As the winter holidays approach and our final exams are ending, the question on everyone’s minds is: what should I watch? This article might spark some answers for you, as here I’ll review four German shows from various genres. Hopefully, you’ll discover a new favourite show or at least a nice way to pass your newfound free time.
There are countless excellent historical re-enactments or fictional interpretations coming from Germany but they are mostly very serious and sensitive subject matter not ideal for holiday viewing. One slightly more light-hearted historical show though is „Deutschland 83“ (or its following seasons, 86 and 89), a Cold War drama that debuted in 2015. The first season has eight episodes and each episode is about 45 minutes long. As you may have guessed from the title, it is set in both East and West Germany in 1983. It tells the story of Martin, a young East German who is living in West Germany as an undercover spy. We also follow his fiancée and family in the East and his military or spy coworkers in both countries.
In the first episode, the tension between the Germanys is made abundantly clear. However, you are also exposed to the more fun aspects of the era, like the pop culture of the 80s through a great soundtrack. In this way, the show negotiates the relationship between the big picture of potential war and the daily life of Germans with absurdities and personal worries. Martin’s aunt, who works for the DDR, or the East German government, forces Martin to become a spy by promising she will get his mother the kidney transplant she desperately needs. He is torn, worried about his relationship and life at home, but ultimately goes to Bonn to work within the West German army. You’ll watch his transformation, guided by an older East German undercover as a university lecturer, and confusion at how different things are across the border. Martin tries to fit in with his boss in the West and his family, who are navigating the political climate. As a spy, he has countless slip-ups, improvisations, and exasperatingly close calls.
It’s hard not to root for him, which gave me a whole new perspective on how East Germans were in reality in comparison to the Cold War conceptualization. As we can easily see now, Germans from both sides of the country are infinitely more alike than different. Martin is faced with a lot of interesting internal conflicts too as tries to balance staying loyal to his country, his loved ones, his values and morals, and his true wants and desires. To go back in time to the 80s, in good times and bad, check it out on Amazon Prime.
A Netflix fan favourite among German-speaking viewers is “Dark,” a Netflix original sci-fi thriller that aired from 2017-2020. This was actually the first German-language original series Netflix made. The first season is ten episodes long and there are three seasons in total. Each episode is around 45 minutes to an hour long. Unfortunately, I have found that great shows are often drawn out too long with countless seasons, diverging greatly from the initial plot and forcing significant changes in the cast. However, German television differs from this trend in that the plots are meticulously planned and well-paced. Dark is a shining example of this, as it executes a strong and ambitious storyline, maintains a consistent cast of characters, and holds suspense throughout the whole show. It is by far one of the best shows I have ever seen (and most Germans I have discussed the show with agree). I honestly recommend that you into this show as blind as possible to be able to experience the full effect of the rollercoaster waves of the plot, so I’ll stick to the basics here.
It tells the story of Jonas, a sixteen-year-old boy, and his friends who become wrapped up in a mystery about children suddenly going missing from their small German town that is more related to their personal lives than they think. The first episode „Geheimnisse,“ or “Secrets,” is set in 2019, when Jonas goes back to school after spending the summer at a mental health clinic recovering from the trauma of his father committing suicide. He meets his friends again and discovers a lot has changed since he last saw them. Not only that, he is shocked to find out one of his classmates has gone missing at an assembly. We also are introduced to his family and his friends’ families, who are already keeping secrets like affairs. The police are already investigating the case, which we follow through the main detectives’ perspectives. Jonas and his friends decide to search for some belongings of the missing classmate in the caves in the woods at night (doesn’t sound like the best idea in a thriller, does it?) and chaos ensues. Strange clues are riddled throughout the episode, leaving us with many questions.
The storyline is highly complex and thoughtful, not ideal for mindless watching in the background. The show often features flashbacks and you will be truly shocked by how accurate the casting is of older and younger versions of characters, which enables you to be fully immersed in the world. I have watched the series a few times now and each time, I always find so many easter eggs or small clues about the characters or plot that I missed before. I simply can’t recommend this show enough and I hope you’ll give it a try.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, I present „Wer kann, der kann,“ or “Nailed it! Germany.” This is the German edition of a popular and silly baking competition show on Netflix. There’s just one season of six episodes, all around 35 minutes long, which aired in 2020. The basic premise is that three contestants are trying to make the best cakes and baked goods possible and competing to win a grand prize of 5,000€ and other small prizes along the way. Most cooking or baking shows are judged based on taste but the twist here is that all of the bakers are complete beginners trying to recreate very complicated designs, as well as making them taste good. The host in Germany is Angelina Kirsch, a German model and actress. There are different contestants, guest judges, and themes in each episode. There are two challenges per episode: „Qual der Wahl,“ or “Spoiled for Choice,” and „Gerockt oder Verbockt,“ or “Nail it or Fail It.” In „Qual der Wahl,“ the bakers have to run up as fast as they can and quickly choose one of the similar designs to try to recreate.
In the first episode, called “Don’t Take It Personally,” the challenge was to make a cookie that looked exactly like one of the judges’ faces using icing in just thirty minutes. One of the guest judges was a baker, who explained how the cookies should be made and said it is “not that hard” to do. This makes it all the more shocking when the cookies are revealed, falling apart and with monstrous faces. The second challenge was to make a cake bust of Udo Lindenberg, a famous German singer and drummer. Through guest judges and challenges like this, you’ll quickly pick up pieces of German pop culture and icons. The contestants have 90 minutes for this task and the worst baker from the last challenge receives an SOS button, allowing them help from one of the judges for three minutes if they press it. Guessing the winner is always difficult since you’re trying to pick the least worst out of the worst.
From watching the show, you can definitely learn a lot of conversational phrases and sayings because the commentary is always very casual and fun. One that you absolutely have to know is “Guten Appetit!” which Germans say before eating. I find myself saying it even with only English speakers now. All in all, the show is perfect for easy entertainment and a good laugh. Plus, it’s the only baking show that won’t make you hungry!
I’ll close out my list with a Netflix original Christmas drama mini-series: „Zeit der Geheimnisse,“ or “Holiday Secrets.” A lot of Germans watch American Christmas content (either dubbed over or in English) so this is more of a unique holiday show that’s not as cheerful and upbeat. The show came out in 2019 and only has three episodes about 40 minutes long, making it perfect for a weekend viewing. It is about an extended family gathering together for Christmas despite their differences and past issues. The main characters are three generations of women: Eva (the grandmother), Sonja (the estranged mother), and Vivi and Lara (half-sisters and grandchildren.)
The action begins promptly as, within minutes, Eva has a health problem that shakes up the whole family. This show then switches between past Christmases in 1989 and 2004, yet again with the actors in each timeline looking exactly alike. In 1989, we follow Eva contending with her own mother’s health issues, as well as her marriage. Sonja in 2019 reveals to her family that she is beginning her journey of sobriety and we can see the origins of this issue in 2004, as Eva has to raise Vivi and Lara herself. In the present day, you’ll also see lots of family announcements, ranging from awkward to happy, and how everyone reacts to them.
The episode ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, though it remains ambiguous. The first episode is a little chaotic but I’m told everything ties up perfectly by the end like a bow on a Christmas present. Not so festive, yet perhaps a more real and emotional depiction of family life at Christmas time.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to German TV, so I definitely recommend you ask your friends for their suggestions as well. Hopefully, these shows will give you a good start though and broaden your understanding of German culture. Have a nice holiday and enjoy your binge-watching!