Deutschland 89 Shows the Scrap for Power After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The new series in the Deutschland trilogy starts in the hours before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there’s little time for either joy or commiseration — everyone’s too busy trying to lay their hands on East Germany’s assets.

A still from Deutschland 89. Amazon Prime

The final sequence of Deutschland 89 shows two of the main characters discussing whether their old life in East Germany has vanished forever. One is sure that it’s an end of an era: “Capitalism and democracy have won. There’s no alternatives left.” Cue a montage of the last three decades, splicing Donald Trump speeches with footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall — reversed, so it appears to be going back up. It seems that the triumphalism of 1989 is just as retro as the protagonists’ enthusiasm for Walkmans and portable phones.

The lesson at the end of the final episode (“The End of History”) is at least well-tailored for its launch date, as Germany marks thirty years since reunification. Yet such blunt didacticism — in a series backed by Amazon, no less — clashes with the general tone of the Deutschland trilogy, rarely guilty of such piety. Indeed, its success revolves more on its bid to cast a humanizing — sometimes even lighthearted — eye on a history that audiences think they know already, in the final years of East Germany.

The central character, Martin Rauch, is a reluctant recruit for the HV A, the foreign-intelligence branch of the Stasi, the East German secret police. In the first two series, set in 1983 and 1986, respectively, we had seen him deployed first as a double agent in West Germany and then in Angola and Libya. This third series begins back in the German Democratic Republic, just thirty-six hours before the Berlin Wall opened on November 9, 1989. Right from the start, we know where it’s going: East Germany is over, and now everyone has to reinvent themselves in the West.

Deutschland is a rare case of a German program more popular in the United States and United Kingdom than between the Rhine and the Oder. Even for foreign viewers, this is familiar history, just now seen through a fictionalized, behind-the-scenes lens. Our hero isn’t surprised when the East German government announces that it is opening the wall; indeed, he is embroiled in a conspiracy to stop it. We don’t join the heady crowds partying at the border crossings but see others — including Martin and his son’s teacher, Nicole — watching them on TV.

The defeated haven’t time to dwell on their world crumbling around them. Stasi man Markus Fuchs wonders if he should reach for his pistol — only to be scolded by his aide, reminding us that this isn’t a copy of Downfall (“You’re not Adolf Hitler, I’m not Eva Braun, let’s think how we can win this”). Any time for celebration or commiseration is cut off by the rush to asset strip what’s left of East Germany — from Stasi officials taking their wealth abroad to Western intelligence agents looking for an asset like Martin.

With this lowly scramble for control at the center of the storyline, the promises of 1989 appear in a rather cynical light. This is especially true of the Treuhandanstalt — first introduced, here, as a plan to share out state property among workers and farmers, but ending as a mere fire sale of public companies to Western buyers. As for Martin, if Stasi men told him he could “get jailed, get killed, or get hired,” a US Embassy/CIA recruiter now offers him exactly the same options, using the same words.

Here, neither the “turn” of 1989 nor the GDR itself appear in the guise of thwarted idealism, in the manner of previous films known to non-German audiences like Goodbye Lenin or Sonnenallee. As Andreas Kilb writes, throughout the Deutschland series’ portrayal of the socialist state’s foreign operations, we instead see it as a failing business on the international market, whose board of directors (its intelligence operatives) then squirrel away its assets at the moment of bankruptcy.

While the period interiors are a delight, some parts of the picture are rather more jarring. Sequences where Stasi agents talk about finding aid from the Italian Communist Party seem odd — already in the 1970s, that party had distanced itself from the Eastern Bloc, and by 1990 it was busy rebranding itself as non-communist. And to display real conflict, the action has to make an excursion to Timișoara, Romania, where elements of the regime made a violent bid to retain power — unlike in East Germany.

At times, the web of intrigue connecting the various subplots is over-complicated, and even muffles the sense of historic change. But the ending especially amplifies this weakness, as the bid to tie Trump’s wall to the Berlin Wall provides a hammer blow of didacticism (the reality is, in fact, even worse: the yearly number of deaths at the US-Mexico border since 1998 is close to the total number killed at East Germany’s land and sea borders throughout that state’s history).

But really, Deutschland 89 is about finding something to rely on, in times when the old rules are in disarray: as joint producer Jörg Winger puts it, it shows people who have “to completely reinvent themselves, and whose country and all the security associated with their system are shaken.” Or, to take Nicole’s words, “in the GDR I felt like an outsider. Now I’m starting to realize it was home. There I knew how things work.”

Deutschland 89 is out now on Amazon Prime in Germany, and is scheduled for release in the United Kingdom and United States later in 2020.

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David Broder is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism.

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