Got another good one for today. A top recommendation. But first: Eighties nostalgia. Is that a thing at the moment?
Suppose I said, "99 Red Balloons by Nena" to you. What would it trigger – lush memories of early-1980s parties, dances and the start of the music video revolution? Probably.
Most people who have any memory of it have probably forgotten that the original song, Neunundneunzig Luftballons, was about children's balloons being mistaken for weapons of war, a perceived nuclear attack, and the horror that ensues. The early eighties, we sometimes forget, wasn't all about pop music, big hair and MTV.
Anyone who has been watching the superb FX series The Americans knows how lividly strange the era was, that intense late Cold War period, with its paranoia and dangers. This one looks at it all from the other side.
Deutschland 83 (starts Friday, Sundance Channel Canada, 9 p.m.) revels in the period, but from inside the old East Germany and the old West Germany next door. 99 Red Balloons by Nena is heard twice in the first hour.
The song is there to emphasize what's happening in the world and, in particular, the two Germanys. Ronald Reagan is making speeches about "the evil empire" and he includes East Germany in that. As far as Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader), a Stasi official, is concerned, Reagan is close to declaring war. The East must be prepared. She convinces her colleagues that a spy must be sent to infiltrate the West German military and find out the plan to destabilize or attack the East and the rest of the Soviet Bloc.
She has in mind her nephew, Martin (Jonas Nay), a border agent who is smart, knows English and is loyal. He's approached directly. He doesn't want to do the job. He's got a girlfriend who adores him and his mom is a single mother who is ill and who worries about him.
With blithe calculation Lenora tells Martin that if he does the job, his mother will get the kidney transplant she needs. If he refuses, who knows what might happen?
Soon he's in Bonn and when he realizes what's happened, he flees. Running through the streets, he hides in a supermarket. And there, the rapid-paced action pauses. Martin gazes at the fruits and other food on display. He's stunned. The opulence of it. One of his bosses captures him and explains a few things. He shouldn't worry about West Germans finding out he's a spy. "The luxury of the West is that nobody pays attention to you. They call that freedom."
That's a telling, significant comment in a drama that is more entertainment than a deep dwelling on politics and political machinations.
The entertainment is excellent. Soon, Martin, now named "Moritz," is the aide-de-camp to a high-ranking German general. He's barely ensconced at work when he tries his hand at spying and copying documents from a visiting U.S. general. It's a harebrained scheme but it is hair-raising as drama. The young man is eager – way too eager – to prove his worth as a spy. He's hoping that if he delivers, then his Stasi bosses will send him home to his girlfriend.
Created by American writer Anna Winger and her husband, German TV producer Joerg Winger, Deutschland 83 (shown in German with English subtitles) has already aired to acclaim on the Sundance Channel in the U.S. and was a huge hit on German TV. And no wonder – it's a first-rate espionage thriller that treads lightly on the territory of larger, philosophical matters.
Mainly, its heft is in its depiction of how the East Bloc looked at Reagan and his plan to increase tensions with the Soviets. To someone like Martin, Reagan is not to be taken seriously – "He's an actor, he's playing for effect."
But to his elders, the situation Reagan creates is terrifying. The East isn't ready for confrontation and there is every possibility the U.S. wants a nuclear strike on the Eastern Bloc. One of Martin's bosses hisses at him: "The Cold War war is getting hotter. We're this close to World War Three. This close!"
Martin buys into it but, in truth, the audience suspects, he just wants to get home to his girlfriend and his mom.
It's a wild ride, this darkly entertaining and occasionally genuinely creepy drama. It will entertain and make you think rather than blink back tears of nostalgia for the early 1980s.
And you'll never listen to 99 Red Balloons quite the same way again.