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Meeting the Creators of 'Deutschland 83

,' the German TV Show That Will Make You Nostalgic for the Cold War

Set in 1983, the Cold War drama deals with life in Germany on the brink of the fall of the Berlin Wall through the eyes of a young man who's forced to become a Stasi spy.

by David Renshaw
Jan 26 2016, 6:47pm


All photos courtesy of Channel 4

If watching a man fighting off adversaries and gleaning US intelligence while the Cure plays in the background sounds like something you'd enjoy, then Deutschland 83 is the TV show for you.

The show tells the story of 24-year-old soldier Martin, who is sent to infiltrate the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi, in order to pay for his mom's kidney transplant. It recently became the highest-rated foreign language show in UK TV history after it started on Channel 4 earlier this year.

Written by British-American novelist Anna Winger and her TV producer husband Jörg, D83 captures Germany on an historical precipice—caught between the US and Russia in the middle of the seemingly interminable Cold War, at the brink of the fall of the Wall. VICE spoke to Anna and Jörg to find out more about the show, what inspired them to write it, and what Germany in 1983 tells us about Germany today.

VICE: Firstly, why did you make a show about this particular period in German history?
Jörg Winger: I used to work in the German military. I was a radio signaler during the 80s and we were under instruction to intercept messages from the Russians. We knew we had a mole though when the Russians started addressing us personally in their messages, wishing us a Merry Christmas and that sort of thing. So I decided to tell the story of that period in history from the perspective of a spy. That was the beginning.

Do you think young people in Germany today are aware of this period of history?
Jörg: No. It's not really something that is taught in school. History lessons here seem to end after World War II. Our lead actor (Jonas Nay, who plays Martin) was born in 1990 and really had no idea.
Anna Winger: You have to understand the Cold War to understand modern Germany. It's important to understand how we got to where we are now from 1945. You definitely feel the impact of Berlin being occupied by US and British troops still today. Germany was effectively a colony at that point.

What does watching Deutschland 83 tell us about Germany in 2016 then?
Anna: We chose a lead character who was young enough that he would have a future in the united Germany. Germany now is a utopia. It's really tolerant, it's diverse, and a special time. If you live in New York, you wish you lived there in the 1970s, but in Germany you feel lucky to live here now.

Jörg: Martin is the part of the first generation of Germans who are truly modern. As the series progresses we see him become less obedient to both regimes and I think obedience was a German character trait until this generation shook it off and began to think for themselves. To me, that's when Germany became more interesting. The blossoming of free will.

It felt radical to make a show that wasn't about the Holocaust.

What was it like growing up in divided Germany?
Jörg: I thought the Wall would be around for as long as I lived. It seemed like everything was written in stone and we had reached the eternal equilibrium of post-war Germany. Until the 70s, the differences weren't that pronounced but once I started going to East Germany in the 80s, the gap became more visible. I used to hitchhike to east Berlin with friends. We got caught smuggling Shakespeare across the border. We never imagined it would end so soon.

Is nostalgia good for drama?
Jörg: One thing we wanted to avoid was this kind of "Eastalgia"—looking back at the East longingly. When you went to the upper echelons of the East German government, it was a dark place. I know people who were tortured and lost relatives to the brutality of the system.
Anna: Our casting agent was put in jail because she was a punk. They were absolutely intolerant.
Jörg: It felt radical to make a show that wasn't about the Holocaust. So much has been written about World War II, so it felt like a step in a new direction to be moving the time frame on a little.

Will that darkness be reflected in Martin's story?
Jörg: When the series started he was very innocent, a blank sheet. That changes as he spends more time in the system.

But the show is also hilarious in some places...
Anna: Even when the shit is hitting the fan, things remain funny. When we first pitched the show, someone at the TV network said that he had lived near a military base and was terrified of nuclear war. He would lie in bed at night and he would say, "I hope I get laid before the bomb hits." There are moments of natural absurdity in the situation.

Music plays a big part in the series. How did you decide on the songs that would feature on the show?
Anna: I picked a lot of them. It was one of the major reasons we set it in 1983 because it was such an incredible year for music. It was also the only year that German music really traveled too, so our opening song is Peter Schillings' "Major Tom".
Jörg: Growing up in West Germany, 1983 was one of the first years I started to go to parties and dance and all of a sudden people started to sing in German. It was a game-changer.

What's next? Will there be another series?
Jörg: We pitched this as a trilogy and are keen to make Deutschland 86 and 89 in the future. At the moment we're just trying to work things out.
Anna: I'm currently writing a new series set in contemporary Berlin. It's a family drama and a thriller for BBC in the UK and AMC in the US. I'm not supposed to talk about it really, but it's about a family that returns to Berlin and gets involved in serious drama.

Deutschland 83 airs on Sundays at 9 PM on Channel 4 in the UK. It aired on the Sundance channel in the US and episodes can be found on the usual streaming services.