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Nay, in Deutschland 83, a Sundance coproduction with German television.
Laura Deschner/UFA Fiction/RTL

Deutschland 83 begins precisely where the latest season of The Americans left off. Or more accurately, precisely when. A woman is watching television with alarm as President Ronald Reagan delivers his 1983 “Evil Empire” speech, in which he cast the Cold War struggle against communism in absolute, stark moral terms. She picks up a telephone and calls a colleague: “It’s me. Turn on the TV.”

But the language this time is not English or Russian but German. (A coproduction with German TV, the series is subtitled in English.) Like The Americans, Deutschland 83 (premieres June 17 on SundanceTV) transports us to the other side of the Cold War rivalry, but this time much closer to the Iron Curtain, in East Germany. It’s a trip worth taking.

Convinced the Americans are planning a pre-emptive war, GDR espionage agent Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader) hits on the idea of planting a young East German on a West German military base to spy on NATO plans to deploy Pershing missiles, and she has just the candidate in mind: her 24-year-old nephew, Martin (Jonas Nay). He’s unwilling–he has a girlfriend at home, for starters–but she coerces him with the promise of getting his ailing mother (her own sister) on a list for an operation, if and only if he cooperates.

Is her ruse a betrayal or patriotism? As in The Americans, this spy business is a family matter, intimate and fraught, and the mission tense. Martin is whisked off to Bonn and told he’s being planted as the aide-de-camp to a West German general. He gets a crash course in tradecraft, West German idioms and the life story of Moritz Stamm, the actual young man whose identity he’s assuming. (What happened to him? Martin is told not to ask, and you probably know the answer.)

Martin is a quick study, but he has no particular appetite for the job to match his aptitude for it. He’s as patriotic as the next young East German; asked if he would die for his country, he answers that of course he would, in such a way that you can tell he never deeply considered it. He’s idealistic, in his way, but not zealous. He’s less like Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, or Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison, and more like a talented, hapless local one of them might recruit.

Nay is fantastic and immediately likeable as a young man wound up like a watchspring, doing professional spywork under open observation, his every step risking his freedom, his mother’s health and his chances of ever seeing his girlfriend again. The slightest slip-up–say, mentioning that he once befriended some Cubans–endangers everything. It’s as if he’s suddenly landed the world’s most dangerous and thankless postgraduate internship.

If the idea of a Cold War series produced from the vantage of a divided country leads you expect a dour, grim story of the conflict’s costs, Deutschland 83 will be a pleasant surprise. It’s serious and it can be stark, but it’s also funny and brisk, a coming-of-age story with a sense of adventure. Martin ends up entangled in the personal drama of his boss’s family–which includes a rebellious daughter, a peacenik-sympathizing son and an eccentric aunt who comes to suspect Martin. And the customs of capitalist society prove more difficult to master than a microfilm camera: when a waitress in a hotel restaurant asks him his room number to charge the meal, he thinks she’s coming on to him.

Though Deutschland 83, co-created by wife and husband Anna and Joerg Winger, is an engrossing enough spy thriller, its real distinction is Martin’s experience in this alien land just a short drive away from his home. His first day in Bonn, he runs off and dashes into a supermarket, where he’s framed strikingly by a panoramic expanse of brightly colored, fully stocked shelves. He stops dead, overawed.

Then he returns to his mission, but the point is made. Martin has been hijacked to West Germany in an effort to stave off the end of the world for the communist East. Little does he know that, whether he succeeds or fails, he’s already witnessed it.

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