Set in the aftermath of the First World War, The Master Butchers Singing Club follows German butcher Fidelis Waldvogel as he starts a new life with his wife and child in Argus, North Dakota, where he sets up shop and founds a singing club that becomes the epicentre of the local émigré community.
In this DQTV interview, star Jonas Nay (Deutschland 83/86) and producer Sarah Kirkegaard talk about how the miniseries has been adapted from Louise Erdrich’s novel and why it speaks to one of the most important issues in modern society.
Nay also discusses the casting process and how he tackled Fidelis’s Southern German dialect.
The Master Butchers Singing Club is produced by Moovie, Constantin Television, SWR and ARD Degeto for Das Erste, and distributed by Global Screen.
German actor Jonas Nay and director Uli Edel sing the praises of their collaboration on The Master Butchers Singing Club, which tells the story of a family who move from Germany to the US in the wake of the First World War.
“I don’t know how it is that I’m always doing period dramas,” Jonas Nay jokes. “It’s not a career plan!”
Whether by accident or design, it’s a path that’s working pretty well so far for the German actor, who has appeared in Tannbach (Line of Separation), set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and then became the breakout star of Cold War-era drama Deutschland 83 and its recent sequel, Deutschland 86.
“It’s such a gift to play a new role and get an emotional connection to a time I don’t know,” Nay says. “I was really bad in history lessons, not because I wasn’t interested but because I couldn’t really ‘feel’ another time. I was kind of lost. In period dramas, you have a chance to get a feel for the character and the time as well. As an actor, I like that very much. It’s like time travelling.”
For his next role, Nay has travelled back further in time than ever before. He stars in The Master Butcher Singing Club, a four-part miniseries based on the novel by US author Louise Erdrich and adapted by Doris Dörrie and Ruth Stadler.
The story begins in Germany in 1920. After his return from the First World War, young master butcher Fidelis (Nay) marries Eva (Leonie Benesch), the pregnant fiancée of his fallen friend. But since his family’s butchery can’t provide for all of them, Fidelis soon decides to emigrate to America.
In Argus, a small town in North Dakota, he builds up his own business and a home for his new family. And while Fidelis starts a German singing club to fight his homesickness, Eva finds a piece of home in Delphine, a young circus acrobat who is stranded at a nearby farm with her father Robert, a clown and alcoholic. But when Eva falls sick, the future of the entire family is at stake.
Nay describes Fidelis as a man who is never happy to settle and is always striving for more – an attitude that leads him to move his family halfway around the world after returning from war and finding there wasn’t a place for him.
Its then in North Dakota that the drama’s themes of identity and home are established, as Fidelis brings together a disparate group of characters all longing to build a bridge between their new home and their old one.
“It’s a family tradition he comes from and when he goes to the US, he finds a lot of people who left their home also have this desire to have this tradition again,” the actor says. “It’s not a choir, more like guys getting together and singing and celebrating that they have a new home somewhere. It sounds romantic; it is in a way, but it’s not cheesy. It’s not about the music and more about doing something that gives them the feeling of home.”
With these themes, Nay believes viewers around the world will relate to the show. “It’s about building a new life, going somewhere you don’t even speak the language and having to start again,” he continues. “That’s a big topic we’re dealing with right now because of the refugee crisis and globalisation, with people starting lives somewhere else.”
He also points to the German notion of Heimat, which means home or homeland but more specifically relates to a person’s relationship with a place. There is no English equivalent. “The place I was born and the place I live are two different concepts, and I think the emotional gap between those two ideas is what we’re dealing with. It’s about asking can you start again or are you bound to where you come from. That’s what we’re dealing with and it’s something a lot of people can empathise with.”
Still living in his home town of Lubeck, in the north of Germany, Nay used a dialect coach to help him adopt Fidelis’s accent, with the character hailing from the Black Forest region in the south-west. But he didn’t need any help when it came to the singing scenes, as Nay is an accomplished singer and musician who also composes scores for film and television.
Some songs were initially recorded in a studio so they could be played back to the cast while they filmed the scenes, but director Uli Edel eventually took the decision to allow the cast to sing ‘live.’
“I liked the challenge because it’s more charming if we really sing,” Nay says. “I like the spirit of the whole thing; it’s rough and very authentic. I really loved it.”
Edel says he wasn’t looking to hire singers but rather cast the best actors possible. So when Nay revealed during his audition that he was in a band, it was a welcome moment of serendipity.
“Jonas was the perfect lead,” the director says. “Not only is he a great actor, he also turned out to have a great singing voice. He has his own band, so I offered him to score the entire movie. That doesn’t happen too often.”
As for the singing, Edel admits The Master Butchers Singing Club is a “much more poetic piece,” compared to the fast-paced Baader Meinhof Complex, his 2008 feature film about the early years of a West German terrorist group in the 1960s and 1970s.
