How to Raise the Storytelling Standard for German Jewish Film?
Alexa Karolinski is one to watch. She’s a co-creator behind the recent Netflix mini-series Unorthodox which has been getting well-deserved attention, trending next to Grey’s Anatomy. Unorthodox portrays a young woman leaving New York’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community for Berlin, inspired by a memoir of the same title by author Deborah Feldman. Alexa Karolinski may be a new name to some, but her reputation was established earlier with her first feature-length film Oma & Bella. (More on that later.)
After the March 26, 2020, international release of Netflix’s Unorthodox, the founder of TOA or Tech Open Air Berlin, Niko LeWoi, a long-time friend of Alexa, hosted an online fireside chat called “Creating an unorthodox Netflix hit” with her on April 5.
This crowd cast conversation connected Alexa in Los Angeles, California to Niko in Berlin, Germany along with about 180 people worldwide who wanted to hear the series co-creator’s perspective.
In this post, you’ll find filmmaker insights from their conversation and you’ll see the potential implications this series could have on German film productions that deal with Jewish themes.
Let’s meet Alexa 👋🏽
Alexa describes her journey as a filmmaker, growing up in Berlin, and working in various media roles like VICE and ARTE TV (a French and German channel) before realizing she wanted to make something even bigger.
Alexa considers herself to be a documentary filmmaker, but as she points out, this can feel a bit limiting as you invest a lot of time studying the characters to correctly portray them. Even though Unorthodox was rooted in an actual story, the series fictionalized so much that working on it allowed Alexa the appealing chance to invent fictional roles.
Alexa and her co-creator Anna Winger, a veteran show maker of Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86, developed a trusted friendship that preceded the Unorthodox series. Alexa describes their bond as ‘transatlantic’, where American-born Anna relocated to Berlin while German-born Alexa now lives in LA. Yet time zones and distance did not stop them from jointly exploring topics of cultural and religious Jewish identity, gender, politics, language, and nationality.
Together they befriended memoirist Deborah Feldman in Berlin via an international school connection, and the idea of bringing Unorthodox to the screen took root.
Sister Cities: LA and Berlin 🌆
Alexa reminded crowd cast listeners that Berlin and LA are technically sister cities, but obviously quite different. She acknowledged that LA can be isolating, given the urban sprawl and alone time in the car. This isolation forced her to confront herself in a new way though, to grapple with depression and to discover nature. One interesting characteristic the international cities share is the close proximity of nature.
Alexa now incorporates LA’s hiking opportunities into her daily routine–well, pre-Coronavirus days. She says that “the lake game around Berlin is crazy” recommending Grünewald lake and Leibniz lake among others. These Berlin lakes play a role in the Unorthodox series when the main character Esther (Esty) experiences a liberating and symbolic moment of swimming, shedding her orthodox wig in the water.
Uniting for a common goal ✊🏼
Alexa explained that she and Anna were interested in bringing a unique lead female character (played by Shira Haas) from the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (which is somewhat defined by their relationship to the Holocaust) into the ‘eye of the trauma’ of where it all started, i.e. Berlin.
Incidentally, when asked if the series’ version of Berlin was too ‘rosy’, Alexa maintained that was intentional: “TV is very different from books”, she said and you must “make a distinction for nuance to drive the plot forward.” In this case, Berlin had to be set as a romantic destination where any new outcome might be possible, and where people from diverse backgrounds gathered.
Leaving ends untied 🔮
If you’ve watched the 4-part series, you already know you will be left with a ton of questions at the end about what happens to the protagonist. This end into pure “transition” was again intentional. Alexa shared that many ex-Hasids she talked to (or formally religious Jews who leave the community) are still in transition. Meaning, it takes a really long time to adapt outside when you leave a very insular community.
A complex relationship to Judaism 🔯
Alexa comes from the tight-knit Jewish community in Berlin which she also calls ‘insular’ to a degree. She says in typical European fashion, even secular Jews here in Berlin go to the very traditional synagogues, and that the Reform Jewish movement has not really launched here yet. This is partly why she’s fascinated with the Satmar way of thinking: basically that Jews assimilating into European culture is what led to the circumstances of the holocaust.
