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From Migrant to Mainstream: Thirty Years of Turkish-German Cinema

Emeritus Professor Rob Burns, German Studies

Published August 2013

Turkish-German films may not yet be displacing Hollywood in the box office, but recent decades have seen this genre increasingly moving from the margins to the mainstream. What began in 1970s Germany as Gastarbeiterkino ('guest worker cinema') from Germany's significant population of Turkish immigrants has fostered an award-winning diasporic oeuvre. Emeritus Professor Rob Burns tracks the development of German cinema's fascinating new breed.

n_turkish_german.jpgThe making of a distinct Turkish-German cinema over recent decades is an instance of what, more generally, has variously been termed minority cinema, exilic cinema, transnational cinema, accented cinema, hyphenated cinema or diasporic cinema; that is to say, a cinema that addresses ‘the consequences of migration, displacement, diaspora and exile from the perspective of private lives and personal relationships and through the key categories of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and race’ (Sabine Hake). Migration – or, to be more precise, labour migration – was central to West Germany’s 'economic miracle' (Wirtschaftswunder) due to the shortage of men of working age after World War II. Between 1955 and 1968 the Federal Republic concluded labour recruitment treaties with eight countries in Southern Europe and North Africa. By the time of German unification in 1990 the number of foreign workers in Germany – given the official, patronising label of Gastarbeiter (guest worker) – totalled 1.9 million, with the overall foreign population standing at 5.8 million, almost a third of which were Turks, the largest ethnic minority in Germany.

Unlike German literature, which virtually ignored the representation of migration in the Federal Republic until the migrants themselves sought to fill the void, the New German Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s produced a significant body of films – categorised initially as Gastarbeiterkino (guest worker cinema) – which foregrounded life in Germany as perceived from a migrant’s perspective. While featuring characters from a range of national backgrounds – including Turkey, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Pakistan, Morocco, Chile and China – nearly all these movies fall into the same category of the ‘social problem’ film. While the prototype is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – which marked the real breakthrough of the New German Cinema amongst foreign critics when it was awarded the International Critics’ Prize at the Cannes Festival of 1974 – the trend is arguably epitomised by Hark Bohm’s Yasemin (1988). Set in Hamburg, the film, which tells the story of a Turkish Juliet (Yasemin) imperilled by her romance with a German Romeo (Jan), has proved enduringly popular, not least in the cinema programmes organised by the Goethe Institute (the cultural arm of the German Foreign Office), where the movie has habitually been praised for its sensitive portrayal of the clash between Turkish tradition and Western modernity. For others, however, rather than fostering transcultural understanding as the film’s promoters claimed, Yasemin essentially endorses long-held stereotypes ‘according to which German society is considered enlightened and civilised, while the Turkish patriarchy is bound to archaic rituals and traditional beliefs’ (Deniz Göktürk).

The 1990s saw the emergence of a new generation of migrant filmmakers whose work is above all notable for the sustained attempt to dismantle rather than recycle such cultural stereotypes. Although far from a homogeneous group, these filmmakers nevertheless share a common motivation in their desire to break with the dominant image sustained by earlier portrayals of migrants in Germany, namely the migrant as victim. For example, Fatih Akin, arguably the most successful of these ‘young Turks’, began his career not as a director but as an actor and the main reason why he started to make his own films was that he was no longer willing to play the ‘stereotype Turk’ in film productions where, as he put it, ‘migrants could only appear in one guise: as a problem’. Similarly, the notion of being ‘trapped between two cultures’ is rejected in favour of marking out a ‘third space’ where more culturally hybrid models of identity can be tested and enacted. As Akin explains:

"I see having grown up in two cultures [he was raised in Hamburg by Turkish parents] as an advantage. That gives me security. I do not have to transmit a message of tolerance or deny one of my cultures. I simply link them – in my person and in my films."

One indication of the freedom migrants increasingly enjoy is the cinematic spaces they now inhabit: no longer trapped within claustrophobic domestic spaces or other sites of confinement, they now tend to be situated in a multiplicity of urban and metropolitan environments where they can demonstrate a new and confident mobility.

This change in the cinematic portrayal from interior entrapment to external movement is illustrated by four movies, all of which, in their differing ways, could be considered to have broken new ground: Sinan Çetin’s Berlin in Berlin (1993) and the first feature films of Thomas Arslan (Brothers and Sisters – 1995), Fatih Akin (Short Sharp Shock – 1998) and Kutluğ Ataman (Lola + Bilidikid – 1998). The leading significance of Berlin in Berlin is not simply on account of chronology: by cleverly reversing the entrapment narrative (while at the same time tapping into a major political debate of that time in Germany, on political asylum) and mixing genres (thriller, action movie, melodrama, love story and comedy) Çetin’s film opened up a variety of spectator positions and appealed to – or possibly provoked – a number of different audiences. Thus the film was acclaimed by one German reviewer as the moment when "minor cinema caught up with the mainstream".

Film poster for The Edge of Heaven (Auf der Anderen Seite)One indication of the way in which this cinema has moved from the margins to the mainstream is that – in the German context at any rate – the very term ‘migrant cinema’ (along with all its various synonyms) is rapidly falling out of use. Of course, many of the ‘Turkish-German’ directors flatly rejected being subsumed under such a classification from the outset. Another indication is the success these filmmakers have increasingly enjoyed since the turn of the century – success that can be measured in terms of both box-office popularity and international recognition. The Golden Bear awarded to Head-On at the Berlin Film Festival in 2004 is just one of many accolades that directors like Fatih Akin and Thomas Arslan have garnered over the last fifteen years or so. Such critical and popular successes have in turn enabled some of these filmmakers to escape the German framework of production subsidy that in the 1980s and 1990s typically promoted a "patronising culture of compassion" (Göktürk). Whereas for much of that time diasporic cinema in Germany was more or less synonymous with a ‘cinema of duty’ wedded to modes of documentary realism and socially engaged melodrama, these filmmakers now have the opportunity and the confidence to avail themselves of the rich diversity of film genres.

This is not to say that the tradition of social realism has not been sustained (for example, by films such as Yüksel Yavuz’s April Children [1998], A Little Bit of Freedom [2002] and Buket Alakuş’s My Mother [2000]) but alongside films in that mould there are melodramas (such as Akin’s Head-On [2004] and Züli Aladağ’s Rage [2006]), road movies (like Akin’s In July [2000] and Ayşe Polat’s Tour Abroad [2000]), comedies (like Anno Saul’s Kebab Connection [2004], Akin’s Soul Kitchen [2009] and Yasemin Samderelli’s Almanya: Welcome in Germany [2011]), gangster movies (like Akin’s Short Sharp Shock [1998] and Thomas Arslan’s Dealer [1998]), ‘coming-of-age’ films (such as Sülbiye Günar’s Karamuk [2002] and Ayşe Polat’s Tour Abroad [2000]) and documentaries (Fatih Akin’s We Forgot to Go Back [2001], Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul [2005] and Thomas Arslan’s From Far Away [2006]). Equally, some films, like Akin’s magisterial, award-winning The Edge of Heaven (2007), simply defy generic classification.

Significantly, a director like Thomas Arslan, who might be expected to find mainstream genres constraining, maintains the opposite:

"In a genre film, you don’t have to create the world from scratch – there is a range of existing elements which you can and must work with. In this case [Arslan’s thriller In the Shadows (2010)] I found such restrictions liberating."

And liberating – in the broadest political sense of the term – is a quality that can still be associated with Turkish-German cinema, for as the critic Georg Seeßlen has argued:

"Directors like Thomas Arslan and Fatih Akin have experienced both Turkish and German cultures and move as freely between them as possible. The German-Turkish film is thus an enrichment in terms of both dialogue between the cultures and the anticipation of a new culture of freedom."

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Rob BurnsRob Burns studied at the University of Birmingham, with an intercalated year at Hamburg University, and on graduating in 1971, was awarded the Karl Damann Prize for German. In 1972 he completed an MA in Modern German Studies at the University of Warwick and a PhD in German Studies in 1978. He took up a post as Lecturer in German Studies at Warwick in 1974 and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1989, Reader in 1996 and gained a personal chair in 1999. From 1995 until 1999 he was a Visiting Fellow in the Institute of German Studies at the University of Birmingham. In 1993 he became a (founder) member of the editorial board of Debatte – Review of Contemporary German Affairs, a membership he has retained on its successor, Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe. He has been Head of the German Department at Warwick on three occasions, 1991 – 1994, 1999 – 2001 and 2007 – 2012.

Image: Türken in Hamburg by Heinrich Klaffs (via Flickr)
天堂邊緣 The Edge of Heaven by KMar Tsai (via Flickr)