The German television spy thriller Deutschland 86, the long anticipated follow-up season to Deutschland 83, was released on Sundance and Amazon Prime last November. Warning: mild-spoilers follow this paragraph. The first season of this award-winning Cold War thriller featured our lead character, an East German soldier named Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), recruited by his manipulating aunt and high-ranking Stasi official, Lenora Rauch (Maria Schader) to go undercover in the West German military for classic espionage purposes. But Martin blew his cover by averting nuclear war during the Able Archer nuclear drill in 1983, which the Soviets and the East Germans wrongly believed to be an imminent nuclear attack. Able Archer’s close call with nuclear annihilation, which really happened, was only revealed in 2013. Rauch did the right thing, but it cost him dearly. In the second season we find him banished to teach Angolan orphans the ways of communism and the German language.
But now he’s needed to help an ailing German Democratic Republic just hang on. Lenora, stationed in South Africa to coordinate with the African National Congress, comes calling on her nephew again. She can trust him. Can he trust her? Specifically, the GDR is now struggling to pay its foreign creditors. Cut loose by the Soviet Union’s effort to save its own neck, the East Germans find their cash reserves dwindling. The regime now seeks to turn its assets, such as they are, into streams of hard currency. Food and medical shortages in the country are now evident to the population.
One asset they have is weapons. So hard up are the East Germans that they are willing to sell military hardware to their enemies, the South African government, while posing as West German agents, in exchange for cash. I chuckled here thinking of the line about achieving socialism with a human face and, apparently, without a barbed-wire grin. However, selling weapons to your opponents who will use them against your allies, and all for short-term material gain—that is, to pay off your next round of international debts—call it capitalism, but with a serial killer face in commie drag.
It gets worse, or just further variations on a theme. Other assets include fellow East Germans who are used as “guinea pigs” in drug trials for payments to the GDR. Those tested face complications and death. Tina Fischer (Fritzi Haberlandt), a doctor with a conscience, speaks up to her superiors about this because it violates the Hippocratic Oath she swore when she became a doctor. For this, her career is ruined. Ideology and cash are at stake, no one is allowed to object. East Germany also begins importing West German trash. A colleague notes the irony of this, that to survive the GDR must take the West’s refuse. But the leader of the crack intel unit that is running these lines of business replies that they are getting cash on the barrelhead. Another profit operation is selling blood to the West Germans, except that they don’t screen their blood product in a bid to save costs. Practical.
Enter Martin Rauch’s nose for clarity and moral purpose. He breaks up the weapons transfer mid-transaction with representatives of the South African Defense Forces when he realizes they will be used to destroy the base in Angola where he lived with the orphans. They escape with the weapons and their consciences intact—Martin’s, anyway. Lenora scolds him for not being able to understand the needs of a great country like East Germany. That need he has dashed with his own selfishness, she exclaims. As we are told in the first episode, “Equality is expensive.” Martin asks, why can’t we sell to the right people? That would be the socialist forces ruling in Angola.
A further hint of their desperate circumstances ensues. They need the mercenary Gary Banks (Jonathan Pienaar) to help them get the weapons to the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, even though Banks is obviously a right-wing death squad type. Banks requires the personal services of Lenora and diamonds, two to be exact. Without the means to acquire them, Martin must steal them from Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson) the wife of the West German trade representative. Of course, Banks double-crosses them by putting the nephew and aunt duo and their weapons in the hands of the rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). His plan is to disguise a sale to the MPLA, snatch the money, exit with the weapons still in tow, and destroy MPLA’s base. But the plan is foiled by the ensuing melee.
Banks intends to abscond with his $38 million take, but the cash is sent flying during a fight on an overlook and comes down in the form of rain on both UNITA and MPLA forces alike. They drop their weapons, momentarily, and scramble to pick up the cash. Banks, though, isn’t in the sharing mood. His attempt to secure the bills ends the nirvana-like cash scene and leads to a gunfight where no man is left standing, except Banks.
The question raised by the ruthless East German cash-raising, the mercenary tactics of Banks, UNITA, and Lenora, is: whom do you serve? The GDR needs money and the means to that end are wide open. The South African army needs weapons and they will kill to acquire them. UNITA must defeat the MPLA and vice versa and that victory will come at any cost. Lenora must serve the GDR, and if that requires manipulating her nephew, her sister’s son, so be it. There is a palpable sense in season two of total depravity as a legitimating accompaniment of ideology and how that depravity eclipses even the slightest form of moral judgment. But in that lack, the bill, fiscal and moral, still comes due. It’s just that the innocent seem to pay more of that bill than the guilty.
Martin will wend his way through Libya, Paris, and West Berlin in a bid to get home. He frequently looks at a small photo he keeps of his toddler-aged son, Max. The mother of his son, Annett Schneider (Sonja Gerhardt), from whom Martin is estranged, has risen quickly in the Stasi. She doesn’t desire his return. Other events keep detaining him. Lenora leaves him for dead in the Angola gunfight. He’s saved by Banks, the mercenary, who plans to sell him to the highest bidder. Martin recovers in a terrorist camp in Libya where he learns of Libyan terrorists planning to bomb a civilian target in the West. He thinks it will be a hotel in Paris and fails to foil the attack.
He’s purchased from Banks by Brigitte, who we learn is actually a West German spy. She is also in love with him. Brigitte claims to serve the cause of freedom. But she is also passionately devoted to Martin. However, he leaves her at the first opportunity to begin making his way home. He returns, though, to offer his knowledge of the terrorists in the effort to find them after they attacked a popular nightclub in West Berlin, which did kill two American servicemen and wounded hundreds on April 5, 1986. Martin helps trace the bombing to the Libyan government. Later, we see footage of the U.S. military response.
Ultimately, the West and East German governments swap prisoners, and Martin can return home. But he isn’t done. Remember our doctor with a conscience who condemned the patient trials. Her attempt to escape with her family was dashed and she, along with her husband, have been in an East German prison. She was released to the West German government as part of the swap, but Annett ensured that her children were left in an East German orphanage to be raised by a new family. Martin learns this and coordinates with Brigitte to secure their release, along with his own defection, Max’s and Lenora’s. Brigitte plans their new life together.
In the end, Martin forces Annett to help him obtain the Fischer girls, who cross the border with ease in a diplomatic vehicle driven by an American diplomat. They sing raucously and laugh at the East German guard as they roar past him. In West Berlin, Lenora is promptly arrested for interrogation by West German intelligence. Martin, though, lied to Brigitte in order to secure all of this. He stays behind with his son. There is no new life for him in the West with Brigitte, leaving her devastated.
He knows that East Germany is doomed. Martin like Ulysses has returned and is ready to build his home, again. No more clandestine service work is the promise he makes to himself. Near the end, Martin complains to his mother that he grew up in East Germany, what could he possibly know about the truth, he’s been brainwashed. But his mother, a beautiful soul, says, “You weren’t raised in East Germany, you were raised in my home.” Judging by Martin’s conscience, which usually picks the right over the wrong, she raised him well. The last scene is Martin with his son and Annett having dinner in an apartment. He chooses to serve those he loves. Like his mother, Martin will have to build amidst the wreckage. Martin and Max will have to pay its bills