Why Deutschland 86 Isn’t a ‘Black-and-White’ Cold War Spy Thriller

Photo: Anika Molnár/SundanceTV

Guten tag, Herr Genosse! Three years ago, SundanceTV struck a cult hit when it aired Deutschland 83, a German show set in 1983 that told the story of a young East German man, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), who is forced to work as a spy. His aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader), a top communist intelligence official, sends Martin to West Germany where he poses as a NATO soldier, learns about American pop culture, and tries to avert a military crisis that could spark World War III — a unique mixture of spy-thriller drama and a coming-of-age story tinged with ’80s nostalgia that made Deutschland 83 a surprise critical darling.

The story continues with Deutschland 86, a follow-up season that premieres on SundanceTV for American audiences Thursday. (It also debuted in Germany on Amazon Prime last week.) Three years since we last saw them, Martin and Lenora are now on a wild ride that starts in Africa — where communists are fighting Western-backed forces — while the East German bureaucrats at home face the utter collapse of their country. The second season is even more of a kaleidoscopic trip through history: It’s not how many will remember the Cold War, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Earlier this month on a sunny day in Berlin, I sat down with Deutschland 86’s creators, the American-German couple Anna and Jörg Winger. Their office is stuffed with ’80s memorabilia, old telephones, and New Wave posters — the perfect surroundings to talk about their show’s surprising international success, why both historical and recent world politics shaped the second season, and, of course, how the West German version of The Love Boat played a role in the downfall of the East German regime.

It was quite a surprise when Deutschland 83 was so well-received in the U.S. Critics were even comparing the show to Mad Men. That’s hasn’t happened to a German TV production in a long time.
Anna Winger: I’m American, so for me it didn’t seem that strange. I feel like there is no such thing as German series and American series. There’s just good series and bad series!

Jörg Winger: It’s funny you mention Mad Men because just last week, we were invited by Amazon to their showcase in London. We were in a room with Matt Weiner and Jon Hamm! Matt saw our show and he really liked it. It’s a very different playing field than it used to be when German television was here and Hollywood was over there, far away.

AW: In general, the world has changed since we made 83. Matt Weiner’s new show The Romanoffs? Half of it is in French. It’s shot in seven different countries.

JW: Now it’s only Netflix and Amazon who can launch something globally, but in a few years, it will be everyone. There’s a new generation of viewers who are watching Swedish shows and Israeli shows and English and American and German shows and they don’t discriminate. They are just looking for the best.

Comparing your show to Mad Men certainly makes sense. You and your team put so much detail and work into the set design.
AW: Our set designer really deserves a shout-out here. He is so detail-oriented, but he also has an understanding of how we were always going for this heightened look. We wanted to be slightly in the realm of fantasy. You have to remember that, for young people, when you describe the situation in Berlin, it sounds like science fiction. It’s like: Imagine a world where Berlin is divided and there’s a wall in the middle and people in Mitte can’t get out! It sounds totally insane. And our set designer understood that mixture of historical authenticity and fantasy.

Everything on your show looks so significant, especially the offices of East Germany’s State Security. Every phone you see in a close-up just screams: This is communism at work!
AW: We actually shoot those part of the show in the Stasi museum here in Berlin. They turned the old real headquarters into a museum, so all the furniture is there, all the telephones are there, all the stuff is there. We didn’t even move anything.

Did any people at the Stasi museum take issue with your show being a mixture of history and fantasy?
JW: Well, the biggest problem was that they did not let the actors smoke inside the building anymore. But other than that, they’re mostly concerned about the furniture — one of our actors was sitting in [long-time Stasi leader] Erich Mielke’s chair. You know, we’re not going off in some weird direction and lying about what happened or motivated people. We’re just not so historically accurate. We don’t care about historical details so much.

AW: Deutschland 86 is very women-driven, but there were no women in the leadership of the Stasi. They didn’t even have a bathroom for women in their headquarters. The show is also much more ethnically diverse than a typical German show. I’m actually really struck now by how white German shows are. When we made Deutschland 83, I said, speaking as an American, “Everybody can’t be white, we have to mix that up.” And the answer always was: “Yeah, but in 1983 everybody WAS white.” Okay, maybe. But I think television is aspiration. I don’t care if everyone was white. It’s important to show a better world.

Your second season feels even more international than the first. The story begins in South Africa, then takes off to Angola, to Libya, to Paris …
AW: Well, we always show the world through East German–colored glasses. All of our heroes are East German and we’re always looking through their politics, through their worldview. That’s very important.

In that sense, is it still a very German show?
AW: It is. Look at how many American shows are about the American perspective on world politics. We’re looking at world politics through the Eastern perspective.

JW: Recently somebody said to me, “Have you ever seen an alien movie where the aliens land at the German chancellery or at the Élysée Palace?” No, they always show up at the White House. It’s a trope, right? It’s the privilege of the superpower. Also, in the spy genre, you usually see Americans or Brits. But when you talk to the specialists, they tell you: The HVA [the East German foreign intelligence service] was top of the game.

