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Streaming: German drama a chip off the old Bloc as Ryan Phillippe fails to save trashy thriller

Reviews: Deutschland 89 (All4 from Friday) and Big Sky (Disney+)

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Niels Bormann and Jonas Nay in ‘Deutschland 89’

Niels Bormann and Jonas Nay in ‘Deutschland 89’

Niels Bormann and Jonas Nay in ‘Deutschland 89’

The Germans have a word to describe the nostalgia for the years of the GDR regime: Ostalgie. It describes a fondness for a period remembered by some as a simpler time, when everyone had a job and you could wear a mullet, streaky jeans and Jeffrey Dahmer glasses without anyone thinking you were weird.

The hankering for the old East has inspired cinema hits like Good Bye, Lenin! and a chain of shops that stock the same terrible groceries they used to buy back then, but it’s also seen as somewhat dangerous and revisionist – in a speech a few years ago Angela Merkel, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, warned against becoming too seduced by Ostalgie.

But by then it was too late. The same year that Merkel gave her speech, the fascination with the period was driving the popularity of Deutschland 83, which was a sensation in Germany when it appeared (its popularity has since waned), and became the biggest ever TV export from the country.

In some ways, it could hardly be said that this spy drama — co-written by Joerg Winger and his American wife Anna (who recently won an Emmy for Unorthodox) romanticised the past.

It depicted family members betraying each other amid political bullying — hardly something anyone yearns for — but the hilarious haircuts, gorgeous interiors and stonking 1980s hits from Duran Duran, the Cure and Nena made the series a cultural moment and a loving throwback.

In the follow-up, Deutschland 86, the show put its young protagonist Martin (Jonas Nay) in Africa, where he tried to resist being drawn into the proxy war of East and West. Now, in 89, he’s being pursued by everyone from the CIA to the KGB.

Every nefarious agency wants his insider knowledge to carve out an advantage in the political vacuum left by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile, Martin’s personal priority is protecting the son he had in his East German hometown.

Like its predecessors, it is fast-paced, occasionally convoluted and at times a little pulpy in its plotting. It tries a little too hard to weave the politics and debate about various systems of government into its personal story, making it a little didactic. But still, it’s hard to resist its charms.

Nay is hollow-eyed and haunted as Martin and his chain-smoking aunt Leonora (Maria Schrader) deserves her own spin-off. At a moment when people all over the world have been forced to reinvent themselves in a crisis, it also has a contemporary feel, and it retains something that the Germans are not particularly noted for — a sense of humour.

 

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There will be many who nurture their own nostalgia for the pupil-less eyes of Ryan Phillippe. When the actor first burst on to the scene with films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions, he became the new cherubic standard bearer for Hollywood dreamboats.

Twenty years later, Phillippe still smoulders, but the material he’s been given is a little haggard. Big Sky comes from the pen of David E Kelley, producer of Big Little Lies, Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope and LA Law, among others, and it’s as bad as the worst bits of all of those.

Based on CJ Box’s novel The Highway, it’s about a duo of private investigators, Cody and Cassie (Philippe and Kylie Bunbury) in rural Montana who try to solve murders while navigating a love triangle that is playing out between them and Cody’s wife (Katheryn Winnick).

Then there’s a state trooper (Rick Carroll) who delivers little speeches on duty while his relationship with his wife disintegrates, and Ronald (Brian Geraghty), a trucker with a Norman Bates-ish relationship with his overbearing mother (Valerie Mahaffey).

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Ryan Phillippe stars in Big Sky. Photo: Getty.

Ryan Phillippe stars in Big Sky. Photo: Getty.

Ryan Phillippe stars in Big Sky. Photo: Getty.

It’s quite violent and shoddy in the way it treats women (in one scene there is a bar fight between two women over a man while Stand By Your Man blares on he jukebox).

The interweaving narratives are crowded and convoluted and the performances give the impression that the actors themselves have little faith in the material.

If it were even trashier, it might work as good-looking camp but it takes itself too seriously for that, and not even the gorgeous scenery — lushly wooded Montana and lushly curled Phillippe — can save it.


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