TV: The Defeated (Season 1)

I had rather a middling reaction to Netflix’s The Defeated, an attractive international production that lands somewhere between high prestige drama and middle-of-the-road procedural. Set in Berlin in the aftermath of World War II, this historical mystery begins as New York detective Max McLaughlin (Taylor Kitsch) arrives, assigned to bring policing prowess to a nascent post-war squad run by newly appointed superintendent Elsie Garten (Nina Hoss). They’ve got their hands full pursuing a case involving “the Angelmaker” (Sebastian Koch), an unscrupulous gynecologist who has been “helping” desperate women raped and impregnated during the war…and then turning them into terrorist agents of a vast information network. Alas, Max and Elsie’s investigation is complicated and sidetracked by personal, hidden agendas. Max accepted the Berlin posting primarily to track down his disturbed older brother Moritz (Logan Marshall-Green), with whom he shares a traumatic past. Moritz’s mental illness didn’t prevent him from going to war, but now that it’s over, he’s made it his personal mission to continue waging it in Berlin, against Nazis quietly trying to reintegrate into society. Meanwhile, Elsie’s husband is in the custody of scheming Russian officer Alexander Izosimov (Ivan G’Vera), who is using him as leverage to turn Elsie into an intelligence asset in the Allied zones.

The Defeated possesses lots of assets, many of them right in my wheelhouse: early Cold War history, dark procedural mystery, first-rate production values, a solid cast. It keeps plenty of interesting plates spinning; on top of the aforementioned, there are diverting narrative side plots involving Max’s pompous State Department boss Tom Franklin (Michael C. Hall), Tom’s flirtatious alcoholic wife Claire (Tuppence Middleton), and one of the Angelmaker’s conflicted converts, Karin Mann (Mala Emde). This multitude of components combine in an intriguing mosaic that makes the most of its rich, gritty setting, which is strikingly filmed. It’s surprising to me, then, that I feel so underwhelmed by the whole thing. Hoss and Koch are terrific, of course, showing why they are essentially acting royalty in German cinema, but beyond those two the acting is just workmanlike. The backstory driving the fraught sibling connection between Max and Moritz isn’t particularly interesting, nor is the way that history drives their behavior. The tangle of mysteries is reasonably entertaining, at least, and there’s a satisfying focus on character-driven theme, showing the writers are working mindfully toward a goal: depicting political occupation in the surface story, while illustrating the psychological occupations that drive a number of conflicted, sympathetic characters. It’s a good angle well realized, but in the end The Defeated amounts to a professional and totally watchable drama that ultimately doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm.

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