“These German immigrants try to overcome their homesickness by singing old folk songs. While selecting them, I rediscovered these beautiful German country songs for myself,” he says. “They often deal with the loss of the beloved homeland and family. Some of these songs had lost their innocence during the Third Reich when they were associated with political implications of the Nazi ideology. But I tried to use them as they originally were intended and didn’t shy away from their sometimes obvious sentimentality. First and foremost, I wanted to tell a story dealing with emotions.”
The Master Butchers Singing Club is produced by Moovie in coproduction with ARD Degeto and SWR. Global Screen is the international distributor. Having grown up in the Black Forest region, Edel says he felt very close to the show’s main character and its premise, having also left Germany for the US 28 years ago. “I could relate to these characters John Steinbeck called ‘the salt of the earth,’ and their sentiments, on many levels, and I tried to give them the respect they deserve,” he says.
The director had hoped to shoot the Dakota sections of the series in Canada, but budget restrictions forced the production team to scour Europe for an alternative to the US state’s panoramic landscapes. The decision was then made to build the set on location in Croatia, where the environment was comparable to the US Midwest.
“Twice, nasty storms nearly destroyed our set,” Edel recalls. “One morning we found our Main Street had turned into a river. Big bulldozers had to dig dams to redirect the water so it wouldn’t level our town. Fortunately, we still were able to finish the movie on time, even a day earlier.”
Nay describes Edel as a “visionary” who has a clear idea of the way he wants to capture individual scenes and how they make up the drama as a whole. “It’s really rare that a director has one whole series in his mind,” the actor says. “He always stuck to it. He worked on it until he got there. Now I’ve seen it, he’s a genius. It works in every moment.
“To work with Uli was really intense and very inspiring. It’s so nice to work with somebody who knows what they want to do. It was a great experience for me as a young actor. I’ve worked with a lot of debut directors and that’s always a really big challenge as well. It’s a very different spirit from working with Uli. He must have eaten the script! It’s been so him.”
The Master Butchers Singing Club is set to debut in June at the Munich Film Festival. Meanwhile, Nay is now back in the music studio before production begins on Deutschland 89, the third and final part of the Cold War trilogy.
Three years after German breakout drama Deutschland 83 travelled around the world, Deutschland 86 continues the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch. DQ visits the set to find out why this spy thriller is more than a history lesson.
Deutschland 83, from American writer Anna Winger and her German husband Joerg, aired in 110 territories, winning an International Emmy for telling a relatively untold story through the prism of a spy thriller, with all the trappings of the era – from the music to the fashion – present and correct. It also launched Channel 4’s foreign-language streaming service Walter Presents, and became the UK’s highest-rating subtitled drama when it aired on its parent broadcaster in 2016.
Three years have passed since then, both in the real world and in that of the series. Deutschland 86 picks up the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) in the unlikely environs of an Angolan orphanage. It feels like scant reward for saving the world from nuclear disaster in 1983, but he has been banished there, far from his girlfriend and infant son, for the crime of blowing his cover. When his aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), herself tainted by his perceived blunder, arrives in West Africa to send him back into the field, he consents on the understanding that he can return home when he completes his mission.
“A lot of people are interested in Martin,” says Anna Winger. “His legend from 1983 has travelled, then people meet him and no one believes it’s him. He’s asking himself what kind of life he wants to live now that he can try to take control of his own destiny. He has to decide whether to live up to that reputation or escape it.”
“Falling in love, killing a man, being separated from his family for three years… These experiences have changed Martin a lot,” says Nay. “His motivation for the whole season is to get back home, meet his three-year-old son and start a new life.”
This is easier said than done, of course, when his assignment includes running with Libyan insurgents, terrorists in Paris and journeying to Cape Town, another divided city also caught between global superpowers. The fall of the Berlin Wall all but coincided with the collapse of Apartheid, the Wingers noted. Was there a connection?
It turned out that there was. East Germany supported Nelson Mandela and the ANC as fellow socialists, training the latter’s militant wing, the MK. West Germany, meanwhile, observed the UN boycott on trading with South Africa while trading arms with the Apartheid regime on the side. The ‘good guys’ were, it seems, on the wrong side of history.
Most peculiar of all was the prospect of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), increasingly distant from Moscow and running out of money, propping up an ailing regime by engaging in criminal capitalism. This need for hard currency, and a growing sense of panic, brought them into the world of illicit arms dealing, running drug trials for Western Big Pharma, even selling dissidents to and borrowing huge sums from West Germany.
“The theme of the season is that it all comes down to money,” says Anna. “The wall came down because they ran out of cash and Apartheid failed for the same reason. 1986 was getting darker in the GDR – the iceberg is on the horizon. There was an exhaustion setting in about the Cold War. People were done, they didn’t want it any more, and the same was true of Apartheid.”
D86 also tracks the green movement, given a huge if unfortunate boost by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the growing AIDS crisis, while the so-called Summer of Anxiety, when terrorist attacks blighted Europe, unavoidably invokes present-day concerns over terrorism, albeit religiously rather than politically motivated these days.
