There are two Turkish worlds in Germany today. The first – the world of the old Turkish Gastarbeiter, ex-guest-workers who came to fuel the German Wirtschaftswunder, and who, for whatever reason, never left. They congregate in enigmatic, featureless Turkish social clubs and cafes, sipping tea and playing tavla (backgammon) while rehashing the politics of exile under framed portraits of Atatürk or Erdoğan (as the case may be).
And then there are the children, who have grown up straddling two worlds, and who find such settings stuffy and decidedly uncool. Their generation is presently stamping German culture in ways unforeseen thirty or forty years ago, when walls were daubed with “Türken Raus!” (Turks out) slogans and Turks still had house bans at Berlin discotheques.
Germany’s most renown film director, Fatih Akin, is a second generation German-Turk, who has made his torn identity the stuff of great cinema. The son of Turkish immigrants, his father settled in Germany in 1965 and worked in a carpet cleaning company. Akin grew up in the multi-cultural Hamburg quarter of Altona, had a, by many accounts, wild youth as a member of a local rock band before entering the theater, first as a member of an off-theater group and then embarking on his own directing career armed with a super-8-camera.
Akin made a splash on the international film scene in 2004 with Gegen die Wand (Head On), which won the Golden Bear at the 54th Berlinale. The film is about a complicated and tumultuous love affair between two confused second generation German-Turks, torn between Germany and Turkey, tradition and modernity, sanity and insanity. The two meet in a mental clinic after both attempt suicide, marry in an oddly traditional, yet off-the-cuff Turkish wedding ceremony – at the insistence of the trad-bound family of the bridesmaid (Sibel Kekilli). In a parody of a traditional Turkish wedding, replete with wedding salon, hired band and baksheesh, the couple snort coke behind the scenes, while grudgingly engaging in the various Turkish wedding rituals. Suddenly, things spin out of control after leading man, Birol Ünel in the heat of the moment kills a jealous boyfriend of wife. Ünel goes to prison for a stint. Kekilli goes to Istanbul to start anew, but finds life full of new complications.
A year later Akin made Crossing the Bridge, an equally critically acclaimed documentary movie about the vibrant Istanbul music scene, which presented an alluring picture of Istanbul that was a revelation for many in Germany and the West.
Fatih Akin’s last film, Aus dem Nichts (In the Fade) is a 2017 drama film staring Dian Kruger as a German woman whose husband and son are killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by neo-Nazis.
Akin says he regards his Turkish immigrant background as an “enrichment” and adds that, had he not grown up in Germany, he would very likely not have been drawn to cinema.
In addition, he credits Germany for instilling in him an awareness of European fascism, which wouldn’t be a part of his mental makeup had he grown up in Turkey, which he says “lacks a critical view of its own bloody history.”
Perhaps the unique gift, though, of growing up between Germany and Turkey for Akin is his ability to recognize the limits of Western culture and to demarcate the frontlines of cultural difference.
“I learned that when you move on both sides and can compare both Germany and Turkey, then you can apprehend global connections,” says Akin.
“When you can compare Turkey with Germany then you can understand the US and Mexican conflict, or Israel and Palestine. Since I am at home in two worlds I have a better estimation of interconnections.”
Embarking on a career in the arts for a Turk in Germany is often fraught with familial conflict. Many German Turks come from a working-class environment and a society that is often patriarchal, where religion plays a dominant role and artists are regarded with suspicion.
The late German-Turkish actor Birol Ünel (1961-2020) was most famous for his role in Akin’s film Gegen Die Wand and was known in Berlin as something of a Kreuzberg barfly and disheveled rabble-rouser – an only slightly less extreme version of his lead role in Akin’s 2004 film.
Speaking to me shortly before his passing, he told me about growing up with artistic inclinations in Germany with Turkish gastarbeiter parents, who had their own ideas about how his life should turn out.
“My father threw me out of the house,” Ünel told me in one of his rare sober moments. “He said he didn’t want to see me anymore. In the end, finally, he accepted me. I was in the second year in acting school. He had to go from Bremen to Hanover, to the Turkish consulate. And he said, ‘okay, I can’t walk by the door of my son without saying hello’. He called up and said, ‘I’m coming over for a coffee’. I said, ‘I’ll drink a coffee with you, but only in the school refectory.’
“I got there half an hour late and my father was sitting there with Jean Souberon, one of my teachers, at a table and was having a great time.”
From then on – while father and son often didn’t see eye to eye about many things – Ünel’s father more or less reconciled himself to his son’s acting career.
“The problem is that all the Turkish people who come here are like me, from working-class Turkish families,” says Ali Kepenek, also a second generation young Turkish artist in Germany.
Kepenek has taken photos of Berlin Hells Angels, Istanbul transvestites and is currently working on a series involving London rent-boys. London is where he currently lives, though he maintains an apartment in Berlin.
“They [Turkish working-class, gastarbeiter] come all from little villages, like me. Art doesn’t pay your rent in the mind of many Turkish parents. And if someone is talented there are so many different reasons why you don’t get on track. The Turkish community is very protective and it works according to special rules.”
There are plenty of examples of young Turkish artists in Berlin, from rappers to DJs, theater directors and actors, who have broken with the past to pursue artistic visions.
Many Turkish creatives claim that in Germany they feel Turkish, but when they go ‘back’ to Turkey they often feel foreign and out of touch, regarded by natives as alemanci– “of the Germans”; more German than Turkish. It puts them in an awkward position, gives rise to conflicts, which however – as Fatih Akin shows in Gegen Die Wand – are what goes into the creation of great art.
One of the conclusions, which can be drawn from an examination of Turkish-German culture in Germany is that the immigrant experience is a rich source of stories, inherent drama. Cultures clash. Tragedy is never far away. Pain and a feeling of rootlessness are common themes.
A hybrid identity is hewed out by individuals who see themselves as neither fish nor fowl. For Turkish musicians, film-makers, DJs and photographers, art has the function of forging a new trans-national identity as well as adding a new facet and new depth to the cultural scene in Germany.