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15 January 2016

Deutschland 83 has us rooting for the bad guys. Again. What is it about East Germany?

On-screen depictions of East Germany are compelling because there is always a direct contrast with West Germany, where the aesthetic and atmosphere are far more familiar.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The first series on Channel 4’s new foreign drama platform Walter Presents, Deutschland 83 has already set the UK’s ratings record for foreign language drama – and it’s only two episodes in.

Part coming-of-age story, part spy drama, it follows the reluctant adventures of a young East German border guard forced to go undercover in the West by his impressively manipulative Stasi aunt.

After three weeks of being trained in espionage, the forever nonplussed Martin (Western identity: Moritz Stamm), is set to work planting bugs, picking locks and snapping documents belonging to top US military officials, in his guise as aide-de-camp to a senior West German general.

And we so want him to succeed. We so want him to bag the intel that will give the evil Communists an upper hand in the Cold War (which is particularly chilly in ’83). Why? Why do we end up rooting for the shifty functionaries of the GDR, which we know, and is shown, to be a repressive regime?

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Angelic as he may be, Martin is not the reason. Being the pawn of shadowy characters (who coerce him into leaving his sick mother and beloved girlfriend to go West) doesn’t make him a forceful enough protagonist to excuse our involuntary Stasi sympathies.

They break his finger to intimidate him into cooperating; they drug his coffee and cart him off to Bonn while he’s unconscious. They feed him lies about fast-tracking his mother’s operation. They are really not very nice people. Not even Martin, who signed up to be a border guard – bullying Westerners crossing the border, stopping desperate GDR citizens escaping – particularly likes them.

So why do we want them to win?

Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin! evokes the same feeling. The main character, Alex, a similar protagonist to Martin in that he’s a wanly striking, good-at-heart, perpetually hassled mummy’s boy, is preoccupied with hanging on to East Berlin life after the Berlin Wall falls. Sure, it’s in a theatrical attempt to please his ill, socialist zealot mother, but we still prefer the artifice of Alex’s world – for which he also perversely develops a fondness – to the shiny impositions of a new, reunified democratic Germany.

Perhaps we find depictions of East Germany so compelling because there is always a direct contrast – with West Germany, where the look and atmosphere are far more familiar. That peculiarly stylish brutalism and brutality of the GDR, along with its Soviet kitsch/retro throwback aesthetic, is always more absorbing to watch.

Take the contrast in Deutschland 83. Eastside, it’s all sexually-charged moustaches, thinning yellow singlets, subversive 1980s German pop and excitement at real coffee. Tight little anglepoise lamps and boxy, Lego-like settees. It just looks cooler than the try-hard West, with its pseudo-spiritual cult lounging around a gymnasium, earnest student peace protestors, floppy disks, Puma t-shirts and potato salads. Not to mention Ronald Reagan honking on from every bubble-screened TV set.

Good Bye, Lenin! does the same with its contrast. Alex’s sister’s new job at Burger King and her sappy, sensible-shirted West German boyfriend look far less fun than her brother’s date with a nurse from the Soviet Union, flirting as they dangle their legs over the edge of an abandoned, bombed-out apartment block. And those GDR-issue pickles he spends the whole film desperately trying to source for his mother just do sound more delicious.

Other depictions of East Germany, like Leander Haußmann’s 1999 comedy Sonnenallee and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita (2000) have a similar effect. The former, with its wiry group of Rolling Stones-loving teens in tight white tees and grubby bombers, was even accused of glorifying the GDR. The latter’s East Germany is more of a grim, drab representation – but that doesn’t stop the viewer being swept along with the enthusiasm of Rita (a communist terrorist fugitive who flees East) for the world behind the wall.

The reality is that Deutschland 83’s Martin has moved to a place where the supermarket shelves are stacked full, coffee is proper, and expression is free, from a home where there is no adequate medication – and too long an operation waiting-list – for his ill mother. And one where his aunt can order a stranger to physically assault him at the kitchen table with no complaints or questions from anyone, for the good of the state. But will we remember that as we follow Martin on his next mission?

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