"Kleo": A Vengeful Tale of Two Germanies

By Thought Leaders Archives
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Vengeance is the name of the game in Netflix’s new German-language thriller Kleo, released for streaming in late August. After taking out an important target, Stasi assassin Kleo Straub (Jella Haase, pictured at top) is suddenly arrested and imprisoned by her own government without apparent cause, and when she is released in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she sets out to find answers -- and to eliminate the comrades who turned on her. As Kleo hunts down her former colleagues, she is herself hunted by an amateurish but determined West German police detective, Sven Petzold (Dimitrij Schaad), who happened to be a witness to her final murder before being jailed. What ensues is a fast-paced, entertaining story of cover-ups, double agents and illegal affairs, unfolding across two Germanies and two continents, from Mallorca to Chile. The chase is riveting, if somewhat predictable. There’s even a mysterious red suitcase that holds the answers to all of Kleo’s questions -- and much, much more.

The standout potential of Kleo, created by Hanno Hackfort, is in its whimsy -- Haase’s portrayal of Kleo echoes Jodie Comer’s role as the gleeful killer Villanelle in BBC America's Killing Eve, over a delightfully elegant score by Johnny Klimek -- and in its exploration of the unique sociopolitical situation emergent after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having been imprisoned in an era of East and West German separation in the mid-to-late 1980s, Kleo -- a fervent communist -- emerges from her cell into a failing East Germany tired of militarization and ready to welcome the commodities of West German capitalism. Even Kleo's former employer -- the Stasi, once the pride and joy of the communist bloc -- has been dissolved. Kleo is forced to confront the ravages of time on her country head-on when she discovers that her apartment is now occupied by a West German squatter (a hilariously bizarre figure portrayed by Julius Feldmeier), who believes that it his destiny to bring techno music to the East German people.

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This fascinating storyline is supported by truly outstanding performances by Haase and Schaad in the two leading roles. Haase imbues Kleo with a natural-born intensity and thoughtfulness that gives the character depth and feeling beyond what she is offered in the script. Unlike her counterpart in Killing Eve, Haase’s portrayal of a vicious assassin leaves room for remorse and humanity, which gives Kleo a heartwarming -- and heartbreaking -- touch. Schaad, a Kazakh-German actor and writer, brings spontaneity, charm and humor to his role as Sven, who becomes a thoroughly loveable goofball over the course of the series’ eight episodes. Julius Feldmeier is also worthy of praise for his comedic and indescribably unhuman role as Kleo’s sometimes-roommate, even though the side plot following his attempts to start a new disco in East Berlin is almost entirely superfluous.

While Kleo is just as intricate as any international spy thriller, it is never bogged down by the weight of its construction. Personal histories and witty conversations take precedence over unnecessary political detail and extensive action scenes -- although there are some of those, too. A riveting flashback episode later in the series, in which theatrical sets of locations central to the memories of young Kleo are constructed and deconstructed within an empty ballroom, is particularly beautiful, both visually and emotionally. While one former comrade’s path of vengeance may be the heart of the plot, it is the script’s many moments of indulgent lingering in memories of a bygone era -- fizzling out at poolside parties and in immaculately wallpapered rooms -- that makes the scope of Kleo feel so incredibly grand.

Kleo has everything that could be desired in a period spy thriller (if 1989 is far enough away to count as "period"), plus some. And while its twists and turns lead to a disappointingly predictable conclusion, the series' untiring commitment to humor and whimsy makes it feel fresh and exciting. Kleo is a vengeful tale of two Germanies that is not to be missed.

Kleo is available for streaming on Netflix.

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