Lest that all sounds a little heavy, the Wingers are keen to reiterate that D86 is above all a spy yarn. “Like D83, we built a timeline of events, created a backdrop of real history then set our characters free across it,” says Anna. “It’s an adventure, a spy story and coming-of-age story rather than a history lesson.”
Which makes it a little ironic that DQ is sitting in a room that feels a little like a lecture theatre. We’re in the former Stasi HQ in Berlin – now the Stasi Museum, a grey memorial to an unloved regime but doubling as GDR offices for the series. It’s the final week of a 100-day shoot split between Cape Town and Berlin, and the cast are demob happy in defiance of the oppressively brown surroundings, yet conscious of the legacy contained in the walls of the building.
“The power of this building…” muses Schrader. “You can recreate something on a soundstage but I think people felt the authenticity and attention to detail in the first season. I’m from the West, and this is a loaded place. Knowing what some of my colleagues went through, it was very different for them, but when I entered the building it took a lot of energy.”
Cape Town, meanwhile, proved the perfect location, with its abundance of mid-80s architecture and a surfeit of spectacular scenery allowing it to double for other settings including Johannesburg and Tripoli.
“There’s a huge variety of landscapes and possibilities here,” says Joerg, “although to our chagrin it’s become much more expensive because of all these productions, which is great for the local economy but annoying for us!”
Filming in South Africa was an eye-opening experience for some of the cast, who discovered alarming evidence of Apartheid’s baleful legacy. “People would call it economic problems,” says Schrader, grimacing. “But the economic war is a racist war in South Africa. It’s normal in a restaurant that all the guests are white and the staff are black.”
The new locations also created openings for new characters, many of them women, most notably Rose Seithathi (Florence Kasumba) and Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson). It all makes for a breath of fresh air after D83’s predominance of middle-aged white men in cheap suits.
“Brigitte is a symbol for all the Western 80s decadence you can imagine,” says Wilson, a German resident despite the name. “She’s the wife of a German diplomat in Cape Town and her official job is a dentist, then one day Martin shows up at her clinic… She has another job, of course – she’s an undercover agent for West Germany, a player with lots of attitude and a really good liar, which I am definitely not. She’s full of surprises.”
“Rose grew up with a mother working in a German Jewish household,” Kasumaba, who played an ally of King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther, explains. “She’s a secret agent for the MK who has had to leave her family and country in the past because of her total commitment to the cause. Somewhere along there, she met Lenora and they became a team: they fight together, and Rose needs Lenora’s contacts.”
Nay is thrilled to be back in a series that paved the way for Sky Atlantic’s Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s Dark and the rebooted Das Boot in a genuine renaissance for German television.
“Everybody’s excited,” he grins. “We’re telling the stories we want to tell. We’re late starters in Germany in getting series sold abroad, but we have high-end drama coming now. We were good at art-house cinema, sometimes a miniseries or TV film, but now doors are opening for serials.”
Back in 2015, the Wingers spoke of their concern that D83 would prove an unorthodox fit for RTL, the German broadcaster and coproducer better known for procedurals and gameshows. Domestic viewing figures were indeed disappointing, and so an amicable parting of the ways became almost inevitable. “We were given freedom to make the show we wanted to make, but it wasn’t the right show for them or their audience. There’s no animosity there,” Anna says.
RTL parent company Fremantle and coproducer UFA Fiction took the show to Amazon Prime, which, attracted by the drama’s international performance and binge-worthy qualities, provided a budget boost to reflect the story’s global remit and extended length, running as it does at 10 rather than eight episodes. Amazon has also committed to a third season, making the Wingers’ dream of completing the trilogy in 1989 a reality.
D86 launches in the UK tonight on More4, with the whole season available on Walter Presents after transmission of the first episode.
“Viewers now don’t care so much about where a series is from,” says Joerg, considering the show’s international success. “They want to be surprised; they’re looking for original material. We’re telling our story in a familiar way for international audiences. The whole grammar and dramaturgy of the show is in line with that. We didn’t strategically plan an international hit. Our goal from the very beginning was to make a show we would love, and if you’re really interested in something, that enthusiasm communicates somehow.”
Said enthusiasm is expressed most effectively, once again, through the diligent, affectionate recreation of the era. “Our make-up artists always said we tell the main story with the characters and we tell the 80s with the extras, who get the big hair and crazy stuff,” laughs Wilson.
Alongside the story, D83 stood out most for its use of music. This year there will be songs from everyone from metal legends Megadeth to synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys and, perhaps inevitably for a show set in part in Apartheid South Africa, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Nay confides, laughing, that he has once again been lobbying for the inclusion his favourite band, The Police, whose final studio album was released back in 1983. But while he was disappointed at this omission, his passion for the new season is undiminished.
“Having two more episodes than for D83 means more characters and more layers,” he says. “Season one was following Martin; now it’s more an ensemble thing. We had to make up a vision for the first one. Now it feels bigger, and the more I saw, the more interested I got, which I think will be the same for the viewer.”