AW: We love the idea of occupying their point of view. It’s also really interesting because history is primarily written by the winners. The way that the Cold War is always seen in hindsight is very black-and-white. We’re interested in the gray areas. I think East Germans really like the show for that reason. And it’s popular in Russia, too. But it’s also interesting for people from the West because they’ve never thought of it like that.

Jörg, you were born in West Germany and have worked in the TV industry for years. But Anna, you were born in the United States …
AW: I moved to Berlin because I married Jörg, that was in 2002.

Did you do any work for TV back in the U.S.?
AW: Never. This is my first TV show. But I was a photographer before. Weirdly, I majored in film in college. And I wrote a novel. So, for me, TV really brings together everything I ever did before.

How do you work together? Anna, I read that you write all the scripts in English.
AW: We have a small writers room for early scripts and brainstorming. I rewrite the scripts in English so that they’re all from one voice, and then Jörg translates them into German and edits them for production. And we work together as showrunners. Jörg has made almost 400 episodes of another German TV show. He’s an incredibly experienced producer and I learned a lot from him. As a team, we have the benefit of lots of experience and the benefit of less experience, if that makes sense.

JW: Another influence is that we both love politics. We love to discuss political issues. We’re news junkies.

Even if it’s old news from the ’80s?
AW: Even when you’re writing about the past, you are really writing about the present.

Is there a big difference between the usual scripts for German TV shows and those you write for Deutschland?
AW: There’s no question that there’s an American vibe to the show. It’s not conscious, but it’s slightly faster and the dialogue is different. Even when it’s translated into German, it feels different from the dialogue in a typical German show or in a script that’s been written in German.

Is it a question of pace?
AW: Pace and also there’s something else. I don’t know if I have words for this, but in English you can be … ballsier. It has a sort of energy to it. German is very wordy, so things can get complex.

Do you remember anything specific that posed a problem when you tried to translate it?
JW: I remember one thing where we couldn’t find a translation: “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” So we just let them say it in English, adding “wie der Amerikaner sagt” [“as Americans say”]. But the main challenge going from English to German is length. I basically had to … not invent, but let them talk in a way that makes their German just as long as the English.

AW: As in, shorter.

JW: But strangely, it still works in a nice way in German. I guess that’s also the German language that has changed from 20 years ago.

AW: They certainly were not talking like that in the GDR [East Germany].

Would you say that you come from different traditions of television? From an American tradition and a European one?
AW: I wasn’t allowed to watch any TV when I grew up, so he knows a lot more about TV than I do. My parents both are professors at Harvard. They still don’t watch TV. They haven’t even seen our show.

JW: I’m sure you secretly watched some TV as a kid.

AW: I really started watching TV when I was with you!

JW: I watched 90 percent American TV when I grew up. I loved The Waltons.

Your second season also is a reflection on what West German television meant to East Germany. That comes up a lot.
JW: With Traumschiff.

AW: The West German adaptation of Love Boat.

Why does the West German Love Boat play such a big role this season? It’s especially important to one of the men from the Stasi bureaucracy.
AW: We’re playing with the idea that they weren’t allowed to go anywhere. Here’s this guy and he has wanderlust. He loves to watch the show where this boat sails off into the tropical unknown and anything can happen. You can fall in love in this beautiful sunshine. That’s what he’s dreaming about because he’s sitting in his shitty apartment where it’s dark.

JW: But there’s also this connection to all those strange things that really happened. You see, the GDR had run out of money. They had this old ship that they used to send their workers on cruise trips, but they needed to take it out of service — it was too old, it might have sunk, just like the entire country. So they were thinking about a solution and all of a sudden they got news that ZDF [a West German TV network] is thinking about selling its old ship from Traumschiff. So they decided, Maybe we can get the old one from them? It would still be good enough!

It’s just one of the many strange things that happened in the last years of the GDR. In Deutschland 86, you show how this country is about to collapse. They can’t sustain their political or economic system anymore.
AW: They’re doing anything they can to make money. They start selling everything that isn’t tied down. They had people donating blood all the time and sold it to the West. They were taking in all of the garbage from the West and disposing of it. We make jokes about that on our show, but it’s also really brutal and serious. They were offering their people as guinea pigs for West German pharma trials without their consent.

JW: They become mafiosi capitalists. This was a bit like the unleashed capitalism that some people want today.

AW: As I said, we’re using history as metaphor. We’re exploring late-stage communism, but we’re living in late-stage capitalism now. I think there are a lot of interesting parallels. That’s the fun of it and the tragedy of it. Was it Mark Twain who said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes?”

JW: When you are looking back to the Cold War, now we feel it was so clear cut. Good. Bad. Communists. Capitalists. Dictators. Freedom. It’s almost getting romanticized now.

AW: But in reality, the Cold War was pretty murky, too.

JW: In ’86, there were so many terrorist attacks and terrorist groups in Europe. People don’t seem to remember how much terrorism there was. We talked to our military advisers and the historians and we realized: It was so complicated. It’s just that we simplify the narrative in hindsight.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why Deutschland 86 Isn’t a ‘Black-and-White’ Spy Story