Netflix’s Cheerfully Killer ‘Kleo’ Reminiscent of ‘Killing Eve’
Stories of vengeful wives aren’t new – just ask Medea – yet the new millennium has seen a boom in tales of heroines, or anti-heroines, violently righting wrongs. Whether it’s Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Billthe girl with dragon tattoo, or Arya Stark in game of thronesToday’s pop culture finds a particular thrill in badass women getting revenge.
We find the last example in the Netflix thriller Cleo, a joyfully murderous German series that will make you think of Kill Eve. Here’s why: Its heroine, Kleo, is an arrogant assassin who wears wigs, struts around in disguise, and knocks people over to the accompaniment of pop songs. Set shortly before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its story is also reminiscent of Tarantino films like Inglourious Basterds and Once upon a time in Hollywood who have fun with historical facts. It puts a playful spin on the end of communism.
We are in 1987 and Jella Haase is Kleo, the granddaughter of an East German kingpin, who works as a contract killer for the secret police, the Stasi. She does her job with great talent and panache. But after a successful hit at the Big Eden nightclub in West Berlin, she is falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life in prison. Then history saves her. When the wall falls, Kleo is freed. Naturally, she sets out to find out who betrayed her – and make them pay.
A sin Kill Eve, Kleo has a pursuer with whom she forms a bond. In this case, it’s a man named Sven (Dimitrij Schaad), a shaggy cop from West Berlin who no one takes seriously. Sven had been present during the murder of Big Eden and since then he has been obsessed with finding him. But it’s a dangerous business, as its investigations threaten extremely powerful people, including real-life historical figures like Erich Mielkehead of the Stasi.
As Kleo travels from Germany to Mallorca to Chile in search of her traitors, she and Sven are surrounded by assassins, double agents, fake friends, a few random goofs, and a mysterious western spy- German of Chinese origin who quotes Sun Tzu and possibly the smartest person on the whole show.
Kleo’s story is juicy enough that I would like to tell you that the series is to die for as Kill Eve. But the show is, alas, uneven. The Germans aren’t exactly known for their levity, and the show often goes awry when it strives to make Kleo a “fun” killer like Villanelle or serves up the failed eccentricity of a supporting character who pretends to be from the planet. Sirius. Whether Kill Eve was a soufflé, Cleo is a dumpling.
But a tasty one. I devoured all eight episodes in two days. That’s partly because its lead actors are excellent. With notes from both Elizabeth Moss and Florence Poug, Haase leads the series with a thorny star turn that makes us feel the deep sense of loss that gnaws at the heart of Kleo’s deadly bravado. As Sven, Schaad starts off so boring that I wanted to punch him, but in the end I realized his performance was well modulated to gradually win over Kleo – and us.
One of the real pleasures here is the sense of period detail – there are plenty of German 80s pop songs – and the show has fun capturing the contrast between the smug West Germans in their success material, and devoted East Germans still tied to a communist system they cannot quite accept is doomed. Kleo spends several episodes chasing a red suitcase that she is sure will provide the key to why her superiors sold it. When it finally opens, well – a cynic would laugh with delight at what it irreverently suggests about the Cold War.
Now, with stories like this, the question is always, will the hero have the satisfaction of happily taking out all the bad guys – you know, like John Wick – or will they discover that revenge is not the answer? I won’t spoil things by telling you what Kleo decides, but I can tell that she doesn’t think revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
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