The Guardian: Operation Romeo
From seduction workshops to chat-up labs, The Same Sky is an electifying look at the tactics used by the East German secret police to get intel from the west. Prepare to go deep under cover
At first sight, it looks like speed dating: young couples sit at numbered tables briskly inquiring about each other's likes and lives. But, if so, there are an improbable number of men here wearing khaki shirts with shoulder epaulettes.
Unusually, these would-be romances are being watched from a gantry by older men in uniform wearing headphones, frowning at the bloke who shows his date photos of his wife but smiling at the guy who teaches a woman how to trace her heart line on her palm.
This funny but unsettling scene is typical of The Same Sky. This six-part Anglo-German drama, released on Netflix this week, is set in 1974 when Berlin was still divided by a wall between a pro-Soviet communist regime in the East and a democratic capitalist West supported by the Americans, for whom the city represented the cold war in microcosm.
The uniformed beaux are taking part in a seduction class run by the Stasi, the East German secret police, as part of Operation Romeo, a real-life historical mission in which the most presentable spies were sent through Checkpoint Charlie on an under-the-covers mission to seduce female western intelligence officers.
Based on the belief that women suffered "a post-coital readiness to reveal classified information", the course, as imagined in the drama, features chat-up labs and lectures on the female body and brain. The equation being created is that Lt Col Lars Weber (Tom Schilling) will attempt to debrief in both senses Lauren Faber (Sofia Helin), a German single mother and NSA analyst. Because we know what Lars is up to, moments that might otherwise be standard TV – a drink in a bar, sex – have an electric subtext.
The Same Sky has classy credentials: the scripts were written in English by Paula Milne, one of the most inventive writers in British TV (The Politician's Wife, White Heat, The Virgin Queen) then translated into German by the director Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose movies include Downfall, and whose involvement represents another example of TV's increasing attractiveness to cinematic talent.
Milne's speciality is psychologically astute drama based on detailed research, and The Same Sky continues this line impressively. Flying back from a fact-finding trip to Berlin, she saw domes sticking out above the trees in a forest near Tegel airport. She asked a German passenger what they were and was told that they were the remains of "Devil's Mountain", a listening station maintained by the NSA during the cold war.
That tip-off led her to a plot that mixes espionage drama, romance and complex family dynamics, through a subplot about an East German adolescent who has been selected for the elite swimming programme, which results in her family being given favours by the state.
Hirschbiegel conjures a brilliant trick-shock when he cuts from the drab clothes and cars of East Berlin to a vast dazzling swimming pool. I assumed we had moved to West Germany, but the point is that this aquatic centre has been funded by a communist regime for whom the Olympics became an equivalent of the Space Race.
Milne also noticed there was a vast improvement in East German performance times between Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976, which suggests an injection of something in the intervening period. These efforts, though, had appalling human consequences: the show includes terrifying fairytale transformation scenes in which young women find their breasts and faces sprouting hair, a known side-effect of steroid doping.
The issue of athletic drug-cheating gives topicality to a show set more than 40 years ago, and themes of eavesdropping and state surveillance are also strongly resonant. Even Operation Romeo has a contemporary parallel in the recent British scandal of undercover police officers whose surveillance of political activists was so thorough that they had sexual relationships and fathered children with their targets.
It might seem strange for a British writer to create a German drama – although NSA scenes are spoken in English and subtitled for viewers in Germany – but Milne brings a fresh and unprejudiced eye to the time and place. The scripts are even alert to such historical oddities as the fact that East Germany legalised homosexuality before the West, apparently because the communists were uneasy about the presence on the statute book of a law associated with Nazi intolerance.
The Same Sky brilliantly re-animates – and analyses – a strange tragi-comic period of history that now looks almost cosily nostalgic in the ability of such dedicated enemies to share one city. And, at a time when England and Germany are negotiating a political divorce, this dramatic marriage between the cultures is a model of European co-operation.