'DEUTSCHLAND 83,' 'DEUTSCHLAND 86' (SUNDANCE) The final years of East Germany — or, more properly, the German Democratic Republic — have proven fertile ground for German television, partially, it seems, as an act of atonement. But it's also a period rich in political corruption, espionage, human drama and cautionary tales about the limits of control that lends itself to episodic television. These two series, two-thirds of a soon-to-be-completed trilogy, have embraced a more accessible presentation of this heavy rectification of Germany's history by casting real events within the frame of exciting espionage.
The two-part series focus on Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), a border patrol guard recruited as a spy and sent to West Germany as a trade for expedited medical services for his mother, who needs a kidney transplant. Martin is overseen by his aunt, Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader), a Stasi agent who is willing to play mind games with her own family for the sake of the republic's security and is also the walking personification of cool Soviet-style '80s.
In the first season, Martin is sent to infiltrate the West German military and its communications with NATO in regard to a program called Able Archer, which the Stasi believes is a plan to launch a nuclear strike on East Germany. Martin impersonates a dead soldier and finds himself juggling the demands of his mission, the complicated interpersonal relationships that spring from the contacts he makes in the west, and the compromises to his own standards that he has to make in order to get the information he needs.
The second season begins with a more high-octane action that seems a little out of place, but it settles down into a more intimate spy thriller like the first season, focusing on East Germany's illegal arms sales to the South African government and a blood-for-money scheme with West Germany in order to save its economy from collapse.
It probably helps if you know your German history, and, if not, some of the details might be lost on you, though the show makes sure you have the broad strokes. The real stories, though, are about the characters, including a subplot about the gay subculture in Germany and the effect AIDS has on the countries, as well as the theme of Stasi secrecy drifting into family relationships. The second series also has a compelling plot about a doctor who uncovers the unethical medical deals being made between the two Germanys.
This is a good series to binge. The stories are complex enough that it's helpful to have the details fresh as you move along.
'SKYGGENES DAL' ('VALLEY OF SHADOWS') (AMAZON, APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY, VUDU, YOUTUBE)
Elegant in its darkness, this Norwegian film never breaks its focus from the experience of a small boy, Aslak (Adam Ekeli), who, living alone with his mother, registers that there is distress in the air in and out of the house, and tries to figure out how to cope with it. On one hand, his friend is showing him the mutilated corpses of livestock and telling him it's the work of a werewolf. On the other, his mother is preoccupied with something that's missing in the house, as expanded on by Aslak's visit into an abandoned bedroom and visits from the police.
With the latter problem deeply embedded into the emotional well-being of the house, Aslak focuses on the former. He's creeped out, sure, but he's also curious and determined to face that nightmare directly. When events take a turn and action is required, Aslak leaves his house and journeys into the woods, unsure what he will face. As it turns out, the determination he displays in confronting an outward danger gives him the fortitude to face his personal concerns.
Director Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen paces the film like a slow, classic gothic horror movie and, indeed, you never quite know what's coming. Brooding and drenched with foreboding occupies a landscape where terror seems like it's lurking around the corner. In the role of Aslak, Ekeli is one of those classic innocent children who work so well in horror films, and his presence carries the film, providing a burst of hopeful light amidst the darkness that it allows to slowly unfold.
John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me.