It’s common for the author of historical fiction to want to cram in as many aspects of the period being covered as can be managed. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance moves various branches of “Pug” Henry’s around the globe so as to be witness to as many aspects of WWII as possible. What his narrative loses in credibility it arguably gains in epic size.
The impulse is present in Weissensee, a German series available through the MHZ Choice streaming channel. In common with a number of the European series I’ve admired, Weissensee dramatizes a chunk of post-WWII history via a family’s involvement in a business. In other series, the businesses were a Berlin Dance Academy (German), The Restaurant (Swedish), and a company that manufactures early TVs (Kroniken). In Weissensee, the family business is the Stasi, the East German secret police force that, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, had the power to terrorize pretty much unchecked. A father and a son are big players in the Stasi – the father, Hans, attempting to promote more moderate policies and the son, Falk, being, well, a swine. A second son, Martin, is trying to balance love for his family with his desire to keep from being corrupted by association.
The plotting is Dickensian, which is to say that it is loaded with coincidences, contrivances and shocking revelations of relationships. We shrug when we learn that Oliver Twist happens to be the grandchild of the old gentleman who rescues him from the streets. We buy it because swallowing this whopper of a coincidence is the price we pay to enjoy the book. Weissensee is filled with similar whoppers (particularly in its fourth and last season), but I recommend it with enthusiasm in spite of this.
What makes Weissensee mostly great television is how it plays out variations of its main theme – how a society’s politics and the politics of domestic relationships shape each other. The Stasi being the chief defense of a corrupt society, it deals in betrayal, torture, violence and deception. These tactics trickle down into the way the leading characters of this series treat each other.
The first two seasons, deal with a world in which the Stasi operate unchecked. In the third season, the Berlin Wall comes down, and the series shows how easily many of these former warriors for Communism adapt their tactics in the service of the rapacious capitalism that springs up within weeks of the fall. The series is particularly strong juxtaposing the huge events of 1989-90 with the ethical challenges and hard choices individuals have to make. So yes, I shrugged off the whoppers and gave myself over to 24 episodes of vivid, provocative television. (I’d name members of the remarkable cast, but I doubt they’d mean much to most Americans. Or are there a lot of Jörg Hartmann fans in Vermont?)