It was to be one of the most memorable nights of my life but not for the reason I hoped.
Deutschland 83 was about to premiere on Channel 4, marking the launch of Walter Presents, the foreign language drama service I’ve been dreaming about for twenty years.
Beside myself with excitement, with freshly baked German cookies (lebkuchen, in case you were wondering) to celebrate the occasion, I sat on the sofa at 8.55pm, laptop on hand to monitor Twitter. As the end credits of the previous programme (Walking the Himalayas) were scrolling on screen, I re-lived the past couple of years in fast forward: what an insane, surreal journey turning a lifelong passion into a profession… the countless meetings, the ups and downs, the thousands of hours spent alone in the kitchen watching mountains of exotic box sets. Now it was all about to become real.
When I first saw Deutschland 83 I fell in love with it about thirty seconds into programme one. The empty Stasi offices at night, the seductive and dangerous figure of aunt Lenora sitting alone watching Ronald Reagan on television… I was totally gripped. It was dark, exciting, and funny in equal measure. Memorable settings, great looking cast, and a soundtrack to die for. I devoured the box set in one sitting, convinced it would make the perfect launch piece for a service celebrating the most exciting drama from around the world.
Oh how quickly that confidence crumbled on our launch night of January 3rd. As soon as the programme started, and the first line of subtitles appeared on screen, I felt a bizarre sense of surprise. Like I had never realised that this was a German programme and the characters were speaking German. When I started flicking through the other channels, anxiety turned into terror. War and Peace. Endeavour. Legally Blonde. The biggest telly juggernauts were out in force, and we were fighting the ratings war with blockbuster shows in one of the toughest slots of the year. What could our cute, unusual German show ever hope to achieve against such lethal mainstream competition? Blinded by our passion and enthusiasm for it, had we gone completely mad? And if Deutschland failed, was that the end of our dream foreign language drama service? Twitter chirruped supporting cries but it was still to be the longest night of my life, as I worried about the ratings, which would be coming in the next morning.
Six weeks later, it all seems a lifetime ago. Episode 1 has been viewed by over 2.5m people, becoming the highest rating foreign language drama in UK history. The series has turned into a cult hit, clocking awards around the world, and suddenly East Berlin furniture and Stasi Chic are all over the pages of glossy mags. And on Sunday, the series went out with a bang in a feature length episode.
But what is it about Deutschland 83 that has captured the public imagination, and is there more where that came from? For me, one key reason for the show’s success is its unique, original tone – a blend of genres that constantly defies categorisation. One moment it is intense emotional drama like The Lives of Others, the next it jumps into the outright comedy of Goodbye Lenin, then it shifts again, into 007 nail biting spy/action thriller mode. The writing plays with these different genres and styles with effortless elegance, to tell a simple but utterly compelling story: the coming of age and loss of innocence of a young man from East Germany, caught up in a dirty war of conflicting ideologies. By the end of the series, nuclear catastrophe has been averted, but everyone has lost something. Lovers, friends, and most crucially, beliefs and values. Martin comes back to a home he doesn’t belong in anymore. He is alive, but his soul is forever wounded.
This gripping, powerful finale will have you begging for more, and hopefully more is around the corner. According to the writer, Deutschland 83 was conceived as the first instalment of a trilogy (86 and 89) following the life and destiny of young Martin Rausch until the fall of the Wall, when spies found themselves living in a world that didn’t need them anymore – a united Germany where their life and purpose was suddenly irrelevant. Take heart, discussions about the next series are underway.