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Jella Haase

“KLEO” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

Establishing and maintaining a consistent attitude in a feature-length film isn’t easy.  It must be harder still in a limited series with a running time of nearly eight hours that walks a tightrope between conflicting moods.

Yet the German “Kleo” pulls it off with an attention-grabbing blend of action, intrigue, social satire and flat-out hilarity.

The titular heroine of this series (Jella Haase)  is a round-faced orphan who has been raised by her grandfather — one of East Germany’s security czars — to be the perfect deadly tool of Communism.

The first episode — set just before the collapse of the Soviet Union — follows young Kleo into West Berlin where, guzzled up in decidedly non-proletariat wig and costume, she assassinates a reveler at a disco. She returns to kudos from her spymaster bosses and warm embraces from her boyfriend/handler Andi (Vladimir Burlakov), by whom she is pregnant.

But Kleo’s world is turned upside down when she is falsely accused of treason, convicted by a kangaroo court and thrown into prison.  Released only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kleo — who has miscarried — is determined to find out why she was betrayed. It all seems to harken back to that disco mission.

Over the series she works her way through the hierarchy of the now-defunct Stasi (the East German secret police), looking for answers and leaving a trail of bodies. (Think former Nazis scurrying like rats for cover.)

It’s easy enough to spot the influences behind this series from creators Hanno Hackfort, Bob Konrad and Richard Kropf.

Most obviously there’s “La Femme Nikita” and “Killing Eve,” both of which featured young female assassins who are masters of both murder and disguises.

The violence — often mixing shock and black comedy — seems a clear reference to the work of Quentin Tarantino.  Indeed, late in the series Kleo finds herself targeted by one of her former Stasi colleagues, played by Vincent Redetzki with a manic eccentricity that brilliantly mimics Tarantino’s onscreen persona.

And “Kleo” is a hugely satisfying “buddy” picture.  Our girl teams up with a bumbling West German cop who witnessed the long-ago disco assassination and ever since has been obsessed with getting to the bottom of it.  He’s played by Dimitrij Schaad, whose performance is blitheringly endearing. (If there’s an American remake, he MUST be played by Charlie Day.)

Dimitrij Schaad, Jella Haase

As much as it is a spy mystery, “Kleo” is a commentary on Communism and the collision of Soviet repression with Western hedonism.  Kleo has only known the buttoned-down life  of socialist dogma; now she must negotiate a world of wide-open possibilities and capitalist idiocy.  

The latter is perfectly embodied in the person of Thilo (Julius Feldmeier), a druggie slacker from West Berlin she finds squatting in her old apartment (he moved to the East to take advantage of cheaper rents). Thilo believes he is an alien from a distant star and keeps looking for signs that the mothership is coming to bring him home. In the old Soviet-backed regime he’d be eliminated as an undesirable; here he’s practically status quo.

Now none of this works without a terrific actress holding down the crucial role of Kleo.  And the series has a brilliant leading lady in Jaase. 

Her Kleo is clever when it comes to spy craft, but she’s an emotional infant.  Jaase interprets her as a big (if deadly) child whose training as a government killer hasn’t  entirely erased her humanity.

The question that keeps us always guessing is which side of Kleo we’ll encounter in any given situation –K the ruthlessly effective assassin or the eternal adolescent looking for love.

To be honest, I can’t recall just what answers Kleo finds during her blood-soaked search.  It’s probably because what happens around the central mystery and the world in upheaval through which our girl moves is far more compelling.

| Robert W. Butler

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