German is the coolest language. Ausgang. Erdnusse. Strasse. So much consonance. Everything sounds much more important—it’s like Germans carry all their historical baggage in the words they speak. Their signage alone is astounding—have you ever visited Berlin? If not, may I suggest that when you do, venture down a strasse for the pure pleasure of attempting to pronounce its name?
I really like German. Also: I love a good war story, dig spies on TV and will watch anything produced by Sundance TV. I was primed to adore Deutschland 83—the network’s new Cold War period-piece about an East German soldier going undercover in West Germany to ascertain American intentions re: nuclear weapons (real life spoiler alert—still unclear).
Deutschland 83 is a televised, stylish love letter to the classic spy thriller novel. I say novel for two reasons. One: structure. This is not a Golden Age-style, intellectual deep-dive into the undercover agent psyche (see Alias or The Americans). Like most decent spy novels set in wartime—Ken Follet’s Eye of the Needle, for example, or anything written by John le Carré—expository info is dispatched at the top. Meet our hero (sidebar—gorgeous), here are his circumstances (ugh, boring girlfriend) and this is his mission (hilarious undercover outfit, brought to you by a very special corporate sponsor).
The second reason? You read the show. That’s right! Deutschland is the first ever German-produced, German-language television show to air stateside. All German, all the time—except for the amazing Anglo 80’s synth-pop soundtrack. All else is subtitled.
If you’re like me, subtitles do not offend. I go out of my way to watch foreign films, particularly at old-timey theaters like Chicago’s Music Box or the San Francisco’s Film Institute. I do this primarily to feel fancy, but have also discovered truly delightful movies I would’ve otherwise missed.
But this might be the first television show I’ve read along with, and to my surprise: I totally paid attention. A sad and ridiculous truth about my (admittedly insane) TV-watching is that I’m often multitasking while I do. This makes me a highly unreliable television critic (hey—it’s not like I’m getting paid here), but more than that—I miss moments. Often I’ll be goofing around on my phone while a show plays, hear a line of dialogue delivered by Jon Hamm or Keri Russell and force myself to rewind. I can tell I’ve missed something.
Deutschland is fantastic fun, straightforward and smart but not too heavy—a welcome relief now that Game of Thrones and Mad Men have wrapped (though nothing can save us from True Detective, which has returned to HBO on Sunday nights). After a few antsy, uncomfortable minutes—forced to keep my eyes on the screen—I was able to relax into the Deutschland story. I placed my trust in the writers and their characters, instead of dividing my attentions—and they did not disappoint.
I was reminded just how much energy quality television demands of its viewers. It’s the absorption reminiscent of a darkened movie theater, where you are immersed in an experience you really can’t escape. All good shows deserve this kind of undivided attention. For Deustchland, I was wholly engaged—at first because I had to be, and then because I was enjoying myself, and so dedicated an entire forty-two minutes to simply watching. And reading. And not missing a thing.
Deutschland 83 airs Wednesdays on Sundance TV at 11/10pm C.