For Berlin-based American writer-producer Anna Winger, creating the Netflix series “Unorthodox” offered a unique opportunity to tell a Jewish story in Germany.
The show, which premiered March 26 on Netflix, is inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” and follows a young woman who leaves her husband and her insular ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, New York, for a new life in Berlin.
Winger, whose credits include the hit Amazon series franchise “Deutschland 83” and its two follow-ups, “Deutschland 86” and “Deutschland 89,” co-created with husband Joerg Winger, produced “Unorthodox” via her Berlin-based Studio Airlift shingle.
The series stars Israeli actress Shira Haas (“Shtisel,” “Princess”) as Esty, who leaves an unhappy arranged marriage and travels to Berlin, home to her estranged mother and where she hopes to study music. As she begins to navigate her new life, her husband, portrayed by fellow Israeli actor Amit Rahav, arrives in Berlin with his cousin, played by Israeli-German thesp Jeff Wilbusch (“Bad Banks,” “The Little Drummer Girl”), with the intention of bringing her back to Williamsburg.
In addition to New York’s Hasidic neighborhood, the series also explores Berlin’s own diverse and burgeoning Jewish community.
Winger and German co-writer Alexa Karolinski, who are both Jewish, sought to involve Jewish talent in front and behind the camera for a number of reasons.
“We made a decision that we would only cast Jewish actors in Jewish roles, in part because of the language,” Winger says. “We wanted people who either spoke Yiddish or had a familiarity with it, had a feeling for the language. If your grandparents spoke it, then you have a feeling for it.”
Haas and Rahav had to learn the very particular Yiddish dialect spoken in Williamsburg.
It was also a significant decision “given that we were producing this in Germany, where there is a long tradition of obviously Jewish material that has been produced without any Jews involved,” Winger added.
“There have been many films and TV projects that have been made here about Jewish history where nobody on either side of the camera was Jewish. With our story we felt it was really important to turn that around.
“In every respect this is a very integrated diaspora project. Jews of all stripes were involved in making this TV show.”
It was also important for the show’s makers to acknowledge Germany’s dark history as the origin of the Holocaust.
“This is a community that is a post-Holocaust revival, a community that was founded by Holocaust survivors,” Winger notes. In trying to find herself and her own personal freedom, the young woman in the story returns to the origin of the trauma. “We definitely speak to that.”
“Unorthodox” was helmed by actress-director Maria Schrader, who stars in the “Deutschland” franchise. It was Schrader’s 2016 biopic “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” – about the Austrian writer who fled to Brazil during the Nazi era – that made her the ideal director, however.
“We loved the look and feel of it,” Winger said. So much so that she not only hired Schrader but also cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler and production designer Silke Fischer. The trio had worked together closely on the film and brought a similar aesthetic to “Unorthodox.”
Winger’s upcoming projects include writer-producer Rob Williams’ Apple TV Plus show “Suspicion,” which she is exec producing. An adaptation of the Israeli series “False Flag,” the series stars Uma Thurman as a business woman whose son is kidnapped in London.