Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots hit the best-seller list in 2012. People world the around tried to fathom what life must be like in an isolated, complex, ultra-religious Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. German anti-Semitic politics during WWII prompted the Satmar Hasidic community to relocate to New York from Hungary. With its exceedingly extreme restrictions and rejection of all modern culture, Feldman describes her repressive life within this ultra-Orthodox community as she makes a daring escape from an arranged marriage – with a little bit of help and lots of luck. The book is a perfect source for a film script, but Anne Winger takes it a step further and in a new direction by developing the main character and placing her in Berlin in present day
Winger is an inspiration for women like us. She had a photography career, gave it up for family, and then made an amazing comeback in a completely different career choice: as a show runner and writer. Her producer husband egged her on to write her first script – which was a success – and she has never looked back. Several scripts later, in 2017, she had an idea to make a mini-series out of UNORTHODOX – an irresistible challenge. Special about UNORTHODOX is that it is the first Yiddish German-American mini-series ever made for Netflix. Predominately filmed in Berlin, it is interesting to note that despite Winger’s German-Jewish background, she does not speak Yiddish. She searched for actors and teachers proficient in the language to help with word choices and pronunciations, to convey the correct meanings. This gave the project a sense of creative freedom, yet was a bit of risk-taking: Winger needed to create a story that would work universally but also have its own unique point of view.
UNORTHDOX was perfectly timed: it aired this past March right at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, with everyone stuck at home. Viewers turned on their televisions and lost themselves in other realities – and the series became a worldwide phenomenon. Success was a total surprise, becoming so popular that it even ranked number 10 in Saudi Arabia, crossing both borders of religion and culture. Surpassing all expectations, UNORTHDOX won nominations for the TV Emmy Awards in eight categories, with Maria Schrader receiving an Emmy for best director. It came totally unexpected, because they were up against WATCHMAN with a budget 10 times the size. The team was extremely grateful to Netflix for giving them the space, finding Netflix to be a platform open to new ideas and not bound by time constraints.
What I personally enjoyed in this discussion was the moment when, on screen, her phone rang – and it was one of her daughters. She laughed and said she needed to talk to her for a moment, reminding all of us who have children, that despite our careers we are there for our children, especially during this pandemic. Another funny moment was when she was asked why, if she lives in Berlin, she was speaking in English and not German. Answering in German, she said she said feels more comfortable with English and doesn’t want to make mistakes. She also described the difference between filming in Berlin versus New York, and that filming in Germany was much more cost effective because you receive much more support. New York was a total nightmare and the hot, humid climate made it unbearable. She plans to create a “show runner” program which is a relatively new position due to the TV series. She plans to teach how to choose this career path while at the same time get training on the job, which is how it works in the States. She said that American storytelling is more advanced and very creative. In Germany things are still compartmentalized, which is excellent for production but not for scriptwriting. Berlin has given her a mental space in which to work, as well as given her the advantages of working with international teams.