Deutschland 83’s Jonas Nay on Eighties hits, his German history “grey zone”, and the new Cold War

Born after the Berlin Wall fell, the German actor reflects on what he has learnt about the Cold War, and why his generation should know more about it.

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“Every breath you take . . .” Jonas Nay grins, launching into a piano-led rendition of the 1983 Police hit. It’s mid-morning at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, London. The place is empty but were it not, many in the audience would recognise this 25-year-old jazz pianist as the East German spy from Deutschland 83, the most-watched foreign-language drama in British TV history.

Nay is visiting the historic venue before leaving Britain, where he has been promoting the eight-part German series, which was launched on Channel 4’s new online foreign drama service, Walter Presents, in January. “British people come up to me saying, ‘You’re from Deutschland 83, right?’ And now the Germans are like, ‘Oh, is he famous?’” Nay says, laughing, tearing himself away from the piano to a seat in the dimly-lit club’s front row.

Nay is a compact figure, short and slight, with handsome features – big green eyes, high cheekbones, blond hair swept back, eyebrow arched. A “Romeo spy”, as he is described by one of his honeytrapees in the series. His character, Martin Rauch, is a GDR border guard co-opted by his Stasi aunt to spy on Nato officials in West Germany. Mainly we see Rauch in the guise of his alias, Moritz Stamm, an aide to a senior West German general.

Born after the Berlin Wall came down, Nay was introduced to Eighties nostalgia as well as politics when researching for his role. He describes the film crew, many of whom are in their fifties, picking through props and reminiscing. There is one particularly joyful scene in which Moritz listens to a Walkman for the first time, beaming away to Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf”.

The show has an excellent soundtrack: David Bowie, The Cure, New Order, Queen and Billy Idol. Anna Winger, who wrote the series, even imagined some scenes with certain songs in mind, which appear in the original script. Nay says that music was his “first connection” to the decade. He grew up listening to Eighties hits. He and his father would play them together on the piano and guitar. “I was uncool in school because my iPod was filled with Eighties music,” he chuckles.

Nay’s character is blackmailed by the authorities, who use his sick mother’s surgery to manipulate him into a secret mission to the West.

“For me, this is the best motivation ever to go – because I'm a family guy,” Nay explains. “He’s not going for the East, or Communism, or an ideology, he’s going for his mother.

“I put much of my personality into his character,” he continues. “No matter what happens in the story, he always makes the best of it. He’s quite an optimistic guy, and I guess that’s parallel to me.”

Deutschland 83 is more convincing as a coming-of-age story than as a spy drama. We follow the corruption of Rauch as he is exposed to the machinations of the military and intelligence services on both sides of a Cold War close to boiling over. “He’s getting really ambivalent through time, and” – Nay drops into a whisper – “I like that. It’s getting really, really dark. He’s just not the same person any more. Even if he makes wrong decisions and betrays his girlfriend and everything, they [viewers] won’t stop sympathising with him.”

Our sympathy for the character – and, by implication, for the GDR – may be a little too much for German audiences. By the time the last episode was shown in Germany, where it aired last December, its initial audience had halved. “Everybody’s speculating about this,” Nay nods. He believes that it will take Germany longer to enjoy it, as it gradually takes ownership of the story. “I guess it’ll take a little more time for a German audience to accept that this is their product.”

Nay sees the Eighties as a “grey zone”, because: “It wasn’t history, it wasn’t part of the history lessons. It’s still very, very close. It was the time of my parents’ youth but they don’t talk that much about it.

“And it has this relevance today,” he adds, mentioning the recent description by the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of tensions between Russia and the West as a “new Cold War”.

Jonas Nay stresses the need for unity in a global crisis and is “really curious” about whether the UK will choose to stay in the EU. “We have to stick together in Europe right now,” he says. “That’s why this show’s so popular and why it’s so important – because the new generation must learn lessons from that time.”

The series one box set of Deutschland 83 is available now, in full and for free, at All4.com/WalterPresents.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

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