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Deutschland 83: “Cold Fire”

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Early in “Cold Fire,” Tobias shows up at the commune to send Martin on an assignment back home. But before he gets to the details, Martin points a finger like it’s the end of a murder mystery. “You killed her. I know it was you, Tischbier!” Yes, we all do. He handed Martin a shovel and told him to bury the body. This isn’t something Martin would be just pretty sure of. He would know. He would know Tobias knows he knows. The blame would be a given. For a drama that runs on secrets, it’s important to keep track of the things the audience knows already and can go unspoken.


When Tobias tells Martin why he has to go home—to be his mother’s kidney donor; never mind that Martin’s already told us for no apparent reason after all that he’s not a match for her—Martin shouts that this is just a ploy, that Tobias is just trying to keep him on the leash. What? The only way to justify Martin’s reaction here is by chalking it up to residual anger and resentment over what happened to Linda. Which would be eminently understandable, but it’s a little rich coming from a guy who went straight from burying one of his side-pieces to dancing and fucking another in one of the most interesting and frustrating moments of the season. So, sure, Martin’s just lashing out, but does his argument have to be so absurd? How could this be a con? Okay, that sounds naïve, but Martin’s saying that the East living up to its end of the arrangement with Martin is somehow supposed to keep him on the hook, when the crux of that arrangement is leverage. Once Ingrid has a healthy kidney, the state loses its power to coerce Martin without force. And to top it off, Martin’s going home! He gets to see the only two people he loves. He gets to live his real life. Martin ought to be thrilled, and the fact that he isn’t requires filling in emotional dots, which Deutschland 83 isn’t very good at. Martin should be smarter than this. He should see the advantage here, and he should be calculating how to get out of the spy game about now.

Which in turn would lend more pathos to Lenora’s story. I spoke too soon last week. Lenora values her family after all. When the doctors are about ready to call it quits, in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath, Section 31: Loopholes, she flashes her proverbial badge and says, “This is my sister. Is that clear? I want you to save her life.” Earlier, just after that Martin-Tobias scene, Lenora is ordered to “activate” her agents, particularly her man under General Edel. She doesn’t even bring up Martin, her way of shielding him, a subtle kindness, but Walter knows how valuable he is and brings up the poor man, codename Kolibri. If Martin were gunning to come home permanently—which, by the way, never crosses his mind in the first episode in West Berlin since the premiere—it would be all the more moving to watch Lenora squirm and eventually, because we already know what she’d do, send him back to NATO. Instead we’re left with a confused unease: What exactly does activation entail? What is Martin going to have to do that he isn’t already?

At a certain point that I probably passed weeks ago, evaluating Deutschland 83’s plotting is redundant. It doesn’t swing wildly between sharp jabs and clumsy stumbles. The highs are the moments it can simply stand its ground—and to its credit Deutschland 83 is pretty light on its feet most of the time—and sometimes it manages a moment that looks like grace. But it’s always on the verge of stumbling. It’s unseasoned, and hopefully the producers are learning from season one so Deutschland 84 can be tighter.


As for moments of grace, take Annett’s reconciliation with Thomas on the stairs at school. The wall sconces dim the light into a burnt golden color with little tufts of black. Needles of light shine in every direction, giving Annett a spiky aura when she stands in front. It’s almost like the scene plays in sepia. She’s upset about Martin, but he gets through to her and they actually start to rekindle. And then he confesses what’s up with the books, which is pretty much the only thing that could be up with the books: He’s running an underground library. Annett says, “The state just wants people to be happy…False values only confuse them.” Oh, honey.

There’s a lot of high-minded talk on Deutschland 83, which is not the same as a lot of intellectual rigor. It’s more like a puppet show playing out the basic points of view among the chattering classes, East and West. If there’s one thing Deutschland 83 gets right, it’s that espousing principles doesn’t actually do a whole lot to reveal character. Half of these people are playing both sides, a quarter are malleable idiots, and the rest—maybe the realest—are politically interested primarily as a consequence of personal interests, like Yvonne rebelling against her father and finding herself in a free love group.


