TV: Deutschland 89

I imagined this final volume of the Deutschland series—concluding here after previous seasons Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86—would focus on the lead-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This assumption proved incorrect, and I’m glad of that, because it shifts the trilogy’s final volume into less expected territory. This excellent period spy drama chronicles the last decade of communism from the East German perspective, and revolves around a fraught, familial rivalry. On one side is Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), a reluctant agent of the East German intelligence service, the HVA. Throughout the series, Rauch is forced by unforgiving circumstance to walk the line between east and west, a conflicted double agent who ends up uniquely positioned to influence world events. On the other side of the divide is his aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), the fiery, committed communist intelligence officer responsible for condemning him to the world of spydom. Late 1989 finds these rivals in deeply different places: Martin attempting to put his past behind him in a new civilian job, Lenora incarcerated for espionage in the west. Their paths are destined to cross again, however, when Martin is pressured into participating in yet another HVA operation. His spontaneous actions practically foment the collapse of the Wall and spiral the East German government into chaos. With intelligence services swirling like vultures, Martin finds himself recruited into CIA activities by his old flame Brigitte (Lavinia Wilson). This ultimately thrusts him into one final confrontation with Lenora, who has escaped from prison and has one more card up her sleeve: a last-ditch mission to save East Germany from a fall into western capitalism.

The Deutschland series’ greatest strength is to convincingly submerge the viewer in the politics of the era while keeping the proceedings suspenseful, despite the foregone outcome of the historical events controlling its general shape. It’s a cleverly executed secret history, with Martin and Lenora serving as both fictional agents steering the country’s fate and symbols of the new and old ways of thinking that led to great changes and Germany’s reunification. That said, the point of view is largely East German, which for this western viewer was a refreshing angle, because it immerses the viewer not just in the difficult choices of the people forced to endure Soviet communism’s hardships, but the ideological struggles of its true believers. This plays out in many ways, such as how the cynical opportunism of the HVA leadership reveals itself as a hollow sham once the day of reckoning comes. There’s also, once the Wall comes down, a tense sequence between poor, defected doctor Tina Fischer (Fritzi Haberlandt) and the fanatical interrogator who terrorized her that plays out like an abusive relationship, hammering home the psychological impact of living in such a society. The finale satisfyingly caps off the story in a way that powerfully hints at the ways its historical lessons were not learned by the west. Overall, Deutschland 89 is a terrific historical spy drama.

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