Deutschland 89 Review

Before I start I should add a disclaimer. I have recently become a dad for the first time. My newborn daughter was still having regular 3-4 hour naps during the day a couple of days before Deutschland 89 was released in the UK at the beginning of March. After the long-awaited arrival of the series to the UK on Channel 4 as part of the foreign-language Walter Presents series (frustratingly a good few months after it was released in other parts of the world), I was hopeful I’d have long periods of time at the weekends to binge-watch whilst my daughter was asleep on me.

It eventually took me three weeks to watch this eight-episode season, with episodes being interrupted multiple times. Ironically, when the characters were speaking in German I could follow the storyline via the subtitles, but I barely heard any of the English dialogue over the white-noise of the baby monitor. It’s against this backdrop then that any criticism I give to the fast-paced, confusing nature of this season, has at least a 50% chance of being unjustified. With that disclaimer, I shall continue and hopefully not give away too many spoilers.

The Trabant, an iconic East German car. Source: Wikimedia

Deutschland 89 is the third season of a German-language series which follows Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86. All three seasons chronicle the socialist/communist ruled German Democratic Republic of the Cold War era, colloquially referred to as East Germany. All three seasons are spaced three years apart (1983, 1986 and 1989 as the show’s titles suggest) and focus on eventual decline of the DDR. Deutschland 83 sets the scene with the show’s main character, East German Martin Rauch, being co-opted by his aunt to become an East German spy in West Germany. Deutschland 86 focuses on the DDR’s involvement in the spread of communism in Africa, and the financial problems which increasingly beset the DDR and the difficulties in finding non-capitalist solutions to them. Deutschland 89 centres around the fall of the DDR and the reunification of Germany.

I was not alive when the wall fell. I have lived and worked in Germany and it is bizarre to think that the country spent half of the twentieth century first under Nazi rule, and then partitioned. Two family members of mine travelled to Berlin soon after the wall fell and have collected pieces of it. It was just how things were when they were growing up. I imagine it’s similar to North Korea today – we just accept that there is a country elsewhere in the world under an authoritarian regime of intense surveillance and the majority of whose populace are forbidden to leave its borders. Germany, however, just seems too close to home for this to have happened a mere thirty or so years ago.

Growing protests against the DDR. Source: Wikimedia

I love this series and this season is no exception. My one overarching criticism is that it was too fast-paced and oftentimes confusing. The fall of the Berlin Wall – the main event that the entire series seems to have been building towards, is not the crescendo I hoped for. It instead happens rather swiftly in just over an episode. Furthermore, I found it incredibly difficult to keep up with the switching allegiances in the first few episodes of the season. Is Martin CIA, BND (West German intelligence service) or a renegade? Who is Rose working for? Is Lenora HVA (part of the East German Stasi spy network) or solo-terrorist? I refer back to my disclaimer that if I’d been able to binge-watch this without interruption, I may have been less bamboozled. Admittedly some of these questions are clarified towards the end of the season (Lenora really is the last-remaining Stasi stalwart), but others are still a mystery to me (what is Walter’s ideology or is he just out to look after Martin?).

However, the confusion is part of the show’s beauty and the changing allegiances of the characters almost seem purposeful to highlight just how the world turned upside down overnight for East Germans once the wall fell. The season’s new character, Nicole (played by Svenja Jung), perfectly embodies this tension. We first meet Nicole as “Miss Zangen”, Martin’s son Max’s schoolteacher, who soon becomes the love interest of Martin and inadvertently ends up entangled in his escapades of espionage. Nicole initially celebrates the wall falling down but soon has her identity in flux, conceding that in a sea of change she still loves her homeland of East Germany, warts and all. For me Nicole is an excellent addition to the show, and though at times it feels a bit James Bond-like, you can’t help but root for her and Martin in a way that became increasingly difficult for him and Annette.

Flag of the Stasi, the secret police agency of the DDR.

Without giving away too much of the plot or the (very satisfying) ending to the season, the final episode closes with a montage of real footage and images of East German reunification and other regimes around the world. One of the greatest assets of the Deutschland series was its ability to weave in real footage of the DDR with the events that were happening on screen. This time, however, the show goes off piste and the show’s writers take the opportunity to juxtapose footage of Donald Trump’s desire to build a wall between the United States and Mexico with the history of the Berlin Wall. Whilst many would have appreciated this comparison, for me it was slightly simplistic and superficial. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin draws more accurate parallels on the top floor of its exhibit, where the stories of East German border crossings are compared to the contemporary plight of North Koreans.

In spite of this, Deutschland 89 is yet another example of incredible non-English drama, which benefits from escaping the trappings of the stereotypical Anglo-American plotline formulae. If you’re even remotely interested in the history of the Cold War, or in foreign-language drama, you absolutely have to watch Deutschland 89 and its earlier seasons, all found on Channel 4.

By Steven Bishop

Steven is researching the recent protests against statues of controversial historical figures across the world, focusing on the complex relationship between history and memory. His other historical interests include the history of the United States of America, especially the period from colonisation to the Civil War. He also have a burgeoning interest in local history and write about Colchester’s many heritage sites in Colchester United’s matchday programme.