When Anna Winger moved from New York to Berlin in 2002, the city immediately reminded her of NYC during the 1980s. It felt dark and grimy, like a “place that was still figuring out how to move forward”. Winger was in her early thirties, knew zero German when she joined her husband Jörg in Germany (he was working on a TV series in Leipzig). A photographer at the time, she quickly befriended fellow expat creatives and, like many of them, sat herself in a Charlottenburg Kiez café and toyed with fiction-writing. Like few of them though, she actually hammered out her first novel, This Must Be the Place (published by Riverhead Books in 2008), which got encouraging reviews – from the NYT no less.
Winger took advantage of every opportunity that came her way. She even partook in the earliest days of podcasting when NPR Worldwide approached her to run a radio program called Berlin Stories (2009-2013), a nod to Isherwood. But scriptwriting turned out to be her real breakthrough. In 2013, together with Jörg, she wrote and co-created Deutschland 83, the first German-language TV series to air in the US (the show was actually translated from Winger’s original English script). Meanwhile earlier this year, Winger received an Emmy nomination for the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox.
“When you’re successful in America, it’s the primary thing about you. Here, no one gives a shit.”
When asked about her accomplishments, Winger shrugs. “When you’re successful in America, it’s the primary thing about you. Here, no one gives a shit,” she laughs. She delights in the fact that at the school her two daughters attend, no parent has ever commented on seeing her face in the paper or watching one of her series. “It’s irrelevant!” Nevertheless, Winger did do some networking among parents. It was through the school that she met Deborah Feldman, the young Jewish woman whose autobiography Unorthodox is based on. “I had been interested in making something that speak to the German-Jewish experience. She was the one who suggested that I make a TV show out of her book.”
Herself Jewish, Winger was interested in exploring a unique moment of doubling back on history, in which the Jewish diaspora is returning to Germany The plot follows 19-year-old Esty Shapiro, who flees her ultra-Orthodox Satmar Jewish community in Williamsburg and tries to come to terms with her new secular life in Berlin. The miniseries, Netflix’s first Yiddish production, was released during the early months of lockdown, and was a hit both here and abroad.
“When you’re writing about the past, you’re always really writing about the present,” Winger explains. She started writing Deutschland 86, the second part of the trilogy, shortly after the election of Trump in November 2016. “Even though we were writing about the patriarchs involved in running the GDR as they clamped down on power and tried to maintain it, we were also experiencing the American white patriarchy holding on for dear life.” The final part of the series, Deutschland 89, appeared on Amazon Prime in September.
These days, Winger spends her week at her office in Kreuzberg, busily Zoom- ing colleagues about an array of upcoming projects (in 2016 she set up her own production company, Studio Airlift). Her next book adaptation, The Flight Portfolio, will take viewers to Marseilles during the 1940 refugee crisis. At 50, and a long way from typing away in a Kiez café, Winger seems to be on the path to becoming one of the world’s most sought-after series scriptwriters.