The Deutschland ’83 TV series first hit British screens in 2016. Few people would have suspected a show built around an East German perspective of the collapse of Communism could be a hit.
But by the end of its run, the spy drama was one of the most popular foreign language programmes in the history of British television.
Part of its appeal was the array of unlikely characters, forced into morally questionable acts, set in a realistic depiction of the East in crisis.
“You’re taught a certain myth of history,” says Deutschland’s writer and creator, Anna Winger.
“It’s all told from one point of view or another. But in fact history is a big grey mess.
“The historians and ‘winners’ of these conflicts have the privilege of defining it. But I think we are always looking at history through the prism of our own experience.”
The three series of Deutschland— ’83, ’86 and the just released ’89—all prided themselves on attention to historical detail. But they strove to set the characters free against this backdrop.
We weren’t making a documentary, so we gave ourselves licence to make it fun.
Part of the fun of Deutschland is the way lead character Martin Rauch, the reluctant young spy, finds himself in a series of impossible situations.
And his spymaster aunt, Lenora, is always the hidden hand that manipulates him.
“We were not creating a historical document,” says Winger. “Deutschland is entertainment first.
“We weren’t making a documentary, so we gave ourselves licence to make it fun. But there were certain rules, and one of them was that we never changed the order of historical events.
“We would always plan out a timeline of a series before we decided where to place the characters in it. And so we gave ourselves parameters.
“But we were always looking for the grey areas in history. These are areas where we don’t actually know what happened, and those bits you can make up.”
Winger says this allowed them to place Martin somewhat accidentally at the centre of real world events. One was a near nuclear war between the East and the West during a US-led war game.
Later there was a wrongly-issued order that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Though Martin is the character around which the series is built, it is the menacing Lenora who really shines.
“The thing about Lenora is she was a fully-baked character for me,” says Winger. “I wrote her for Maria Schrader, the actor who plays her.
“Right from the beginning of the series I wanted her to be somebody who would be the last one standing —defending her original ideas.
“She was someone who was prepared to fall on her sword.
“I have to acknowledge that there were actually no women in the leadership of the Stasi [East German secret police].
“But I didn’t care about that. In my version the Stasi is full of women.
“There are a lot of women from the former East Germany who are very powerful in German politics now, such as chancellor Angela Merkel. So there was something about equality in the East that was special, but it didn’t play out in the political leadership.”
Some of the most powerful moments in Deutschland ’89 come as former Stasi officers come to terms with the collapse of their state.
They seek to either reposition themselves in the West, or try and wipe away the guilt of their past crimes.
Winger is particularly interested in the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the unification of East and West Germany.
“When we look at history now, it always appears that the logical conclusion is the two Germanies reuniting.
“But there were a good few months when that was not clear at all,” she says.
“Suddenly our characters’ country is gone and it’s not clear what they are going to do next.”
“And I was really interested to see what that would mean for them. Are they criminals? Are they heroes? Are they going to be scooped up by other spy agencies because they have such great skills?”
In Deutschland we’re talking about the end of socialism, but the end of late-stage capitalism is similar
One of the reasons for Deutschland’s popularity is the way it rejected the view that East Germans were the “big losers” of history, says Winger.
“I think [people from the former East] are looking at hyper-capitalism and the world we live in now, and are thinking, ‘Well, we had some good ideas but they didn’t work out.’ And that without the East, there’s nothing now to balance capitalism.
“So in Deutschland we’re talking about the end of socialism, but the end of late-stage capitalism is similar.
“For me, as a social democrat, someone who values equality and inclusion, I think there is a lot to be explored in the people who pursued those ideals.
“I want to know why they went wrong, how and why the East failed.
“Institutionalised socialism as it functioned in the East was deeply problematic because it became a totalitarian regime.
“But it’s not true that capitalism is the only answer to that.”