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‘Deutschland 86’ Review: German Thriller Is Locked and Re-loaded

Sundance sequel about a military spy picks up where ‘Deutschland 83’ left off and provides a fast-paced, pulpy escape to fill the ‘Americans’-sized hole in your life

Maria Schrader as Lenora Rauch and Jonas Nay as Martin Rauch in 'Deutschland 86.'

Maria Schrader as Lenora Rauch and Jonas Nay as Martin Rauch in 'Deutschland 86.'

UFA Fiction/Freemantle Media/SundanceTV

Deutschland 83 debuted on Sundance in 2015, right in the middle of the run of The Americans, a couple of months after the end of that show’s third season. The story of an East German soldier recruited to go undercover in the West German military, it functioned as a tense and lively parallel narrative to what Philip and Elizabeth Jennings were doing back in the States.

The Americans concluded earlier this year, which makes the belated sequel to the other series, now called Deutschland 86, particularly welcome. The two shows aren’t identical — Deutschland is pulpier and less character-focused — but the era and conflicts overlap enough for the German series to scratch that particular itch for the next 10 weeks.

(The first season is available on Hulu. I’ve seen four episodes of Deutschland 86, which premieres Thursday on Sundance.)

We are more or less in real time since the events of the original series (which, like this one, was created by Anna Winger and Jörg Winger). Reluctant spy Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is in exile over his decision to blow his cover in order to prevent a nuclear crisis. (Never mind that he averted a war; he disobeyed orders, and that will not stand.) East Germany itself is in dire financial straits in the waning years of the Soviet empire, and most of the gang from East Berlin is focused on raising cash by any means necessary. Martin’s aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) has been sent to South Africa to close a weapons deal, while Martin’s ex-girlfriend Annet (Sonja Gerhardt) and his former handler (who turned out to be the father he never knew) Walter (Sylvester Groth) are using their citizens as illicit guinea pigs for a West German company’s drug trial.

The scale of the action is much bigger this time out, bouncing all around Africa and Europe. So is the scope of the production, which shot on location in Cape Town(*) and Berlin. It’s visually stylish in a way The Americans never really tried to be, often using Schrader — whose kinky, asymmetrical hair and boxy wardrobe couldn’t be more Eighties if they were bedecked with Rubik’s Cubes — as a one-woman design scheme. (The nature of the plot puts Lenora more at the forefront this time, which takes great advantage of the heat and hunger radiating from Schrader’s performance.) The soundtrack is again killer, with the original German version of “Der Kommissar” feeling as inevitable and perfect this time as “99 Luftballoons” was when Martin was posing as a West German soldier.

(*) For those allergic to subtitles, the South Africa scenes are mostly in English, though German is still spoken almost everywhere else.

There’s a sprawl of plot and characters, including some intriguing new faces in Florence Kasumba as an agent of Nelson Mandela’s who aligns with Lenora, and Lavinia Wilson as a diplomat’s wife who proves more than Martin bargained for. That makes it hard for the new season to have a core tension as simple as the 83‘s question of whether Martin’s identity would be exposed, but it allows for more variation in tone as well as locale. Sometimes, it’s a sexy spy thriller, at others a weighty historical novel, and still others just straight-ahead action. The third episode, a violent standoff at an Angolan oil refinery, is basically an episode of 24 (in a good way). And somehow, the West German version of The Love Boat becomes a major plot point in a way that makes total sense.

It can be distracting, though, that we revisit nearly all the surviving original players, regardless of how connected they are to what Martin and Lenora are up to. In another era, three years would be a long time to have to remember who all these people are and what we last saw them doing, but in the age of Peak TV it feels like the first season actually aired in 1983, rather than just being set there.

Still, the series’ narrative and sociological ambition is admirable, even if its ultimate goal is to be a fun and fast-paced yarn. At one point in the first episode, Kasumba’s Rose attempts to explain to Martin how South Africa is being used as part of a proxy war between east and west, and the scene uses elaborate animation to literally illustrate her point. When the lesson is done, Martin draws a line over the sketch Rose has made and asks, “East, West — who are the good guys?” It’s a black-and-white way of thinking about an incredibly gray situation. Deutschland 86 never attempts the futile task of answering Martin’s question, even as it identifies some clear bad guys like the South African government. But the plot’s relentless forward momentum can create the illusion of moral clarity long enough to get through each action set piece, as we wonder whether Martin, Lenora or anyone else will survive the ugliness still to come for the divided country and world in which the show takes place.

It’s not a bonus seventh season of The Americans, but it’ll do.

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