The unmistakable sound of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons (played rather a lot it has to be said) takes you instantly to 1980s Germany in this intriguing new drama.
But we’re talking the chill winds of Cold War politics here, with a spy story told from the point of view of an East German.
Jonas Nay plays Martin Rauch, a handsome young border guard who lives in the east and, with his mother needing life-saving surgery, is coerced into spying for the German Democratic Republic in order to guarantee payment for her treatment.
So he leaves his gorgeous fiancée and childhood sweetheart Annett (Sonja Gerhard) and heads west. He manages to get a job with a high level US General (after the real attaché is bumped off) in order to steal American secrets about the new Polaris missile system. Martin has taken the identity of Moritz Stamm and the intrigue can begin.
Overseeing him is the steely Leonora Rauch (Maria Schrader), his aunt and boss. Officially the cultural attaché to the East German Embassy in Bonn, she is a cold and ruthless operator who runs the assets, East Germany’s spies working in the West. Never married, with no kids, she is a fiercely committed Communist Party ideologue and a pretty terrifying creation.
For the most part it’s an original take on a classic story of the stranger arriving in a strange land, from German-American husband and wife writing team Anna Winger and Joerg Winger.
Martin comes from the unfamiliar, deprived east, and there is a particularly good scene in which he first comes across a shop bedecked with plentiful and fresh produce.
Viewers follow the journey through his eyes and – this is the weird bit – perhaps even wishing him success as a consequence. He is our hero after all, even if he is working for a totalitarian and corrupt Communist dictatorship.
Another rather disturbing realisation is how much better the East seems to be at spying than the West (according to the Wingers this is a generally-accepted truth by historians).
So with Nena and New Order (yes, they pop up among others), will viewers stay behind Martin in his battle with the West? Or will he, as I suspect, start to get rather cosy in a land where the supermarket shelves are stocked and where the stories he has been told about life on the other side of the Iron Curtain don’t quite match the reality?
And will his relationship with Annett survive (sleeping with the enemy is one of the tricks of the spying trade, one is led to understand)?
It’s an intriguing prospect in a taut, unusual if occasionally clumsy new drama with an excellent nostalgia-boosting soundtrack. 1983 may not have been a great 12 months for those who don’t like impending nuclear catastrophe, but it was a pretty good year for the catchy pop song…
Deutschland 83 stars on Channel 4 on Sunday 3rd January at 9pm