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German Cold War Drama Comes To American TV


It's the 1980s - the Cold War - and a young East German border guard named Martin is living, what appears to be, a pretty good life in East Berlin. He's got a stable job working for the military police, he's got a cute girlfriend, he follows soccer, obsessively. But life takes a dramatic turn when his aunt co-opts him to work as a Stasi spy on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The show is called "Deutschland 83," and it's the first German language TV show to be broadcast by an American network. "Deutschland 83" premieres on Sundance this week. I'm joined now by the show's creators, Anna and Joerg Winger. They join us from our studios in New York. Welcome to both of you.

ANNA WINGER: Thanks for having us.

JOERG WINGER: Very nice to be here.

MARTIN: Thanks for being with us. So, the show starts out in the years right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Can you characterize that time for us? What was it like in the east and the west?

A. WINGER: We chose 1983 because of a couple of reasons. Initially because of the music, and there was this cultural moment where pop music from West Germany heard around the world. I don't know if you remember songs like "99 Luftballons?"

MARTIN: Do I remember?

A. WINGER: (Laughter).

J. WINGER: Age her to them.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yeah, those were great songs.

A. WINGER: You know, (singing) four, three two.


A. WINGER: So we sort of chose that moment, and as we researched it, it became really interesting because it was a moment when, in retrospect, you can see the possibility of reunification became possible in part because West Germany was supporting East Germany financially and - East Germany was broke - but also because the peace movement started to gain momentum.

MARTIN: What do you remember of that time, Joerg? Where were you living when the Wall came down?

J. WINGER: Well, I was doing my service in the West German military at the time. And I was actually listening to the Russian troops in the GDR. I had studied Russian for six months, and I listened to the conversations between the Russian troops. And one day - or I think it was Christmas - the Russians called us out by our names and wished us Merry Christmas, which was the moment where we realized that we had moles on the base, who gave the Russians all the information. And so, at the time, we were wondering, you know, who could that be? You know, is it my neighbor or my boss or - and so I told the story to Anna. And for years we thought about, you know, how can we turn this into a great story? And then, Anna had the great idea of using the perspective of the East German mole. And that was kind of the beginning of the whole project.

MARTIN: You are telling the story through the eyes of a young man named Martin. There's this great scene in the first episode - Martin has been been spirited away to the west to become a spy for the East Germans, and he tries to escape back home because he doesn't really want to do this. And he goes running through the streets of Bonn, ends up at a grocery store and just stops and stares. I wondered what you were trying to forecast, if anything, in that moment.

A. WINGER: We definitely wanted to capture this sort of fish-out-of-water moment for him. And it's interesting, 'cause so many of our East German friends, when they've seen that episode, tell us that that's how they felt actually when the wall came down.

J. WINGER: Often, East Germans, after the wall came down, they would - the first thing they would do is to go to a West German supermarket to open up the laundry powder and actually take a sniff at it because they had been watching West German ads on West German television for a long time without the opportunity to smell it or touch it.

MARTIN: Anna, you're American, your husband, Joerg, is German. What was it like to work on this together? I mean, Joerg, I imagine you felt a different kind of ownership over the storyline to some degree.

J. WINGER: (Laughter).

A. WINGER: Well, actually, I've lived there for 12 years.


MARTIN: Yeah, OK, all right, fair enough.

A. WINGER: I have two German children, and it's very difficult to explain to them the history of the place for they were born. It sounds like this crazy fairytale. Like, there were these two kingdoms that had missiles pointed at each other and they - you know, these warring brothers, and then the wall came down, and there was this peaceful resolution. And now we live in unified Berlin, and it's kind of a paradise.

J. WINGER: One day, our daughter came home from school and said, you know what, and we said, what? She said, there was a wall. And we were like, where?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

J. WINGER: And she said well, right here, in Berlin, there was a wall. And in school, they had reenacted the wall. They had built a wall made of...

A. WINGER: Cardboard boxes.

J. WINGER: Yeah, boxes. And then they knocked it down, and they hugged, and this is how they learned about the wall and unification, which is the beautiful happy ending.

A. WINGER: You know, I think a lot of German material deals with World War II. You always know that the end of that, you have millions of people dead, you know, there's this looming terrible story. And the thing with this time period, with the '80s, is we started with the really terrible phase, but somewhere ahead, in the distant future, you have this happy ending, and we're living in it.

MARTIN: Anna and Joerg Winger, creators of the new TV show "Deutschland 83." It premieres on Sundance this week. Thanks to both of you.

A. WINGER: Thanks so much for having us.

J. WINGER: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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