BERLIN — When the spy series “Deutschland 83” had its premiere in 2015, it was portrayed as a breakthrough moment for German television. At that point, the country had yet to produce any prestige shows with an international following, unlike France and Denmark. The series, which followed a young East German soldier corralled into working as an undercover agent on the other side of the Iron Curtain, was the first German show to air on an American network, SundanceTV. In Britain it became the most-watched foreign-language drama ever.
But, to the surprise of many — including its creators, Anna and Jörg Winger, a married couple — the show was a ratings disappointment in its home country when it aired there several months after its American premiere. Although the first episode garnered a respectable 3.2 million viewers, that number plunged in the following weeks, sparking a media discussion about why Germans were staying away from the country’s first internationally acclaimed series. Some blamed its overly sympathetic depiction of East German agents, others the advertising campaign by its German broadcaster, RTL, which they argued was unimaginative and old-fashioned. Bild, the country’s highest-selling newspaper, called it “the flop of the year.”
In making “Deutschland 86” — the second season of the show, which began airing on SundanceTV in the United States last week, and has been streaming on Amazon Prime in Germany, Austria and Switzerland since Oct. 19 — its creators had to confront the awkward reality of the first season’s geographically divergent popularity. “I would be honest and say it was quite painful,” Ms. Winger said in a recent interview in Berlin alongside her husband. “Every interview I gave for two years began with, ‘How does it feel to have made the most publicized flop in the history of German TV?’ ”
Although Ms. Winger says the first season’s reception had little impact on their creative decision-making, “Deutschland 86” introduces an international setting and a more diverse cast. Its first episode finds East German foreign intelligence operative Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader) working in South Africa with Rose Seithathi (Florence Kasumba) of the African National Congress. The spy been tasked with carrying out an illegal arms deal to help fill the coffers of the dwindling East German treasury. When the plan hits a snag, Lenora asks her nephew, Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), for help, setting in motion a series of intrigues that take him across the continent.
Ms. Winger said they had always planned to use a second season to explore the ways East Germany saw the world outside of its borders. “You don’t often hear about how the East Germans felt their role was in global politics,” Ms. Winger said. The Wingers also wanted to examine lesser-known elements of the Cold War, settling on the attempts by communist and Western powers to influence politics in Africa. “The Cold War is now romanticized as this simple, black-and-white world, but if you look a bit closer, you find it was much more complicated,” Mr. Winger said.
Germany’s lack of enthusiasm for the first season, Mr. Winger said, was surprising partly because of the country’s seemingly enormous appetite for television about its own tumultuous 20th-century history. But he pointed out that most German television takes an earnest, deferential approach to the subject matter, and some viewers might have been put off by the more freewheeling and humorous take on the Cold War in “Deutschland 83.”
“In Germany, there is a certain look that is called ‘authentic,’ ” Mr. Winger said. “I think there is a certain audience in Germany that doesn’t want its historical drama to be stylized.”
He said he also received numerous complaints about minor historical errors, like, for example, an inaccurately worn West German army uniform. “Every TV series builds its version of the past,” he said. “We were not going for historical detail, we were going for psychological realism.”
Mr. Winger noted that RTL, a TV station known in Germany for its reality programming and police procedurals, was always an awkward fit for a prestige spy drama. He said the network was willing to broadcast a second season, but only if the Wingers tweaked it to be closer to its other, more popular series. “You should have seen the notes,” Ms. Winger said. Ultimately, the show’s production company, UFA Fiction, financed a second season with Amazon Prime as the German distributor, allowing the Wingers to maintain their original vision for the show.
“I don’t think we made the show more for an international audience,” Ms. Winger said. “It’s such intense work, that when you’re making it, you’re making something that first and foremost you like.”
Although Amazon Prime does not release viewing numbers for its shows, the critical reception for the second season in Germany has been generally positive. The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper praised it as “glamorous” and wrote that the show had “freed itself from the edifying pedagogical remit that governs historical subject matter.” Der Tagesspiegel, another newspaper, described it as “diverse” and “exciting,” and praised the second season’s cast.
In the years since “Deutschland 83” premiered, a number of other German series have been exported overseas. “Babylon Berlin,” an expensive coproduction between the German public broadcaster ARD and the private Sky channel, was sold in 60 countries. Last year, Netflix premiered its first German-language show, “Dark,” and recently announced that it was producing five new German-language shows in addition to an already planned crime show, “Dogs of Berlin.”
Thomas Lückerath, the editor of DWDL, a website that covers the German television industry, said in a phone interview that “Deutschland 83’ was a “game changer.” Its international success, he argued, helped pave the way for other German shows. “For a long time, there was a one-way street, where the U.S. exported everything and everyone else imported everything, but now it goes in all directions,” he said. He added that if it weren’t for “Deutschland 83’s” overseas popularity, it’s unlikely UFA Fiction, the show’s production company, would have been able to finance a second season. Amazon recently announced that it has greenlighted a third season, “Deutschland 89.”
Ms. Winger recalled attending a recent TV showcase for Amazon Prime in London, where she was struck by the geographical diversity of the series being presented. Like Netflix, Amazon Prime has moved into producing more original foreign-language series, including “Beat,” a coming crime series set in Berlin.
“Now it’s less that there’s American shows and then a couple of things from other places, or that there are German shows and there are American shows, it’s that there are good shows and bad shows,” she said. “We always felt that way, but now I feel like everyone feels it.”
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