Cinema between Cultures
Sibel Kekilli dancing with Filmmaker Fatih Akin on the set of 'Head On' (2003). Copyright: Wüste Filmproduktion, photo by Kerstin Stelter
Dursun moves from Turkey to Germany in order to find work, goes to work, and keeps his young wife Turna more or less a prisoner in their high-rise apartment on the pretext of protecting her from the bad influence of Western society. Turna’s wish to go out, her desire for conversation, communication, fall on deaf ears: for him, after all, it is a question of his honour. Here too, in her new homeland, the woman, married off somewhere in Anatolia to the much older man, has to bury her dreams of having a little more freedom. She is a prisoner in ‘forty square metres of Germany’ – the title of the film. One day the old man has an epileptic fit while taking a shower; he dies in the corridor. Turna sits in front of him for a very long time; eventually she pushes his corpse aside and leaves the apartment.
Nowadays, 40 Quadratmeter Deutschland [Forty Square Metres of Germany] would be cited in migration debates as a reactionary example of a cliché-laden portrayal of Turkish fellow citizens. At the time of its release, in 1987, Tewfik Baser’s film was definitive: the first film made in Germany by a Turk about a Turkish issue. Technically, the actors Özay Fecht and Yaman Okkays (who had already appeared in Güney’s classic film Sürü) were very convincing, as was Izzet Akkay’s camerawork, which told the story in long shots and rich, vivid colours. Its dark content, the exaggerated black-and-white depiction of its characters, must have originated as much in a narrative preference – or weakness – for Turkish melodrama as in tough real-life circumstances.
The example of Fassbinder
Before Baser it was mainly German filmmakers who took on the cinematic portrayal of the first migrant workers. In the beginning was Fassbinder: Katzelmacher told the story of a Greek man who falls victim to a clique of dimwits amid the cramped dreariness of a modern housing estate. Angst Essen Seele Auf [Fear Eats the Soul] developed this theme, portraying a single woman who embarks on a relationship with a younger Moroccan man and is promptly ostracised by society. The relationship, meanwhile, founders as a result of internal conflicts. Fassbinder barely attempted to give a realistic picture of migrant culture: his southerner is a stereotype whose function is to demonstrate the social coldness of post-war Germany, and in his social and cultural isolation he serves as a cipher for the lonely, narcissistic soul of the director. It seems both tragic and strange that the actor El Hedi ben Salem, after being rejected by Fassbinder, later took his own life.
The perspective of the years that followed was marked out in these two films. The foreigner – often Turkish – had a tale of woe to relate: poor folk in a cold country, the men slaves to hard graft and an archaic code of honour, the women oppressed, all of them harassed by former Nazis – and in need of redemption. The fact that these cheap clichés also had some truth to them still irritates intellectuals and the third generation of immigrants today.
Shirins Hochzeit [Shirin’s Wedding] was a pioneering work in that in this film Sander-Brahms focussed on the Turkish woman as her long-suffering subject. Shirin comes to Germany, works as a cleaning woman and ends up a streetwalker. Hark Bohm’s delightful film Yasemin pitted the power of love against the ominous power of tradition: Yasemin’s German lover becomes the romantic knight in shining armour who rides in on his motorbike to save his Turkish bride from her patriarchal clan – which also completes the cultural shift.
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