Deutschland 89 review – the end of history? Not quite

It’s midnight on 9 November 1989 and the mood in the American embassy in East Berlin is smug. “This is the end of the cold war,” West German agent Brigitte Winkelmann tells CIA counterpart Hector Valdez. A few streets away, the Berlin Wall has been breached by East Germans bent on trading up from Trabants to the KaDeWe department store. Border guards are experiencing something new – being hugged by their compatriots. All that remains, you’d think, is for Francis Fukuyama to proclaim that history is over and the west has won.

“Hopefully not,” retorts Hector drily. “We’d have to find a new enemy and who would that be?” In a matter of years, according to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, the west would find an Islamist surrogate for red peril, but for that moment, history was poised. “I don’t know, I mean everybody loves America,” Brigitte counters, proving, not for the first time in this show, that Germans can do sarcasm.

I love that the creators of Deutschland 89 (More 4) Anna and Jörg Winger (the former also co-creator of Unorthodox), deconstruct western hubris in the third series of this Walter Presents drama about the decline and fall of the Stasi. For decades, we’ve seen montages of East Germans scrambling over the wall, ostensibly to freedom, leaving socialism deader than disco. In this episode, the melancholic Kyrie Eleison from Bach’s B minor Mass undercuts those montages’ western triumphalism. Kýrie, eléison means “Lord, have mercy”. It is as if the Wingers are suggesting that it’s not just the Stasi, the KGB and other soon-to-be obsolete cold warriors who will be needing mercy in the new world order, but all of us.

Certainly, not every German was in party mood. In a West German prison, our heroine, Stasi agent Lenora Rauch (the captivating Maria Schrader) lights another cigarette as the news came through about the fall of the wall. “People are screaming for freedom and capitalism is what they’ll get,” she snarls superbly to anyone listening. ”Capitalism is nothing but capitalism. It serves no other purpose. Not freedom, nothing. Capitalism sucks everyone in, and devours them.”

This speech could equally have been written for Keri Russell or Matthew Rhys, who played KGB spies in The Americans, had that drama traced communism to its bitter end. Deutschland 89 goes where The Americans feared to tread.

The charmingly daft suggestion of this opening episode was that the Berlin Wall fell because Rauch’s nephew, Zelig-like super-spy Martin (Jonas Ney, still resembling a Joy Division tribute act’s drummer) went rogue. Tasked with delivering a secret document recommending the relaxing of travel restrictions for East Germans, Martin convinces the GDR’s central committee that the document has Moscow’s all-important approval. As a result, it soon becomes law and an announcement is made on state TV, prompting mass exodus and, in Stasi HQ, panic. “Please bring all available shredders to Fuchs’ office,” officer Schweppenstette barks into his phone.

In previous series, we’ve seen evil Stasi agents earn hard currency by selling blood without testing whether it was infected with HIV, as well as smuggling arms to South Africa’s apartheid government and to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. We should be glad they’re getting their comeuppance.

At the end of this episode, though, a Stasi agent belatedly grows a conscience. Fritz Hartmann, having infiltrated an illegal Trotskyist group, reports back to his bosses that these renegades might just have an idea that could save the GDR. The government should transfer all its capital to bankroll co-operatives, giving farmers and workers an equal share of national wealth. For the first time, the GDR would fulfil its constitution’s egalitarian promises. “Ja? Und?” sneers his boss, Markus Fuchs. Fuchs knows the hideous truth. It is too late for the GDR to save itself, still less for it to belatedly choose the correct path to socialism.

The Guardian

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