It’s a heavy topic, where one of the listeners on the crowd cast suggested reading Moses Mendelssohn for more depth, if curious. Alexa discussed her own view which is that Judaism is both a religion and a culture. She herself has a strong Jewish identity but is very secular in terms of religious practice. She considers this a ‘spectrum’, where people sometimes struggle to define themselves.
On the Yiddish Language 💬
Weaving the Satmar thread into the Unorthodox series meant including plenty of Yiddish dialogue since the people of that community mostly still converse in Yiddish. (For those who aren’t familiar, Yiddish is a mix of German and Hebrew languages; it’s considered a sort of native dialect that is dwindling in usage.) This meant that actors had to either know or learn enough Yiddish to convincingly speak it for the show. Alexa shared that it was meaningful to hear people her age using this language, which was fairly understandable to her given her native abilities in German.
The power of ‘taste clustering’ 🌏
Alexa knew that on paper, her show which was predominantly in Yiddish might be ‘unsellable’, given that typically the streaming success of a show is calculated on whether it will satisfy a mainstream audience. But that’s exactly where it gets fascinating: It turns out there’s something called ‘taste clusters’ which means that minority interests exist everywhere in the world. Going live across 190 countries sparked enthusiasm globally. The Unorthodox series’ actors are now getting 1000s of messages per day, showing the impact of creating new opportunities for diversity on the screen.
A new age for German film production? 🎥
As a Netflix DE production, Unorthodox sets a new bar for German film production in regards to portraying history. The so-called “German remembrance culture” makes a lot of films that deal with the holocaust time period. However, most of those productions rely on non-Jewish actors. Alexa and Anna’s approach differed starkly– they involved Jewish actors and actresses and had a specialist and coach in Eli Rosen, who ensured the authenticity of the portrayals of the Jewish community. They wanted to put forward a “new standard for German film that deals with Jewish topics.” Mission accomplished.
Alexa specifically wanted to take ownership of this storytelling and contribute to it, much as she did with her first film, Oma and Bella. For that touching story, she explored personal family roots, featuring her grandmother (Oma) and best friend Bella who outlived their husbands, and survived the camps to move in together in Berlin and continue cooking traditional Jewish foods. It turns out Oma & Bella was amazingly a student thesis-project when finishing SVA (School of Visual Arts in NYC). This shows how much talent Alexa had waiting to offer the world.
As Alexa poignantly states: “Who you are and what you make are the same thing.”
Speaking of the importance of strong females, another notable quality to producing Unorthodox was the intentional fact that apart from Alexa and Anna, another pivotal female in the equation was director Maria Schrader of ‘Farewell to Europe’ or ‘Vor der Morgenröte’.
Maria’s tone and style were just what the co-creators were seeking to help tell this story. The collaboration is remarkable, pulling off this beautiful storytelling in about a year and a half. Apparently, they were still writing while casting, and taking turns writing the episodes and swapping back and forth between LA, Berlin and Tel Aviv.
Cancel that PR kit 📰
Alexa says that despite having a PR kit ready to go in case of any backlash, the reaction from the diverse corners of the Jewish community, and the general public, has been overwhelmingly positive. She stands behind her creative decisions and made great efforts to portray the community that Unorthodox depicted while fictionalizing a story that needs to be told about what it means to be Jewish and female and to carve a path of one’s own.
You can keep up with TOA’s On-Air Programming by signing up here. There are loads of great and inspiring talks coming up to get us through this COVID-19 situation.
Also, if you know of someone needing support in navigating a journey like the one of Esty in Unorthodox, share with them the non-profit org called Footsteps.
Many thanks to Niko and Alexa for sharing this conversation. Feel free to give this post a clap 👏🏽if it resonates with you and share it with others who might benefit from hearing about the series. Follow me Elisheva Marcus for more from Berlin!