As Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho opined at the 2020 Oscars, “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The sentiment is just as true of television, as I’m sure many Scandi noir fans will attest. This week I’ve been watching Deutschland 89, the third season of the acclaimed German-American Deutschland series set during the last decade of the cold war, and a programme presented in an (almost) entirely subtitled format.
89 picks up three years after where the last left off, continuing the tradition (the previous seasons were Deutschland 83 and 86, respectively), where we find our protagonist Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) living a relatively quiet life in East Berlin with his son. This peaceful – though “boring,” as Martin admits – existence is cut short as he is whisked off once more by the now-crumbling East German secret police to return to his previous life as a spy, a life Nicole (Svenja Jung), his new romantic interest and his son’s schoolteacher, is dragged into. The Berlin Wall falls during the very first episode, and its geopolitical aftermath is captured in the rest of the season. High tension and high stakes ensue, old frenemies appear, 80s history and pop culture get thrown in – you know the drill if you’ve seen either of the other series.
Deutschland 89’s strength, in many places, is in its direction. There are several moments throughout the series where striking storytelling is achieved through visual choices. An early episode sees Martin unwittingly taking ‘magic mushrooms’ while at a West German commune (complete with punk band), where the ethereal lighting and intentionally janky camerawork and angles convey his mental state without feeling too ‘trippily’ trite. During a tense conversation between Martin and his father/fellow HVA agent Walter (Sylvester Groth), we see the pair through a glass stairwell, where Martin’s faint reflection is cast in the same position as Walter; perhaps a rather blunt visual metaphor, but we are able to step back and see how much Martin has come to mirror the cynical outlook he once despised, a character arc echoed in the rest of the show.
Despite its protagonist’s arc, I’d argue that Deutschland 89’s best character work appears in its B-plots. Tina Fischer (Fritzi Haberlandt) had been to Hell and back in 86 due to her family’s attempted escape from East Germany – temporarily imprisoned, her daughters taken away and her husband ‘vanished.’ In 89 we see her getting on with her life with her returned daughters, but a chance encounter with a man she instantly recognises as her Stasi interrogator reignites her trauma. As the relationship between Tina and this potentially threatening figure develops (she’s not convinced this is the same man), we catch a glimpse of the emotional and mental scarring such an ordeal inflicts; through their conversations, we are confronted with the moral dilemmas relating to post-GDR prosecution. I’d happily watch a programme centred on Tina’s story – I found myself being almost irritated when the focus returned to Martin’s mission.
This is the beginning of where my problem with Deutschland 89 lies. In 83, the somewhat straightforward premise allowed the themes and issues raised to be explored in adequate depth, resulting in a well-rounded and impactful conclusion. It seemed to me that in this series, Martin’s goals often boiled down to a ‘mission of the week;’ new location, new baddie, new set piece – a similar formula to 86. It’s not that this globetrotting, pseudo-James Bond approach isn’t enjoyable, it’s just that the lack of focus that was so present in 83 is dramatically noticeable, to the point where nominally big character moments feel quite a bit less meaningful than they should.
If I were to judge Deutschland 89 on this alone, I’d probably rank it at three stars. But Tina’s narrative drew me in so much that omitting an extra star would feel like an insult. If anything, I’d recommend Deutschland 83 – it’s just tighter storytelling.