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On the brink of nuclear war in 1983: 'Deutschland 83'

Interview: Jochen Kürten / egNovember 26, 2015

The first German-language series to air on a US network, "Deutschland 83" features Cold War tensions through a spy's story. It has now been recognized as best drama by the International Emmy Awards.

Film still Deutschland '83 Filmstill
Image: RTL/N. Konietzny

The TV series "Deutschland 83" first aired on the Sundance TV channel in the US in June 2015, making it the first German-language series to air on a US network. The series was also sold to over 20 countries. Edward Berger directed the first five episodes of the series, and the other three were directed by Samira Radsi. The concept for "Deutschland 83" was developed by Anna and Jörg Winger. DW met Berger in November 2015, as the series started airing in Germany.

DW: Mr. Berger, how was your series "Deutschland 83" received in the US?

Edward Berger: The series was broadcast on Sundance TV, which is a small but strongly observed special-interest channel, because it often features new interesting and daring formats. One could describe it as a talent pool. American TV critics and the general public reacted extremely well to the series. I am constantly asked about it, and there are a lot of fans. They did not mind the fact that the series was in a foreign language and subtitled in English. It got excellent reviews and a large number of viewers.

Why was the series shown in the US before Germany? That's quite unusual!

Sundance TV buys one foreign series every year. Two years ago, it was a French one for example, and now they have chosen ours. They get involved in the production process of four or five series over a very long period of time. They read the scripts, watch the rough cuts, discuss with the creators. In the end, they decided to acquire our series. Sundance TV needs to broadcast a show during the summer that they will promote over the rest of the year for the award season - at the Emmys, the Golden Globes, etc.

Deutschland '83 Edward Berger, Copyright: RTL
Director Edward Berger discusses a scene with the main actor of the series, Jonas NayImage: RTL/L. Deschner

Why did you decide to deal with the year 1983? That year is not as significant for Germany as 1961, when the Wall was built, or 1989, when it came down. And in the US even less so!

I think no one really pays that much attention to the specific year. The Cold War is an exciting topic for Americans: the competition with the Russians, the conflict situation with them, which has been somewhat re-ignited in recent years. There have been political tensions between these superpowers for decades. Americans can therefore identify very well with the theme of the Cold War. Many people are still conscious of this historical episode. And 1983 actually was a very special year - the viewers find out why through the series. It was a very explosive year, which could almost have led to a third World War. At the height of the Cold War, the "doomsday clock" was just set just a few minutes before midnight.

Was focusing on a year which wasn't portrayed as often as, for instance, 1989 what inspired you and the scriptwriters of the series?

Exactly. It felt like looking behind the scenes, providing insight beyond the major highlights of history. On another level, I was also very interested in depicting this story of an innocent young man growing up within East Germany's system and slowly going through his political awakening. The series focuses on his life. It is basically a coming-of-age story too, as the main character Martin Rauch / Moritz Stamm (Jonas Nay) gradually realizes that his socialization in the East has not taught him anything.

My own situation was similar in a way: I was 13 years old in 1983. Although I grew up in West Germany, I could still feel how the political protests were progressively growing and the news reports were becoming more explosive. I slowly realized this. So I found this process of how one develops political awareness very fascinating.

Deutschland '83 Maria Schrader, Copyright: RTL
Berger during the shoot with actress Maria SchraderImage: RTL/N. Konietzny

The series of events is also exceptionally exciting to follow. Did that drive you too? Was your goal to not only direct a historical series, but to make it attractive to a broader audience as well?

It would have been boring for me to simply reproduce a history book. I wanted to connect the story to an individual and set this person in stressful situations. Alfred Hitchcock is a good role model for this: he always connected entertainment with challenging films. That was my goal as well. Other inspirations were, for example, "No Country for Old Men" by Joel and Ethan Cohen and the TV series "House of Cards." They all have elements which I built into the tone of the series.