I’m excited to share this Guest Post written by Randall Schroeder! The post originally appeared in My German America, a newsletter about German Heritage in America, put out a few times a month by Lukas Schroeder. Lukas who describes himself as the Fourth-Generation German American, Tubist & Manager BierkellerBoys, let his dad Randall, Third-generation descendant of German immigrants, Citizen archivist, International librarian of mystery and part-owner of the Green Bay Packers take over this time to share his love for Cold War TV Dramas set in Germany. (And now I want to visit the International Library of Mystery)
Short Reminder that I do accept guest posts to the website. If you have a story you want to share, send me an email. Meanwhile… here’s Randall and his suggestions….
A frequent cry in this era of pandemic and lockdown: “I need something new to binge-watch. What do you recommend?”
Since we live in an English-centric world, Americans have frequently missed some excellent international television and film. In the past decade, Germany has produced some excellent television shows that are now available translated for English audiences through Hulu, Netflix and other streaming services.
For those who have not made the move to streaming, there is a new service through your local PBS station called “Walter’s Choice” that shows a curated selection of the best of foreign-language television with subtitles. It is an outgrowth of a British service called “Walter Presents.” The programs are named after Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian producer who selects the content.
Here are two of my favorite German Cold War TV Dramas available subtitled in English. Along the way, you will learn about some fascinating German history.”
‘80s spy intrigue comes to Germany in Deutschland 83.
My first binge-worthy encounter with German television was on an Icelandair flight home from Frankfurt in 2017. One of the entertainment options was the eight episodes of Deutschland 83. (The title refers to the setting of the show.) It was released in 2015 by RTL — a commercial television station — in Germany and Sundance TV in the United States.
Jonas Nay, a name you will see again, stars as Martin Rauch — a young, indifferent East German border guard. The show kicks off with him being drugged and blackmailed at the hands of his aunt, Lenora Rauch (played brilliantly by Maria Schrader — no relation). He is forced to go undercover in the West German Bundeswehr (“army”) and spy on the East Germans. Isn’t family wonderful?
The series perfectly captures the styles and popular cultures of West and East Germany in 1983 with nods to the Sony Walkman and Nina’s 99 Luftballoons on the pop music charts. Humor and pop culture collide when the East German spy service receives a floppy disk with critical information and realize they have no idea what it is or how far behind the west they are in computer technology.
The second series, Deutschland 86, includes the same characters and actors. The third and final installment, Deutschland 89, broadcast last year in Germany and on in the USA on Sundance Television. Combined, the series takes the viewer up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Deutschland 83 is currently available to stream on Hulu, Sling TV, and Amazon Prime Video. Deutschland 86 is available on Sling TV and Amazon Prime Video. Deutschland 89 is available on Hulu. All three installments are available on DVD.
On that long flight home via Iceland, I was hooked. It was the first time in my life that I was disappointed a flight was not longer. When we taxied to the terminal in Minneapolis, I still had two episodes to go — which meant it was time for a quick order on Amazon.
You learn to care about the characters, and you are on the edge of your seat wondering how Rauch will get out of the latest pickle, usually caused by his amoral aunt. Along the way, you learn a bit about the end of the Cold War in Europe, especially Germany, including the knife edge that Reagan and the last General Chairmen of the Soviet Union blundered through. Humanity was lucky that Reagan, Andropov, and Gorbachev did not guess wrong.
I found one other theme particularly striking, especially considering that I grew up with American history textbooks. Europeans, and Germans in particular, did not always consider Americans the good guys, but rather just another occupying power meddling with their lives. To the Germans, NATO and the Soviet Union were both sides of the same scary coin.
Be warned: this was considered normal primetime television in Germany, which views portrayals of nudity, sexuality, and violence differently than American television. It is nothing outside the norm of American streaming services, however.
In Line of Separation, the end of war doesn’t mean the end of danger.
Line of Separation is the other German series that I found on “Walter’s Choice.” Its original title from German television is “Tannbach,” which is the name of the village in question. The first two seasons are now available on DVD. You can also currently subscribe to PBS Masterpiece on Amazon to stream both of the first two seasons. If you are a contributor to PBS, your “Passport” account will allow you to stream the second season as of this writing.
The show starts in the final days of the World War II European theater. By the end of the first episode, the Soviet army and the American army have liberated Tannbach, a fictional rural German village on the border of Bavaria and Thuringia, from the Nazis. The events are loosely based on the history of the village of Mödlareuth. Besides Berlin, it was the only German town to be divided in two by the Iron Curtain.
The plot is set when the Soviet and American commanders cannot come to an agreement on possession of the mill and industrial sector of Tannbach. Rather than compromise and keep the town together, they split it… regardless of consequence for the residents or their own needs.
One thing is clear from the storyline — the penance Germans faced for losing a war they started was to become the playthings and pawns of the post-war superpowers. What will be disconcerting to American audiences is how comfortable the Americans were welcoming (allegedly) reformed Nazis to help the west fight the Cold War. Those who identified with the German Communist Party came out from hiding to try and make East Germany work. The Nazis flattered the Americans and were rewarded with rebuilding West Germany.
Over the course of two seasons, this morality play burns out and the honorable Communists become disillusioned with their Soviet masters, looking to escape. The West German Nazis are usually revealed as people ask uncomfortable questions, even if a cynical American CIA is doing its best to hide them among its Machiavellian politics. Karma, in the course of the series, usually finds some way of doing justice to the Nazis who escaped notice. In the end, it is a very thought-provoking television program.
At the beginning of the series, you realize that the Germans’ fates were settled entirely based on your location when the war ended — and how Truman, Churchill, and Stalin drew up the lines of post-war Europe. This is demonstrated by the refugee Friedrich, portrayed brilliantly by Jonas Nay — remember him from Deutschland 83 and 86?
This was just a town that his group of refugees stopped in while escaping the fighting during the death throes of the Third Reich. As a member of the German Communist Party, he believed that the Soviets and East Germans would create a socialist paradise. He winds up being the director of land redistribution for a German Count’s agriculture estate. For good measure, he marries the aristocrat’s daughter. The Count is an officer in Wehrmacht who deserted the Russian front and hopes nobody discovers any inconvenient truths about his service record. Talk about awkward family dinners.
Based on my own travels across the Iron Curtain in the 1980s — and my own family history — I can say that Line of Separation rings true. It chimes along sadly with the stories of my ancestors who stayed behind in Germany before the war. The family home was in Pomerania, which is now Poland, but was Germany when my Great-Grandfather left.
The comparison of my family is chilling. Those that settled in Wisconsin are vastly different compared to the branches that settled near Bonn (old West Germany), in Eisenach (old East Germany near the Iron Curtain), and in Brussels to work for the original European Economic Community (EEC, now EU). It was all determined by where they were in May 1945 — very much like the characters in Line of Separation.
Sometimes it is good that your parents and grandparents grew up in boring little villages like Loyal, Wisconsin.
Thanks so much to our Guest Post Author, Randall Schroeder!
Randall Schroeder is a third-generation descendent of German immigrants. He formed a close connection with his heritage starting at ten years old when his family started regularly traveling to Germany and Austria. He has been a professional librarian for 33 years in Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota. Randall started his career as a newspaper journalist and high school history teacher in Iowa and Wisconsin.
He is excited to join the MyGermanAmerica team as a contributor, where he can continue exploring German and German American culture. He is currently also a part-owner of the Green Bay Packers and a citizen archivist volunteer with the National Archives.
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Looking for MORE Cold War Dramas?
These are available on DVD