By Sally Campbell
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Deutschland 83

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Issue 409

This eight-part spy thriller is said to be auguring a golden age for German TV — and it’s been a long time coming.

The series will air on Channel 4 and is the first show to launch its video-on-demand service for “quality foreign television”, Walter Presents, a strand of the online platform All4.

In recent years the British audience for “Scandi noir” has expanded to welcome French and Italian thrillers, but there’s been nothing from Europe’s economic powerhouse.

Germany has produced waves of radical and boundary-breaking cinema over the past century, but its television has been famously bad.

The evidence of the first episode of Deutschland 83 suggests that we have a serious contender here.

The series begins with US president Ronald Reagan’s infamous “Evil Empire” speech in 1983, which signalled a ratcheting up of Cold War tension. We see top Stasi operatives — the East German secret service — angrily viewing the speech on TV and swiftly moving to respond.

Before the opening credits even roll, we have a young border guard, Martin Rauch, serving his “socialist” motherland, recruited to go undercover in the West German capital Bonn to get close to a top army general.

When I say “recruited” I mean in the most brutal way — the programme may have a sense of nostalgia for the old days, but there is no sugar coating of the Stasi here.

Setting it in 1983 gives a real sense of the fear of imminent nuclear war. The Americans have clear plans to deploy their brand new Pershing II nuclear ballistic missiles across West Germany, the front line of Nato’s war against the East.

As the West German general points out to his American colleague, Moscow might be a long way away from Washington, DC, but it’s very near to Bonn when considering nuclear fallout.

The time period also gives ample opportunity for amusing juxtapositions of East and West. The humour in Deutschland 83 is a real pleasure, balancing out the grim subject matter and drab settings.

The moment our spy emerges into the streets of Bonn, newly kitted out in Western gear emblazoned with logos — Puma, Levi, Adidas — and stumbles, dazed, into a supermarket with more “choice” than he’s ever seen in his life is hilarious.

Music is also deftly deployed. As Martin arrives in the West it is almost exclusively British and American pop music that he hears (although German artist Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, an anti-nuclear song, is a hit both sides of the Iron Curtain).

There are hints of further political discussion to come — a young character is reading a book by a leading Green Party activist, at this time a force in the growing anti-nuclear movement.

Deutschland 83 succeeds in creating real tension as Martin gets to slippery grips with his new tradecraft. Combined with the humour, performances and great soundtrack, this is one to stick with.

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