Sunday, January 12, 2020

How Turkish German Immigrant Experiences are Shaping Post-Wall German Cinema

How Turkish German Immigrant Experiences are Shaping Post-Wall German Cinema:
Fatih Akin’s Head-On and Thomas Arslan’s A Fine Day

Turkey & Germany
Image Ralph Peters

        November 9th, 2019 commemorates 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall that effectively ended the Cold War. After the fall, the unified Germany has become the global powerhouse not only economically but politically and culturally as well, with Berlin as its center once again. With the influx of migrants from the global south flooding into the country, caused by political instability and economic hardship, the face of the German society is very different now, where 15 percent of all German population considers themselves immigrants, than almost 60 years ago when the wall first went up across Berlin. The post-wall German cinema with works by directors like Thomas Arslan and Fatih Akin not only reflect this change, but invigorate the whole German cinema which has been laying stagnant since the New German Cinema of the 70s and 80s. 

        The Berlin Wall, built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, also commonly known as East Germany), to prevent the East Germans fleeing to the West, effectively cut off the flow of manual workers needed for economic revival after the devastation of WWII. West Germany (FRG) then signed a series of bilateral labor recruitment agreements with other countries, including Turkey, on the guest workers program. I thought it would be imperative to examine the history, especially of west Germany, in order to understand how Turkish German experiences are shaping the post-wall German cinema in the new millennium.

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        Two films by two filmmakers I am concentrating on are Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand/Head-On and Thomas Arslan’s Der schöne Tag/A Fine Day. I chose Akin and Arslan because they both are second generation Turkish Germans who came of age and start practicing their film craft in the post-wall 1989 Germany, to be precise, Arslan, since 1990 (19 Portraits) and Akin (Sensin- Du bist es), 1995. Even though they both are regarded as practicing hybridity- where they have experienced both Turkish and German cultures and move as freely between them in their craft as possible, they occupy very different areas in German motion-picture industry. I will examine how the representation of Turkish Germans in German cinema evolved through the years and investigate how their culture is contributing to the revival of the German cinema and also reflecting their uneasy relationship within the now-unified Germany. But my inquiry is not a complete picture. Head-On came out in 2004 and A Fine Day was released in 2001. Since then, many things have happened and both Akin and Arslan made other films. These films are snap shots of what was then, early turn of the millennium, and might not reflect what’s currently happening. This inquiry will need a postscript at some point.

        Germany signed labor agreement with Turkey in 1961, the same year the Berlin Wall went up. It was meant to be a guest worker arrangement that soon proved to be neither practical nor profitable for the corporations. Many migrant workers stayed after two-year term and later brought their family in to the country. There are close to 4 million estimated Turks, including ethnic minorities from Turkey, currently living in Germany, a country of 80 million. That’s roughly 5 percent of all population. Germany holds the most concentrated Turkish population outside Turkey. Even though their almost 60 year presence in the country with its government repeatedly trying to join the European Union since the 80s, their immigration status and path to citizenship were in constant limbo until 1999, when the Citizenship Law finally granted the descendants of the first wave of migrant workforce in the 60s and 70s to become citizens, whereas descendants of German blood (having either of German parent)- Russian Germans and Eastern European Germans were automatically granted citizenship. In many ways, the post wall Germany brought out in the open the fragility of its perceived cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism that FRG strove for. 

        The first wave of Turkish German cinema of the 70s and 80s were mainly domestic dramas or about the problems of the guest worker (Gastarbeiter) by directors identified with New German Cinema. Getting their inspiration from French New Wave and British New Wave, New German cinema strove for reflecting politically and artistically meaningful subjects and rebuffed the standard film production process. Its directors such as Alexander Kluge, Harun Faroki, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and many others whose films projected their frustrations over artistic and political stagnation in the midst of the economic miracle on the backs of migrant labor. This “Gastarbeiter cinema” was that of “cinema of duty”, drawing on a social realist tradition and relying on ethnic stereotypes, used empathetic identification to promote social reform and political change. They “mostly involved overdetermined figure of the suffering and entrapped Turkish woman, a key witness in both feminist critiques of patriarchy and liberal arguments for secular democracy.” Examples of this period of Turkish German cinema would be Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Shirin’s Wedding (1976), Yimaz Güney’s Baba (1971) and Hark Bohm’s Yasemin (1988). But it’s impossible not to mention Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), when talking about the immigrant experience in Germany, especially for the fact that Fassbinder’s original intention was to call the film “All Turks are Called Ali”. But instead a Turkish protagonist, wanting to give the starring role to El Hadi ben Salem, a Moroccan immigrant, who was his lover at the time, it became Angst essen seele auf/Fear Eats the Soul. Faithfully borrowing the storyline of a classic Hollywood melodrama, All that Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk), Fassbinder criticizes postwar racism as a continuation of the Nazi past and also reifying the stranger as an object of orientalist fascination, while playing with traditional gender roles. Emmi (played by Bridget Mira), an elderly cleaning woman, meets a good natured Moroccan guest worker, falls in love. Their improbable love is tested by racism and general social condemnation. There’s also a sexual politics and power dynamics at play. Just like many protagonists of the cinema of duty, Ali can be seen as the prime example of an enlightened victimology. But however invigorating and thought provoking New German Cinema movement appeared to be, its legacy, made up a handful of internationally revered auteurs, was overshadowed by its financial failure and the fact it was mostly ignored domestically in favor of commercially viable albeit mediocre films. With strong influence of private and public television companies and proliferation of home videos, the enthusiastic spirit of New German cinema had died out by mid-80s. 

