Refugees in Contemporary German Cinema Welcome in German

“Guten Tag, Ramón” by Jorge Ramírez-Suárez
“Guten Tag, Ramón” by Jorge Ramírez-Suárez | © Twentieth Century Fox

A “welcome culture” for refugees and asylum-seekers has yet to be established in many cases in Germany. It is not only politicians and society who need to step up to the plate – filmmakers can also do their bit.

Early 2015 saw a number of films released in cinemas which engage in different ways and very directly with the situation faced by refugees and asylum-seekers in Germany. Clearly filmmakers are not afraid to tackle this issue, one which also dominates social discussion at present. It would also appear that the German film industry is now willing to address such themes directly in the hope that audiences will be receptive to them.

Naturally there have long been German films about encounters and confrontations between different cultures. Such multicultural films and films about migration look back at the first and second generations of migrant workers or embark on a quest for identity from the perspective of subsequent generations. In films such as Solino (2002) by Fatih Akin, a director of Turkish descent, the focus is frequently on conflicts within migrant families between traditional and modern ways, and almost always on the question of integration.

Delayed response

What is comparatively new, however in German cinema, is the intense engagement with the fates of refugees and the situation faced by asylum-seekers, in films such as Land in Sicht (Land in Sight, 2013) by Antje Kruska and Judith Keil about three refugees who find themselves in forced limbo while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed or Die Farbe des Ozeans (The Colour of the Ocean, 2011), a feature film by Maggie Peren about refugees who arrive on Gran Canaria by boat and encounter German tourists.

It also took nearly quarter of a century before the attacks on a residential block accommodating asylum-seekers and Vietnamese migrants in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in 1992 became the subject of a film – despite the fact that this marked the beginning of a long series of attacks on asylum-seekers’ hostels in Germany. The film Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark. (We Are Young. We Are Strong) by Burhan Qurbani, a director who was born in Germany in 1980, celebrated its premiere at the Hof International Film Festival in 2014.

Times are changing

More than 53 million people were displaced around the world in 2014, the highest number since the end of the Second World War. The influx of refugees and asylum-seekers into Germany has risen significantly, not least because of the crises in Europe and the civil war in Syria. This has given rise to unrest among Germany’s population, especially since xenophobic sentiment has been budding for years, as for example regular studies by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung show. Right-wing movements and indeed political parties, are taking advantage of such diffuse sentiment to generate fear. Filmmakers are responding more quickly to the changing political und social climate this time, however, and are making short films like Behrooz Karamizade’s Bahar in Wonderland (2013) about a girl fleeing to Germany with her father to escape the chaos of war in Syria. Films for children are also addressing the issue. Lola auf der Erbse (Lola and the Pea, 2015) by Thomas Heinemann is about an eleven-year-old girl who lives on a houseboat with her mother and wants to help her new classmate who is living in Germany illegally with his family.

A number of formally different films on the same subject – a social fairy tale, a documentary and a comedy – were released in cinemas at the beginning of 2015.
“Guten Tag, Ramón”, Trailer (youtube.com) | © Twentieth Century Fox

Guten Tag, Ramón by Jorge Ramírez-Suárez, a Mexican director who lives in Germany, is about a young illegal immigrant from Mexico who travels to Germany in an attempt to track down his friend’s aunt in Wiesbaden. When he fails to find the aunt, Ramón tries to survive the harsh winter on the streets alone until a lonely old lady takes care of him. The two different generations gradually become closer, a process that ends with an unexpected “solution to the problem”, though its fairy-tale character renounces any claim to realism or general applicability.

Germany’s “welcome culture” and German language skills

Willkommen auf Deutsch (i.e. Welcome in German), a documentary film by Carsten Rau and Hauke Wendler, is quite different: based on two “typical” places in the Hamburg-Harburg district where the authorities are searching for suitable accommodation for asylum-seekers, the film explores Germany’s “welcome culture”. Supporters and opponents of these measures are given the chance to have their say, as are a number of asylum-seekers and, an old woman who works as a volunteer. This is a film which calls for a different social and political approach to refugees and asylum-seekers.
“300 Worte Deutsch”, Trailer (youtube.com) | © DCM

Züli Aladağs exaggerated comedy 300 Worte Deutsch (i.e. 300 Words in German) is about prejudices: Turkish women wishing to get married obtain fake certificates of their German language skills – at a Turkish branch of the Goethe-Institut, of all places. They are supposed to be going to Germany to embark on marriages arranged in the traditional manner by their fathers. The director of Cologne’s immigration authority is doing everything he can to deport these “illegal freeloaders” as quickly as possible, relying on the support of his new employee, his nephew. When his nephew falls in love with the self-confident daughter of the local imam, however, Turkish and German clichés and expectations about families are quickly shaken to their core. In his satirical and exaggerated comedy, Züli Aladağ uses a great deal of wordplay and situational comedy to take entrenched prejudices ad absurdum in 300 Worte Deutsch – prejudices which not only dominate everyday life between Turkish “immigrants” and the immigration authority, but are also widespread among the population. One can only hope that these films are able to do something to change this state of affairs and to contribute to a better understanding among peoples and cultures.