On Television

Back to the wall

Despite the fact East Germany has disappeared, it continues to live on in this outstanding trilogy

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Before the Berlin wall came down in November 1989 I used to visit the city as often as I could. Every trip felt like stepping onto the set of a spy film, partly because it really was full of spooks. Checkpoint Charlie was the best known crossing point, made famous in countless films. In real life, captured agents were usually exchanged at the Glienicke Bridge, where Soviet agent Rudolf Abel was exchanged for Gary Powers, an American pilot in a scene immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s film Bridge of Spies.

My favourite frontier post was the menacing and surreal Friedrichstrasse station. Imagine Baker Street tube station where the Jubilee line whisks you to freedom, and the Circle line into a Soviet-style dictatorship.

This dreary, oppressive world is brilliantly recreated in the spy drama trilogy of Deutschland 83, 86 and 89

Friedrichstrasse was in East Berlin but could be reached on the S-Bahn from West Berlin. It had its own duty free shop where West Berliners could stock up on drinks and cigarettes — for hard currency, naturally — and cross back without formally entering East Germany. Separate platforms served international trains, forbidden to East German passengers. Armed guards with sniffer dogs patrolled, while cameras and plain-clothes agents of  the Stasi were everywhere, checking that no East Germans were trying to flee.

The border crossing was located deep in the bowels of the station. Travellers were funnelled into narrow wooden corridors, one by one. As soon as you stepped up to a closed door, another door closed behind you. A stone-faced border guard stared at you, back at your passport, and then back at your face. The sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness grew, as was, of course, the intention.

Eventually the entry stamp was administered and the facing door opened. To step out into the German Democratic Republic was to enter another era. The buildings were grey, crumbling, unrestored. The only vehicles on the roads were Trabants and Wartburgs. Passers-by looked cowed and wary. The air felt thick, heavy with the acrid odour of lignite, the brown coal used for heating.

This dreary, oppressive world is brilliantly recreated in the spy drama trilogy of Deutschland 83, 86 and 89 featuring Martin Rauch, codename Kolibri, an agent for the HVA, the East German foreign intelligence service. All three seasons are available on Channel 4’s Walter Presents service.

Rauch, superbly played by Jonas Nay, is alternately ruthless and courageous as required, but also wide-eyed and appalled at some of things he is forced to do. Created by Anna Winger and her husband Joerg, the three seasons are 24 episodes of gripping drama, with a complex, engaging protagonist. They also offer an intelligent, nuanced history of the last few years of one of the most unpleasant regimes in post-war Europe.

In Deutschland 83, Rauch is sent to the west to infiltrate NATO and seduce a secretary to extract military secrets (this was a common stratagem by the HVA, and is dramatised in another excellent German television series, The Same Sky, also available on Walter Presents.) Three years later, in Deutschland 86, the failing GDR is desperate for hard currency. Rauch, exiled in Angola, becomes entangled with arms sales to South Africa and a Libyan backed terrorist attack in Berlin.

In 1989 as the regime starts to collapse, Rauch is also recruited by the CIA and the BND, the West German intelligence service. The race for the dying country’s assets begins. The apparatchiks and the spooks are simultaneously shredding their files and grabbing as much as they can. The western bankers circle like vultures, waiting for the country to expire so they can swoop down on its remains.

One reason that the series feels so authentic is that much of it was filmed in the former headquarters of the Stasi in east Berlin

Rauch — and his engaging on-off girlfriend Nicole, played by Svenja Jung — are soon pulled into a chaotic and extremely dangerous conspiracy involving terrorists, the Romanian secret police, the CIA, the BND and more. Or as Rauch himself says. “I was actually a border guard. Then my father showed up and broke my finger, just because I couldn’t play piano. Then my aunt poisoned me and took me to the west. But I did prevent a nuclear war. Then I had to go into hiding. Then I just wanted my old life back, a normal life. It was nice but kind of boring. Now they won’t leave me alone. All the secret services keep pestering me.”

All of which makes for great television. One reason that the series feels so authentic is that much of it was filmed in the former headquarters of the Stasi in east Berlin, now a chilling museum. Do visit if you can. Its exhibitions rigorously document the terror — and the banality — of how the Stasi operated. Even the furniture is unchanged, as though the secret police and the torturers might return at any moment and resume the destruction of innocent lives.

Nowadays Friedrichstrasse station is a bustling city centre terminus. The duty free, border posts, interrogation rooms and Stasi agents are all long gone. East Germany has disappeared, but lives on in this outstanding trilogy. Deutschland 83, 86 and 89 are vivid reminders that even in a dictatorship, for the quick and the brave there is always room to manoeuvre.

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