You can have your houses of cards, your Jessica Joneses, your wet hot American summers. The Netflix original with its finger firmest on the pulse of our fraught current moment? It comes from Germany, comprises three feature-length “episodes,” and commences its tale more than a quarter-century ago.
NSU: Germany History X (as it's being called stateside, in what amounts to a bald play to U.S. audiences' prior associations) begins in 1989, just after the toppling of the Berlin Wall — an event that comes to bear, in ways profound and mundane, on the lives of Part One's three principals: Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt. If those names sound familiar, it's because they made international news not long ago, having finally been linked, in 2011, to a spate of murders and bombings over the previous decade. How the group got from A to B — from tooling around the formerly East German town of Jena to allegedly carrying out terrorist violence in the name of the National Socialist Underground — is the narrative arc described by NSU's first installment.
Sound sensationalist? Fear not. The broad strokes might read like Michael Bay, but the execution's more like Kieslowski: It's the why, not the what, this docudrama is interested in. The series' genius lies in its studied avoidance of exploiting (or, worse, exulting in) the grisly fate its plot pushes toward. This first chapter, in fact, only goes so far as sketching a single murder, that of ethnic Turk and florist Enver Simsek in 2000, and it only gets there in its waning moments; that “nine more will follow” is left to a closing title card to convey.
Instead what we get is sociological in scope and rendered with a novelist's eye for telling detail: The sudden proliferation in consumer brands (yogurt, beer, hairspray) is as central to these characters' lives as any speechifying from the Bundestag; Beate's and “Böhni's” penchant for petty thuggery gets as much airtime as any nefarious plotting (most of it bungled at that). The pace doesn't quite meander, but it's in no particular hurry, either, with long static shots filmed from far enough away for us to glean a sense of place, to feel as though we're inhabiting a corner of Europe as it might actually have existed. And what's there but blight and decay, depression and stagnant wages — and, for this cohort, the facile but beguiling notion that their birthright has been usurped by foreigners, a perceived Jewish financial elite and the bleeding hearts who accommodate both.
German History X takes upon itself the task of making this psychology understandable, if perhaps not quite relatable. With rare nuance and rarer sympathy the show nails the appeal of fringe movements to those most vulnerable/amenable. It makes no bones about its central figures falling under the sway, broadly, of ultra-right nationalist politics, but it is also careful to point up the basic human motivations that permit such an extreme worldview to gain purchase: the enfolding blanket of belonging offered by this community, such as it is; the licit outlet for viciousness that community affords; the seductive promise of actually mattering in the world.
In so doing the show offers a round rebuke of the contemporary echo chamber — looking at you, Reddit — which tends to process each successive incidence of mass murder by filing it under a readymade heading (ISIS! Neo-Nazis! Lone wolf!), bewailing how the media always handles these things (don't even print the bad guys' names!), then moving on to the next attack (as soon, that is, as media reports surface). That's a fundamentally dismissive practice, one that suggests the individual pathology at play isn't worth examining.
It's here that NSU provides a sorely needed, though far from clear-cut, corrective. Militaristic Mundlos may be a true believer (just look at that faraway fascist smile as he marvels, “The people are finally starting to get it!”), but most of his energies go to wrangling the other two members of his cell, who have become, to him, closer than family. Beate and Böhni, meanwhile, are fairly stupid and might be sociopaths, but they aren't otherwise mentally deficient; conversely, they might crack the odd joke about the soap at Buchenwald but aren't otherwise fluent in the ideology they (nominally) espouse. So why do they do what they do? The truth, as ever, lurks deep in the gray.
As for where the terrific, poignant Part Two takes things, in a hard left to beat all hard lefts, it'd be unfair to spoil that — except to say that for all of you who harp on coverage of perpetrators vis-à-vis victims, here's your chance to put your money where your mouth is.