        What came after that was so called “cinema of consensus”, termed by scholar Eric Rentschler. He argued that the vast majority of German film productions in the nineties consisted of light fare meant to please and placate audiences. This trend toward uncomplicated storylines with agreeable resolutions was all the more prominent if one compared German cinema of the nineties with that of the seventies. Rentschler applauded New German Cinema directors who in the seventies “interrogated images of the past in the hope of refining memories and catalysing changes.” By contrast, Rentschler saw contemporary German cinema as lacking “oppositional energies and critical voices.” He mentions exception to this cinema of consensus, “offbeat voices and less reconciled visions” of directors like Tom Tykwer, Fatih Akin, Rosa von Praunheim, Ulrike Ottinger and Harrun Farocki, who made “less visible films with a historical ground, a post-national sensibility and a critical edge.”

        Fatih Akin is the prime example when considering the shift in filmic sensibilities from “cinema of duty” to the “pleasures of hybridity” Born in Hamburg in 1973 to Turkish immigrant parents, Akin went to University of Fine Arts of Hamburg to study Visual Communications and graduated in 2000. He grew up watching countless films on VHS tapes, both Turkish and Hollywood cinema, professes his love for Scorsese. His debut feature, made while he was still in school, Kurz und schmerzlos (1998) was said to have “represented New German-Turkish Cinema.” His films contributed to a street culture known as Kanak - first used as a derogatory term for Turks and other Arab countries’ immigrants in Germany, later became a normal colloquial term for Turkish Germans and used as self-identification. His kinetic and visceral films, mostly concerning second generation of Turkish immigrants and bonds between immigrants from other countries living in Germany became a commercial and critical success. But it was his fourth feature Gegen die wand/Head-On (2004) that really pushed him to be the face of contemporary German cinema. It won numerous awards, including Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, Best Film and Audience Award at European Film Awards and Best Foreign Film at the National Board of Review in 2004, while directly dealing with the theme of the Turkish-German experience, albeit secular. It grossed 14 million USD at the box office. But when we talk about the perception and marketing of Fatih Akin in the German press, his films are treated as still the ones of cultural in-betweenness, not the cultural hybridity and transnationalism. Head-On follows heavily on the tradition of melodrama - explosion of emotions with larger than life characters. It deals with many of the societal taboos - sex, drugs and suicide that are normally seen as opposite in a traditional, family oriented, patriarchal immigrant community. The film is a head on collision with these familial concepts. It’s a fatalistic love story of two suicidal individuals who happen to be of Turkish descent. Cahit is a heavy drinking widower who crashes his car into a wall, and Sibel is a young woman who is trying to get away from her traditional, patriarchal Turkish German family by slitting her wrist. They meet at a mental hospital. Sibel has a proposition - she wants him to marry her in order to free herself from her traditional family. And because he is a Turk, they will consent. For this fake marriage, she will cook and clean the house and they can see other people in the meantime. After her dramatic second suicide attempt, Cahit gives in, and their strange romance starts. It’s Sibel’s presence in Cahit’s life that gives him meaning to continue living. But Cahit kills a man one day to protect the honor of Sibel and goes to jail and Sibel moves to Turkey to start a new life. And It’s her retreat to Turkey that ultimately connects Cahit to his forgotten Turkish roots for the first time.

