Heimat— the German word for homeland. It is a word that is fraught with anxiety and double-meaning for the Turkish population of Germany. And, as a result, Heimat as it pertains to Turkish immigrants living in Germany is a theme throughout German cinema. The five exemplary films I’ve thought of for this post raise questions of homeland, identity, destiny, and duty for the Turkish people who were once, and perhaps in certain ways still are, displaced within a nation that is culturally and linguistically far away from their own– and yet who, with every passing generation, have come to consider Germany as somewhat of a home. Since these examples are German films, of course, they raise just as many questions about how the presence of Turkish people in Germany has shaped German history and German cultural identity. I think the relations between Turks and Germans within Germany are so fascinating and important, and yet I do think the films that explore these relations only make up an oft-overlooked subsection of German cinema. So, I’m here to highlight this subsection, starting with:
Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland (2011)
This isn’t necessarily the most well-known of these five films. (I actually watched it in Berlin during my semester abroad there.) But Yasemin Samdereli’s comedy Almanya – Welcome to Germany
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is a beautifully told story about three generations of a Turkish immigrant family, and it will also give you the crash course you need on the history of Turkish immigration to Germany. The film depicts all the everlasting emotional turmoil that would result from such an uprooting. It paints a family portrait that is as intimate and honest as it is sprawling in both time and geography.
This first generation comes to Germany because the patriarch is to be one of the many Turkish workers sent there in the 1960s and 1970s. In real life, this was all part of the “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle)– Western Germany needed workers for this economic boom, so the West German government negotiated a trade of labor deal with Turkey, inviting Turks to work in factories as “Gastarbeiter“: literally “guest workers.” It was meant to be temporary. But many families ended up staying due to new found obligations in the new land.
Filmmakers like Samdereli have since taken to this visual medium to tell stories of the aftermath of this: stories which prove German-Turkish relations may always be deeply entrenched in this period of history.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
The most iconic film I could think of that illustrates this kind of tension but somewhat more from the German point of view (and, admittedly not toward Turks specifically) is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf). A classic of the New German Cinema movement directed by one of its masters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the film tackles the legacy of prejudice in Germany that the country, even generations after World War II, had still been grappling with. This time, the prejudice is against the immigrants who’d come in the same wave (and, most likely, with the same initial purpose) as the Turks, when a middle-aged German woman falls in love with a young, handsome Moroccan man. The interracial mixing and the age difference are enough to make her community and her grown children squirm, highlighting their own insecurities about cultural boundaries being broken, and testing just how possible and acceptable– socially and culturally– it is to break those boundaries.
This brings me to my final three examples and their brilliant, talented director who’s made a career out of carefully considering these boundaries and his own dual cultural identity:
Fatih Akin’s In July (im Juli, 2000), Head On (gegen die Wand, 2004) and The Edge of Heaven (auf der anderen Seite, 2007)
For anyone looking to get really acquainted with this topic in a way that will particularly move and haunt you, I think Akin’s films are the way to go. im Juli
is actually a very light-hearted film, so I wouldn’t say it’s essential viewing for that reason, but it’s worth watching anyway and certainly worth mentioning here. It is a rom-com and a road movie, in which our protagonist Daniel (Moritz Bleibtreu) travels from Hamburg to Turkey chasing after what he believes is his destiny and his one true love. There is one seemingly minor element of the plot that is in fact quite thematically significant though, exploring the cultural and geographical borders and boundaries between Turkey and Germany. And that is the part of this otherwise charming, feel-good film that I want to particularly point out: one character, Isa (who gives Daniel a ride in the last leg of his journey) is carrying the corpse of a Turkish man in his trunk. It is in fact his grandfather, who died while
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visiting family in Germany.
In The Edge of Heaven, there is a visual motif of coffins being loaded onto and unloaded from airplanes at an airport in Istanbul. This motif and Isa transporting his deceased grandfather together prove a kind of fixation on homeland in its most literal (and yet, most existential, too) incarnation; where is “home,” and how important is it that we are returned to wherever that is when we die?
The Edge of Heaven weaves together disparate storylines and connects seemingly disconnected characters, some of whom are Turks living in Germany, others of whom are Germans who ultimately end up in Turkey. The film, at its deepest and most thought-provoking, is about death and love, purpose and family (both the family we are born into and the family which we find and choose for ourselves). Akin blurs the cultural differences between Germans and Turks by braiding these intensely human experiences so intricately together, forging instead a common understanding through such experiences.
Then, there is Head On: the story of two German Turks living in Hamburg, who meet at a hospital after both try to commit suicide. Sibel embodies what it is like to be conflicted by heritage and home culture. She lives in an oppressive environment, with her traditional Turkish family whose customs and expectations for her prevent her from having any of the carefree, young-modern-German fun she wants to. So, more or less immediately after their chance encounter, she asks 40-something Cahit to marry her because he is Turkish too; it would alleviate the pressure her parents put on her to marry a Turk, and it’d get her out of the house, which is all she really cares about.
Despite their intentions to treat their marriage as nothing more than a formality and to treat each other as nothing more than roommates, the pair do fall in love. But, it is a love that is doomed, and the story of repentance, redemption and regret that follows takes our lovers, separately, to Istanbul, a beautiful but potentially dangerous hub that is featured in all three of these films. So, even though all three of these films do deal with the ways in which Turkish immigrants and their offspring live in Germany– the cultural conflicts, interpersonal conflicts and inner conflicts they face– these films also feel like a reckoning, somehow. Akin’s films seem to capture the complex essence of Turkish-German identity and they, perhaps more importantly, all take us on a physical, philosophical and emotional journey back to Turkey– back to the Heimat— in order to explore this identity in all its duality and complexity.