A stunned Maria Schrader won the 2020 Emmy Award for her direction of the sleeper Netflix hit “Unorthodox.” The based-on-true-life miniseries stars Israeli actress Shira Haas, and tells the story of a young Hasidic woman who flees her unhappy arranged marriage in Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin.
“I was totally surprised,” Schrader told The Times of Israel on Monday, just hours after the win.
The director heard the good news remotely, as she watched the 72nd Primetime Emmy ceremony, which was broadcast from Los Angeles without a live audience because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schrader followed the event from a suite at a historic Berlin hotel organized by Netflix for a small contingent of the “Unorthodox” production team. Among those present with Schrader were the series co-creators Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski.
“As we worked on the show, we had a sense it would be a relevant and emotional story with a universal appeal, but we didn’t know just how well and how widely it would be received. We thought it would only be watched in Germany,” Schrader said.
“We put something out there we thought was under the radar, but you just never know,” she added.
Schrader was alone among the “Unorthodox” cast and crew to take home a trophy despite the series having received eight Emmy nominations. Among the nods were for outstanding limited series, outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie (for Haas as “Esty”), and outstanding writing for a limited series, movie or dramatic special.
“Just to start with, all those nominations were unexpected. It was enormous for what was essentially a modest foreign, multilingual production,” Schrader said.
When the series was released on Netflix in late March it was praised by critics and viewers for interweaving the particularistic lifestyle of the insular Satmar Hasidic community with a coming of age story familiar to people of all backgrounds.
Notably, “Unorthodox” is the first Yiddish-language production to come out of Germany. English and German are also spoken in the film, but the international cast, especially the young main actors, had to undergo intensive Yiddish language coaching to be able to recite dialogue convincingly.
Esty proved to be 25-year-old Haas’s international breakout role. Although the actress came to the series with an impressive Israeli resumé, “Unorthodox” catapulted her to international fame. She was interviewed by major entertainment publications and media outlets, and was photographed for fashion spreads. Even the tabloids follow her (for example, Mail Online reported that she wore an exclusive Chanel gown while watching the Emmys in the wee hours of the morning Israel time.)
“Hopes were high for Shira. I wish she had won the Emmy. She deserved it,” Schrader said.
“When Shira didn’t win, we didn’t think we’d win anything else,” she added.
Schrader, who is also an actress, has been involved in other lauded projects. She starred in the 1999 film “Aimee & Jaguar,” which was nominated for a Golden Globe. Her 2016 historical drama, “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” was a contender for Austria’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
Still, Schrader said she was amazed by the new opportunities offered by streaming platforms such as Netflix. “Unorthodox” was Schrader’s first production distributed in this way, and she discovered that it allows filmmakers to take risks that they could not otherwise take.
“It changes your approach to storytelling and casting. With the ability to reach so many viewers around the world with the click of a button, you can make the art house-type films I make. You can take chances on lesser known actors or different kinds of stories,” Schrader said.
“As soon as you are put on the shelf next to ‘The Crown’ and all the other big players, you are a big player too,” she said.
In contrast to the hype surrounding “Unorthodox” — including a huge billboard in (an unfortunately empty) Times Square — Schrader said she was grateful to be recognized for the “humble” feel of the show.
As soon as you are put on the shelf next to ‘The Crown’ and all the other big players, you are a big player too
“There were no wild directing choices, no new aesthetics. The show felt almost like a documentary at times. People recognized the director’s work in that, and that is marvelous,” Schrader said.
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