Anyone still mourning the end of Killing Eve may find macabre comfort in Kleo (Netflix), an intriguing assassin revenge thriller from Germany with a Villanelle-style preference for violence with a strong aesthetic. Jella Haase is Kleo Straub, an unregistered agent for a top secret Stasi department whose main job is to nip from East Berlin to West to eliminate enemies of the state.
At first, it seems as if the series might have also borrowed that distinctive Killing Eve sense of humour. It begins in 1987, as Kleo picks her way through the sewers of Berlin, offering a gift to a rat she has nicknamed Comrade Lenin. She makes her way to a neon-lit nightclub with a knife tucked into her suspenders, and locks eyes with her target across the dancefloor. It is high-energy, breathlessly gruesome and early proof that Kleo is incredibly efficient at what she does, which is ruthlessly getting rid of whomever the state tells her is next. “The Wall will come down before she screws up,” says one character, not so much dropping a trail of breadcrumbs for the viewer as leaving the entire loaf behind.
The eternal problem of finding a satisfying work/life balance is a little trickier when the work part is tied up in murder and espionage. (If only she’d tried a meditation app!) Back at home in East Berlin, Kleo is having a clandestine yet loving affair with one of her handlers, Andi, and tells him she is pregnant with their child. She has fulfilled her duties to “the firm”, and the job in the club was to be her last. As Kleo is a revenge thriller, however, there has to be something to avenge in the first place, so naturally it all goes spectacularly and horribly wrong.
There are devastating betrayals and losses that nix any lingering idea that the cartoonishness of Kleo’s world means this will somehow end up being a dark comedy. Though it has rare moments of humour it is mostly very bleak and very violent, and what happens to Kleo to create her raging desire for vengeance is truly grim.
The Wall does come down, of course, but Kleo has made her mistake already. During that last job, she was chatted up at the bar by Sven, who turns out to have been an undercover police officer from the west, and eagle-eyed enough to catch the glint of a blade beneath her dress. Sven is a goofy outsider who cannot muster the respect of his colleagues and is often relegated to paperwork, but he fixates on tracking down this ghost of a woman. His story is the other half of the series, and though they are from different worlds in every respect, he and Kleo are brought together to discover they are more similar than they might think.
It all rollicks along at a satisfying speed, with the political upheaval of the late 1980s and early 90s proving a gripping backdrop for its cat-and-mouse games. The supporting characters are fun, particularly Thilo, a techno-loving western squatter, sort of, who ends up as Kleo’s reluctant friend and companion. The characters’ various loyalties, earned and misplaced, are nicely complicated. (Kleo won’t fly Air Berlin, for example, because it’s an American company.) It looks fantastic, particularly if you’re into clashing floral wallpapers – in which case, this might be your idea of interior design heaven. So long as you can ignore the blood stains, that is.
If Kleo wasn’t set where it is set, and when it is set, though, its lack of originality might stand out more. It starts with the old faux-disclaimer – “This is a true story. None of this really happened” – and many of its devices, from the mysterious suitcase stuffed in a locker to the “one last job” promise, will be familiar to anyone fond of a thriller or two. It is also stuffed with big, plot-driving coincidences. At one point, exactly the right file falls out of a huge pile of paperwork and a useful photograph falls out of that file, blowing the whole case wide open. It isn’t subtle.
But the pairing of Kleo, who is broken, lost and desperate to find out what happened to her and why, with Sven, who is bumbling, dogged and obviously delighted that his life has taken such an exciting turn, is a smart one, and you spend a lot of the early episodes hoping they might get over their opposing interests to pull together against the real baddies. Kleo may not be the first to do it, but it is nevertheless an entertaining, highly stylised and cinematic adventure.