BINGE-R #66: The Same Sky + Friday Night Films
THE SAME SKY S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
The Cold War heats up in The Same Sky, a German language Netflix series set in the divided Berlin of 1974. Exploiting gaps in ideology, gender and empathy, this drama about deception gives as good as it gets, twisting into complicated, unexpected perspectives within just six episodes. If the story’s initial focus is a Romeo operation – a sting where an East German agent seduces an intelligence-rich target in West Germany – the show expands to be about a country unnaturally divided in two, with a succession of plot lines that speak to life in the communist country that disappeared into history when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
First seen in a Stasi lecture room, where his instructor is authoritatively briefing male recruits on a woman’s “post-coital readiness to disclose information”, Lars Weber (Tom Schilling), is a loyal young product of the GDR. His target in the west is Lauren Faber (Sofia Helin), a civilian analyst at an NSA listening station who is recently divorced with a teenage son you will soon come to despise. Dropped into capitalism – his bachelor pad is a glorious time capsule of 1974 chic – Lars has training but little experience, and Lauren does not follow his textbook teachings (in a way the show mocks the modern pick up artist community).
Written in English by Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) and converted to German and shot by filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), The Same Sky expands out from these Stasi-crossed lovers – starting with Lauren’s workmate, Sabine (Friederike Becht), and Lars’ father, Gregor (Jorg Schuttauf), whose zealous dedication to East Germany is so complete he reminds his neighbours to turn their television aerials away from the west and assiduously informs on his workmates. The distortion of life behind the Wall is illustrated with tragically menacing touches: science teacher Axel (Hans Wegener) is reprimanded for teaching his students that hot air rises, on the grounds that “wind-propelled aviation” could be used to bypass “our anti-fascist protection barrier”.
But just when you think you’ve got Milne’s take on the two Germany’s fixed, a strand will turn things around. As a gay man, Axel has equality in the east, complete with state-sanctioned venues, although that doesn’t stop him getting involved in a different means of bypassing that looming protection barrier. Surveillance is a recurring concept, in both West and East Germany, and the program makes you wonder if these characters are revealing their true selves or simply the result of being exposed to assessment. It sets up an espionage thriller, complete with strong performances, unusually well attuned to the flare-ups and failings of human nature and the illusive nature of freedom. Follow it.
>> Bonus Binge: There’s actually another series about an East German agent operating undercover in West Germany. Stan’s Deutschland 83 is about a young, press-ganged Stasi operative masquerading as the aide to a senior NATO general and the contradictions between his two interwoven worlds.
FRIDAY NIGHT FILMS
If you want a bracing, funny stand-up set…
Ali Wong: Baby Cobra (Netflix, 2016, 60 minutes): The stand-up comic special is a Netflix staple that I don’t usually take in, but reading a profile of the American comic Ali Wong directed me to this bravura performance that I happily made an exception for. Seven and a half months pregnant – her belly is a beautiful battering ram for her punchlines – Wong smash cuts between observations on her body and the months to come, complete with a dig at male comics who pretend that fatherhood is straining their career, and her winning persona ofan Asian-American gold-digger building a successful family from the marriage up. She’ll segue from social critique into scatological detail and eye-watering raunch and back again, and if it wasn’t so funny then it would almost be dizzying.
If you’re after a brutal, beautiful crime provocation…
Only God Forgives (Stan, 2013, 97 minutes): Only a few people have been into the films – Only God Forgives followed by The Neon Demon – that Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has made since Drive, but I’m one of them. Ryan Gosling is once more the leading man, playing Julian, who runs the Bangkok arm of a criminal syndicate with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), at least until the wayward sibling is executed for his depraved crimes by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a Thai police inspector possessed of spectral assurance. This is the epitome of Refn’s mixture of hardboiled pulp with arthouse grace – murders are lit like a religious triptych, and masculinity is a corrosive force in this nocturnal dreamscape where the provocations range from Kristin Scott Thomas’ vengeful matriarch Crystal to Julian’s impotence-laced machismo.
If you prefer a classic western…
The Searchers (SBS on Demand, 1956, 114 minutes): The recent batch of movies SBS on Demand put up is salted through with vintage crime dramas and westerns from the 1950 through to the 1970s. The latter doesn’t get any better than this benchmark collaboration between director John Ford and his leading man John Wayne. Returning to the Texas frontier with little to say about what he saw in the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is soon involved – perhaps to his unspoken relief – is finding his niece, Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, then her famous sister, Natalie, as a teenager), who has been kidnapped by Comanche raiders. The pursuit that follows is long and soul-sapping; at a certain point you realise it’s about retribution and not rescue. The movie takes Wayne’s righteous screen persona, and Ford’s ornery sentimentality, into brutal, fascinating terrain.
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