German spy series Deutschland 83 sets itself apart with a vividly realized setting, which situates suspenseful espionage realistically into a historical context. Set in 1983, it chronicles the reluctant undercover career of young Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), an East German border guard. Martin doesn’t take his role in the communist scheme of things all that seriously, but his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) is about to change that. She’s an officer in the HVA, East Germany’s intelligence service, and she sees a operational opportunity Martin is uniquely qualified to exploit. She sends him, under duress, into West Germany, embedding him with an important general named Edel (Ulrich Noethen) under a false identity. His mission: uncover NATO’s nuclear intentions in the European theater. Coerced into cooperating, Martin is a man in the middle, conflicted about his mission—especially once it starts to impact the lives of the people he meets in his new undercover life. But he’s also a natural for the spy game, quick-thinking and resourceful, making him uniquely valuable to the ambitious spies running him. Caught between allies he doesn’t trust and enemies he grows to respect, Martin walks a death-defying line between them as the threat of nuclear annihilation escalates.
A big part of Deutschland 83′s success is its historical perspective. It depicts the tension of the Cold War standoff between Soviet Russia and the west with convincing nuance. The show is also refreshingly sympathetic to legitimate geopolitical fears on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This isn’t to say it fails to spin a bracing spy yarn full of tradecraft, life-and-death action, close shaves, and derring-do, because it most certainly does, selling Rauch as something of an amateur Rollin Hand. But it also takes itself seriously as historical drama, from the period news footage to the ground-level, personal politics of its characters within the formerly divided country. Through it all, Nay serves as an accessible hero, interacting with a roster of nicely delineated characters brought to life by a great cast: Schrader, Noethen, Sylvester Groth, Sonja Gerhardt, Ludwig Trepte, Alexander Beyer, and Nikola Kastner, among others. Deutschland 83 is another solid addition to a spy genre in resurgence, and I’m looking forward to the other two installments of the trilogy, which will carry the story through to the end of the Cold War.