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'Deutschland 89' Explores Life Of A Spy For Disintegrating East Germany In 1989

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Imagine waking up one morning and the country you grew up in has overnight essentially ceased to exist. Now imagine if you were a spy for that country. What would you do? That is the question posed in a TV show called "Deutschland 89." It's a reference to the year 1989 and the third series in a trilogy exploring the life of a spy for a quickly disintegrating East Germany. Its creators, Anna and Joerg Winger, join us now from Berlin, where they live. Welcome.

ANNA WINGER: Thank you.

JOERG WINGER: Thanks for having us.

KELLY: So to give a little bit of your background, Anna, I know you were born here in the U.S., but you've lived in Germany for many years. Joerg, you were born and raised in West Germany. I want to start by asking, where were you both in 1989? And do you remember where you were when those electrifying first images were crossing of East Germans, crowds of them climbing up and then down the other side of the Berlin Wall?

A WINGER: I was in a very undramatic place. I was in New York City. I was a sophomore at Columbia. And I do remember it because everybody crowded into the kind of TV room on our hallway and watched it all night. But Joerg was in a more interesting place.

J WINGER: At the time, I was doing my mandatory military service in West Germany. I was very far west, almost near the Belgian border. But because of the big antennas we had, we were able to listen to the Russian troops in the GDR at the time. So we were sitting there with our headphones and listening to the Russians when the door opened, and one of the officers came in and said, you have to turn on the TV. You won't believe what's happening. That's a complicated way of saying that we had - even though we were basically spying on the Russian military in East Berlin, we had no idea what was happening. And the Russians didn't know. And as we now all know, nobody knew.

KELLY: I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with you, Anna, that Joerg has a way better story (laughter) than you do. That's wild. And I remember that moment, when people breached the wall, and it seems - looking back now, it seems like this inevitable development, that, you know, Germany would reunify, and all of this that's transpired over these last three decades would come to be. But at the time, in the moment, nobody had any idea where this was going to go.

A WINGER: One of the things that attracted us always to this project, which was always working up to this moment - right? - you know, it was we were looking at the end of something just a few years, you know, starting in '83, was the idea that when you hear about history, you know, it always sounds like everything is very well organized. But, in fact, things have always been a little bit more chaotic than they appear to be in retrospect.

J WINGER: To be completely honest, I was shocked when it happened because I was afraid of reunification. My generation is a very unpatriotic generation. We were raised in the shadows of the Nazi era. And so we were not looking forward to a greater Germany. We were more, like, on the same page with Francois Mitterrand, the French president, who said he loves Germany so much that he'd rather have two.

KELLY: How controversial is this history in Germany today? Is there a commonly agreed upon set of facts now, you know, three-plus decades later, about what happened and why?

A WINGER: I would say no. I think that one of the things that is still the case is that it's quite subjective because I think that people experienced it differently and they had different ideas about it. But on both sides, they thought the wall would never come down. So, I mean, that surprise was across the board. But what would be the solution and what was the next step, you know, was - people saw it really differently. And we really wanted to dig into that with this season.

KELLY: Talk to me about the character who plays a starring role in all three of these. As we mentioned, "Deutschland 89" is the third in a trilogy. It's centered around - tell me his name...

A WINGER: Martin Rauch.

KELLY: ...Who is a young East German soldier. He gets sucked into the spy world. And the show is all about him trying to figure out, you know, what is right, what is wrong, what is up, what is down, which way his moral compass should be pointing. And it seemed to me - tell me if this is right - like, his character is a stand-in for so many people in East Germany at the time trying to figure out what is right and wrong and what's the path forward here.

A WINGER: You know, I think we always approached this character as a normal person. You know, he wasn't a rebel. He wasn't somebody who is necessarily seeking adventure or choosing to join the secret police. This is something that happened to him, and he ran with it. And he was an intelligent guy, and he was good at it. But ultimately, what he really cared about was a sense of place, a sense of home, about his family, you know, really the simple things that most people care about most.

J WINGER: In '89, he's basically - we can see that mistrust is unfortunately something that's happening to a lot of spies over time. The ability to trust in people and build a relationship, lasting relationships, is very difficult for spies who very often become players on many sides. And I think he has to just trust someone without having the evidence that she's trustworthy.

KELLY: A question for you both - I'll put it to you first, Joerg, and then, Anna, I would love to hear your thoughts, too. What does a show set in Germany, in East Germany, in 1989 have to tell viewers in America watching in 2020?

J WINGER: I would say, you know, the meta theme of "Deutschland 89" is reinvention in the face of chaos and huge changes. And that might sound familiar to a lot of viewers, not just Americans. You know, what's interesting is that Germany is known as such a stable and orderly place, but when you look at the last hundred years of German history, Germany has reinvented itself four times. It went from a monarchy to a failed democracy to a fascist dictatorship, a communist dictatorship, and then a successful democracy. So I don't know how many countries there are in the world who have changed their entire political system so many times over 100 years.

A WINGER: I think for me as an American, this history is really inspiring. I mean, it is - there is a resilience and a kind of - ambition would be the wrong word, but a sort of look towards self-improvement and making a better future, kind of a belief in that. It is really powerful in Germany. You know, because in the United States, we've had the same political system for now a long time and we - you know, we sort of chip away at it but we don't reconsider it, it's very destabilizing to imagine anything changing. And I think the kind of chaos that we've experienced in these times can be very worrisome. And - which it is, but I suppose if there's a message, it's also that there might be an opportunity in the future to make a better - make a better place.

KELLY: That is Anna and Joerg Winger speaking to us from Berlin. Thanks so much to you both.

A WINGER: Thanks for having us.

J WINGER: Thank you.

KELLY: Their new miniseries, "Deutschland 89," premieres on SundanceTV tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.