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The writer behind Cold War spy series Deutschland '83 on why it's important never to forget your history

Anna Winger spoke to TheJournal.ie ahead of her appearance at the Dalkey Book Festival.

“IN OUR SHOW we’re definitely tracking the end of something,” says Anna Winger, co-creator, writer and showrunner the acclaimed Cold War-themed series Deutschland ’83 which first aired on German TV four years ago and has since become a global hit. 

The Berlin-based American will be attending the Dalkey Book Festival next week, taking part a number of panel discussions, including the ominously-titled ‘How To Lose A Country: a few short steps from Democracy to Dictatorship’.

That theme, the writer said in a phone interview with TheJournal.ie, reflects her concern that people are “losing track of the past”.

I think there’s a Mark Twain quote that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes… And we think about that a lot when we’re writing ‘Deutschland’.

Deutschland ’83 and the sequel series Deutschland ’86 tell the story of a 24-year-old East German man who is sent as an undercover spy into West Germany during the height of the Cold War.

Despite being in the German Language, the show has won fans across the world and has landed Winger, who co-created the show with her German husband Joerg Winger, an International Emmy as well as a Peabody Award.

A third series Deutschland ’89 – set in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall – is set to air in 2021.

Outsider

The series was Winger’s first outing as a screenwriter. She had published a novel previously, and also worked as a professional photographer, while also penning personal essays for the likes of the New York Times.

Born and raised in the United States, she spent some of her developing years in Mexico and Kenya due to her parents work in anthropology.

Citing her parents’ work as an influence, she describes herself as “an observer of culture”, adding, “I’m also used to being an outsider”.

This helped when she moved to Germany in 2002 and had to both learn the language and navigate a new country, alongside raising two children.

Anna Winger Though born in the US, Anna Winger also spent some of her early years in Mexico and Kenya due to her parents' work as anthropologists. Source: Anna Winger

She used that experience of finding her feet in a new country as the inspiration an NPR radio series called Berlin Stories, and says the idea for Deutschland ’83 grew out of conversations she and her husband, a television producer, had about Germany in the days of the Cold War.

“The great luxury about writing about the 80s is that everybody is still alive, so when you have questions, you can always find someone who experienced it.

So in that sense it’s living history… there is a lot of people to ask. I found it very inspiring to talk to people, to interview real people about their experiences and what they remember, and so to me, it was an extraction of where I was already living.

History as metaphor

Winger says whenever you are writing about the past, you are also writing about the present.

“There is a way in which history is only interesting in as much as it serves as metaphor for what we are living through now,” she says.

She says her show is about examining the end of late-stage communism. The argument could be made, she insists, that we are currently living through late-stage capitalism and that many of turmoils the world is currently experiencing is the result of that system coming to a potential close.

It’s interesting to look at how communism provided a balance to capitalism and without communism, capitalism is just everything and I think we’re struggling with that globally.

She says that many people are feeling like they have not benefited from the success of ‘hyper-capitalistic’ times, that they are a people left behind.

“And they turn to something that they have, which is cultural or ethnic… I think it’s definitely all over the world,” she says.

She says the rise in right-wing sentiment is an outcome of this frustration and that people seem to be forgetting that past extreme political movements led to difficult and dark times.

“For example in the United States,” she says, “we forgot that we fought the greatest war and that we fought against Hitler and against right-wing ideology.

I do think that memories are short and it’s easy to forget because we are caught up in such a quick news cycle that people are really focused on at the present.

Noting that she and her husband are dedicated news junkies, events in the present can also impact her writing.

“We started writing [Deutschland] ’86 the day after the Trump election, and so in a way processing everything from Brexit to Trump and certainly the political shifts in Europe… All of that feeds its way into writing about something like the Cold War.”

She adds: “The world appeared to be more black and white during the Cold War,” she says. “But at close inspection things were pretty murky then too and often quite uncertain. Many shades of grey.”

It is these different shades of grew that Winger is attracted to in her writing – the many different and sometimes opposing elements that make up one individual’s experience.

Her next project will tell the story of a young woman who leaves an arranged marriage in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn and comes to Berlin.

Called ‘Unorthodox’ it is being made with Netflix and is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Deborah Feldman. The show will feature dialogue in both Yiddish and English. 

Her experience serves as a metaphor for the search for community and the desire for home… it’s not a criticism necessarily of that community, it’s more the tracking of one person’s kind of quest for self.

This examination of culture and how individuals work within it is the kind of work her anthropologists parents would, no-doubt, have been proud of. 

Working on Deutschland, Winger interviewed former diplomats, politicians and spies who worked on both sides of the Wall during the Cold War – but also normal people who lived through the political turmoil of the era. 

She said many specific anecdotes and details made their way into both Deustchland ’83 and ’86 in some form. 

“Nothing inspires me like first person interviews,” she says.

Does she find it strange that, in a way, she ended up covering similar ground to her parents in her role as a writer?

“It’s weird, isn’t it? I mean it’s not by design, but I think about that too,” she says. “You think you are so rebellious when you are young, and then you find out that you are back where you started from.”

Anna Winger will be speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival, which runs 13-16 June. Tickets and information on all events are available at: dalkeybookfestival.org.

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