Welcome to Germany
German Film Week 2017
There is a lot going on at the Hartmanns' place: Mother Angelika's singlehanded decision to take in the asylum seeker Diallo after visiting a refugee shelter has upset her husband Richard. Naturally, the arrival of the unexpected guest causes some misunderstandings and turbulence. Then, daughter Sophie shows up without prior notice: The aimless long-term student is trying to get away from a manic admirer. And if that wasn't enough, son Philip whose nerves are worn out returns home with his son Basti. The illustrious gathering of unequal characters obviously calls for conflict and soon things get rocky with the Hartmanns.
Welcome to the Hartmanns, Germany's surprise box-office hit of 2016, tackles the refugee situation in the country up front, but instead of presenting a powerful arthouse drama that imbues the chaotic madness of the times, it uses comedy to raise issues of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, liberalism, activism, right-wing politics, conservatism, and upper-class guilt and privilege, as well as the many related concerns attached to them, with a specific focus on the German society and its values and contradictions. Sporting multiple narratives, the film centers on a Nigerian asylum seeker taken in by a well-off family in Munich, and his arrival in the household ignites ongoing domestic crises from each family member: a father dealing with old age, a mother dissatisfied with life and looking for a higher purpose, their thirtysomething daughter stalked by a creep and barely managing to finish school, their workaholic son always in a fit of rage, and their grandson being exposed to the crude side of hip-hop culture and dealing with poor grades.
The film juggles everything, and the result is as messy as it is cartoonish. It is similar to several mainstream fare that would take on a big sociopolitical issue and dilute it in jokes or one-liners, upheld by its timeliness and relevance, by the strong subject that it’s trying to discuss but ends up simplifying. Welcome to the Hartmanns, of course, has its merits: the comedy works occasionally, especially when it goes overboard and becomes ridiculous (the stalker camping outside the house to protest and finding allies; the brother being forced to stay in a mental asylum; the father screaming when he’s mad). Granted, it has fantastic moments, but the bigger picture is distorted, slanted, and blurred. There is no problem with optimism, but in the end the film winds up being a fantasy, one that uses its marginalized lead character as a device to fulfill the film’s idea of entertainment.
It is a daring thing to try and tackle an issue as complex as the current refugee crisis in what is essentially a broad, mainstream family dramedy. But this is clearly an issue of the now in Germany, and there is merit to the strikingly casual comedic approach that Welcome to the Hartmanns takes in studying its nuances. Angelika Hartmann (Senta Berger), retired and restless, decides without really consulting her husband or her grown up children that she wants to take in a refugee. Diallo Makabouri, a Nigerian seeking asylum in Germany, ends up in their home, and shakes up the lives of the Hartmanns.
The film isn’t really about Diallo, though. It’s about the effect his presence has on this affluent German family. This is sort of problematic, but the approach fits the film’s modest ambitions. It isn’t really trying to ask the hard questions, but it’s willing to hint at them. It plays with the strangeness inherent to a certain level of affluence, how it warps perceptions and creates dissatisfaction. These people should be all right, but they aren’t, and Diallo and his tragic backstory put that all in sharper relief.
The humor is mild and the drama is relaxed. There are a few too many subplots, each family member afforded an arc. It isn’t the most challenging film, considering its subject, but that might be the most remarkable thing about it. It can be difficult to talk about certain controversial issues, and it could be considered an achievement that this movie is able to skate past the discomfort and deliver something rather pleasant. It shouldn’t be the end of the discussion, but maybe it’s a way to ease into it.