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Trading on the moral high ground

Television | Two very different political cultures, and some intriguing similarities, are the backdrops to Deutschland 83 and Billions

Jane Goodall 1 March 2017 1895 words

Psychological depths: Jonas Nay and Maria Schrader in Deutschland 83.

It’s March 1983. Two students are arrested on the East German border and marched to an interview room, where a guard sits on the table and leafs through the books he has confiscated from them. “They don’t sell Shakespeare in the West?” he asks. It seems the students have crossed the border to buy their books on the East German black market, because… well, they are cheaper.

The guard, about their own age but with the confidence of uniformed authority, delivers a crisp lecture. “The greatest privilege of socialism is freedom. Freedom from greed. The kind of greed that made you two break our laws to get a better deal. Ever thought about that? Next time you decide to take East German laws into your own hands, ask yourselves, who will win? You greedy capitalists, or we socialists who work together for the collective good?” He dismisses them, but blocks their attempt to pick up the books. “The Shakespeare stays.”

It’s a good scene. From here, the ironies pan out to form the shape of a cold war spy story, as the young guard, Martin Rauch, is selected to work undercover in West Germany and finds himself steering between irreconcilable yet strangely equivalent frames of value. Deutschland 83, the hit German series currently showing on SBS, had a slow start with German-language audiences but was the highest-rating foreign language drama series shown in Britain last year.

Rauch’s rhetorical challenge is juxtaposed with a clip from Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, with its declaration that there would be no nuclear freeze. Quoting a passage from C.S. Lewis, Reagan declared that evil has its genesis “in clear, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices” where “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails” sow the seeds of totalitarian darkness.

As the series progresses, the contest for the moral high ground becomes increasingly confused. Rauch assumes the identity of Moritz Stamm, a West German army officer shot by Stasi agents as he is on his way to take up the position of aide de camp to General Edel (Ulrich Noethen). Rauch/Stamm’s duties involve observing NATO meetings, where Edel is involved in the dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship that leads up to the simulated missile attack known as Able Archer.

When it comes to the battle for hearts and minds, Edel isn’t doing too well on the home front. His daughter goes off to join the Rajneesh cult and his son, also an army officer, reads left-wing political philosophy and gets drawn into the anti-nuclear student protest movement in Bonn. Rauch/Stamm, played by Jonas Nay as a youth whose coming of age involves constant negotiations between sincerity and deceit, is by no means immune to the seductions of the new world in which he finds himself. His contempt for the black market is soon overcome when he discovers some of the technological wonders on offer: the Walkman, and a miniature recording device perfect for use in the office.

It’s Nay’s performance that gives Deutschland 83 its psychological depths and the layer of suspense underlying the conventional lures of the thriller plot. And Rauch’s aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader), the Stasi agent who recruits him, makes the perfect dramatic foil for the ingenuous Rauch; as a hardcore spy, her merely personal responses have long ago atrophied. Yet the other characters, however much they are drawn into the complex storylines, are curiously unmemorable. In this respect, the series doesn’t match its rivals from the Scandinavian production teams. The Killing and The Bridge set new standards in ensemble playing, giving every actor a distinctive presence and subtext to prepare the ground for the classic double helix move, in which apparent motivations are inverted.

Deutschland 83’s compensatory strengths are in the authenticity of the storyline and nuanced evocation of milieu. The 1980s is an easy decade to laugh at for its absurd pretensions in fashion and style, but here the humour is more subtly tuned. Lenora keeps a secret jar of Nescafé Gold in her desk drawer. A group of Stasi operators in the coding centre, confronted for the first time with two floppy disks, are seen staring down at them like visitors in a sideshow.

Writers Anna and Jörg Winger have done their research assiduously, accessing material on Able Archer newly released by the US National Security Archives and consulting a range of specialists in military and diplomatic intelligence. The seeds of the story came from Jörg Winger’s awareness, as a radio signaller for the West German military in the early 1980s, that a mole at his own base was monitoring his interceptions of transmissions from Russia.

It’s refreshing to have a spy story in which the espionage is frequently bungled or misconceived. Of course, Rauch’s few days of intensive briefing are insufficient to equip him with the advanced skills required for bugging the office of a senior NATO official, or for seducing a staffer and keeping the relationship on an even keel. In terms of plotting, the thriller and the farce are closely allied, and the Stasi team operates much of the time on the Basil Fawlty principle: a stuff-up is only a pretext for a more elaborate way of constructing the situation. This operational realism brings a strong command of dramatic timing. The action, when it occurs, is sudden and unpredictable, and the consequences may be drastic or inconsequential. You never know which way the pendulum of events will swing.

