Anna Winger: "It's creatively freeing to not live in your own culture"

The writer and showrunner behind Netflix's Unorthodox on awards success, representation on screen and being a fish out of water in Berlin.

American-British writer, producer and showrunner Anna Winger.
American-British writer, producer and showrunner Anna Winger.Anna Winger, private

Berlin-If you don't know Anna Winger, you probably know Unorthodox, the Netflix hit she co-created, wrote and produced based on the true story of a young woman fleeing her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York for her ancestral roots in Berlin. It has been nominated for 11 titles in this year's awards season, including two at this weekend's Golden Globes, and has already won a primetime Emmy. She also created and co-wrote the Cold War spy thriller series Deutschland 83/86/89, which was exported to international networks including Amazon Prime Video and won awards including the prestigious Grimme Prize. 

We sat down with Anna (over the phone) to talk bringing external perspectives to German history, binge viewing and what to expect from her next.

Unorthodox is nominated for lots of awards. What does that kind of recognition mean to you?

It’s very thrilling to be recognised by the American system, because we made the show here and the other nominees are primarily American shows. We've been through the awards season before, because we were nominated for eight Emmys in the fall, which was incredible. It's super nice to have the production recognised across the board, because we were nominated for so many things: costume and music, writing, directing. But I don't think you make the work for the prizes, you make the work to connect with the audience, to start a conversation. It's been an incredible experience to feel how much people around the world have responded to the show.

Unorthodox is based in part on a true story, from your friend Deborah Feldman’s book about her own escape to Berlin. Why do you think it's resonated with so many people?

I often think that the more specific the story, the more universal the story. Maybe that sounds counterintuitive? Well-told, an idiosyncratic experience can serve as a very powerful metaphor, allowing people to see themselves in it. That's how I approached the material and it's what drew me to the project. Deborah Feldman gave us a lot of creative freedom to adapt the book, so we had a lot of fun with that process.

How did Unorthodox come to Netflix? Did you pitch it to them, and were they quick on the uptake?

They came to me because they liked Deutschland 83, so they asked me if I wanted to work on something together. We talked about various ideas, and one of them was this. Obviously a story that takes place in the Hasidic world is not an easy sell and I only wanted to do it if I could make it in Yiddish. National television would never have been up for doing it in anything but German. But Netflix just got behind it and it all went pretty quickly. We started writing in November of 2018, and we delivered the show by December 2019. Then I guess we were the first show to launch internationally during lockdown. Unorthodox came out on March 26 and we had no idea what to expect. We had been expecting to travel a lot to promote it and we were worried. So it was especially exciting when people started watching and talking about it on social media.

Something I read about your writing process is that you always write in English and then for the Deutschland series, for example, it gets translated into German. Did you follow the same process with Unorthodox?

Yes. We wrote all the scripts in English and then worked really closely with our translator Eli Rosen, who was also coaching the actors in Yiddish and acting as cultural consultant. He also plays the rabbi in the show. More generally, I'm interested in an American style of storytelling, but I'm telling stories in the world so I don't think language should be a barrier. In the case of Unorthodox, we made a show in a language that has no single country, but a cultural heritage as rich and varied as the Jewish diaspora itself. Netflix was the perfect place for it because it could reach its audience around the world.

The detailed portrayal of the Hasidic community we see in Unorthodox isn't something that's been widely seen before. We talk a lot these days about representation, especially in media – do you find the response you’ve had encouraging?

It doesn't surprise me that the show is popular in places with a large Jewish community, like urban cities in the West and in Israel, but what's really striking is how popular it's been in places where people have no contact whatsoever with Jews. So many people wrote to us from places as far away as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and India to say: “This is my story. I had to leave where I came from to find myself too. I really saw myself in Esty.” The truth is, even people in New York know very little about the Satmar world - of course you see people from that community on the street, but you don't necessarily know much about it.

Esty (Shira Haas) in the lake at Wannsee in a scene from Unorthodox.
Esty (Shira Haas) in the lake at Wannsee in a scene from Unorthodox.Anna Winger/Netflix

How did you try to achieve that accuracy?

