BERLIN — With its clunky rotary phones, vinyl-coated swivel chairs and wooden desks, the Stasi Museum, located in the former headquarters of the dreaded East German secret police, provided the perfect retro look for “Deutschland 83,” the new eight-part German television series set in the last throes of the Cold War.
The show, which was filmed partly at the museum, makes its United States debut at 11 p.m. Wednesday on SundanceTV.
But the aesthetics mask something darker.
“It was quite weird to go to this place if you know what terrible things happened there,” said Sylvester Groth, who plays a Stasi official in the series and may be best known for playing the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in “Inglorious Basterds.”
As an East German citizen in the 1980s, Groth, now 57, himself was followed and intimidated by Stasi agents after defecting to the West during a run of theater performances in Salzburg, Austria.
“Deutschland 83,” which will run with subtitles on SundanceTV, may be the first German-language series to be picked up on American television. (SundanceTV said it was not aware of any others.) The show sheds light on a transformative time, when it felt as if the Cold War would never end yet in fact momentum was building for the collapse of the Berlin Wall six years later.
Two episodes of “Deutschland 83” were screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February to generally positive reviews. In the show, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), a young East German officer, is recruited by his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader, a prominent director as well as the star of the 1999 film “Aimee & Jaguar”) to masquerade as an aide-de-camp to a West German general privy to NATO secrets.
Although the subject matter recalls the much-praised 2007 German film “The Lives of Others,” about a Stasi agent, “Deutschland 83” has a different feel. With humor, romance, and soap-opera-style plot devices, it captures a time when tensions between the Soviet Union and NATO soared over the arrival of Pershing II missiles in Europe, East Germany was heading toward financial collapse, and the Soviet military shot down a Korean Air Lines flight that it believed to be on a spy mission. A peace movement was in full swing in Europe, with the anti-war song “99 Luftballons” topping the West German pop charts (and soon becoming a smash hit, “99 Red Balloons,” in the United States.)
“I picked ’83 in part because of the music,” said Anna Winger, an American novelist who created the series with her German husband, Jorg Winger, the producer of a popular German television crime drama “Soko Leipzig” (“Homicide Leipzig”).
On a recent afternoon, the Wingers strolled through the Stasi Museum, passing by a uniformed tour group from the German air force that was peering into displays of hidden recording devices.
Anna Winger, 45, said the show also was inspired by her and her husband’s conversations about how they might tell their two daughters about the layers of history of Berlin, which has been transformed since German unification and where the couple have lived for more than a decade.
Four years ago, their elder daughter, now 11, came home from school and announced, “‘So there was a wall!’ ” Winger said. The couple asked her where the wall had been, and she replied, “‘Right here in Berlin!’” When they asked what had become of it, she answered, “‘They knocked it down with their hands, and then everybody hugged,’ ” her mother said.
The series has other resonances for Jorg Winger, also 45, who is from Cologne in western Germany. While performing his military service, he studied Russian and was trained to listen to intercepted Russian radio broadcasts. In 1998, he recounted, a Russian broadcast relayed a Merry Christmas greeting to Winger and all of his colleagues by name. “That’s when we knew we had a mole,” he said. He said that memory had lingered for years.
Both he and Anna Winger, who is Jewish and grew up partly in Kenya and Mexico, said they had become weary of didactic German television programming that tends to dwell heavily on the Nazi past.
“There’s so much focus in Germany on World War II that sometimes it feels like history ended in 1945,” Winger said. Not much in German popular culture, she added, “addresses how we got from 1945 to the period that we’re living in now, which is sort of an amazing time.”
Still, they wanted to tell a story with a twist, from the perspective of the East German spy. This drew in Christian Vesper, senior vice president for scripted programming at SundanceTV: “He believed in his mission and his country and yet wasn’t an evil guy,” he said. “He was just a young man doing what he thought was right. That is what made it interesting to us.” SundanceTV is a co-producer of “Deutschland 83” with Germany’s RTL channel, which will present the show this fall.
Nay, who plays Martin, the young spy, was born in 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall fell. “I only remember Germany as one country,” he said. “Everything that’s concerning the divided Germany is historic, it’s so far away.”
In researching his role, he said, he learned spy techniques like picking locks and doing the so-called brush pass, in which two people seem to be simply brushing past each other but are handing off spy material. A NATO expert was on the set during the filming to offer advice.
Nay plays Martin as nervous and charming, committed to his cause but distressed that he has to break ties with his mother and girlfriend. But if Martin comes across as likable, producers say the series is not suffused with “ostalgie,” which translates as a sentimental longing for the old East Germany.
“That’s the wrong word,” said Nico Hofmann, chairman of UFA Fiction, which produced the show at the renowned century-old Babelsberg studio outside Berlin. Over the course of its eight episodes, he said, the show rather evolves into an existential critique of the Cold War system.
The distribution rights for “Deutschland 83” have been sold widely in Europe but so far not in Russia. Before deciding whether to acquire the rights, Jorg Winger said, “they want to see Episode 8,” when fears of a nuclear strike are at their peak, “to see how the Communists look.”