Exploring themes of religion and feminism, Unorthodox is a German-American drama miniseries that seizes its subject matter from Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, in which the author leaves her husband in Williamsburg, New York with the aim of starting a new life as far away from her community as possible in Berlin.
Unorthodox very much plays the same tune, with lead character Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas) fleeing her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in search of the freedom that her religion has prevented her from experiencing. The protagonist finds solace at a music conservatoire and dreams of studying there, but her community and family refuse to let her abandon their culture that easily. Under the orders of their Rabbi, Esty’s husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) are sent to Berlin to find her and return her home by any means necessary.
Unorthodox is the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish, and as a series is wonderfully created. Following two timelines in Esty’s life, the narrative explores both her memories prior to and the early stages of her marriage, slowly but surely delving deeper into her experiences and allowing the viewer to piece together a jigsaw of her personality stage by stage. This, intertwined with present-day scenes in Berlin, allows for a level of suspense that builds constantly as the curtain is slowly drawn back on her entire story.
Despite it being an immensely challenging tale to portray, the cast play a very special role in delivering this breath-taking series. Many different societies are represented throughout, whether they be religious communities, refugees from warzones or youths growing up in Berlin. It’s raw and innocent, with Esty feeling completely insecure as she explores a new life in Germany, making new friends and trying to feel comfortable in environments so alien to her, so the demand on Haas to execute her role to perfection is extremely high – but she achieves it nonetheless. The viewer is with the inexperienced Esty throughout her entire journey, willing her on every step of the way as she navigates through the minefield of reality whilst at the same time attempting to avoid the past she is leaving behind.
A special mention must also go to the series cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, who brilliantly adds a greater sense of perspective to the commotion Esty and her family are living through with some excellent camerawork. Cities have never looked so vast, so lonely at times, and yet in the company of friendly faces, the world seems a more pleasant place. Berlin is, of course, a cinematic playground to those with the right eye, but Thaler does well to avoid the endless scenic shots of a beautiful city that can plague some films and shows, instead choosing to create a more intimate relationship between the viewer and the protagonist.
All in all, this is a very powerful and special series that is exceptionally crafted, and although it could arguably be displayed through a movie rather than a mini-series, rest assured the final product is by no means damaged by the chosen format. It can be guaranteed that Unorthodox will be like nothing you have witnessed before, exploring a subject you likely will know little about and making for an eye-opening and thrilling piece of drama.
Unorthodox is released on Netflix on 26th March 2020.
Watch the trailer for Unorthodox here: