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Berlinale Bloggers 2021
A strong woman in a legal no man’s land

Alexander Scheer and Meltem Kaptan in: "Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush". Director: Andreas Dresen
Alexander Scheer and Meltem Kaptan in: "Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush". Director: Andreas Dresen | Photo (detail) © Luna Zscharnt / Pandora Film

A brilliant performance by actors in Andreas Dresen’s “Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush” takes us back to the case of Guantanamo detainee Murat Kurnaz.

By Philipp Bühler

“Get off my snowdrops!” Rabiye Kurnaz is happy to speak to the press – but defends her principles too. Andreas Dresen’s Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush (Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush) in the Competition strand is the strong portrait of a mother who does absolutely everything to get her son out of prison. Meltem Kaptan plays this woman with a stunning mix of sincerity, energy and humour. Maybe being a skilled stand-up comedian is what enables the German-Turkish actor, who was born in Gütersloh in 1980, to convey the deep despair that threatens to break her heart as a mother – despite all her strength and vitality. At any rate, Kaptan’s performance puts her into the running for the Silver Bear. As Rabiye might say: “Are you serious?”

A formidable duo

The case of Murat Kurnaz was a German political hot potato. The “Bremen Taliban”, as he was quickly dubbed by the press, was arrested without charge and tortured in the US prison camp Guantanamo in Cuba between January 2002 and August 2006. Dresen found it impossible to portray such unimaginable suffering. However he was able to identify with the tireless struggle of a housewife and mother. The vociferous Rabiye joins forces with level-headed lawyer Bernhard Docke from Bremen (played by Dresen’s regular actor Alexander Scheer) to form an unconventional team. The meticulous legal eagle has this plan: a collective lawsuit before the US Supreme Court will rule that exempting Guantanamo from the US justice system is unconstitutional. Docke’s character explains these legally complex circumstances to a bewildered Rabiye in the film, and therefore also to viewers. She on the other hand demonstrates how a German-Turkish family functions: Mum’s in charge, where she’s concerned, at least!

Political statement

Once again, it’s fascinating to see how authentically Dresen gets to grips with a wide variety of settings as a film director (Gundermann, 2018). The film walks a fine line in political terms too. Obviously it takes an accusatory stance against the Bush administration of the time, which invalidated fundamental principles of a society governed by law in the “War on Terror”. In Washington however, where they submit a petition, lawyer Docke also shows his client the holy shrines of US democracy, which ultimately ensured a “fantastic ruling” – to quote the filmmaker at the film’s press conference. He also had a clear message for German politicians on that occasion, who even now have not accepted these historical mistakes, and who “deny responsibility for the whole affair”. A striking historical coincidence: the very next day after the film premiered at the Berlinale, Frank-Walter Steinmeier received cross-party support for his re-election as German president. He cut a controversial figure at the time of the “Kurnaz Case” in his role as intelligence service chief of staff.