In this TOAST Insider series, we talk to creative thought leaders across the globe to gain insights into their passions and process. Fiorella Valdesolo speaks with Anna Winger, the Berlin-based writer and producer, about her latest series Transatlantic and the evolving nature of her stories on-screen.
“I’ve been here to watch Berlin flower,” says Anna Winger. The writer, screenwriter, and producer moved to the city in 2002 with her husband, German screenwriter and producer Jörg Winger, and has seen it shift dramatically since. “In 2002 it felt like everything was under construction, a lot of people had left, and the city was kind of in the doldrums economically,” says Anna. “There was a moment around 2006 or 2007 where it seemed like all the scaffolding came off the buildings, and all of a sudden new life was revealed underneath.”
Anna’s work has, since she moved to Berlin, spoken directly to her experience of living there, and what she calls the “stitching together” of the East and West that has happened over the past 30 years. As an outsider not from east or west Berlin, it’s something she has a deep sense of curiosity about. “All kinds of ghosts live in this city, and the layers of history that exist here are incredible,” says Anna, who considers herself a history buff, someone who revels in excavating things. “The interesting thing about Berlin is that you can see it; it doesn’t look perfect like Paris or London, it’s not intact. You can see the archaeology of the city in plain sight.” And, as she discovered when she was working on her first TV show Deutschland ’83 (the first in a trilogy with ’86 and ’89 to follow, about a young East German spy who’s sent on a mission to the West), you can find plenty of locals willing to share their own stories. “It’s a living history, and the people that experienced it were still around so I could ask my neighbours, my friends, my in-laws for their memories,” she says.
With Unorthodox, her 2020 series about a Hasidic Jewish woman living in Brooklyn who escapes to Berlin to leave her arranged marriage and start a new life, looks at the city through a different lens. “In Unorthodox we deliberately had Esther come back to the scene of the crime, to the place of the original trauma, in order to find herself and resolve her demons,” she says. A significant choice for Anna, who is Jewish and grappled with this history of the Second World War frequently during her first years in Berlin.
Anna’s latest show, Transatlantic, casts Berlin, yet again, but from a different angle. “It’s about Berliners who have to leave Berlin and go out in the world and try to get to America,” she says. Where the Jewish refugees of Transatlantic end up, albeit temporarily, and where the show is based (and was filmed in its entirety) is Marseille, France, a place that was a free zone, unoccupied by Nazis until late 1942. The show loosely recounts the tale of Varian Fry – an American journalist who came to Marseille in 1940 – and Mary Jayne Gold, an heiress originally from Chicago who would help thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them prominent artists and thinkers (including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Hannah Arendt). While there have been reams of material written about this specific story (Gold herself, who died in 1997, considered it the most important time in her life and made it the subject of her 1980 memoir, Crossroads Marseilles, 1940), it still remains one that is more broadly unknown. “It’s a story that’s been hiding in plain sight,” Anna adds, one that also serves as a piercing reminder of the U.S.’s hesitation about taking in refugees at the time.
It was a different refugee crisis in Berlin that first got Anna, when she was still in the midst of filming Unorthodox, thinking about the subject matter for Transatlantic. “There were a few years when maybe a million refugees moved to Germany from Syria. Volunteering in the refugee camps and integrating all these new people became a big part of Berlin life for all of us,” she says. “I thought a lot about the fact that people like us had to leave Berlin and now people were coming here seeking safe haven.”
This notion of people in flight is one that continues to rear its head in her work. “The shows are all about somebody going from one place to another,” she says. “I guess I’m always telling the story of exodus.” She’s also often telling the story of young people searching for their place in the world. “They’re running away from something but also towards something else,” she adds. “They all are about an unexpected crossroads, where they find themselves around other people that they wouldn’t otherwise ever meet, and that changes the course of their life as a result.” That Anna herself has an unusual biography without a traditional sense of home – both American and British, growing up in Kenya and Mexico – has made her particularly interested in the idea of border jumping. “I’m drawn to fish-out-of-water stories, where people from different places end up coming together, if for no other reason than because that’s what my own life has been like.”
Anna’s shows have all built off each other in a way, like branches from the same root system; not just thematically, but also creatively. Her production company Studio Airlift self-generates ideas, one project planting the seed for another. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination that happens and it’s such a collaborative medium,” Anna says. Often, she finds herself collaborating with the same talent over and over again. One star of Deutschland (Maria Schrader who plays the aunt) directed Unorthodox, while the woman with whom Anna wrote Unorthodox (Alexa Karolinski) acts in the role of Hannah Arendt in Transatlantic. That they were able to film Transatlantic in Marseille, and in many of the real historical locations like the Hotel Splendide, the port, the prison, and an internment camp just outside the city, was, says Anna (who adds that she wore TOAST dresses for almost the entirety of shooting) the ultimate celebration of what they do. “The city was really a star,” she adds.
Just as the stories Anna has told on screen feel like evolutions of each other, her own career has been, she says, different evolutions of the same impulse. She started as a photographer and, after moving to Berlin and having children, began to write; her first novel, This Must Be the Place, was published in 2008. “Photography is definitely storytelling, but the process is less meditative and much more external,” she says. “But the thing about novel writing is that it’s quite isolating and when you finish, that’s it. With screenwriting it’s telling stories with pictures and when you finish writing that’s just the beginning of something that’s deeply collaborative.” Anna considers her work as a photographer, as a novelist, as a kind of bootcamp for what she does now; she just wasn’t conscious of it at the time. She has witnessed a similar natural progression in a number of the women around her who are just as engaged in their professions. “With women there’s always a lot of evolution in the work,” she says. “Women’s lives, in particular, are not beholden to a single destination.”
Interview by Fiorella Valdesolo.
Photographs by Robert Rieger.
Anna wears our Colour Block Organic Poplin Dress.
Transatlantic, Anna's limited series, is on Netflix now.