SundanceTV’s ‘Deutschland 83’ Breaks Cultural Barriers With Cold War Chiller

The premiere of German-language period drama “Deutschland 83” on SundanceTV tonight marks the start of a TV experiment on both sides of the Atlantic.

SundanceTV continues its tradition of challenging American viewers to warm up to subtitles for regular drama series. German viewers will also be presented with a mostly unfamiliar brand of storytelling when the series premieres there on broadcaster RTL in the fall.

Deutschland 83” is a taut spy thriller set in a divided Germany in 1983, during a peak period for Cold War tensions between East and West. Actor Jonas Nay plays Martin, a wide-eyed 24-year-old East German soldier plucked from obscurity to go undercover as a West German soldier. The drama mixes coming-of-age material for the protagonist — who finds to his surprise that he’s pretty resourceful when it comes to snooping — and intrigue from the tense political climate that Germans on both side of the wall faced in the 1980s.

“Deutschland 83” is produced by Germany’s UFA Fiction for RTL Television and SundanceTV. FremantleMedia International, part of RTL Group, is handling international distributon.

“This is going to be a new kind of show for German viewers,” said UFA chief exec Wolf Bauer. “It’s a more sophisticated type of drama than we usually see on our broadcast networks.”

“Deutschland” is a U.S.-German co-production in more ways than one. The series was created by American journalist and author Anna Winger and her German husband, Joerg Winger, who live in Berlin. Joerg Winger is the showrunner of the long-running German crime drama “Soko Leipzig.”

The two had the idea to create a series that would zero in on a period of the Cold War that has rarely been portrayed in film or TV — the divide between Germans in the years leading up to the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The characters on both sides also have plenty of nuances to depict a world in which once hard-drawn battle lines are starting to ease. Martin’s experiences after he’s injected into the affluent world of West Germany reflects the slow fade of communist vs. capitalist idealism that chipped away at the wall.

“We didn’t want anyone in the show to be totally evil or good,” Joerg Winger said. “These are people who believe that if they succeed (politically), the world will be a better place.”

The Wingers realized “Deutschland” could also present a new perspective on the Cold War to American viewers — namely, living with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation in a country that was much closer to the Soviet Union than New York or Los Angeles are. The couple was pleasantly surprised when the show found a home in the U.S. on SundanceTV, which previously broached the language barrier in 2013 with French supernatural drama “Les Revenants,” which aired with subtitles.

“Deutschland” will draw inevitable comparisons to FX’s “The Americans” for its style and setting. Joerg and Anna Winger said they have made a point of not watching “Americans.” They’d been working on the idea for “Deutschland” for a few years. Once it was finally pitched, the idea sold in the room to RTL execs, who were intrigued by the prospect of the series reflecting German and American perspectives.

There are comedic moments and black humor woven in to the eight episodes that reflect the American sensibility of Anna Winter, whose credits include the 2008 novel “This Must Be the Place.” Joerg Winger said he hopes the series will run three seasons, with season two jumping ahead to 1986 and season three tackling 1989, the year that set off monumental changes for Eastern Europe.

Actor Nay underscored how much has changed in Germany since the period depicted in the series. He was born one year after the wall came down, and he’s grown up on American TV imports.

“I watch American series all the time,” he said, citing “New Girl” and “Homeland” as among his favorites. “They have a different spirit and timing. I like that this show has allowed us to do stuff I never imagined we could do.”

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