Friday, 22 January 2016

Deutschland '83

"In touch with the ground
I'm on the hunt, I'm after you
Smell like I sound, I'm lost in a crowd
And I'm hungry like the wolf ..."
    (Duran Duran)

A rollicking ride with subtitles. Has to be a good thing, right? Sunday night television has turned into a battle of the drama Titans - War And Peace versus Endeavour versus Deutschland '83. Deutschland '83 is a German spy thriller from Walter Presents, Channel 4's new foreign-telly box-set-on-demand service. I'm sticking with Endeavour, then treating myself to Deutschland '83 during rare solitary moments of leisure. I'm using our new Chromecast, so that I can watch our tablet on the big(gish) screen of our television. It's been quite the revelation, even if our daughter now spends most of the time watching clips of cats being scared by cucumbers on You Tube rather than CBeebies. Gosh, we are almost in the digital age in our house at last.

Which is more than we can say for the East Germans. Seeing them fail to keep up with Western technology is one of the greater sources of amusement in Deutschland '83. They are stumped when a break-in to a safe gives them a list of nuclear targets stored on an encrypted floppy disk. It's not the encryption that's the problem, it's the actual disk. Their computers can't play it. They need an IBM, illegally procured and imported. And then there is the hero's dumbfounded attempt to master the phone switchboard in his office. And his naive response to a black marketeer offering to sell him a Walkman: "What's a Walkman?". The look of sheer astonishment and adulation on his face when he hears Duran Duran playing through headphones for the first time is glorious.

The music is wonderful, of course, if you are of a certain age that is mine. Yes, even 99 Luftballons. The theme song is Major Tom, but sung by Peter Schilling, not David Bowie. Though the name still feels poignant in the week of Bowie's death. Bowie's music features elsewhere - China Girl, Modern Love - alongside New Order, The Eurythmics, The Cure, The Police, Blondie and 10cc. And we're only on episode three. Further delights await. But there will be Phil Collins at some point. Even in the early '90s, German radio was almost continuous Phil Collins.

"Earth below us, drifting, falling, floating weightless, coming home..."
Our hero is Martin Rauch, former East Berlin border guard and now, thanks to an agent aunt who indulges in nepotism, Moritz Stamm, East Germany's newest spy recruit. But - oh dear - turns out he's pretty shit at it. Every week he fucks up, but somehow gets away with it. It probably helps that he is posted to a West German general who is so distracted by the antics of his own children (one a soul singer on a Bhagwan commune in Cologne, the other a newly recruited pacifist) that he totally fails to notice suspicious goings on around him. Like his sister-in-law getting drugged at a party after she stumbles across Moritz making an illicit phonecall. Like Moritz clumsily dropping crucial bits of paper during information exchanges. Like Moritz splattered in blood after nearly being killed by a Ninja waitress. Like Moritz failing to recognise an old friend from his hometown in Braunschweig and the old friend failing to recognise Moritz - because the real Moritz Stamm has been shot dead on a train. Like Moritz sneaking off to his chain-smoking aunt's car at a petrol station to have blood taken to see if he can be his mother's kidney donor. (And what everyone in Germany - not just the General - failed to notice in that scene was that Moritz got back into their car and managed to drive off despite a) having left a petrol nozzle attached to it in the previous scene and b) not having paid.)

Lamps get bugged, offices get broken into. Sometimes it isn't Moritz's incompetence but twists of fate that intervene. American generals decide to switch hotel rooms because one fancies a view. A bugged Art Deco desk meant for a Nato official is gifted on to his secretary. An antiques dealer works late into the night, letting his friendly dog sniff around his shop while Moritz attempts to bug said desk. The girl Moritz has to seduce to procure secrets loves cats, but Moritz is allergic.

A desk switch in Brussels

Martin/Moritz is doing it all for love. For his girlfriend back home, who is pregnant, but not necessarily with Martin's child. For his mother, in desperate need of that kidney transplant. Getting her treated in a West German hospital is the bribe meant to lure him. That and the recruiter breaking Martin's fingers - the real Moritz Stamm was an accomplished pianist, and Martin can't play a note. So it fills a gap in the story and tortures Martin into submission in one fell swoop. Clever, but not nice. They drug his coffee to finish the job.

Despite occasional violence and everyone trying to prevent nuclear armageddon, the mood is light. Both sides seem equally clueless, which is not what you expect from German officialdom. It's a bit too Austin Powers at times. I don't think life under the Stasi at the height of the Cold War can have been that funny. Although East Germans always struck me as having a better sense of humour than West Germans. However, I am not looking forward to what pregnant Annett, a loyal teacher of Young Pioneers, might do with her discovery of Martin's mother's hidden Western book collection, many titles of which Martin procured for her during confiscations at the border. But we shall see. Having baby brain, she might just wander off and forget all about it.

There is clearly good money in being a double agent. Tischbier, the pacifist leader and Moritz's spy boss lives in some sort of palace. Moritz needs to brush up on the high life if he is a success - his lack of knowledge of steak ("Just bring me some meat from a cow") is what leads to the later Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon assault by the waitress. Moritz's previous exposure to haute cuisine has been his aunt smuggling in Nescafe. He finds the choice in a Bonn supermarket overwhelming. It's infinitely more impressive than any German supermarket I've ever been to.

It's hard to believe that it all takes place only five years before my first ever trip to Germany. And only six years before the fall of the Wall. The system in 1983 seems utterly entrenched and impenetrable. There is genuine threat, and no sign of change. In 1988 I probably knew little about the East, and had only got as far as 1924 in my school history lessons on Germany.** But 1988 is the year I went to Cologne and Bonn, where Moritz is stationed. I was 15, and on a school exchange. It was a whirlwind day trip from Mainz, and while we devoted a reasonable amount of time to Germany's highest motorway bridge, Cologne cathedral and a lunch of chicken and chips at Cologne station, we only managed to see the main squares of both cities. Oh, and the outside of Beethoven's house. Bonn seemed far too small and - dare I say? - parochial to be a capital city. It is so right that the accolade was subsequently restored to Berlin. I wouldn't mind a piece of one of those now abandoned embassy buildings though - then I could live like Tischbier.

Genuine 1988 Cologne beer mat, which must have supported lemonade

Beethovenhaus, Bonn, dingy '80s photography

** Interestingly, my first German teacher, whom we all suspected of Communist tendencies because she wore black trousers, rode a motorbike and we were stupid teenagers, taught us that the word for "orange" was Apfelsine. Whereas two years earlier in 1983, Apfelsine is one of the East German words that Moritz is told he must forget, and use Orange instead. So now I'm wondering if we were right all along...

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