TV Series: Deutschland 83 Review

In 2015, the television landscape witnessed a groundbreaking moment as “Deutschland 83” emerged as the first-ever German-language series to grace American screens. Starring Jonas Nay as a 24-year-old from East Germany sent undercover to West Germany in 1983, the show masterfully weaves a tale of espionage, political tension, and personal dilemmas against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Co-produced by AMC Networks’ SundanceTV and RTL Television, with international distribution by FremantleMedia International, “Deutschland 83” captured the imagination of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite modest initial ratings in Germany, “Deutschland 83” defied expectations, evolving into a sleeper hit and paving the way for its subsequent seasons.

Since When Do Americans Watch German TV Shows?

The show starts with the English version of a German eighties-pop song: Major Tom by Peter Schilling. And if you are a connoisseur of English or American TV series, Deutschland 83 might not even stand out that much, except for the language and the setting, of course.

Maybe that’s the reason it is the first German series to ever be broadcast in U.S. Television. On top of that, it received widespread critical acclaim. The show was co-founded by Robert Redford but has no direct ties to his Sundance Institute or the Sundance Film Festival.

Fun fact: Even though Deutschland 83 is a German production, set in Germany, with German actors, in German language, SundanceTV actually broadcasted the full 8-episode miniseries long before its German release in Autumn 2015.

Spoiler: It’s About East Germany’s Secret Service in the 80’s

Here is a short synopsis without too many spoilers:
As can be taken from the show’s title, it is set in Germany in the 1980’s, in the last chapter of the Cold War. Although the fall of the Berlin wall was not too far away, the times were volatile and Germany was a powder keg.

Intelligence at the East German HQ is convinced the USA and the NATO are planning a preemptive strike using the Pershing missiles they aim to deploy all over Europe. The plot is based on historical events and spans to the infamous NATO maneuver Able Archer, which is nowadays viewed as one of the times the world came closest to a full on nuclear war.

TV Series: Deutschland 83 Review

© PD via Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay

So, a young GDR-soldier, Martin Rauch – played by the talented Jonas Nay, finds himself reluctantly thrust into the world of espionage when his aunt promises life-saving surgery for his ailing mother in exchange for his compliance. Given a new identity, Martin is sent to infiltrate the office of a West German general. He must get to East Berlin after delivering a package to a mysterious man.

In subsequent episodes, Martin faces increasingly complex challenges. He successfully steals a NATO analyst’s report but encounters a mysterious adversary. Later Martin is ordered to seduce the head security analyst’s secretary, Linda, ultimately leading to a tragic turn of events in “Northern Wedding” when Linda falls in love with him, and a deadly game of espionage unfolds.

As the plot thickens as Martin’s loyalty is tested when he must navigate personal sacrifices to save his mother. Later, a friend’s actions put Martin in a difficult position, and he makes a crucial decision during NATO’s Able Archer war game, risking his cover to prevent a potential nuclear war.

The tension reaches its peak in the final episode where Martin, now exposed, races against time to convince his superiors that the war game is not a cover for a surprise attack. As the Soviets prepare for a pre-emptive strike, Martin’s actions at Stasi headquarters become pivotal in averting a catastrophic nuclear confrontation.

“Deutschland 83” unfolds as a high-stakes narrative of espionage, sacrifice, and the unpredictable twists of the Cold War era, providing viewers with a thrilling exploration of historical intrigue. Deutschland 83 never loses grip of all the strings and keeps pulling you into the sinister world it portrays.

You’ll get Hooked Up from the Very First Episode of Deutschland 83

In a very powerful way the first episode shows how overwhelmed Rauch is by the capitalist manifold of a western German supermarket and thus draws a clear picture of the vast differences between two the countries that used to be one. In this manner, Deutschland 83 even shines a light on today’s differences between the “old” and the “new” federal states and the consequences of these differences.

Set design and costumes are beautifully crafted and look frighteningly realistic to everyone who remembers the 80’s in Germany. It is no bright or nostalgic retrospection of Germany.

Everything looks rather dull – supported by the frequently used original news footage – and is contrasted by the booming and happy 80’s music that often makes its way into the foreground. The story itself grants you a look into life in the GDR that is seldom seen, even on German TV.

Weniger ist Mehr

Basically Deutschland 83 is a spy movie in 8 episodes, but we get to see more than just suspense and adventure. We get a glimpse into life in Germany under the fading experience of a nuclear threat. We witness the differences of young people grown up in eastern and western Germany, as Martin gets into trouble because he is not aware of the correct pop-culture references.

The show also brushes further topics, e.g. the upcoming spreading of AIDS, the offshoots of 70’s commune-life as well as social life in the 80’s in general. Moreover the series brushes typical generational conflicts in connections with peace- and anti-nuclear-movements. One of the strongest motifs of Deutschland 83, however, lies in the coming-of-age of protagonist Martin Rauch and his fellow youngsters.