If there’s one thing the future learned from this critical period of Western history, it’s that there’s no such thing as a stable hold on the moral high ground. Margaret Thatcher claimed it with aplomb when she famously took a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty from her handbag and pronounced, “This is what we believe.” Hayek, drawing on his experience in Austria following the first world war, wrote from a conviction that totalitarianism was the direct and inevitable outcome of socialism. Free markets and small government, its antithesis, meant freedom. In Thatcher’s words, Hayek’s analysis “gave us the feeling that the other side simply could not win in the end.” On this, she and Reagan were in fierce agreement.

Comment threads on reviews of Deutschland 83 here, in Germany and in Britain are fraught with tensions over the ideological legacy of the East/West division. Was the socialist regime in East Berlin really so bad? And if it was, has the capitalist model that won out delivered anything better in the long run? Those who still think Thatcher was right might take the road to Wigan Pier, as British journalist Ros Wynne-Jones did recently, to demonstrate that conditions in the towns of northern England now replicate those described by George Orwell in the 1930s.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s not so far-fetched to see the political culture of Wall Street as the postmodern equivalent of East Germany under the Stasi. In his book Flash Boys (2014), Michael Lewis, the supreme chronicler of this hyper-real environment, tells the story of Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian computer programmer who worked for Goldman Sachs. Aleynikov, who grew up with a deep sense of loyalty to the Soviet Union, left Russia in 1990, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, lured by the opportunities to develop his expertise in New York.

In Lewis’s account, Aleynikov remained a man of modest tastes, unable to relate to the excesses of the world of finance to which he’d migrated and somehow become a linchpin. By 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, he was known to corporate recruiters as the best programmer at Goldman Sachs, and in 2009 he accepted an offer to work for a rival company. In preparation for his departure, he sent himself the codes he had worked on and, in accord with routine, deleted the “bash history” (the keyboard sequence used to upload them).

Aleynikov never made it to his next destination. He was arrested at the airport, driven to the FBI building in lower Manhattan and charged with violating the Economic Espionage Act and the National Stolen Property Act. The rationale for the charges was technical, so much so that the prosecuting officers didn’t understand it themselves, but it had to do with a claim from Goldman Sachs that the uploaded files were company property. Unaware of the gravity of the situation, he signed a confession that led to an eight-year jail sentence without parole.

The power plays and corruption of this arcane world are the backdrop for Billions, a Showtime creation entering its second series on Stan. The series pits super-trader Bobby Axelrod and prosecuting attorney Chuck Rhoades against each other in an increasingly tangled battle for, yes, the moral high ground.

“Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) is portrayed as something of a hero because he diverted profits made after 9/11 to support the families of colleagues lost in the tragedy. He’s loyal to his wife, generous to his staff and, with his liking for fast food and preference for jeans and T-shirts as workwear, comes across as a pretty regular guy much of the time. But he also has a yearning for a multimillion-dollar beach house and a family trip around the Galapagos on his private yacht.

Anyone who makes that much money can’t be that good, and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), with an eye to his own prestige, is out to take one of the highest-profile scalps in the business. But Rhoades is himself an ugly customer, who has trained his glamorous wife to cater to his advanced sadomasochistic tastes, and is driven by a vindictive need to get the better of other alpha males who cross his path.

The script, a collaboration between New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin and screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, has grit and momentum. Perhaps it’s clever to explore the moral inversions of a situation in which the motivations of the prosecutor are more nefarious than those of the billionaire, but it gets pretty tedious watching the displays of stereotyped masculinity from both characters. Rhoades’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), is a motivational coach employed by Axelrod, but just how much is there for her to explore in these men, whose motivation seems to boil down to nothing less obvious than sex, money and ego?

Watching Billions, I kept thinking of Adam McKay’s brilliant film The Big Short, based on the book by Michael Lewis, with its collection of oddball personalities so driven by their bizarre forms of expertise that they have no interest in being players in the world of human relationships. Billions has none of the psychological diversity Lewis finds in the rarefied world of stock trading. In dramatic terms, it’s banal. One look at the poster, showing Axe and Chuck fronting up to each other like a couple of primates while the supporting cast cluster around to restrain them, tells you everything you need to know. •

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