Don’t Mention The War: ‘Deutschland 83’, ‘Trumbo’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ Reviewed

Bleary-eyed revellers travelling on the Tube in the early hours of New Year’s Day will have encountered Channel Four’s extensive billboard campaign for Deutschland 83. Even if they weren’t fully compos mentis, the visual shorthand was clear: a young man is set against a background divided between colour and black-and white; his clothing is split between a sports jacket and non-descript military ware. Behind him is the Berlin wall covered in graffiti – on the black-and-white side is Marx and Engels, barbed wire and a Black Power fist; on the colour side is bountiful fruit, lovers kissing and, inexplicably, Space Invaders. (By 1983 Space Invaders had been supplanted by Pac-Man, surely a better metonym for the consumerist West.)

The young man is Martin Rauch, the protagonist in what has somehow become the ‘highest rated foreign drama’ ever broadcast in Britain. Martin is a Stasi operative posing as an aide-de-camp to a West German general, charged with feeding NATO secrets to the foreign intelligence agency in East Berlin. The series has been well received by the British press for its portrayal of the Cold War from the other side. Yet Deutschland 83 conforms to a very Western understanding of the Communist East. It is telling that there were no high viewing figures in Germany itself, where the show was greeted with mixed reviews and only well received by young people – those who never experienced a divided Germany.

Reviewers in the Anglosphere compared it favourably to Mad Men. People smoke in 80s Bonn as much as in 60s Madison Avenue. There’s mid-century furniture and interior design on show. Shots are wide and static. The soundtrack is nostalgic. (In fact, husband and wife co-creators Anna and Jorg Winger admitted they chose 1983 because ‘it was such an incredible year for music’.) But Deutschland 83’s main kinship with Mad Men is its use of consumer goods. While Mad Men explores this critically, in Deutschland 83 Martin is a proxy for a millennial target audience attracted to the kitsch of a Sony Walkman or a garish West German supermarket. One of the series’ most notable moments of levity comes when a Stasi Major growls, “Was ist ein Floppy disc?” after being handed the spoils of Martin’s raid on a NATO official’s hotel safe.

Deutschland 83 is not a representation of the past but a triumph over it. Its narrative elements ­– the shifting loyalties central to any spy thriller ­– are subordinated to a retro fetishism. This is a reimagining of the late Cold War as a backdrop of unchanging tropes and clichés, hemmed in by foregone conclusions. The visual clues, as the poster hinted, are fantastical and familiar: red stars, vintage cars, cigarette smoke, the 50s, 60s, 80s, but rarely the 70s as that was the decade of Détente, Ostpolitik and Jimmy Carter, whose soundbites don’t sound as ominous as Reagan’s in the opening montage.

It’s not just television visiting this terrain. This year’s Oscar bait also mined the Cold War, using real life incidences like Deutschland 83, but with pretensions at sophistication. The very idea of Jay Roach’s Trumbo – a biopic about the blacklisted screenwriter who takes on the House of Un-American Activities – is progressive. This is a historical period repressed in Hollywood’s cultural memory. But, predictably, the film presents Dalton Trumbo as defanged of his actual communist convictions: he is conceived as a New Deal liberal with the audacity to defend free speech – a value which is left pleasingly blank. Je Suis Trumbo.

Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is similarly thin. The film covers the prisoner exchange between Gary Powers and Rudolph Abel, choosing as its protagonist James Donovan, the American lawyer played by Tom Hanks who defends Abel’s political rights – much to his compatriots’ consternation. There are cross-fades between American and East German prisons and moral equivalences made between American and East German characters. Spielberg, the American ideologue par excellence, seems to be saying that both sides in the Cold War were as bad as each other. But Bridge of Spies’ narrative ultimately redeems Donovan, in a manner as saccharine and triumphalist as any Cold War propaganda. His tireless defence of humanistic values, against East German brutality and American jingoism is presented as pure hagiography; it transforms Donovan from an individual to an ideal of Western jurisprudence.

These works of Cold War culture betray a desire to see the other side – to empathise with a Stasi agent, an American communist and a Soviet spy. Their premise implies nuance but, when they get going, each settles for nostalgia or idealisation. The war functions as a cabinet of historical curiosities, with no relevance beyond serving as a hackneyed backdrop. This means they can freely omit more troubling questions and emphasise differences rather than point out similarities. From our vaunted position today, long after the threat of the Cold War has passed, they ask: wasn’t the 20th century deep state horrific? Wasn’t McCarthyism heinous? And all imply that we’ve progressed since.

Except we haven’t. The forces that animated the Cold War weren’t rendered obsolete with the dissolution of Soviet Union. See how the military-industrial complex has been making its presence more pressingly felt in Britain via the arduous Trident debate. One anonymous military general threatened to ‘stage a mutiny’ should Jeremy Corbyn be elected, in a strange post-Cold War mirroring of another Channel Four series: 1988’s A Very British Coup. The surveillance state is today enmeshed with big tech, more potent than ever before. Most importantly the proxy war has returned to Donbas, Aleppo and Yemen, and now, as then, it is these ‘peripheral’ areas that bear the brunt of the bloodshed.

This is the danger of assuming superiority over history. Cartoonish depictions of the Cold War are not only boring, they prevent us from reflecting on its material and ideological nature  – on the forces that created it, and their persistence today.

—Nicholas De Taranto


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