It’s no secret that awards voters swoon for a dramatic physical transformation (Christian Bale’s entire career in a nutshell), but what about a linguistic one? Anyone can starve or gorge themselves, but what’s truly impressive is not only learning lines in a language you don’t speak, but putting in the time to understand what you’re actually saying. That’s what Shira Haas did for her tour de force in “Unorthodox,” the exquisitely crafted Netflix limited series about a Hasidic girl who leaves her community behind for the freeing climes of Berlin. The 25-year-old Israeli actress is undoubtedly the driving force of the series, and she’s so consuming that the show’s meticulous authenticity would have been entirely moot were it not for her riveting portrayal. It’s one of the most thrilling breakout performances of the year.
Haas plays a young woman named Esther “Esty” Shapiro, a Satmar Jew raised in the Hasidic section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Satmar Jews are a highly specific and conservative sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews, one which the craft teams took painstaking effort to truly represent. Based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” the series follows Feldman’s Brooklyn experience to a tee, while taking ample creative liberties with her Berlin life. The series jumps between both worlds, spending equal time in Brooklyn and Berlin. (The show was almost entirely shot in Berlin, except for a few exteriors.)
Even though the Hasidic parts are technically told in flashback, the danger and restrictions of Esty’s little life are painfully palpable. Just knowing she escapes is a merciful reprieve for the viewer; otherwise, the tension might be too much to bear. These parallel storylines gave Haas a lot to play with, and plenty of opportunities to show off her luminous, deeply specific work. She studied Yiddish for two months before filming began, as well as piano and voice lessons. (She also shaved her head for the role, for those who need a physical tribute.)
“I didn’t know Yiddish at all, I mean my grandparents knew it but I never heard it in my house or something like that,” Haas said during an April phone interview. “It’s not only learning the language, it’s also learning the accent and what to stress and how to say it. It was such a specific way of doing this, every little sound that I make.”
Just as the design teams fretted about making instead of ordering authentic Shtreimels — the wide-brimmed fur hat Hasidic men wear on holidays — Haas had to be vigilant with her physicality. “For example, you shouldn’t cross your legs,” she said. “Small things I didn’t know. It came natural for me, I never do that anyways. But small things, just to make the characters very accurate and true to how it really looks.”
One of the most difficult scenes to watch is an intimacy scene between Esty and her husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav). Haas and Rahav have been friends since they were teenagers, which she said helped lighten the mood during the show’s more uncomfortable scenes. “Unorthodox” is careful not to villainize Yanky, and the storytelling is far too smart for such black and white conclusions. After all, he is also essentially a child, one who has been raised by a community that sees his life’s trajectory as entirely predetermined. So when he demands sex from his wife, after months of failed attempts, he is performing a script that has also been foisted on him — in this case, by his own mother. Esty experiences penetration as painful, and though the scene is visually demure, it is emotionally raw and therefore difficult to witness. That is entirely due to Haas’ performance.
“I think it is maybe hard to watch, but not because of the physical things,” she said. “You don’t see anything. But to really understand the essence of what Esty’s going through, and how much emotional pain she’s going through. That’s why it’s important it was portrayed in such a gentle and subtle way.”
One of the most iconic shots from the series is Esty’s dramatic steps into the water in Berlin. Unexpectedly finding herself on a Berlin beach with her new music school friends, the camera is glued to Haas as she cautiously removes her outer layer of clothing. In skirt and long-sleeved turtleneck, she gingerly steps into the cleansing waters, eventually removing her wig and letting it float away.
“It’s kind of like her first steps to freedom in a way — it’s also kind of like saying goodbye to the past and daring to take the first [step], we say, ‘going to deep water’ — literally. She’s taking it off, and it’s also like a mikvah in a way, which is a ritual of a fresh start of being clean,” Haas said. “It was indeed a very meaningful moment. And it comes in the first episode, so it’s kind of like getting to know Esty. I think if someone saw this scene without seeing the series you can get the essence of the series.”
It’s a beautifully shot scene, ending with a sweeping aerial shot circling a calmly floating Esty. Though it comes early on in the series, it was the last scene they shot in Berlin. “It was so emotional because we were saying goodbye to all the cast and the crew,” Haas said. “The very long shot there’s this camera above me, and I’m lying on the water, so it was kind of like a very emotional ending for the series as well.”