John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Series probe German hostage crisis, life behind Berlin Wall



This tense four-episode German series recounts the events of the Gladbeck Hostage Crisis, which unfolded in 1988 when two bank robbers fled with bank employees as hostages and, in the pursuit, escalated the situation to include multiple innocent people.

At the very center, of course, are the bank robbers themselves, with excellent performances by Sascha Alexander Gersak as the damaged, but philosophical, Hans-Jurgen Rosner and Alexander Scheer as the more unbalanced Dieter Degowski, both frightening and realistic portraits of people responding to their own desperation and rage. But the real main character in the show is Germany, itself.

Giving a sweeping presentation with a cascade of characters in several different situations, from the hostages to the criminals to the police to families of the hostages, "54 Hours" presents a crime as a unifying national moment that defines not only who the citizens of Germany are, but what power structures are relied upon in moments of emergency.

"54 Hours" does well to indict German law enforcement on their bungled handling of the situation, but the worst criticism is saved for the press, which is presented as a swarming horde that follows the bank robbers and their hostages like a parasitic superorganism, slithering through the ongoing crime scene with cameras and banal questions for the criminals while the hostages stare in disbelief at the full absurdity of their chilling predicament. They are public property, hostages of a news cycle and a voracious public that craves the sensationalism sold to them, and "54 Hours" leaves the viewer with the unsettling thought that long after the crime is over, the factors would make it so remarkable will continue on unabated.

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In recent years, there have been a few series coming out of Germany dramatizing life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As seldom happens in these cases, they've all been exceptional, but "The Weissensee Saga" can boast to not only being as good as any of the others but also being the first, having debuted in 2010.

Following the Kupfer Family throughout the 1980s, the series portrays not only familial betrayals and forbidden romances that lead to secrets and animosity like any other good night-time drama would, but it places them within the context of the East German secret police, the Stasi. In the Kupfer family, father Hans (Uwe Kockisch) and brother Falk (Jorg Hartmann ) both work for the Stasi. Hans tries to be kind and fair in his work, but Falk is a sinister go-getter, who is willing to wield his secret police nastiness on his own family. His worst work is done toward his brother, Martin (Florian Lukas), a divorced policeman and central character, whose romance with Julia (Hannah Herzsprung) threatens to undo the entire family, as well as Falk's career of evil.

One of the charms of "Weissensee Saga" is that unlike recent others covering the same subject matter — "Deutschland 83" and "The Same Sky," both excellent series — this was made with no international audience in mind, which means it's a low-key, unpretentious drama that does well in melding the personal with the political in a way that its German audience probably identifies with and appreciates. But this quality is also what makes it so interesting to someone who doesn't live in Germany — the portrayal of life behind the Berlin Wall in terms of TV tropes and for ordinary German viewers is fascinating and engaging, creating recognizable TV drama characters and situations with an enjoyable, original twist.

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


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