'Deutschland 83' Creator on the Show's Music, Why "Under Pressure" Is "The Most Cold War Song Ever"

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The German spy series was awarded a Grimme Preis on April 8.

The spy series Deutschland 83 was awarded a Grimme Preis, a top TV honor in Germany, on April 8. The awards were given to creators Anna Winger and Joerg Winger, lead actor Jonas Nay, directors Edward Berger and Samira Radsi, set designer Lars Lange and composer Reinhold Heil, who were singled out for their participation in the international hit series and its contribution to the national culture of Germany.

Though the Grimme Prize does not have an official category for music, the show’s composer became the first artist to be given the Composition and Musical Arrangement award for the music he created to accompany the ‘80s hits that dominate the show's soundtrack. 

Songs by David Bowie, Bob Dylan and The Police were among the iconic tunes featured in Deutschland 83, which unlike many American TV shows that lean toward independent or up-and-coming artists, packed in over a dozen hits into its first season. 

“I picked the year 1983 because of the music,” says Deutschland 83 showrunner and creator, Anna Winger. “We knew we wanted to make this show about the ‘80s and the lead-up to the fall of the wall, and 1983 was the only year in history that people outside of Germany listened to German pop music.”

Winger, who spent the year 1983 living in Mexico, was deeply influenced by the music videos she saw then that provided her first glimpse into Germany.

“We definitely reference the color palette of [80s] music videos in the show. That was part of an inspiration for the show,” says Winger.  “[1983] was the year after MTV came out, and as a result there was a boom in pop music because suddenly there was this visual element.”

When it came to time to pick music for the episodes, “we deliberately used the hits because [they] instantly transport you to that moment, even if you were born after the fact,” Winger says. “We didn’t have a music supervisor, we just picked the songs.”

Unlike in the U.S., where music supervisors facilitate which artists and songs make the cut on an episode of television, the process works differently in Germany. “Music supervisors are mainly not for the TV market, they work primarily with commercial agencies for brands and within the film business,” says Jan Kubran, Head of Music Licensing at Sony Music Germany.

Also not like in the U.S., German filmmakers don’t have to hunt down license owners, ask for permission, and pay for rights to each individual song. Thanks to GEMA, a collecting society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights, “There’s a blanket license between GEMA and the German broadcasters, which means anybody can use any piece of music that is covered by the GEMA catalog, which is pretty much everything, since GEMA has a monopoly,” says Reinhold Heil, Deutschland 83 composer, who was right at the center of the Neue Deutsche Welle in ‘80s Germany as the keyboardist for the Nina Hagen Band and the producer of Nena’s 1983 hit single "99 Luftballons."

For each episode of a German TV show, there’s a cue sheet that mentions the authors and publishers, who will receive the respective value per minute depending on which outlet aired the show.  The pay rate is based on the network’s viewership size. The bigger the network, the bigger the payout for artists and publishers whose music is featured on its programs.

“Every TV station pays a certain budget per year to use music," says Kubran. “Usually in Germany, the blanket license agreement applies when the majority of the production budget for a TV series is covered by the TV station.”

Still, there are exceptions. Music used in TV promos is not covered by the blanket license, and not every song or artist’s catalog is covered by GEMA. Winger says, “We [had to get] the rights from Duran Duran to use the lyrics of 'Hungry Like the Wolf' as code in episodes three and four. And we had to pay for the rights to use Peter Schilling’s 'Major Tom' as the theme song.”

Despite the wide array of song and music choices that range from famous big-budget Hollywood scores to indie records available because of GEMA, there are limitations to the European blanket license system. It doesn’t cover foreign territories or online usage. So when Deutschland 83 sold to the U.S. network Sundance, the network had to obtain rights to the songs.

“In America, [copyright is] always 50-50, and in Europe it’s tilted for the benefit of the artist,” says Heil. “I think that at the end of the day maybe [artists and composers make] more with the blanket license, [than if Germany] had the system in place where we had to go and negotiate and hire a music supervisor or clearing person.”

The ability to use songs that may have otherwise proven difficult or expensive to obtain the rights worked out in favor of the storytelling for the Cold War spy thriller series.

“We used a lot of Bowie. That was uncanny,” says Winger. “The last song [in the season finale] is 'Under Pressure.' If you listen to the lyrics, 'Under Pressure' is the most Cold War song ever. It’s very much about whether somebody’s going to press the button and set off a nuclear war.”

German pop from 1983 was also root inspiration for the project, according to Winger. “’99 Luft Balloons’ is about somebody sending up a red balloon and it being mistaken for a nuclear attack. So it’s almost exactly the plot of [Deutschland 83] in a pop song.”

Deutschland 83 is now streaming on Hulu.