The newest show to come to Lightbox is Deutschland 83, a spy thriller set during peak Cold War tension with a banging ’80s soundtrack to boot. For Paul Casserly, it brings with it a sharp reminder of a childhood full of named nukes and mushroom cloud dreams.
Germans get a bad rap for all manner of reasons but mostly because we don’t understand their language, and with a few exceptions, their popular music. Deutschland ’83 gets off on a good note, at least on the musical front, as the wonderfully kitsch ‘99 Luftballoons’ blasts out prominently in the first episode. The synthy smash from Nena takes me immediately back to mid ‘80s New Zealand where Luftballoons floated across our airwaves, and was also a number one hit.
I nodded along back then, clinging to the few Englishy sounding words that I could recognise. The rest of the song seemed like a mix of foreign gibberish and glottal German that I had mostly soaked up via various war films, but the number “99” and the “Balloons” part, I got that. I no had clue that it was song about peace, but mostly I liked the look of Nena.
Life in Onehunga was a million miles from the Germany where Deutschland ’83 is set, or at least 11,404, but it occurs to me that we were having the same dreams. Burnt in my memory is the image of dozens of nuclear warheads swarming high above the Manukau harbour. They were up over Mangere Mountain, and onwards, towards, I presumed, the strategically important Onehunga wharf and its humble cement silo.
Ask people on the upslope from 45 and you’ll find it’s a common memory, we really thought that nuclear Armageddon was around the corner, although most probably in Europe and certainly in America where they had gone to a lot of bother to build bunkers that resembled the set of The Brady Bunch, but underground.
The impending nuclear nightmare, made real, is the crux of this incredibly enjoyable mix of espionage and high stakes soap. Amazon would no doubt suggest that if you liked The Americans (and you should) then you would like this, and they wouldn’t be wrong. This shares a pretty slick rendering of that cold war landscape of marked by paranoia and cool furnishing, naked flesh, unbearable tension, and clips of Ronald Reagan banging on about the “Evil Empire”.
Back in Onehunga of ’83, our glorious leader Robert Muldoon, was ever present, he was a totalitarian troll that droned in the background of our lives like tinnitus. He was entering his last year in the Beehive, which still had that fresh carpet smell. He was always on the Philips K9 fighting with people about nuclear ships or planting bugs in the homes of unionists or Maori activists.
Communism was something that he and older RSA types were really worried about, now that the long hair scare of the 70s had proven to be less of a threat to kith and kin than initially feared. But fear hung in air like the wafts that came from the Mangere sewerage ponds just over the water.
In those days kids knew the names of nuclear missiles, in the same way they know the Samsung Galaxy 5s now. They were deceptively calm sounding names, like Pershing, Polaris, and Cruise.
Deutschland 83 exists in this world too. It follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) who is press-ganged into becoming a spook for the East German Intelligence Service as Regan and NATO began one of the most notorious and dangerous sabre rattles of the last century.
But Martin was a bit “yeah, nah” about the prospect. He’d much rather be pashing his girlfriend and bopping to Nena or David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, thankyou very much, but his unscrupulous aunt/spymaster Lenora (the brilliantly cold Maria Schrader) – a real vinegar tits of ends justifying the means as there ever was – has other ideas. Lenora is dangling some much-needed dialysis for his sick mother, (her sister) over his head. She is a malevolent force of nature, a tough nut, a right piece of work.
She brings to mind Kim Hill, but with a gun. You may wish to argue with her, but you will never win. And then she’ll shoot you in the temple.
But, you find yourself thinking that she really – and with reason – believes that her entire country, if not continent, is about to wiped off the face of the planet by the Donald Trump of the times. Those ‘means’ start to look quite justifiable.
She needs Martin, because he looks like the aide to a top West German general, thus providing the perfect opportunity for a good old-fashioned switcheroo. The hapless aide is duly dispatched on his way to his new job by an androgynous killing machine, who wouldn’t be out of place in Blade Runner. This really is fun. It may lack the precision and class of The Lives of Others, which it also brings to mind, but Deutschland ’83 delivers the thrills, as well as the period satisfactions, and what’s more, it will drop a New Order track at just the right moment.
“Wake up! Time to die!”
In some ways life looks a bit more glamorous in the East Germany of Deutschland 83 than it did in Onehunga, as in many ways New Zealand of the ‘80s was analogous to the 1970s or even the ‘60s in the rest of world. However when Martin runs into a supermarket in West Germany, after he’s been dressed up in the latest Western gears, (Puma shirt, Converse shoes) I was taken back to the grim interior of our local supermarket, 3Guys, (now Dressmart) and felt a pang of connection to our reluctant communist spy.
I also remember being awed in the hallowed halls of McDonald’s when it opened for the first time in Auckland in that grand old ASB building in Queen Street. I was taken by the allure of the colourful seats and the branded packaging. I was eventually disappointed by the gherkin, a flavour I hadn’t yet acclimatised to. We weren’t used to such exotic tangs in Aotearoa (a word we never heard) back then. Spaghetti only came in a can and nachos were merely a rumour. Sushi was unimaginable.
We were much like Martin, not always knowing what we were missing, but knowing that we were missing something. And all the while we had the same nightmares filled with mushroom clouds, at least on those nights we weren’t dreaming of shiny new consumer electronics brought in from the West and, on really good nights, Nena.
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