I was so relieved when East German spy Martin Rauch bumps into the general’s son going to lunch on his first day, keeping him from completing his mission already. Things are beautifully set up for him to photograph whatever’s in the American general’s briefcase, but if he does his job too well, they’ll just ask more of him. It’s better for him to be inefficient. But he just can’t keep himself from his girlfriend back home any longer than necessary, and that seals his fate. He manages to get away from lunch a little before the generals return. The premise is enough to get the heart racing, and Deutschland 83 treats the sequence like a bad horror movie where Martin drops the knife and goes in the basement and you just know the killer’s already waiting for him. He can’t pick the lock on the door, so he picks the lock on the secretary’s desk to get the keys. Every added step only makes it more likely he won’t finish in time. Then he reads over documents instead of quickly photographing them. And when he finishes, narrowly escaping the generals, he’s left in a state of turmoil watching the secretary, who seems to notice something’s awry. She sits there staring at her typewriter, and the camera slowly pushes in on her for her big moment, and at last she begins going about her work duties like nothing’s the matter, and we cut away, finally able to exhale. Like a lot of Deutschland 83, it’s a blunt scene, clumsily pushing our buttons, but it gets the job done.
“Quantum Jump” doesn’t have a lot of time for its mission of the week, because the first half is all set-up. It’s 1983, yes, the time of Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, and as the US and USSR drop threats like nobody’s business, a divided Germany sits in the crossfire. Martin Rauch is an East German military officer who works at a Berlin border crossing lecturing would-be capitalists on the value of community and the perils of greed. He gets leave for his mom’s birthday, where he also reunites with his girlfriend Annett. He’s surprised to find his aunt Lenora, an East German intelligence officer, there too, but partly because she sneaks up on him and partly because she lives in Bonn, the capital of West Germany. Maria Schrader doesn’t get as a lot to do as Lenora in the premiere, but she’s already a fantastic villain, tiptoeing up behind Martin every time she meets him alone, testing the waters with a line like, “That Reagan is a danger to mankind,” swiftly putting the pieces of her plan together. She wants Martin to take the place of an incoming aide-de-camp at a military base in Daun, near Bonn. The aide is Moritz, a 24-year-old scholar interested in soccer, chess, and piano. See, if Martin had just tried a little less in life, he’d be a terrible fit and none of this would have happened.
The other problem for Martin is he’s clearly a great choice. Jonas Nay play him a little close to the vest even before he’s drafted. He thinks before responding, and he doesn’t give away what he’s thinking on his face. When his aunt brings up Reagan, he casually dodges, even though he has a blast playing up ideological rhetoric at work.
Everything falls into place fairly easily, but this is all table-setting anyway. The only problem is Martin doesn’t play piano, so one of Lenora’s comrades breaks his fingers. He resists the mission altogether, but Lenora’s men prepared for that, starting the meeting with a strong cup of tea to knock him out. And Martin’s mom needs a kidney transplant requiring special Western pharmaceuticals, so Lenora uses her transplant as leverage to keep Martin jumping on command. It’s all very tidy, and when it isn’t, like when Martin wakes up in a house in Bonn and runs away from his handlers, it’s unbelievable. But then there are the little payoffs that make it go down smoothly, like the knockout tea helping Martin clean up a later mess when someone overhears him calling Annett in East Germany, which we buy because Deutschland 83 makes it so clear that she’s pretty much all he cares about. And the first thing General Edel says after his new aide Moritz shows up is that he would have liked to have heard him play piano if not for the cast on his hand. The premiere doesn’t have a lot of time to do much more than the single photography mission, but that’s because it doesn’t rush the set-up. Now we’ll see if it’s typically this simple or if it can get a little knottier with more time.
Deutschland 83 is understandably compared to The Americans, but there’s a difference between a young man’s spy story and a married couple’s. Martin is only now starting to figure out his life. His story is one of discovery, hence the bright, colorful, dazed trip through the West German supermarket. His girlfriend is the most important person in his life, and his soundtrack is top-of-the-charts pop that’s talking directly to him. Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” is playing at the supermarket, where he’s hiding out from his handlers. “Some of them want to use you,” croons Annie Lennox once he catches his breath. “That song is playing everywhere,” says Martin’s quasi-friend the second time “99 Luftballons” plays in the episode. Where a montage in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a product of age (memory) shot with resignation, on Deutschland 83 it’s about introduction. It’s new and exciting, the weeks fly by, and it looks like a cooking scene on Please Like Me. Martin’s in the same pawn-like position as The Americans, but he isn’t overcome with futility. Nothing is irreparable yet, including Germany. When Martin tries on an identity, it’s not a metaphor for the masks people wear in relationships. It’s immersion in the life of his West German counterpart. It’s almost closer to Lindsay Weir summering with the Deadheads than Phillip Jennings marrying some poor woman under a false identity.
Right on cue, Martin finds out at the end that he did such a good job with the documents that he has a new assignment, this one less direct. What was a one-time deal is now indefinite, and Martin has no choice in the matter. He’s appalled that Lenora would use her sister’s health as a bribe. She shoots back, “The lives of millions of East German citizens are at stake, not just one.” The last act of the premiere is mostly about bumps in the road—Martin has to stay at General Edel’s party, he messes up a hand-off to his contact on base, and he calls Annett but gets overheard by the General’s sister-in-law—but there’s enough talk about how East Germany does things like this and West Germany does things like that that I expect Martin might find himself tempted by the other side at some point.
After his first experience of Bonn, Martin tells his trainer, Tobias Tischbier, “East Berlin is more impressive.” Tobias responds, “Lesson number one: The true luxury of the West is that no one pays attention to you. They call that freedom.” Naturally the rest of the episode is about all kinds of people paying attention to Martin when all he wants is a moment alone. I doubt that’s the last time one of these characters is wrong about the other side.
- “Quantum Jump” is written by co-creator Anna Winger and directed by Edward Berger.
- Deutschland 83 is maybe the first German-language scripted TV series to debut in the U.S. on TV, which I think is enough qualifications to distinguish its SundanceTV run from the 1985 PBS broadcast of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but there could well be other German-language shows that aired here at some point, too.
- “The greatest privilege of socialism is freedom,” Martin tells two young capitalists at the border crossing. “Freedom from greed.”
- Readers more fluent in German than I am: There’s a giant “Rauchen verboten!” sign in the parking garage at Bonn’s East German intelligence outfit. It means, “No smoking,” but does it also play as a pun on Martin and Lenora Rauch (Rauch-ing forbidden)?
- Martin protests the assignment, and Lenora and Tobias ply him with a bonus: “You and Annett will get an apartment. Maybe even a car.”
- RIP the real Moritz Stamm, shot on a train by a cute girl. Let’s hope that’s not foreshadowing for the other Moritz.
- Tobias tells Martin about his emergency contact on base, Karl Kramer. “General Edel trusts him blindly.” That’s what I mean when I say the episode is a blunt instrument. Human beings tend not to trust people blindly, but it’s awfully convenient to have such a relationship on a spy thriller.
- Martin tells the Edel children he once danced with a delegation from Cuba. “Cuba?” A club in West Germany, he covers.