        In the world of Head-On, Germany in mid-2000s, Hamburg to be exact, there are no Germans treating Cahit or Sibel any different because they are Turkish descent. Cahit doesn’t even speak Turkish very well. Only their names give away their backgrounds. In a funny scene, a German psychologist asks what the meaning of Cahit’s name is. Cahit, completely perplexed by the question, asks back why. The psychologist tells him that all “their” names mean something, something beautiful, deep and profound. Cahit tells the smiling doctor that he is completely nuts. Germany in 2000s is seen as secular, transnational society where Turkish Germans freely question the possibilities of simultaneous transnationalism and rootlessness. 

        The Berlin School is perhaps the most significant film movement in Germany since the New German cinema of the 70s. The first wave of film directors it produced were Angela Schanelec, Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. First coined by film critic Merten Worthmann in describing Schanelec’s Passing Summer (2001) and later that same year by Rainer Gansera in his review of Arslan’s A Fine Day (2001), the Berlin School is loosely connected group of filmmakers (the second wave of Berlin School directors don’t necessarily come from DFFB) who are countering what mainstream German cinema has become - the cinema of consensus. Working in each other’s projects and constantly in communication through interviews and publications (Revolver - an influential film magazine, founded by the second wave directors of the movement, Christophe Hochäusler and Benjamin Heisenberg, which gave the Berlin School its further legitimization) in the industry. Their films are not easily defined and can’t be readily be explained with few words but the main theme these filmmakers are grappling with in the post-wall Germany is “sehnsucht” (longing)- a longing for Deutschland that never materialized under neoliberal capitalism. The Berlin School, in effect, is ‘reseeing’ Germany without being tied to its war past, without exploiting history. It’s the ‘here and now’ of unified Germany.

A Fine Day
        Thomas Arslan was born in 1962 in the north-central German city of Braunschweig, to Turkish immigrant parents. He went to an elementary school in Turkey, but lived his formative years in Germany, studying German literature and eventually ending up in DFFB: Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin/The German Film and TV Academy Berlin. He has said in interviews that Godard, Bresson and Rossellini’s works have influenced him. At a glance, by virtue of his ethnic background is cast as being concerned with the representation of (ethnic) identity. With nine feature films under his belt, he is best known for his later termed “Berlin Trilogy”- Brothers and Sisters, Dealer and A Fine Day, chronicling the lives of young Turkish Germans in Kreuzberg section of Berlin. I chose A Find Day (2001) because the first two of the trilogy might mark the shift from a ‘cinema of the affected’ to a ‘cinema of hybridity’, but their protagonists continue to “struggle with the similar problems as their predecessors in the Gastarbeiterkino,” whereas in A Fine Day, Deniz, its protagonist, at a glance, doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the immigrant’s blues. In the film, we follow Deniz, a young Turkish German woman living in Kreuzberg, Berlin, as she takes public transportation and walks around the town to meet her friends and family, to go to work, to get around in general. She navigates briskly and confidently around town. The film is devised as one day in the life of… story. She breaks up with her boyfriend, attends her job as a voice-over actress, does her laundry at her mother’s, hangs out with her successful architect sister who is briefly in town, lectures young neighborhood kanaks who whistled at her and starts flirting with a neighbor. Nothing dramatic happens. Everything is almost documentary-like. Yet, with deliberate camera movement, Deniz’s gaze, gestures and seemingly trivial things that are said in conversations, one can detect Deniz’s isolation and loneliness and explains many of the symptoms of integration problems the right wing politicians like to talk about after almost 60 years of assimilation. Even though it is the new millennium and the second or third generation Turkish Germans have gained their rights to their eventual citizenship, their identity, their sense of being German is shaky. Arslan simply demonstrates this fact in a single scene in the beginning of the film where Deniz breaks up with her German boyfriend - she walks into a cafe to meet her boyfriend. during their conversation, which is over the shoulder shot of Deniz, the camera dollies over to the other side of his shoulder, breaking the 180 degree law for coverage and completely changing the audience’s point of view of Deniz. Then the camera reverts back to the original position. Is she as confident as she presents herself? Are we seeing the other side of her? The whole reality is shaken. Her cosmopolitan existence may not be as solid as it presents itself to be. If not Deniz herself is struggling with traditions, it is shown through her Turkish mother’s dilemma - she is widowed a while ago. But to honor the memories of her late husband, she says she would never be in another relationship, even though Deniz reminds her that she is still young and can remarry. She chastises her mom for being old fashioned. Just like many of Arslan’s protagonists, Deniz hardly shows any emotions. There is something definitely missing in her life. Her rootlessness is shown in many different occasions throughout the film. Arslan cleverly suggests through her being an actress, that she can or pretends to be any body- Deniz is told to be a little more emotional when she is in a dubbing session, for Eric Rohmer’s Summer’s Tale, in German. Whatever she is yearning for, she tries to find it in other people. Her gaze is not that of romantic gaze in Rohmer movies. Her gaze is searching kind, trying to find a stability, in a place, in a person, in a culture. 

