all sorts of messes, including romantic interludes with Westerners even as he pines to return home to his pregnant girlfriend and ailing mother.
Whether the Wingers will be able to produce “Deutschland 86” and “Deutschland 89” won’t be decided until later this year, after the series airs on Germany’s RTL. The serialized storytelling is a departure for Teutonic dramas, which are typically procedurals.
“Deutschland 83” was originally conceived for German audiences. SundanceTV’s interest in airing the series, and partnering as a co-producer with UFA Fiction and FremantleMedia International made the experience particularly exhilarating for the Wingers, who are married and live in Berlin. Anna Winger is an American-born novelist and journalist; Joerg Winger is a well-known showrunner who has helmed the crime drama “Soko Leipzig.”
But “Deutschland 83” was a special project for the Wingers and most of those involved. It tackles a momentous period in German history, one that most of the cast and crew lived through (although star Nay was born the year after the Wall came down).
“It’s living history,” Anna Winger said. “People who participated in this show lived through that time. It’s still an active memory for people here. Everybody brought their memories and feelings about the time. It’s a real labor of love and collaborative experience for all of us.”
A good deal of the drama in “Deutschland 83” stems from how misinformation and misperceptions on both sides drive the brinksmanship that could have led to nuclear annihilation. In 1983, the East is convinced that the U.S. and NATO allies are plotting a nuclear attack, despite the first-hand intel to the contrary that Rauch presents.
The Wingers researched instances where the actions and instincts of a single person likely staved off disaster during the Cold War. The conflicts that Rauch faces in the finale are a cautionary tale for all hierarchical institutions that have a tendency to encourage people to tell the bosses what they want to hear.
“Deutschland 83” was built around the character of Rauch because he was young enough to not be beholden to the ideology of East or West, and that he could eventually “make a go of it” in the reunited Germany, Joerg Winger said. “As a German I love how disobedient he is to both systems,” he said. “He does have his own moral compass.”
The series had plenty of cat-and-mouse tension but it also has its lighter moments, mostly those that underscored the culture clash between East and West. Rauch’s eye-opening first visit to an opulent West German supermarket is played for laughs even as he’s on the run from danger. And Rauch’s stern superiors deliver some comedy as they try to figure out exactly what to do with a foreign object brought back by the intrepid agent, a five-inch computer floppy disc.
The decision to air “Deutschland 83” in the U.S. prior to its RTL premiere has only enhanced the anticipation for the show in its homeland.
“There’s been a lot of hunger for a German TV series that makes it out there,” Joerg Winger said. “For years we have observed American TV series and commented that American shows are on a different planet, they can do things we can’t even dream of because of budgets. Then the Scandinavians came around with some fantastic TV series. Since then people (in Germany) thought it should be possible for Germany to create a series that travels. We came along at the right time to satisfy the existing demand.”
Here’s a clip from the “Deutschland 83” finale: