Kleo remains the very opposite of the clinical psychopath Villanelle in ‘Killing Eve.’
‘Kleo’ reviewed by John Winterson Richards
It is fair to say that the German cultural industry has had difficulty coming to terms with certain aspects of Germany's recent past - no, not that one, the other one: Communist East Germany.
Although it is overshadowed by its predecessor, the very undemocratic "Democratic Republic" was a monstrosity in its own right, with a substantial proportion of its population employed by the Ministry of State Security, the "Stasi," to spy on the rest. The Stasi modelled themselves on the Soviet KGB and styled themselves "Chekists," after the Cheka, the Russian abbreviation for "All Russian Extraordinary Commission." The Cheka, led by the fanatical Felix Dzerzhinsky, was the first iteration of what later became the KGB and was ruthless in its suppression of all opposition to the Communist Revolution. A Dzerzhinsky quote in Kleo is very significant.
Hundreds of thousands of people walking around Germany today were implicated in this. Many are still sympathetic to what the "Democratic Republic" was trying to do. How does popular entertainment deal with this?
There were early attempts to laugh it off, such as the feature film Good Bye Lenin, but another feature film, The Lives of Others, showed that it was no laughing matter. On the television, a well paced thriller, Deutschland 83, had its humorous side but also made it clear that East Germany was a villainous State. Kleo, an eight-part thriller commissioned by Netflix takes a similar line, even if it might be debatable whether it gets the balance between drama and comedy right.
The titular character is a likeable, slightly eccentric young East German woman, who is employed by the Stasi as an off the books agent to deal with "special issues." Actually, the more accurate translation is "active measures," an official euphemism in the KGB for, among other things, assassination, sabotage, blackmail, and "expropriation," i.e., theft. It is basically the sort of stuff done by the fictional "Section" in Callan, except that it is now well documented as having been real.
Our Kleo has been brought up by her grandfather, a Colonel General in the Stasi, to believe that all that she is doing is perfectly normal and right. She shows no sign of any doubt until one day she is betrayed. She is "burnt" by the Stasi and sent to prison on a trumped-up charge of having sold industrial secrets to the West. There she loses her unborn child in a fight with other prisoners and is told she can never have children again. About three years later the Fall of the Berlin Wall leads to Kleo's early release, but she emerges into what is suddenly an alien world to her in no mood to forgive and forget.
The script is obviously influenced by two other recent shows, the British Killing Eve, which also features a very effective female assassin, and the American Burn Notice, in which the protagonist is abruptly disowned by an intelligence agency much like Kleo. It is strange that people employed to do nasty things for unscrupulous employers are surprised when nasty things are then done to them - and that they get so offended about it. One might have thought they would have seen it coming.
Kleo certainly does not. She is a true believer in the system she serves. She is therefore doubly upset, first when that system betrays her and then when it collapses. It has let her down twice. While some of her former colleagues have had time to adjust, she finds it hard to accept that Socialism is just "one of history's bad ideas."
Whatever else, the system has left her with what Liam Neeson would call a particular set of skills, and, now lacking all other sense of direction, she decides to use them to seek revenge, Count of Monte Cristo style - except there in nothing elaborate about her vengeance: she just kills people. To be fair, the first couple seem to be sort of accidental while trying to find out the facts, but then the assassination becomes more deliberate and elaborate.
Yet Kleo remains the very opposite of the clinical psychopath Villanelle in Killing Eve. She shows a full range of human feelings. She is capable of sympathy and even mercy. She retains a sense of right and wrong, even if this includes a rather sanctimonious adherence to some of the values of the system in which she was brought up and which in the end rejected her. We see beneath the ice cold facade of a ruthless killer the vulnerability of a fragile young woman who has been exploited all her life.
This is both the great strength and the great weakness of the character and the show. It makes her a far more agreeable protagonist than her actions deserve, but we cannot ignore those actions. The fact that she has intellectual and moral agency makes them worse. No amount of brainwashing could blind her to the fact that she was serving a brutal regime, especially since she carried out some of its brutalities herself. She seems happy to go along with it - until it abandons her. Even then, she never really questions it or reflects on some of the things she did for it. She investigates one of her assassinations for personal reasons and discovers that the facts are not at all what she had been told. This does not prompt her to wonder about any of the other assassinations she carried out in the name of the State. Was she told lies about them too? Might some of them been innocent people who did not deserve to die? Given the nature of the State, were any of the evil things she did for it justified?
Kleo is too caught up in her personal quest for vengeance to ask these important questions. That quest is itself morally indefensible. To deprive several people of their lives, sometimes with the most cold-blooded calculation, seems disproportionate in return for her losing only three years of her own. That they are none of them very pleasant people misses the point: if they have all done things worthy of punishment, the same is equally true of Kleo herself. It could be argued that Kleo is actually avenging her unborn child rather than herself, but in that case she should be going after the prisoners whose assault was the direct cause her miscarriage.
That we do not find Kleo as reprehensible as, perhaps, we ought, is due in large part to the performance of Jella Haase as Kleo. She is not a classically beautiful femme fatale but a relatively plain "girl next door" type. She retains an almost childlike innocence in some respects. One finds oneself thinking of her as something of a mischievous little girl as she prepares her horrific murders.
Haase is well supported by the rest of the cast. Jurgen Heinrich is credible as both loving grandfather and manipulative Stasi chief. Julius Feldmeier is great fun as a West German who sees it as his cosmic mission to introduce East Germany to "techno" music. As Kleo looks at him, we can almost hear her thinking, " How did we lose?" Everything we see of him suggests that this is a very good question.
The one false note is the somewhat clownish character of a West German Fraud Squad detective who becomes increasingly obsessed with Kleo after seeing her at the scene of one of her crimes. He seems too immature for such a post and the predictable way one form of obsession leads to another seems forced.
In general, the tone shifts more towards the comic as the story develops and this is not a change for the better. There is at first a wry humour in breathless tales of a mystery superagent who staged the assassination attempt on President Reagan and who "started AIDS." However the plot becomes increasingly silly and full of holes towards the end. Kleo is never a realistic drama but it retains enough realism during its early episodes for there to be a proper degree of tension. Once this is gone, it begins to feel farcical and ceases to be a thriller.
It also makes the error of departing too much from established fact. While many East Germans might like the idea of a fairly significant historical figure dying as he does in Kleo, there may actually be greater justice in his fairly squalid end in relative poverty, having been stripped of all his wealth and power.
The pity of this is that considerable effort seems to have gone into the details of historical accuracy. One suspects that the people who designed and dressed the sets really enjoyed themselves, and so did the costume department. There seems to be a definite Eighties nostalgia at the time of writing, with Stranger Things as both a cause and effect, and the Eastern European variant - still stuck in the Seventies and getting it wrong - has a particular kitsch appeal. It is all incredibly vulgar but innocently so.
The pacing is excellent to the very end, and the production benefits enormously from expensive looking location work in Germany and Mallorca. The photography sometimes borders on the cinematic.
Given its critical and popular acclaim, it is no surprise that a second season of Kleo has been commissioned, so this is an overview of the first season rather than a review. As such, it is a success, but a lot of second seasons have been very disappointing lately, so it may be that this is one show that might have been better kept as a standalone "miniseries." That said, the character has a lot of potential, as does Haase, so it would be good to be proved wrong on this one if they are given a script worthy of them.
Published on January 24th, 2023. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.