        Like in Akin’s films, there is a solidarity among other immigrants, Deniz flirts with a young man from Spain. She might have some common understanding with the Spaniard, but she doesn’t find what she is looking for in him either. Arslan suggests in the smallest ways the fragility of the secularism for the Turks living in a supposedly cosmopolitan country. The fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and difficulties of German reunification undermined the public commitment to diversity and gave way to a period of unprecedented rightwing violence that began with attacks on asylum seekers and contract workers. Then the violence of 9/11 and its worldwide reverberation – London and Madrid bombings, changed the dynamics again. I dare say that in a very subtle way, A Fine Day was not only reflective but prophetic in seeing these changes and uncertainties in German society. 

        The Berlin School might be well known in festival circuits and film academia, but it shares not only the spirit of the New German Cinema but the burden of being a financial liability. An interview with Christoph Hochäusler reveals as much: 

“Of course the implication of the label is sometimes harmful. For example, when it comes to financing a film I've heard many times that they say 'we don't want to finance the Berlin school films'. Because the industry is full of expectations - 'they (the Berlin school films) are too slow' or call it whatever else you can think of when you don't like something. So there is always a problem being labeled like that.”

        Both Akin and Arslan had made several other films since Head-On and A Fine Day. They have moved on from films with Turkish protagonists and expanded their palettes. Akin directed another acclaimed searing melodrama of forgiveness and redemption with Turkish protagonists in The Edge of Heaven (2007) and revenge thriller In the Fade (2017) with the international star Barbara Kreuger in the lead role who is avenging her Kurdish-German husband’s death in neo-nazi attack. Most recently he directed a serial killer movie based on a best selling novel, The Golden Glove (2019). Arslan, like the Berlin School comrades, namely Christian Petzold and Christoph Hochhäusler, delved into genre filmmaking. In the Shadows (2010) is his no nonsense thriller of the highest order, with an Eastern European hitman protagonist operating in Germany. Then he did a Western, Gold (2013), starring Nina Hoss, a Petzold regular, about German prospectors in British Columbia in the 19th century. Recently he did Bright Nights (2017) which was shot in Norway. It is about an Austrian man’s road trip to re-tracing his father’s past who just passed away. 

        A lot has happened in the last two decades. Arab Spring, terror attacks, ISIS, Syria and its refugee crisis put a lot of pressure on European Union to reassess their immigration policies. We are living in an unprecedented political, economical, environmental crises world wide. The rise of nationalism in many European countries, including Germany can’t be ignored. The future seems all but uncertain. Germany has undoubtedly benefited from its Turkish immigrants, economically and culturally. But we are living in a different world than 20 years ago. If Akin reflected the pulse of the cosmopolitan spirit of 2000s Germany, Arslan showed the reflection of that fragile cosmopolitanism and somehow predicted its uncertain future. 

Sources Consulted

Abel, Marco. The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School. Boydell and Brewer, 2013: 31-78

Baute, Michael, Ekkhard Knrer, Volker Pantenberg, Stefan Pethke and Simon Rothhler. “The Berlin School - A Collage.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 55 (July 2010)

Bennhold, Katrin. “Germany Has Been Unified for 30 Years. Its Identity Still Is Not,” New York Times, November 8, 2019

Gueneli, Berna. Fatih Akin's Cinema and the New Sound of Europe. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019

Hake, Sabine, and Barbara Mennel, eds. Turkish German Cinema in the New Millennium: Sites, Sounds, and Screens. NEW YORK; OXFORD: Berghahn Books, 2014

Hoad, Phil, “Continental drift,” The Guardian, February 14. 2008.

Hochhäusler, Christoph “Interview: Christoph Hochhäusler On The Lives of Victors And Dangers Of Being Labeled.” by Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy, April 13, 2015. Web Magazine.

Martin, James P. "Crossing Bridges/Crossing Cultures: The Films of Fatih Akin." South Atlantic Review, Vol.74, No. 2, 2009: 82-92

O’Brien, Mary-Elizabeth. Post-Wall German Cinema and National History: Utopianism and Dissent. Boydell and Brewer, 2012

Roy, Rajendra and Anke Leweke. The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule. Museum of Modern Art, 2013

Takenag, Lara. “I Will Never Be German: Immigrants and Mixed-Race Families in Germany on the Struggle to Belong,” New York Times, November 8, 2019

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