Exploring “Unorthodox” With Writer-Producer Anna Winger

by Helen Hoehne April 29, 2020
Writer-producer Anna Winger

joerg winger

Unorthodox, the four-part Netflix miniseries about a 19-year-old bride’s escape from her Hasidic community in Williamsburg, New York, has been gripping audiences across the globe. Loosely based on the best-selling 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman, it is a tale of new beginnings and finding one’s place in the world. We spoke with the Berlin-based writer-producer Anna Winger about creating the series and why a second season seems unlikely.

What impact has the Coronavirus pandemic had on your life?

I am lucky to be a writer, so in that sense, it hasn’t impacted my work. However, it was definitely unusual to launch a show like Unorthodox from home, because normally we would have been traveling to promote it. But the Netflix experience has been pretty cool nevertheless because it went all over the world at the same time. And even though all of our events and screenings were canceled, we were lucky that people found it anyway.

What has been the best part of having such a successful show on Netflix?

The global conversation it has engendered is really moving for us because it demonstrates that this show has transcended religious, cultural, and gender borders. We got great feedback from Latin America for example, and also from the Arab world. We didn’t expect that the show would resonate there.

Why do you think it did so?

As a writer, I am really drawn to very specific stories. I think finding the universal or something really specific is the way stories travel. In this case, it was a deep dive into Hasidism that people didn't know anything about. I guess I have this belief that the more specific you are, the more involved you become.

When did you come across Deborah Feldman’s memoir, and how similar is the series to her life?

It's very different from the book simply because her book is a memoir, and a TV show is really a different animal. A memoir is very internal and a TV series shows what is going on from the outside. I already knew Deborah before this because our kids go to school together in Berlin. When I read her book, she actually suggested that I make a TV show of it.

Did you guys collaborate on it?

No, I was only willing to do it if she gave me full creative freedom. I loved the book, but I felt in order to activate it on screen it had to be something different. Also, I'm not used to working from existing material. I am used to working from research. I'm a big reader and news junkie. Adaptation is a different thing.

Why did you pick Maria Schrader as a director?

I loved her movie Vor der Morgenröte (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe) which was her second feature film. It’s about the last portion of the life of Stefan Zweig, the Jewish novelist from Vienna. It takes place in the '40s in Brazil and I really loved the look and feel of that movie. It's a beautiful arthouse film, so I hired the director, cinematographer, and production designer to work on Unorthodox.

How did you research the Hasidic Jewish customs?

We hired somebody who had left the community when he was in his mid-30s. He's a wonderful guy, called Eli Rosen - he's a specialist in Yiddish, and plays the rabbi on the show. He translated the script, coached the actors, and also acted as a cultural coach on the set, helping us with a lot of details. We also talked with rabbis in Berlin, and we made two big research trips to Williamsburg where we met with people in the community. We had active conversations about the details both beforehand and while we were on set. About 10 people involved as actors in the show were from the community. So we had a lot of discussions about everything from, like, the socks to the hats.

Do you write primarily in English?

Always in English. I'm American but I work very closely with whoever is translating my work. In the case of my first show, Deutschland 83, my husband, who created the show with me, did the translation. He understands the way I write really well and we worked closely together. With Unorthodox, I was in constant dialogue with Eli. He was more than a translator. He had such a strong sense of the nuance because things are different in different parts of New York.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on two projects. They’re both multi-lingual again because I really like the organic aspect of people speaking the languages they would speak to one another. I have one historical project that is set in Marseille: it's primarily in English but there's also a lot of French and German in it. It takes place in the refugee crisis in Marseille in 1940. My other project has to do with Africa but it also takes place in Europe. Again, it is primarily in English, but of course, it has many African languages making appearances in it. I was planning to spend a lot of time in Africa, doing research. Obviously I can't travel now so I'm spending a lot of time Zooming with people doing research. As a writer, I get a lot out of first-person conversations. I just love talking to people about what they remember and how things feel to them.

Why did you move to Berlin?

I had zero intention of moving to Berlin - I knew nothing about it.  But then I met my husband, who is German, while traveling in Chile. So I moved to Berlin for love. But I always say that I'm so lucky that Berlin happened to me because I love it here and I feel very much at home here. I think that coming face to face with the history of the city has been a real journey for me. When you grow up Jewish in America, it’s unimaginable to think that you would live in Germany, but I think that the opportunity to be part of rebuilding this city has been incredible. To arrive at a place that was in transition - as it was when I got here in 2002 shortly after the reunification - inspired me. I felt that it was a place that really welcomed me as a foreigner. For me as an artist, it has been an incredibly inspiring, interesting place to end up.

Are you guys working on Deutschland 89?

It’s finished. Our third season comes out in September. We started shooting the third season 10 days after we wrapped Unorthodox and we just finished postproduction upstairs in our house last week. So, we've been doing quarantine posts, which was amazing.

What can we expect from it?

The Berlin Wall comes down, obviously. It’s a season about reinvention and about rebirth. It’s for all of us who are inside right now thinking about how we're going to reinvent the world when we get out. It’s been really interesting to work on the postproduction here at home because it's definitely a season about reinventing the world when things change unexpectedly.

Can you imagine a second season of Unorthodox?

I think we just didn't build it like that. I always knew for example that Deutschland would be a trilogy - we imagined it that way right from Day One. With Unorthodox, we told the story we set out to tell in a really full and condensed way. I think that's actually part of why people respond to it so much. It’s longer than a movie but it's not too long. And we deliberately wanted to make each episode really intense. So we did not imagine a second season. I don't mean to be a party pooper, but I think that sometimes it's nice to leave people feeling like they wish there were more: that way, they can use their imagination to imagine what happens next.