The Best Title Sequences of 2020 Were Gorgeous Prisms of Decades Past

Last year, one of TV’s most fascinating trilogies came to a close. Yes, “Deutschland 89” was the culmination of a three-season-long arc of Martin Rauch, going from an informant embedded within the West Germany security forces to eventually being caught up in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the show’s opening credits have become a cornerstone for the series as well, morphing from the energetic opening for the eight episodes of “Deustchland 83” through two other installments that traversed continents amidst its various time jumps through the years of its titles.

It’s an evolution headed by title designer Saskia Marka, whose recent work has spanned some of the more fascinating TV work across multiple languages. Marka helped create the striking art deco-inspired opening title card sequence for the undersung Netflix Original “Babylon Berlin,” also adapting those for the series’ subsequent seasons.

“Deutschland 89” wastes no time grabbing your attention. Over the sounds of the chorus intro to Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” (“4…3…2…1…”), Marka lays out in giant red all-caps letters the famous Brandenburg Gate exhortation “Tear down this wall.” It’s an instant signifier of the world of 1989, which the sequence builds on from there.

“That was the first thing I knew should be in the sequence,” Marka said in a recent e-mail. “This quote rang in the countdown for the end of the DDR [East Germany] and fit very well with the countdown from the lyrics of the music. To me, it’s one of the most impressive statements of that time and it hasn’t lost its power in the present day. If you look closely at the sequence, it switches to ‘Tear down these walls.’”

For all the ways that the three “Deutschland” opening credits sequence are extensions of the seasons surrounding them, the main connective idea across them is the particular paper collage feel. Actor and crew members’ names appear across areas that seem ripped out in chunks from the background.

“For the first layout of ‘Deutschland 83’ I thought of a country that is ripped apart. The characters are torn apart. That led to the idea of using torn paper collages as the central form of expression. It offers endless possibilities to put things together that don’t match in form and content to create something new and exciting,” Marka said.

These are more than just framed tableaus. There’s so much movement to them! Nuclear bomb symbols rotate like speedy countdown clocks. Hummingbirds flit around the background, sometimes on choppy, frame-by-frame flightpaths. The “Deutschland 86” sequence even culminates with a silhouetted clip from the series of a character blown back by an explosion.

Even though there’s still a feeling of strife underneath what’s transpiring, the “Deutschland 89” opening is decidedly less ominous than the threat of nuclear retaliation that flows through the other two. That’s marked by the fireworks and confetti that float amongst the still images of a crumbling Berlin Wall. Even the birds get to fly along in continuous movement against a solid, placid blue.

“For most people the fall of the wall was the best thing that could happen, so I also wanted to give it the spirit of celebration and optimism throughout the sequence,” Marka said. “But it’s also combined with scenes where it is a rather threatening scenario for some characters, which gives it a nice contrast.”

Perhaps Marka’s highest-profile work to date is the sequence from the conclusion of the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.” The show forewent traditional episode-by-episode opening credits, reserving the visual flair for the ending of the seventh and final chapter.

It’s a sequence that certainly draws on the inspiration of a chessboard, weaving together a parade of geometric inversions based around ordered shapes that move from squares to trapezoids to ovals and whirl around in a digital haze at every point along the way.

“The chessboard pattern itself felt too one on one, that’s why I tried to avoid it as much as possible. But the spirit of it holds this sequence together. The sequence is supposed to live from the controlled cosmos of moving geometric forms, transformed into an intensified emotional experience out of control,” Marka said. “I was able to choose from a great pool of processed animations by Dave Whyte, which were all different kind of shapes. I worked with them intuitively, trying to continue or even elevate that feeling from the end of the show in line with the incredible music by Carlos Rafael Rivera.”

Aside from existing in a different decade, “The Queen’s Gambit” has a fundamentally different structural approach than the “Deutschland” seasons. The characters of Martin (Jonas Nay) and Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader) are key figures in showing a divided Germany throughout the 1980s, but “The Queen’s Gambit” is so rooted in Beth Harmon’s story that crafting a visual complement to her journey proved to be a little easier to conceptualize.

“The end titles show her emotional journey and her excitement of feeling and playing chess in an abstract way. It was easier for me to build the sequence around that principle than to find the right tableau for many characters of an ensemble series like ‘Deutschland,’” Marka said.

The sequence from “The Queen’s Gambit” works because it’s focused on those muted black, white, and grey hues, not in spite of it. It’s a natural extension of the two colors that populate a chessboard. (The website “The Art of the Title” has a fascinating, detailed progression of how Marka and Whyte worked through various iterations to get to the final, relatively minimalist version.)

Even though the Cold War struggle that underlines each “Deutschland” season is effectively a geopolitical chess match, those sequences brought a rainbow of visual ideas to use across all three seasons. Each one has a distinct color palette that instantly conveys the different tenor of those episodes.

“In ‘Deutschland 83,’ it’s red for the East and gold for the West, combined with an ’80s duplex look on top, which gave it a positive vibe. The East German desaturated color palette comes in a little more in ‘Deutschland 86’ through images from the show, but that season was also inspired by the Africa theme, with bright mustardy surfaces and the colors of that flag. For the last season it’s sort of a visual overload of all colors, combined with an almost ’90s saturated VHS effect,” Marka said.

That gradual progression meant each season of “Deutschland” got more and more difficult. Making something that spoke to not just the realities of 1989 but the present. (There’s a phrase on the lefthand side of the screen at the end of the “Deutschland 89” credits that features a phrase in the handwriting style of a certain White House occupant.) But now, after wrangling all the disparate components into this trio, it’s an impressive collection that can stand on its own.

“The concept for ‘Deutschland 89’ was quite a challenge, because it’s the final season and I wanted it to fulfill so much,” Marka said. “So there was a lot of juggling around with all kinds of elements and that sequence took a lot of time. But I’m very proud of the result.”

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