By Rachael Steven

Broadcast on Channel 4 through a partnership with foreign-language drama channel Walter Presents (which is covered in-depth in our March issue, out later this month), Deutschland 83 follows the story of Martin Rauch, a young East German soldier who is recruited to work as an undercover spy in the West German military during the Cold War. The show became the highest-rated foreign language drama ever broadcast on British TV when it premiered last month, with 2.5 million watching the first episode.

With some great cinematography and production design, it’s a beautiful show to watch, and rich in period details. The contrast between life in East and West Germany is reflected in everything from clothes to music and furniture, with East German houses decorated in pale pastel shades, and West German supermarkets stocked with snacks and sweets wrapped in brightly coloured packaging.

In a key scene from episode one, Martin is presented with his West German ‘uniform’: a red Puma t-shirt, blue jeans and Stan Smiths, which provide a stark contrast to his un-branded plaid shirt in the East. Retro sportswear and military uniforms feature also feature heavily, and characters’ outfits often mirror the colours and textures in sets and interiors. With the 80s look currently in fashion – Gucci launched a campaign film inspired by the decade last month – its costumes have been featured in style mags and national papers, receiving almost as much attention as the show’s plot line. Here, costume designer Katrin Unterberger talks us through her work on the series and how she collaborated with other creatives on set to create its distinctive look…

How did you get into the industry? And what sparked your interest in costume design?

Even as a teenager I wanted to be a fashion designer. My parents tried to dissuade me, but to no avail – after leaving school, I fulfilled my dream and began studying,

[but] as a student I realised that I do not solely enjoy fashion which can be superficial … I wanted to create characters. At first I tried out at the theatre but after a short time it was clear that my heart beats for film. I love to be able to dive again and again into different environments and to learn all about it. Most of all, however, I like historical material. It’s another world and I find it so interesting.

I have assisted some cracking German costume designers. For example, I worked on Napola [‘Before the Fall’, a German drama about a young man who gets a scholarship to a National Political Academy (NaPolA) – high schools which trained the Nazi elite], Joe and Max [a docu-drama about real life boxing matches between American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling] and Vom Küssen und vom Fliegen [a TV which won best production and costume design at the German Television Awards in 2000] as a costume assistant. By luck, I got to know the director Roland Suso Richter and we worked together on 2007’s The Miracle of Berlin [which follows the life of a family in East Berlin, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall] and 2008’s Mogadischu [based on the true story of the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in 1977, by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. For the second project, I was nominated for the German Television Award in 2009.

Moritz (Jonas Nay) and Alex (Ludwig Trepte)

Could you tell me a little about the process of working on Deutschland 83, and how you created each character’s look?

After I read the screenplay I locked myself in my little room with many fashion books, magazines, catalogues and films. I developed different moods and a personal touch for every character, and I discussed it with the director, cinematographer, producer, production designer and make-up artist. Many characters came to life this way. The actors were very appreciative to have a clear costume specification – after all, there were more than 100 characters and they had all much to say. I wanted to give the audience a visual impression, something like: “…that flamboyant bird of paradise or that girl in the navy outfit…”  Every costume fitting was focused on detail and me and my team compiled different pieces of clothing from many different sources. This is how we found a large amount of outfits even before the first fitting. I cannot say how long I work on each outfit but I make sure I perfect it before we start shooting.

Are you given a brief when it comes to dressing characters – for example, will the director give you an idea of what they’d like actors to be wearing in key scenes? And how closely do you work with the other designers and art departments on set?

The producer wanted it to be colourful and cool and the director and cinematographer wanted to compose each frame with some splashes of colour. I worked closely with the production designer [Lars Lange] and together, we discussed whether the setting or the outfit determines the colour. Often, we had to dress extras and distribute colourful accessories to achieve the desired colour coordination – this kept our department busy! The second week, I gave the cinematographer a pack of colourful balloons, just in case, [but] they were never used.

I emailed photos to the make-up artist directly after the costume fittings, and they created the matching make-up and hair styles based on my selection of clothing.

Thomas (Vladimir Burlakov) und Annett (Sonja Gerhardt)

80s clothing is pretty fashionable right now. Did you want the characters to look stylish, as well as of the era?

I have tried to create many visually interesting characters: some of them became stylish, some affectionate and naïve, some sporty, [some] alternative … I wanted to show the whole fashion range of that time.

What kind of material did you use for reference – were there any particular publications, or archive collections, that proved useful when researching clothing for the show?

You can still get many fashion magazines from that period of time, both from East Germany and West Germany, but I prefer to use photography books as I find that they reflect the time more authentically – in reality, only a small amount of people dress fashionably, most people develop their personal style regardless of the current fashion. This is what interests me. I have also used photos from our time and adapted them into 80s fashion.

D831Tobias (Alexender Beyer) at a peace protest

The story offers a look at life in both East and West Germany – how were differences between the two states reflected in costumes? 

The creative heads have agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany: East Germany was more floral, pastel coloured, hand crafted stitching and romantic. West Germany was dominated by clear lines and bright colours without patterns or only very large patterns. Of course, in reality, the style was not as ‘black and white’ as we portrayed it.

Where did you source most of the clothes for the series from? Any unusual/surprising finds? 

In Berlin there are great resources for props and costumes where you can find original pieces from East and West Germany. Holding such an undamaged original item in your hand is very impressive. Sometimes I try to imagine what this thing has experienced, who owned it and how lucky is it to still be undamaged. I was struck with awe when I held pieces with the label ‘Exquisit’ – this used to be a department store where only privileged East Germans were able to go shopping. Leonora wore creations from this store.

The SED campaign button made me feel quite strange. Another item has impressed me: there was a very cool T-shirt from West Germany. In a props resource in East Germany I found a nearly identical piece – it was hand sewn from different dyed bed sheets and finished with studs. This was a moving moment which reflected the political situation: In the West you could buy it without any problems. It was not unusual to go shopping and always get the newest fashion. However, in the East people had to be creative and make their own cool clothes. The hand sewn garments had a great value for the owner. There are photos showing proud people wearing them.

D835Martin (Jonas Navy) and Lenora (Maria Schrader)

And were there any particular challenges working on the costume design for the show? 

The uniform research happened to be very difficult. For a long time we were looking for an expert who had witnessed this period of time. We were very lucky to find a gentleman from the casern which was featured in the film. Also a great challenge were the minor characters who do not attract much attention: for example a binman from East Germany. We have spent a lot of time to find a photo but without any success. We questioned some former GDR citizens. Everyone had seen a binman at that time but the memory was not detailed enough after 30 years.

The next episode of Deutschland 83 airs on Channel 4 on Sunday, February 14 at 9pm. Episodes are also available to watch on All 4.

Read more here:: Costume designer Katrin Unterberger on her work for Deutschland 83