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Composer Reinhold Heil gives Cold War-era tension a modern twist in 'Deutschland 83'

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Composer Reinhold Heil. Courtesy Reinhold Heil

NOTE: Listen to this interview to hear samples of Reinhold's score.

As the title suggests, the Sundance Channel’s critically acclaimed spy series, “Deutschland 83," takes place in 1983, near the border between communist East Germany and the democratic West.

At the time, tensions between the two nations were running particularly high as the arms race escalated.

At the center of the story is Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German border patrol agent who is sent undercover to spy on the West. As you can imagine, there are a lot of tense moments as the inexperienced and naive agent pursues his mission behind enemy lines.

The man behind the equally tense score for the show is composer Reinhold Heil.

The series hits close to home for Heil, who now lives and works in Los Angeles. Back in the 1980s, though, he was a young man living in West Berlin. 

"There was a lot going on, there were terrorist activities, there was nuclear armament and mid-range missiles on both sides of the Iron Curtain," said Heil on The Frame. "I think a growing percentage of the population felt pretty threatened and expressed it. There was a huge peace movement going on. Stuff that's pretty unimaginable right now ... millions of people out in the street demonstrating."

Interview Highlights:

When this show came along, as a composer, somebody who was there at the time, what was your reaction to the material?

I was sitting here in L.A. and working on American TV shows. TV seems to be what's going on right now. TV has resurged. So I feel fairly content and they call me up and say, "Do you want to do a German TV show?" I'm thinking I'm not sure if I want to do it, because I didn't think much of the quality of German TV making. Filmmaking yes, but TV I haven't really seen much that really blew me away. So they sent me the opening scene and it immediately grabbed me because I had actually lived through that scene, and the way it was depicted was really really authentic.

So this happened to you?

I had bought a whole bunch of music and it was all confiscated. They interrogated me for a good hour and my girlfriend was very worried outside. 

This is a show set in 1983 and a lot of songs are used that are contemporary to that day, [but] the score is a more modern, electronic sound. Tell us what you thought the sound design of the score should sound like.

Of course I have my ideas and the show runners have their ideas, so it takes a while to come to a consensus and speak the same language about music. And they said from the get-go they [didn't] want a score that has the sound of the period. Although I was active at the time, I was producing pop music and all that kind of stuff. They didn't want that, they wanted a contemporary score. Of course there was a lot of suspense because there's a lot at stake. This boy who is being thrown into this job of spying on behalf of the East German secret service, he's in constant danger of being found out. So you could say it has a little bit of a James Bond kind of vibe, it could have a little bit [of] darkness and threat on a constant basis. There's a huge emotional component also because it's at the same time a coming-of-age story. So there's a lot of nuance to the score. There's one or two little things where the '80s crept in and they let me get away with it. 

The song "99 Luftballoons" by Nena shows up a few times in the show. You have a very personal connection to that song.

Yeah, I was the producer of that record. I had my own band and was successful and started producing other artists at that time. One of them was Nena, and ["99 Luftballoons"] wasn't a throwaway. I understood how talented she was, but it was a super-crazy runaway success all around the world [from] a piece that we just did in three days. I think the German lyric is better than the English translation. The English translation has a bit more of an infantile aspect to it. The strength of the song is that it addresses this really dark subject matter in some sort of an innocent way, which was fitting her as a personality and an artist and her age group. At the same time it evokes the quite real threat of thermonuclear destruction. That's what happens, basically at the end of the song, that one balloon flies away and the world is in ashes. 

Do you play on it? 

I do, actually. There were some keyboard parts where we didn't want to do it with machines and the keyboarder, himself, wasn't quite happy with how he played, so I actually did it. 

You are a classically trained musician, but you use a wide array of digital instruments. In the track "Burial," it sounds like you're using a real cello.

This has both. It has human voices, and it has a real cello, and it has a Hammond organ, which isn't a particularly contemporary instrument, but I'm using it in a very textural way, just droning away with it and using whatever specifics of a Hammond B3 can do. You could say I'm a hybrid composer. I don't distinguish — whatever sound source works, whatever evokes the right emotion, I will use. All instruments are valued the same. 

This is the first German language series on an American cable channel and it's been incredibly well-reviewed. What does its success say about German TV coming to the United States?

Germans have always had a bit of a chip on their shoulder about the quality of their TV, and quite rightly so. There's a lot of bad stuff produced over there. But the facilities are there, Babelsberg is a big studio, [Showtime's] "Homeland" is currently shooting there. So, we have the infrastructure, we have the manpower, we have the creativity — why not actually come up with a German-made product that could be interesting for the rest of the world? 

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