We were lucky that we had a lot of people working with us who had left the community, from one of our stars, Jeff Willbusch, who plays Moishe, to many of the smaller roles. We made a decision from the beginning to only cast Jewish actors in the Jewish roles, because we wanted to take a position and counter the German tradition of making work about Jewish history for film and television, with no one Jewish on either side of the camera. We were interested in creating a dialogue about Jewishness on set and working with people, like ourselves, who have a feeling for the language.

So it was a very interesting experience for all of us, especially when you consider the broad spectrum of Judaism and Jewishness. My secular experience is at one end, and Deborah Feldman's childhood is at the other, but there are a lot of colours in between, and in the end we were all struck by how much we had in common. We had actors from the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Romania, Israel, the United States, Russia - it was truly a diaspora project.

A lot of the show’s themes play out in Berlin and in Esty’s new life here, but it's not specifically a German story.

Yes and no. It is a German story that resonates with our international experience of Germany. We were definitely interested in showing Berlin that was a kind of integrated utopia. For example, the school where [Esty] connects with these students is a place that hosts students from around the world, which was inspired by the Barenboim- Said Academy. We also wanted to look at the doubling back on history that takes place when you come back to Berlin as a Jew, at a moment when so many young people are coming back. The show was a chance to reflect on many things that Alexa Karolinski [Unorthodox co-writer] and Deborah and I had been talking about for years.

A theme in Unorthodox and the Deutschland series is the contradictions of contemporary Germany. Especially Deutschland 89, which really delves into the turbulence of reunification in a way we don’t always remember.

The vaccine rollout is another great reminder of the myth of German efficiency, right? Kind of like the Berlin airport fiasco story! Yes, I’m interested in the grey areas in history, the news stories that were never clearly resolved. As a fiction writer, I'm interested in setting fictional characters free against the backdrop of real history. I like exploring history for metaphors. I did a thing recently for the American Film Institute where I talked through the scene from Unorthodox at Wannsee and how it had been inspired by a Billy Wilder movie, People on Sunday. It's cool the way they presented it, cutting the Wilder movie into the show.

You’re American-British and have lived in Berlin for 18 years now. Does not being German give you an outside perspective on how Germans view themselves and their history that helps your writing?

I never really thought of approaching Germany as a subject in a conscious way, but I think I feel more license to explore certain themes here in different ways, because I'm not German. Nationality isn't everything, but I think it's freeing to not live in your own culture creatively. I would probably feel differently if I were writing directly about the United States. Here, I have more freedom of imagination. Also, things that are obvious to Germans are interesting to me. So I think there's a lot of opportunity in being a fish out of water.

I wanted to ask about the Deutschland series as well. I guess that’s a more classic German Cold War story.

Yes, but it’s told in a different way. I'm not East German or West German. I think many Germans felt ambivalent about the show, even though it was really popular around the world. People here appreciated that it was well made, but they had trouble seeing their own history rendered in an exciting way. There’s this notion here that certain subjects should only be treated seriously, that it's not possible to incorporate humour or adventure into “heritage drama”. There are very clear genre divisions. Whereas Deutschland 83 was unusual in that way, at least for its time.

I thought Deutschland 86 focusing on Africa was interesting, because I hardly learned in school about how the Cold War affected Africa.

There were two places where there was a hot war in the Cold War, one was southern Africa and the other was Central America. We were deciding which to approach for 86 and decided on Africa. Westerners might not remember this history, but most East Germans, if they're old enough, can remember writing letters to free Nelson Mandela. I also thought it was interesting to explore the ways in which the East Germans felt influential on the world stage. They weren't just stuck behind the Iron Curtain, they were engaged in what was going on.

What are you working on next?

I'm working on a few different projects now. Only one of them has to do with Germany. It’s set in Marseilles in 1940 after the fall of Paris, when refugees were bottlenecked there trying to get on boats out of Europe. Some young Americans created something called the Emergency Rescue Committee and ended up getting 2,000 people out over the Pyrenees. The project is inspired by real events and adapted from a novel, The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer.

Many of the refugees were famous people, like Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Max Ernst, but they were also just people at the end of their tether who deeply identified with being German. What does nationality mean when it’s taken from you? What is national identity, in the end? I think about that a lot while I am writing, because my characters are basically people like me, artists living in Berlin and Paris who suddenly have no more home to go home to. They have been banished from their country and their language. One of the main characters is a very young Jewish Berliner who aided in the rescue effort, Albert Hirschman.

