Interview with Anna Winger
Can you explain a bit about Deutschland 83 and what it’s about?
It’s about young man from East Germany who is sent undercover in the West German army as a spy for the Stasi in 1983, at the time of the Pershing II nuclear missiles installation. It’s a spy adventure and a coming of age story in one.
Why you decide to make the hero an East German?
The original seed of the idea was based on something that happened to my husband when he was doing his West German military service in the 1980’s. He was a radio signaller in West Germany, listening to the Russian troops in East Germany. Occasionally the Russians would greet him by name. So they knew that he was listening and he knew there must be a mole at his base – but he never figured out who the mole was. It could have been a boss or a colleague. My idea was to tell a story form the point of view of the mole. At the time of the fall of the Wall there were more than 2000 Stasi agents undercover in West Germany. In recent years, there have been some movies about the 1980s in East Germany but few about the West, so I liked idea of seeing it all through the eyes of someone who has never been there before. Our main character, Martin/Moritz, is a kind of an Alice in Wonderland.
Is it true that the story was originally written in English? If so, why was that?
Well I wrote it and I can only write in English! I’m half American and half British. My mother is from England and my father is from New York. I’ve lived in Berlin for 13 years, my husband is German and our two daughters were born here. I speak German but there was never any question of me writing it in German. Also, I like to watch things that are true to language. Personally find it really distracting when German actors speak to each other in English, for example, on screen. My favourite shows feel located somewhere specific, the more specific the better.
The world seemed to be kind of on the brink in 1983. Were things as serious as they seemed back then?
You know what’s really crazy about that? A lot of people were very anxious at that time, of course, but now we know they should have been terrified. Thomas Lovegrove, a British military historian who worked with us on Deutschland 83, first called our attention to Abel Archer, the NATO manoeuvres in the autumn of 1983 that was misunderstood by the East as a real attack. The Russians prepared to retaliate but came to their senses last minute. At the time that we were developing the show, it was exactly 30 years after it happened, so the first information about Able Archer had just been declassified. There was still a lot of mystery around it, which is great for historical drama. We fictionalised the whole thing and used it as the backdrop for the climax of the series. But just this autumn, much more information about Able Archer was released by the National Security Archives and, well, it turns out that we came very, very close to nuclear war in November 1983.
How did the people in West Germany feel about the East Germans back then – were they perceived to be the enemy?
One of the important things to remember about that time is that it is, in many ways, a colonial story. West Germany and East Germany had a semblance of autonomy, but in fact West Germany was occupied by the United States, Great Britain and France and East Germany was occupied by Russia. The two Germanys were basically a playing field for conflicts between the Soviet Union and NATO. Families who had relatives on either side of the Wall had a stronger connection, of course, but for most West Germans, the East was very far away. West Berlin was a little bit different, as West Berlin was an island within East Germany, so the wall was a daily reality here. An interesting aside is that in the East, although they were rarely allowed out, they could watch West German TV, so young people kept up with Western music and popular culture that way.
What kind of research did you do for the project and how much of what the viewers will see is based on fact?
We did a lot of research. It’s all based on facts! Basically, we used the timeline of real events and the real political climate of the time as a backdrop, and set our fictional characters free in that space.
The privilege of writing about the 1980s is that it wasn’t that long ago and the people who were involved in it are still alive. We interviewed politicians, people in intelligence, diplomats and also just regular people about their experiences. Also, everyone who worked on the project brought personal memories of that time to it. Except Jonas, of course, because he was born in 1990! However, rather than going for, say, heritage drama with this project, we were going for a kind of psychological reality. We’re seeing the world through the eyes of our protagonist, so the style of the storytelling and the style of the execution are deliberately heightened. Our set designer, Lars Lange, is amazing – he has such incredible attention to detail. And our lead director, Edward Berger, did a fantastic job. Also, each episode is named after a NATO manoeuvre from that year. Luckily for us, they must have a poet working at NATO, coming up with these beautiful names! They’re so unexpected. Quantum Leap, Brave Guy, Northern Wedding. Of course the final episode is called Able Archer.
The show’s premiered recently in Germany and it’s already gone out in America (as the first German language show)? What’s the reception been like?
People loved it in the US. For me, it was really thrilling, since my family and friends there got to watch it on TV. The nice thing was that people were really open to seeing Germany in a new light. I keep joking that the last football World Cup paved the way for us! Until recently the strongest associations most Americans had with Germany was World War II. So Deutschland 83 was a new view into German history for many people in the US, but in many ways this series is about American and British history too. Some people in the audience there were big Cold War buffs, but lots of viewers simply connected with the characters. Jonas Nay is so compelling. I think once you’ve meet Martin/Moritz, you are off on a journey with him and you want to see how he’s going to find his way home!
As for the reception in Germany, they don’t typically make series with a horizontal story arc here, so D83 has been heralded as the start of a new wave of German TV. We’ll see! The reviews have been really enthusiastic, which is nice.
The period detail is outstanding in the drama. You must have put a huge amount of work into that. Can you tell us a bit about that?
When you describe a divided Germany to someone young it sounds like a kind of absurd fantasy set up or science fiction: two brother nations, a big wall that couldn’t be crossed… and yet, the 1980s weren’t that long ago. If ever we didn’t know something, there was always someone to ask. Everyone working on the show, from the directors, to writers to actors and to crew brought so much of themselves into it. It was a very intimate project, very collaborative. The story just got richer and richer with everybody’s input.
As someone who has lived and worked in Berlin, do you think there’s any remains of a divide?
There are differences. They aren’t bad, necessarily, but since all Germans come from one side or the other, their childhoods and family culture inevitable influence their perspective in subtle ways. Their frames of reference are simply different. So I think it was easier for me to write this show because I’m not from the West or the East. Also, when you come to something as an outsider you find it all especially interesting.
Everyone’s picked up on the amazing music and the soundtrack. Can you tell me about that and how it’s pivotal to the story?
Music was key to the story from the beginning. The top 100 songs of 1983 are still on the radio all the time! It was just an incredible year of pop culture and the songs really travelled, maybe because music videos started around that time as well, so there was a visual component for the very first time. Fashion, hair styles and colour palette, suddenly became a part of the 1980’s music experience. A fun detail is that the composer of our score, Reinhold Heil, was a keyboardist in the Nina Hagen band. And he actually produced the song “99 Luftbalons” for Nena, so he is very much of that Zeitgeist. In many cases I had songs in mind when I was writing. In Episode 3, for example, Moritz uses the lyrics to the Duran Duran song Hungry Like a Wolf as a code. Duran Duran were kind enough to let us do so, which was really cool of them. Honestly, I was 13 in 1983 and if my 13 year old self had chosen the soundtrack it would have been entirely The Police and Duran Duran!
You mentioned that you’ve had some vinyl’s made of the soundtrack – where could a fan get hold of those?
RTL printed them and they’re definitely for sale here in Berlin – they printed 1983 of them so hopefully they must be available online!