But because Deutschland 83 is always on the verge of a stumble, it’s hard to know what it’s getting wrong and what it’s playing at getting wrong. Annett is the latter. This show has gone out of its way to show the state is not very concerned with the individual except as a tool to advance the interests of the state. Alex at the commune is a different matter. He has a snappy rejoinder to everything the hippies say. You may not believe in violence, but violence exists anyway, he says. “Your ‘love’ is just an excuse to be selfish and passive.” Nobody has anything smart to say back, even though there are some obvious responses like how an unarmed man standing up to an armed man isn’t passive, and the scene ends with Yvonne apologizing to her brother and acquiescing to his demands. I’m not sure the show has done such a good job tacitly refuting Alexander’s points, though, yet. The best you could say is violence hasn’t accomplished much good so far. Does Anna Winger have any thoughts on the force of nonviolence, though?

Annett and Alexander are the simplest characters on the show, which makes them perfect monkey wrenches if not very revealing portraits of humanity, but “Cold Fire” makes excellent use of their plot-wrecking talents in the final montage, which is ground zero for the show’s combo of footwork, stumbling, and passable grace. It’s set to “In The Air Tonight,” which otherwise suits the show’s kiddie-pool soundtrack but is one of those songs that already has such an iconic place in television that it should be retired like an MVP jersey and never brought out again. Anyway, it’s basically a bunch of people sitting around watching TV, which might suggest a slower approach, like on Mad Men when everyone watches the moon landing. On the contrary, “Cold Fire” doesn’t give much time to its shots, manufacturing a freight train out of individual scenes of quiet. What’s the connection between Tobias standing alone on his balcony and Lenora smoking in silhouette? Time, mood, anticipation. There’s a striking snippet of Ursula Edel—episode champion primarily for the scene where she blows off her husband and takes a moment to eat her dinner in peace—looking out the window at the general, who appears to be on fire thanks to the reflection of the fireplace.


Finally we come to the two cliffhangers. Annett meets with Walter, predictably turning in Thomas. Does she realize what she’s doing, the impact of her actions here? It’s hard to say. But then she says something I didn’t predict: “First I have an important message for my boyfriend.” Uh-oh. Meanwhile Alexander’s parked outside somewhere. In an episode where he’s been thrown out of every possible home to varying levels of plausibility, and in an episode about Carlos the Jackal, and in a montage quietly hurtling toward some release, I braced for impact. But Alexander isn’t throwing in with hate and violence, at least not like Carlos. His actions are explosive in a quieter way: He volunteers his services with East German intelligence. It’s a perfect solution. Now the two babies are in the game, understandably gumming up the works but also sympathetically in way over their heads. That’s how you turn a liability into an asset.

Stray observations

  • “Cold Fire” is written by Anna Winger and directed by Edward Berger.
  • Apparently, on the dancefloor at the end of “Northern Wedding,” Martin stripped to “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” I’ve never hoped for a deleted scene more.
  • On-The-Nose Song Of The Week: That can only be “Mad World” playing as Alexander storms out of Tobias’ place. “Going nowhere, going nowhe-e-ere,” plays as he stands in the yard in turmoil, starting in one direction and then rocking back. The drops that bring out the coming-of-age drama in the spy outfit are my favorite.
  • AIDS is the cover story of Der Spiegel this week. After hearing about Alexander’s made-up highly contagious disease, Edel’s secretary disinfects her hands with rubbing alcohol.
  • Martin fights Carlos the Jackal this week! It sounds like a comic book cover, but it really happens. Martin gives Carlos a detonator, Carlos blows up Kudamm killing one person and injuring 22, and then Martin chases him through the subway tunnels and leaves him for dead on the train tracks. It’s a great, tense sequence, from the moment they meet to the moment they part, and that wide shot of the damage dwarfing Martin as survivors limp from the rubble stays with you. Combined with the earlier scene where Tobias calls out Martin’s hypocrisy, this could have made for a compelling close-up of Martin in moral turmoil, and I guess it is as far as it goes. But just about everyone gets to share in the moody, contemplative finale except Martin, and after he destroys the other detonators he had given Carlos, that’s pretty much it. There’s more thriller ahead for Martin, but the episode has no time for him to really process what it means that he’s smuggling bombs to terrorists killing civilians, and Jonas Nay processing things is half the draw.
  • Alexander: “All pop songs are about unrequited love.”

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