It’s not easy to write a compelling second season of television, especially within a format that feels more like a miniseries than a traditional TV show to begin with.
Deutschland 83—the story of a naive, 24-year-old East German man sent to West Germany against his will to act as a spy—could easily have been a standalone story. By the end of the fast-paced, eight-episode season, protagonist Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) has made a definitive decision about where his allegiances lie; he saves the world, but loses the possibility of a return to his life in East Germany in the process.
When Deutschland 86 picks up three years later (both in the show’s timeline and in our own), we find a world wearier Martin, much changed by his time working undercover for the Stasi in West Berlin, as well as the three years since.
Martin has been living at an East German orphanage in Angola. It is a banishment for his “crimes,” but the real punishment is being away from his mother and young son, Max. When his Aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) offers him a chance to return to East Germany if he helps her finalize a weapons deal with the South African Army in Cape Town, a skeptical Martin begrudgingly accepts. After all, it may be his only chance to be a father to his son.
As was established in Deutschland 83, Lenora is a very bad aunt, but a very good spy, so it says a lot that even she, of the steely-eyed spy competence and fabulous fashion, is having trouble furthering the East German cause. The Soviet state is running out of money and is looking for opportunities in increasingly comprimising places. Back in East Germany, compromises are made in the greenlighting of human trials of an unregulated drug for a western pharmaceutical company. In South Africa, it is in shady weapons deals with whomever will pay, irrespective of ideology.
One of Deutschland 83‘s many appeals for American audiences lies in its nuanced portrayal of a much-covered period of history from a non-American perspective, and that interest continues here. Run by wife-and-husband team American Anna Winger and German Jörg Winger, this is a season of proxy wars and Perestroika, the AIDS crisis and The Love Boat.
There is a lot of Cold War era-set media out there right now. Much of it revels in the aesthetic without diving into the substance of the era. Deutschland 86 indulges with delight in the sights and sounds of this period, but it also earnestly engages with the geopolitical nuances. This can lead to more challenging viewing moments, especially in scenes of expertly-relayed exposition in which the series attempts to provide complex context for the viewer in entertaining ways.
Deutschland 86 assumes a certain degree of media literacy in its viewers, and having to read English subtitles to the German voiceover during montages filled with complex geopolitical information often proves too much for one watch-through. In one scene in the season’s first episode, Florence Kasumba’s South African spy Rose attempts to explain the proxy war being waged between the East and West in South Africa. The sequence is aided by an elaborate animation, and it’s a lot to take in whilst also reading English subtitles for the German language voiceover.
Deutschland 86 is an easy watch in terms of entertainment value and visual flair, but there’s a reason why American broadcasters tend to remake foreign language shows rather than broadcast the original: there are only so many TV watchers who will go the extra step of reading subtitles. But there’s a reason why Deutschland 83 was a global success, and why so many American remakes of foreign TV shows fail. There is magic in a good TV show; it is the result of intense collaboration, of so many things going right and so many people doing their job well. It’s hard to recreate that magic, even with many of the same narrative elements and even behind-the-scenes people in place.
Deutschland 86 is a show worth watching, even if you don’t speak German. Even if you haven’t seen Deutschland 83. (Trust me… it’s confusing to acclimate yourself to this world, even if you’ve watched Deutschland 83.) Deutschland 86 is a TV show that asks a lot of its viewers, but that’s not a bad thing—the investment is worth the reward.
Period media is as much about the time period in which it is made as it is about the time period it is set, arguably even more so. Deutschland 83 with its questions of personal and ideological allegiances amidst the threat of nuclear war was relevant in a pre-Trump climate when the world admittedly already felt like it was on fire, but in more of a slow burn kind of way. Now, the world feels like it is aflame, and Deutschland 86 has upped the urgency, nuance, and scope in response.
Notably, Deutschland 86 doesn’t cast strict hierarchical judgment on systems of government; it simply presents the complications and criticisms of each one, making sure to tell a story with relatable humans on all sides. Much has changed in the three years since Deutschland 83 aired. From an American perspective, Deutschland 86 feels even more topical in a time when I like to think we’re more publicly questioning the effects our personal and collectively-held ideologies have on our planet and the people who live here.
Deutschland 86 is more than just a thrilling spy drama. It is a nuanced geopolitical thriller that impressively walks the line between escapist entertainment and topical storytelling. It’s also a hell of a good time. Deutschland 83 could have easily been a standalone story… but we’re very lucky that it wasn’t.
Deutschland 86 premieres tonight at midnight on Sundance TV.
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