Jonas Nay, best known as the star of “Deutschland 83” and its sequels, sees his upcoming period drama “The Master Butcher,” which follows a young German migrant to the U.S. in the 1920s, as having contemporary resonance at a time when so many people are geographically displaced.
“For me the transition into the present day was immediate. I read [the screenplay] and thought that helps me understand how you’d feel if you left your home,” he says, during a visit to Cannes for MipTV, where Global Screen is selling the show.
“It’s a timeless story because it is about this question of what is home? What does home mean when you go somewhere else? Is it possible to find a new home … to find a new family and friends somewhere else? Or are you always bound to the place where you were born?” he says.
His character, Fidelis, is a young master butcher who travels to Argus, a small town in North Dakota. He is joined later by Eva, the pregnant fiancée of his best friend, who was killed in the war. They marry and establish their butcher’s store, and make friends with Delphine, a young circus acrobat, also from Germany, who lives with her alcoholic father Robert, a circus clown. Although Fidelis’ business flourishes, he is homesick, so he forms a singing club with other German expatriates in the town.
“Fidelis is a kind of economic refugee,” Nay says, adding that the young man had found there was no place for him in his home town when he returned from World War I, and Germany was in the midst of an economic meltdown, so he is forced to cross the Atlantic to find a new life, as millions of other Europeans did.
While there have been plenty of films and TV dramas devoted to the theme of immigrants coming to Germany, the topic of Germans moving to other countries offers a different perspective on the issue of migration. “It’s not a story that has been told that often on German TV,” he says. “That topic of Germans fleeing their country and being the immigrants, that’s an important story to tell… for people to remember that it’s not always been us being the people taking people in,” he says.
At its heart though, the story is one of a young man and his wife struggling to create a good life for themselves in a new country. “I fell in love with how the story is told. You really get an idea of how it feels for them to desperately try to start a new life,” Nay says. “[Their story] is told slowly and the focus isn’t simply on the plot, but rather on the feeling that [the screenplay] creates. It is beautifully written.”
Nay warmed to Fidelis’ personality straight away. “He is the kind of guy who always makes the best of any situation. Even though life makes it so hard for him,” he says, adding that Fidelis reminded him of his grandfather.
Fidelis has been “traumatized” and “broken” by his experiences fighting in World War I, but “he is pushing that [trauma] away,” Nay says.
Fidelis comes from the Black Forest region of Germany where one of the commonest expressions roughly translates as “Doing, doing, making, making, build a house” – which reflects their desire to work hard and prosper. Fidelis has this mentality too. “It is probably why he gets so far,” Nay says.
When Nay told his grandmother about the show, she spoke to him at length about how the rest of her family had emigrated to America, while she remained in Germany, and that she had always wanted to go to visit them but had never had the chance. They would send her postcards telling her how good their lives were, living proof that the “American Dream” became a reality for many Germans.
Next, Nay has to compose the score for “The Master Butcher,” as he is also a talented musician and composer. The music will play an important role in the drama. “Because it is not so plotty, there’s a lot of space for the music. The two-parter is really brought to life by its atmosphere, and the music can do a great job to help create that,” he says. “Even though they are in a foreign country, you can get a sense of where they come from through the music.” The score, he says, will be a mixture of music that will suggest their new home in the American West, with the use of instruments like the banjo and the mouth harp, and German folk songs, to remind you of their ethnic roots.
“The Master Butcher” was directed by Uli Edel, whose credits include movies “Christiane F.,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” and miniseries “Houdini,” which earned him an Emmy nomination.
It was adapted from Louise Erdrich’s novel “The Master Butchers Singing Club” by Doris Dörrie and Ruth Stadler. It is produced by Sarah Kirkegaard for Moovie, and executive produced by Oliver Berben.
Thanks to the success of espionage thriller “Deutschland 83,” which was sold to more than 20 countries, Nay is now one of the best known young German actors in international markets. He reprised his break-out role as the show’s anti-hero in the second season, “Deutschland 86,” and he is about to enter production on the concluding part of the trilogy, “Deutschland 89.” Nay was selected as one of Variety’s 10 Europeans to Watch in 2017, and was chosen this year as one of six young German actors to be highlighted in the Face to Face With German Films program.
See Nay’s visit to MipTV in Global Screen’s video below, as he attempts to charm international buyers: