Exploring the films of director Fatih Akin
Belonging and identity in contemporary multicultural Germany
Belonging and identity in contemporary multicultural Germany
This guest blog by Jan Topolski discusses the films of director Fatih Akin and contains plot spoilers for these.
'My sense of home has expanded. As tectonic plates come closer together, so too have Turkey and Germany grown together for me' (source)
Getürkt is the title of one of Fatih Akin's (born 1974) early short films which has a profound significance. 'Getürkt' is a German neologism, which can be translated as the process of making something more Turkish or making it Turkish again.
The word can be applied to the director himself, who is often seen as a typical example of an immigrant artist who combines the traditions of both countries. This is not, however, entirely true and Akin himself hates being called 'Turkish-German' – instead, he would rather be dubbed 'Germany’s Martin Scorsese'. The director says that he identifies with the city of Hamburg more than with the whole country.
His parents came to Germany in the 1960s together with many other 'guest workers' – Akin made a documentary about this entitled Thinking about Germany: We Forgot to Go Back (2003). The fate of the previous generation is also reflected in the feature film Solino (2002), which – unlike Akin’s other films – is not based on his screenplay. The protagonist, Romano Amato, opens an Italian restaurant in the Ruhr region and faces obstacles and misunderstandings caused by cultural differences. Similar elements can be traced in the comedy-drama Soul Kitchen, where two Greek brothers, Zinos and Illias, run a post-industrial bistro in Hamburg's docklands.
Surprisingly enough, these films revolve around not only the German-Turkish relationship, but also the stereotypes connected with the differences between the North and the South of Germany.
In one of the funniest scenes of the latter film, a rigorous female tax inspector comes to collect the owner’s debts – luckily, the main character finds some money. There happens to be a farewell party going on at Soul Kitchen during which the chef serves desserts with an aphrodisiac to put everyone in a 'good mood'. An orgy ensues and the German tax inspector joins in – at this point, all national distinctions and official roles seem to disappear.
The films mentioned above feature comedic elements, but they deal with serious misjudgement and stigmatisation, which is even clearer in Akin’s better known titles that brought him international recognition and awards, such as Head-on (2004, Golden Bear in Berlin), The Edge of Heaven (2007, Best Screenplay in Cannes) and In the Fade (2017, Golden Globe). The director uses Turkish-German stereotypes only to show how shallow they are and how they fail to describe the reality that is so dynamically changing. As he stated in an interview some years ago:
'There’s too little identification (in Turkish immigrants) with Germany itself – although this is also changing. It's not constructive for an individual to see yourself not part of the country you were born and grew up in, and instead believe your country is somewhere else. This is creating illusions. And illusions are not something you can really hold on to. I think a lot of this is due to the fact that a lot of Turks still don't feel as if they are welcome in Germany. They feel like second class citizens (…) Even a lot of second and third generation Turks feel this way. It's getting better though. They are identifying themselves more and more with Germany. But still it's too little. Many are still bound to this immovable idea of Turkey and Turkishness, without realising that Turkey itself is moving.' (source)
Head-on can serve as a perfect illustration for these changes.
A girl named Sibel and much older Cahit get to know each other at a hospital after they both attempt suicide. She is struggling to become independent and convinces him to marry her, because arranged marriage is the only way for her to get away from her conservative family. At first, they live separately, have sex with other people and party like crazy, with time – however – a relationship starts to develop between them. Sibel and Cahit seem to be outsiders, both to the German society (he earns money by collecting empty bottles from bars) and to the Turkish community (she ends up being disinherited by her parents). The last part of Head-on takes part in Istanbul, where the girl goes to meet her fate with her husband following her – coming back to the roots is typical in Akin's films, who often adopts the road movie convention.
The theme of being on the road comes back in Crossing the bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005), a documentary about the city’s music scene narrated by Einstürzende Neubaten’s Alexander Hacke – a German among Turks. That's also the case with In July (2000), where a journey to the East is a chance for a young couple to find each other and forget about Western conventions.
In fact, the film was a breath of fresh air in the director's career, which is associated with much darker films like his acclaimed debut Short Sharp Shock (1998), often compared with Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The film tells the story of three immigrants – a Greek, a Serb and a Turk – living in Akin's beloved Altona district of Hamburg. According to stereotypes that used to be prevalent in Germany, the characters should be members of a gang. The plot also includes a common theme of a thief released from prison who wants to leave his past behind and go back to Turkey with a clean slate.
The Edge of Heaven has a much more complicated screenplay with six main characters whose stories are masterfully interspersed.
The plot revolves around three relationships between parents and children. Nejat, born in Hamburg, is the son of 'Gasterbeiter' Ali, who in his late years fell in love with a prostitute, Yeter. Her daughter, Ayten, has to flee Turkey because she is a radical activist. She goes to Germany where she meets Lotte – an adventurous student whose mother, Susanne, used to be open-minded, but later adopted a petit-bourgeois mentality. The lesbian relationship between a Turkish political refugee and a privileged German teenager serves as a narrative vehicle which reflects the issues of prejudice and social status. Akin, however, pushes these clichés to the limit and The Edge of Heaven becomes another road movie when almost all of the characters set out on a journey to Istanbul – that's where they need to confront the grief after the loss of their relatives or friends and try to overcome personal limitations.
Culture and music play a significant role in this switch between the East and the West – between Turkey and Germany. One film scholar draws particular attention to the following scene:
'Focusing on The Edge of Heaven we can take Nejat as a perfect example of living between the German and the Turkish culture, as represented several times throughout the movie. For instance, Nejat's choice to buy a German bookshop in Turkey is a clear result of his dual identity that cannot be separated. In fact, the owner of the bookshop does not hesitate to express his surprise, stating: 'A Turkish professor of German from Germany ends up in a German bookshop in Turkey' Moreover, the song playing in the bookshop strengthens the meaning of this scene. In fact, as Silvery notes 'the music of Bach is heard in a banjo arrangement that styles the composer as a German contributor to the world'. Therefore, Akin's soundtrack choice creates a fusion between the German composer and the traditional Turkish music, underlining the hybridity not only of the character but also of the film’s own director.'
However, there are many more instances of this beyond the example mentioned above.
In another scene, Nejat stops at a petrol station and doesn't recognise the popular singer Kazım Koyuncu played on the radio. The owner of the station is surprised and immediately realises that his customer left the country a long time ago (we get this impression as well). The ending of The Edge of Heaven suggests that you can't forget your roots – there's no other choice than to acknowledge them or work through the issues they cause.
Difficult pasts are also the subject of Akin's two last films: The Cut (2014) dedicated to the Armenian Genocide and In the Fade (2017) about a new wave of terrorism. In the latter, a German woman named Katya loses her child and Kurdish husband – interpreter and lawyer named Nuri – in a bomb attack in Berlin. The police initially suspect that the attack is connected with his previous activity as a drug dealer or political dissident and ignore the widow’s protests. Of course, Nuri had been sentenced for jail once before and was part of a double minority – Kurds have been persecuted in Turkey for decades.
However, the real perpetrators of the bomb attack were in fact two German nationalists, who considered Nuri to be the perfect target because he provided legal and interpreting assistance to other immigrants. Akin's film is not a thriller and does not focus on crime and mystery, but rather on the long and difficult trial that Katja goes through – her traumatic experiences and the desire for revenge. Once again, two elements conflict: the law of a democratic state and the more primal need to inflict punishment – a life for a life. Would Katja be desperate enough to bring her family’s murderers to justice? And at what price?
In his films, Fatih Akin confronts us with questions vital in the contemporary multicultural society, which changes constantly and welcomes new members. He proposes a new sense of belonging and identity – local rather than national – which is evident in the tender images of Hamburg docks or Istanbul çayhanes (tea houses) presented in his works.
In Soul Kitchen, there is a recurring figure of a grumpy fisherman, who rents the same hangar as Zinos – in the beginning, we see him drinking for free and complaining loudly, but later he stands up to fight arm-in-arm with the owner. Another recurring scene in The Edge of Heaven is when Nejat, Ayten or Susanne stop to greet old backgammon players. That is the relationship between the place and the people that we should nurture – Akin seems to suggest – no matter who the people are or where they're from.
This blog post is a part of the Migration in the Arts and Sciences project, which explores how migration has shaped the arts, science and history of Europe.
The quotes above are taken from:
Fatih Akin in Conversation with Patrick Schütz, trans. Jonathan Uhlaner (2014)
Vivien Silver, Roger Hillman, Memory and Migration: An Analysis of Identity and Nostalgia in Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven and Head-on, in GFL: German as a Foreign Language, Issue 3 (2010), pp. 102–103.