“The true luxury of the West is that nobody is paying attention to you.”
There’s something eternally appealing about the spy. Equally at home as a symbol of governments that inherently can’t be trusted or a symbol of the fickleness of identity, the spy stands at a crossroads every moment, generating suspense just by existing. Shows like The Americans trade heavily on the inherent drama of spycraft itself; when it’s lies all the way down, even true believers will eventually waver, and of course the government knows: the point of a spy story is that the government always knows. It’s a lonely position, but a bulletproof concept for a television show from pulp to prestige, and with narrative tension ready to go. A spy makes their own fun—such as it is.
It’s no wonder, then, that Sundance scooped up Deutschland 83. This German miniseries (the network’s first in the language) has all the sleek design and cinematography prestige TV could want, and positions its spy story in a particularly fraught period of the nation’s history, when the Berlin Wall split the country into the socialist East and the capitalist West, and American and Soviet nuclear tensions cast shadows over both sides. It’s a moment in time that the show hopes is self-explanatory; though the characters regularly tune in to news broadcasts, there’s little exposition from within. And given the speed with which the story’s set in motion, the East’s governmental desperation has to be rendered palpably without much processing time, a challenge the show meets in spite of rather than because of its premise: While it seems like a self-defeating tactic for Stasi agent Lenora (Maria Schrader) to forcibly conscript her nephew Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) to spy on the West when spies usually come from the ranks of the willing, early episodes offer glimpses of the terror that might have spurred such a fool’s errand.
And a fool he turns out to be, in the best way. Much of Deutschland 83’s high-stakes tension and dry humor stem from the same place: Martin, whose assignment requires him to impersonate Bundeswehr General Edel’s aide-de-camp Moritz Stamm, has hasty training and almost no background in his actual mission. Turning the usual espionage ennui on its head gives many of the expected tropes new urgency; Nay’s all-angles face provides a rainbow of expressions of barely concealed panic whenever he’s asked to draw on his cover identity, and the increasing difficulty of his missions keeps him suitably aghast at regular intervals. The series makes the most of his quiet disasters, using them to neatly underline his isolation. Whether anticipating the wary stares of the General’s secretary or not knowing how to order at a restaurant, the little disconnects highlight a larger and more complicated mission than any set of photographs; even early in the series, it’s clear Martin will have to fight to decide who he is and whether he can ever really go home again.
Since Deutschland spends less time in East Germany than West Germany in early episodes—and what time it does spend in the GDR leans more toward picturesque landscapes and gigging schoolchildren than examining the atmosphere of Stasi surveillance—these grace notes build an ongoing sense of the mood back home, a portable set of stakes for Martin. His mother gets birthday coffee that’s been smuggled across the border; Martin’s guilty delight in swanky hotel rooms and produce sections wordlessly tie him to East Germany and give him the human weight that his performance won’t allow. It makes every Edel family barbecue and strategy meeting a minefield, and the suspense works beautifully even if Martin’s the cause of half the near-misses. (An ill-timed phone call in the premiere casts a particularly long shadow, but it’s sometimes enough just to watch Nay’s face fall as he realizes what’s in store for him.)
The show isn’t always subtle, and not just in terms of the macho posturing taking place between West Germany and the States. Martin left behind a sunny girlfriend and a sick mother who are naturally being used as emotional collateral. The General’s children are barely more than cutouts: a secret pacifist ripe for turning and a carefree singer ripe for romance. And the soundtrack is perhaps the biggest casualty here; if “99 Luftballons” doesn’t set the scene or “Call Me” playing underneath a scene of characters exchanging phone numbers seems a bit on the nose, just wait until they play “Modern Love” during a flirtatious bar chat. But there are also moments that might work better for being blatant. When undercover agent Professor Tischbier (Alexander Beyer) explains the Western philosophy to a freshly kidnapped Martin, it’s both a portent and through-line when he says, “The true luxury of the West is that nobody is paying attention to you.” Martin may yet succeed as a spy; whether he begins to take advantage of his opportunity to make other plans will probably depend on how many disasters he can live through before then.
That uncertainty about whether Martin’s quick thinking might save him or whether he’s doomed after all speaks well of the show’s desire to upend the genre on the knife’s edge of politics; if it so far lacks compelling background characters on the Western side, the actors seem more than up to the job whenever the plot should thicken. In the meantime, the show’s content to watch Martin trapped between forces bigger than he is, trying teeth-grindingly not to fumble. And wouldn’t you know, it works. Slated for an eight-episode season, Deutschland 83 is a stylish take on the spy genre that carefully balances its humor with high stakes, and with Nay as an anchor, promises that this is a spy caper worth a few summer weeks.