What Critiques Have to Say About This Cold War Drama

Critiques for Deutschland 83 have been quite glowing. The Independent even views the show as the first of many high quality German TV shows to come. The New Yorker called it “a slinky thriller, well scored, well-paced, cast with beautiful faces“.

It is very often benevolently compared to “The Americans”, a show about Russian sleeper agents in the U.S., even though it is regarded as less deep. According to “Indiewire” Deutschland 83 „is poised at the border between good and great television.“

So, if you are interested in Germany and are not opposed to a good TV drama, you might want to give Deutschland 83 a chance. The show’s language is clear and straight without being “unrealistic”, thus it is perfectly suitable to improve your German skills just by watching it. And if we’re lucky, we might even get to enjoy a second and third season.



Reception in Germany

On the popular movie rating platform Rotten Tomatoes, Deutschland 83 boasts an impressive international critic and audience score of over 90%, a testament to its widespread acclaim. However, the reception within its country of origin, Germany, tells a different story. Viewers on the commercial TV channel RTL, where the series originally aired, witnessed a notable decline in ratings, dropping nearly in half from the first to the last episode of the first season (Ehrenberg & Huber, 2015).

In contrast to the show’s international success, main actor Jonas Nay reflected on a peculiar experience in his small German hometown, where he went unrecognized, while feeling like a star in London (The Guardian, 2016). New York Times journalist Rogers noted that despite Germany managing to shed its previous image of being “boring and ugly,” locals still failed to embrace the cool and sexy allure perceived by international audiences.

So Why Did Deutschland 83 Not Resonate with Germans?

Some commentators on the German movie rating site Movie Pilot argue that RTL is not renowned for producing high-quality, internationally acclaimed content (Delonghi, 2015). According to journalists Ehrenberg & Huber (2015), the historical complexity of the series might have been ill-suited for a prime-time slot on RTL.

Television expert Lückerath blames RTL for promoting Deutschland 83 in an outdated and unsuitable manner. He criticizes the overabundance of posters across German cities, deeming them excessive and out-of-touch.

While RTL is associated with reality TV, romantic comedies, and police series in Germany, Lückerath suggests that a channel like Sundance TV in the US, with its cooler pay TV trailers, might have been a more fitting platform for the series. One possible explanation could be that the show’s American writer, Anna Winger, who wrote the initial screenplay in English before translation may have prioritized pop-cultural references over historical accuracy.

The mainstream appeal of such references could have played a role in the series’ transnational success. Furthermore, the weekly release of two episodes on RTL, as opposed to the binge-watching culture enabled by streaming platforms, possibly failed to align with the viewing habits of younger audiences.

Second and Third Season

Following lackluster audience ratings on RTL during its initial season, the production company UFA Fiction successfully secured the continuation of the series with Amazon Prime Video. Notably, even before the second season’s online debut, Amazon Prime had already given the green light for a third season, underscoring the company’s confidence in the series’ continued success.


Here are also some of the questions people ask about this Cold War thriller

Why was Deutschland 83 not popular in Germany?

Deutschland 83 faced challenges in gaining popularity in Germany for several reasons. Some viewers criticized minor historical inaccuracies, and the series was perceived as too complex for prime-time TV on RTL. Additionally, the show deviated from German viewing habits, and its promotion was considered outdated.

Is Deutschland 83 worth watching?

Absolutely! Despite mixed reception in Germany initially, Deutschland 83 garnered international acclaim for its gripping portrayal of Cold War espionage. The series offers a unique perspective on German history and the intricacies of the era, making it a worthwhile watch, especially for those interested in historical dramas.

How realistic is Deutschland 83?

While Deutschland 83 may take creative liberties for storytelling, it generally captures the essence of the Cold War period. Some historical inaccuracies have been noted and some critics mentioned stereotypes such as Stassi officers portrayed as cruel ideologues or sensationalist elements such as gay Soviet agents, but the series as a whole aims to evoke the atmosphere of the 1980s divided Germany.

Is Deutschland 83 on Amazon Prime Video?

Yes, both the second and third seasons of Deutschland 83 are available on Amazon Prime Video. The series found success on the platform after its initial broadcast on RTL, contributing to its international popularity and paving the way for subsequent seasons.

Summing Up: Deutschland 83 Review

“Deutschland 83” is thus an intense spy story with a radical premise and an unforgettable portrayal of a rookie spy navigating the complexities of war espionage.

This engrossing drama skillfully brings viewers uncomfortably close to the Iron Curtain, offering a riveting exploration of the divide between East and West Germany.