‘Deutschland 86’ Returns: When Spies Used ‘Mafioso-Style Capitalism’ to Defend Communism
The acclaimed Sundance spy drama returns Thursday, and sheds uncanny light on what its creators call “emotional parallels” between late-stage communism and today.
On Oct. 25, Deutschland 86 will air on the Sundance channel in the U.S. The series is a continuation of the award-winning Deutschland 83 series about Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German spy who is deployed to West Germany in 1983. It was an international success and attracted a global cult following, not to mention several awards, including an International Emmy Award for Best Drama.
The new series, written by Berlin-based American-German couple Anna and Joerg Winger, focuses on how the East German leadership survives after it is abandoned by Moscow and its operatives are forced to try their hand at global capitalism. After being banished to Africa in the previous installment, the main character, Rauch (played by Jonas Nay) is pulled back into the spy charade as he attempts to survive in a shifting world.
The Daily Beast spoke with the creators of Deutschland 86 about what’s in store for this season, what historical parallels are present between '86 and our current geopolitical landscape, and what kind of plot twists audiences can expect.
When you wrote Deutschland 83, you discovered that 1983 was a really exciting time politically. This allowed you to create this interesting dynamic between the rise of German pop music and Germany’s role in a shifting world—a world that, from what your research revealed, came very close to annihilation.
Yes, the declassification of the 1983 NATO war game Able Archer, in 2013, was an amazing story gift—just as we were developing the show.
What can you tell us about the development of Deutschland 86? Obviously, we meet our main character three years later and much has changed for him, the German Democratic Republic and the world at large.
In D86 we send Martin and our other HVA spies further afield, fighting for the last gasp of communism in southern Africa. But even though they are out in the world, they are always looking at it through GDR-colored glasses. Simply put, by 1986 East Germany was running out of cash. The leadership could see the iceberg, but they couldn’t quite turn the ship around. Our characters are charged with bringing hard currency into the country by any means necessary. So, they turn to mafioso-style capitalism to save communism.
How did you keep the interplay alive between history and politics and the culture of that time, in particular, the pop music, which featured so prominently in the first series?
By 1986 the pop charts were less synth, less fun. So we strayed from the big hits. We really mix it up this season, incorporating South African music from the struggle against apartheid, French music, cheesy disco and great East German punk.
In a previous interview about Deutschland 83, [Anna] you said, “I’m most interested in history as a metaphor for present-day concerns. We deliberately played with how things that had happened then resonated with things that are happening now. That was more interesting to me than just making a biopic or a direct representation of what Germany was like in the ’80s. The goal was always to make it heightened, to make it metaphorical and like a real adventure show, which I think was atypical of German TV.” How is Deutschland 86 a metaphor for present-day concerns? In what ways does the series resonate with what is happening now in the world?
By chance we started developing D86 the day after the Trump election. And we’re news junkies, of course. So looking at late-stage communism, from the perspective of late-stage hyper-capitalism, there are all kinds of interesting emotional parallels—to do with domestic politics and the proxy wars in foreign countries. You find them where you least expect them. (For example, we went to see Hamilton in London the other day and, in that crowd, it was suddenly all about Brexit!) When we look back at the Cold War we tend to think politics were simpler then, more black and white. In fact, there were a lot of murky, confusing, grey areas then—just like today. We like to write into the grey areas.
I love the decision to tell the story from the vantage of the mole—the East German spy infiltrating the west, his struggles, his doubts, his impressions (I love the scene in D83 when he enters the grocery store and just stands there gawking at the aisles of food). More importantly, he’s very human—he’s not just a spy or an assassin but a young man surviving in a rapidly changing world. Hollywood narratives have typically demonized “the communist”—most likely an outgrowth of the Cold War experience. But there's been a shift lately. Shows such as The Americans present a different, more sympathetic narrative. Or take last year’s The Shape of Water, in which a Russian spy defends and ultimately helps the creature escape death. Did you have a similar idea when you decided to center the story around the character of Martin Rauch? And how has that evolved in D86?
All of our main characters, including Martin, believe that they are on the right side of history. They want to make the world a better place and that justifies all kinds of bad behavior. But if Martin was tasked with saving the world in 1983, this time around he is definitely asking himself if the divided world he sees out there is still worth saving. In a fit of melancholy he even thinks of getting out of the spy game—but no one ever really gets out of the spy game.
Working together—not only as a married couple but also from different backgrounds, I am curious as to how that has that informed your work on the series. Anna, I know you have lived in Berlin for 16 years, but you grew up half American, half British in Massachusetts, Kenya and Mexico. Joerg: you grew up in West Germany and learned Russian in the West German military. Growing up in different worlds likely shaped your impression of that particular period in history (the ‘80s, end of the Cold War). I am curious how that shaped the Deutschland 83 narrative and continues to shape the ’86 storyline?
We both bring our individual backgrounds to the project, but we’ve known each other since 1990 so the 1980s were still fresh when we met! So much of this series comes from conversations that we’ve had at our kitchen table over the years, with each other, with our children. How do you even begin to explain the history of this city to kids born in Berlin after the millennium? It sounds like a crazy science-fiction premise: imagine a world, where Berlin is divided by a wall and the people living in Mitte are trapped behind it… So when we were creating the series, we took a deliberately heightened approach and had fun with it.
In 1986, the global network of East German spies was massive—as many as one million. Until 1986, the legendary spy chief Markus Wolf, who was both a Soviet and East German citizen, headed the East German intelligence service. The KGB had always watched closely over Stasi's efforts, and really the GDR could do nothing without coordinating with the Soviets. The relationship between the Stasi and the KGB changed once again when Gorbachev came to power in 1985. How do you capture how that relationship is changing? In this season, there’s a pending sense of doom for your characters—as a new world order begins to emerge that may not have a place for them. What were the challenges of incorporating this specific time period from where your narrative left off at the end of D83?
The challenges of writing 1986 were not different from 1983 in that sense. We always set the fictional story against a backdrop of real history and we try to approach that history from a fresh perspective. Once we started researching 1986, and the connections between East Germany and the ANC, Angola and Libya, amazing real stories emerged. Remember, it’s recent history. The people who lived it are still alive. So we had the luxury of interviewing witnesses to this history about their experiences. When we had questions, we knew whom to ask.
There’s a new twist in this series, in which you introduce an American thread into the narrative. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
It’s about a young American diplomat living in East Berlin. This whole thread, which is in turns funny, exciting and tragic, is based on interviews we did with real American diplomats, now well-seasoned, who did their first tours here in the ’80s. They had such great stories about working at an American embassy just behind the iron curtain—it could be its own show!
D83 revealed that a German series of this nature could be an international success. Anna: you have cited the success of the political Danish drama, Borgen, which emboldened you to pursue this project with Joerg—if the Danes can do it, so can we! How has the reaction been towards D86 in Germany since its debut, and what do you expect or hope for after D86 debuts in the U.S. on October 25th? And is there anything else in the works? Deutschland 87, 88, or 89?
We are thrilled that D86 has been so well received in Germany. This project is such a labor of love, not just for the two of us, but for the actors, the directors, and all the other talents involved in making it. This is Berlin mythology writ large, right? Our crazy local story! We couldn’t be prouder or more excited to send it out into the world.
And yes, we’re already at work on Deutschland 89…