History, Spies, Television

TV: The Same Sky

July 26, 2017

Historical German miniseries The Same Sky paints such a striking portrait that it’s easy to forgive what it lacks, including one glaringly important element: a satisfying resolution. Weirdly, the skillful, immersive way it builds up almost makes up for the fact that it leaves behind something of an unfinished structure.

Set in Berlin in 1974, The Same Sky is a multi-protagonist slice-of-life mosaic that takes as its mission depicting the deep divide between east and west at the height of the Cold War. A central spy narrative drives the action: young East German “Romeo agent” Lars Weber (Tom Schilling) is sent into West Berlin to seduce and recruit a West German intelligence analyst named Lauren Faber (Sofia Helin). Lauren works at a crucial listening station that serves as a hotbed of American and British intelligence-gathering against the communist bloc. Lars’ mission, rife with border crossings, deception, subtle stratagems, and eye-catching tradecraft, obscures the fact that this isn’t specifically a spy series. Espionage is just an element of the period drama, which looks back at the stark differences between western capitalism and Soviet socialism, reminding us that both systems are rife with flaws and corruption. Granted, the East German system is cast in the far less flattering light, as the characters on that side of the wall clearly butt up against the strictures and injustices of their system more often in their daily lives. For example, Lars’ party-faithful father Gregor (Jörg Schüttauf), while still technically repulsed by the decadence of the west, is growing weary of cultivating informants in his role as a Stasi agent. Lars’ young cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell) is a promising amateur swimmer, who may be a candidate for the Olympic team. However, pursuing this dream comes at a cost, as her privilege-chasing coaches exact a physical and emotional toll on her that threatens to tear her family apart. Meanwhile, there is Axel (Hannes Wegener), a gay science teacher forced to compromise his very nature to conform to state norms. Axel’s love affair with a dashing young West German, and his desire to experience more than his repressive home has to offer, eventually entangles him with group laboring to build a tunnel under the wall to escape.

While depicting East Berlin is a clear dramatic aim of the series, there is plenty of interest from the conflicts of East meeting West. Lars’ gradual assimilation to capitalistic ways plays havoc with his beliefs, an issue that also, to a lesser degree, afflicts his brusque handler Ralf Müller (Ben Becker). And soon enough the romantic scheming becomes complicated, when Lauren’s friend and colleague Sabine Cutter (Friederike Becht) enters the picture and becomes entangled in Lars’ mission.

It is in this part of the story that series creator and writer Paula Milne hangs her hopes on a successful resolution to the mosaic, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite come off. While there is a certain, shocking thematic culmination to its final moments, when it comes to storytelling, the stopping point feels rather arbitrary. This is certainly the series’ most disappointing flaw, but the others, such as scenes that lurch into cliched, unconvincing American and British English, are relatively minor.

It’s unfortunate there isn’t a more impressive climax, because there’s a lot to admire, otherwise: sympathetic characters, good acting, highly convincing visuals and production values, and of course the weighty politics of Cold War Europe — not to mention interesting glimpses of history throughout (the World Cup, Watergate, and the actions of the Baader-Meinhof group figure prominently in the background). In its blend of espionage, romance, and family drama, it might be Germany’s answer to The Americans. But ultimately it’s successful more as an intriguing window onto a particular time and place, than as a complete and satisfying story. I enjoyed it, but I expect others may find it wanting.

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