That sounds like a very relevant topic for today.

I think so. I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in exile. Isn't it the ultimate irony now that Americans come to Europe to experience freedom? The Marseilles story is a metaphor for many things. The movement of people is an important subject. This series is an adventure story but it also explores themes of Jewish identity. I would say it lands somewhere on the spectrum between Deutschland and Unorthodox.

Another connection between Deutschland and Unorthodox was Maria Schrader, who directed Unorthodox but also played Lenora Rauch in the Deutschland series. How did that come about?

Unorthodox is the first series I produced with my own company, Studio Airlift. When I was thinking about doing the show we were shooting Deutschland 86 in Cape Town, so I gave Maria a copy of Deborah Feldman’s book. We’d been talking about doing something together because I really loved her second feature film, Farewell to Europe, about the last period of Stefan Zweig’s life in Brazil. From the outside, it might not be clear, but one project often grows out of another. Collaborations grow into new collaborations, it’s very natural. I don't want to be a director, I am happy to be a writer-producer. And I think a lot of actors make really good directors. Maria's such a multi-talented person.

Deborah Feldman, whose autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots was the inspiration for Unorthodox, and director Maria Schrader.
Deborah Feldman, whose autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots was the inspiration for Unorthodox, and director Maria Schrader.Benjamin Pritzkuleit

You previously worked as a photojournalist. How did you make the shift to writing and screenwriting?

I used to travel all the time as a photographer. Then that was really difficult when my kids were little, so I started writing. That was something I could do here and there while they were sleeping, and I published a novel (This Must Be the Place, Riverhead/Penguin) in 2008. When I had the idea for Deutschland, my husband [producer Jörg Winger] said, write the pilot and if I like it, I'll produce it. And that’s what happened. You make the road by walking! But once I found screenwriting, it really made a lot of sense to me because it's storytelling in episodes, a lot like writing a novel, but it's visual first. It felt like I was using my whole toolbox, from everything I'd ever done before.

Are you a binge viewer?

I don't have time to do so, but I love to binge. The Crown or Industry or I Hate Suzie. I really liked Small Axe, Steve McQueen's series of films on Amazon too. We watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve been working on a project to do with African history and politics, so have been watching many films related to that.

Anna (second right) with husband Jörg Winger (l.) and Unorthodox director Maria Schrader (second l.) and Jonas Nay (r.), stars of the Deutschland series.
Anna (second right) with husband Jörg Winger (l.) and Unorthodox director Maria Schrader (second l.) and Jonas Nay (r.), stars of the Deutschland series.Imago/POP-EYE

How do you find lockdown in terms of being able to do your work?

For me, it kind of fell at a moment when I had the time to develop anyway. So I've got a lot of writing done, and my close collaborators and I have just got used to working on Zoom. But I can't wait until we can meet again in person. I can’t wait to go to parties and dinners with friends again. I was joking to my husband that at this point, I'd go to the opening of an envelope! Even going to a bad party and just sitting there with a friend complaining about how bad it is! But of course, I'm lucky I can work at home.

What’s your outlook for the creative industry getting back on its feet after corona?

I think Berlin will bounce back much faster than other places because it hasn't been as impacted. I think for London and New York, it's going to be really difficult, because people have really rethought the density of living and working in such a place. In terms of television, I think the industry feels an imperative to make it work, because people are watching so much of it, and it's incredible how much my colleagues have accomplished during this time despite the limitations, how people have come together.

I guess we're looking at a different kind of life after this – I wouldn’t do the kind of business travel I used to do again, like going to London for the day. Writers’ rooms and working with actors are things where it makes a very important difference to be in person. But having a meeting that's an hour and travelling so far for it is excessive and bad for the environment, we shouldn't have done it in the first place.

What are you looking forward to in life after corona?

I could list the things I miss most. Other than my parents, who I haven't seen in more than a year, it would definitely be the theatre, museums and galleries. I get a lot of input from seeing and listening and touching other people’s art. That, and late night conversations.

The interview was conducted by Elizabeth Rushton.

Unorthodox is streaming on Netflix; all three parts of the Deutschland trilogy are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.