German Series in the USA
Deutschland 83 /86 / 89
When “Deutschland 83” burst onto the international scene, it was an immediate critical hit across the globe. Not only did it scoop up a number of prestigious awards, including an International Emmy and a Peabody Award, but audiences raved about the eight-part series, which followed the world of the Cold War. Jonas Nay gives a key performance as Martin/Moritz, a young East German spy, who is coerced by his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) to go over the wall to West Germany in the early ‘80s where he experiences the machinations of NATO.
By Noam Friedlander
Following in the footsteps of the US award-winning Cold War show The Americans, this too explores family values, love, politics and nuclear arms as Nay’s character attempts to blend into his new environment while still serving the DDR. If that’s not enough to encourage you to watch it, the show boasts a killer 1980s soundtrack featuring songs from The Cure, Duran Duran, Eurythmics and Nena.
The minds behind the dramaThe creative minds behind Deutschland 83 are writer Anna Winger and her producer-husband Jörg Winger who moved from the United States to Germany in 2002. Jörg, who used to work in the German military as a radio signaler in the 1980s, had produced the highly successful crime drama SOKO Leipzig and so, together with his wife, a journalist, novelist and creative mind behind the NPR Worldwide series Berlin Stories, the couple decided to develop the series, which would explore the Cold War in West Germany.
The Wingers found the perfect hook for the series finale, Operation Able Archer, a military “war games” exercise in West Germany, which involved the movement of 40,000 US and NATO troops across Western Europe. The Kremlin bureaucrats were under the false impression that the exercise was real and tensions were already at an all-time high between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Inspired by the TV show Borgen, the Wingers rose to the challenge of creating a show that was run by a writer-driven and creator-driven team, which was seen as highly innovative in German TV. Traditionally, successful German TV series have not had writers’ rooms or serial storytelling as part of their structure, but the Wingers proved it could be successful. Now, the couple’s production company, Studio Airlift, which has its headquarters in the former Tempelhof Airport, is currently developing a range of new TV projects.
Cold war, new territoryIn the past, German historical TV shows have tended to explore the world of the Reich, and so the Wingers’ choice to explore the Cold War was also a highly innovative choice for the couple.
At the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, there were more than 2,000 Stasi agents undercover in West Germany. While there have been a number of films about life in East Germany during the 1980s, there have been few films regarding the role of East Germans in the West, so the exploration of a young idealistic soldier from the East, exploring the abundant and consumerist West, provided a fresh take on the East versus West narrative.
For the Wingers, their challenge was avoiding telling a story that portrayed the communist era in a nostalgic romantic way, “Ostalgie” as it’s known in Germany – a complex term used to refer to life under the socialist system. This was incredibly important to Jörg Winger as he had known people who were tortured during that period and had lost relatives to the system. Even their casting agent for the show had been jailed due to her “punk” status. Instead, the show explores the upper echelons of the East German government, showing their machinations and Martin’s loss of innocence as he sinks further and further into his role as a Stasi spy.
Success after successThe Wingers’ suspenseful drama has proven to be a phenomenal success. Deutschland 83 received a score of 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and has aired across the globe. Deutschland 83 won numerous accolades, including an International Emmy, Peabody, Adolf Grimme Award and Golden Camera Award in Germany. Jonas Nay also won the 2016 Golden Nymph for Best Actor at the Festival de Television in Monte Carlo as well as the German Television Award for his portrayal of Martin Rauch.
When Deutschland 83 was broadcast to American audiences in 2015, it became the first ever German-language drama to air in the US. It originally aired on the Sundance Channel and then Hulu in the United States, RTL in Germany, BBC Persian in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan and Channel 4 in the UK where it was the most popular foreign-language drama in the history of British television with an audience of 2.5 million viewers as of January 2016.
Thanks to the success of Deutschland 83, a second season of the series, aka Deutschland 86 was released late 2018 on Sundance TV. It features Jonas Nay once again who, after being banished to Africa for his sins in Deutschland 83, finds himself back in the field in 1986 with hard choices to make for himself, his family and for Deutschland, East and West.The last installment of the trilogy, Deutschland 89, released in 2020 sees Martin Rauch in limbo during the peaceful revolution around him with both the existence of their organization and the future of his country left uncertain.