Birol Ünel (18 August 1961 – 3 September 2020) is dead at 59. His death is not exactly breaking news. He died three months ago of cancer. I found out about it only now, and I can hardly believe it.
Kreuzberg barfly, disheveled rabble-rouser, man possessed – an only slightly less extreme version of his lead role in Fatih Akin’s ‘Gegen die Wand’ (‘Head On’), the last time I saw Birol Ünel was five years ago. He had made the cover of BZ, for laying drunk and homeless on the pavement at Kottbusser Tor, seemingly at the low ebb of his career.
Ünel was one of Germany’s most touted actors, who rose to fame in ‘Gegen die Wand’ (2004) in which he played a binge-drinking German Turk, who tries to commit suicide by driving his car against a wall, and then during a stay in a psychiatric clinic hooks up with a Turkish women (Sibel Kekilli), leading to various pointless antics, an eventual marriage proposal and a denouement in Turkey.
After achieving fame for his role in Akin’s movie, which won the German Film Prize, Ünel went off the deep end in a case of life mirroring art, achieving notoriety for his fits of rage, drunken rows and brushes with the law. This only endeared him all the more to Berlin’s tabloid press, who frequently reported with a dose of schadenfreude on Ünel’s self-destructive carousals in an and around Kottbusser Tor, Ünel’s stomping ground, where he was frequently to be seen sitting side by side akies and junkies who were the denizens of that spot.
I first got to know Ünel around 2009 at a Neukölln Gypsy bar, occasionally frequented by Ünel (Ünel professed to love Gypsy music and played the role of a Gypsy gold dealer in Tony Gatlif’s Transylvania (2006)). I was drinking with a Serbian guitar player when Ünel sat himself down at our table, and, after smashing a beer bottle, urged the musician play a song. Refusing to take no for an answer, Ünel produced a fifty euro note from his pocket and stuck it to the forehead of the musician. “Play!” he demanded imperiously.
Later I got to know Ünel better and frequently sat opposite him at the basement bar of Ballhaus Naunyn, where he sometimes tended bar.
Ünel told me about his life growing up in Bremen with a mother who was illiterate and a father who was a ship welder on the docks. There were fights when Ünel announced his plans to study acting. Ünel was ultimately chucked out of the house.
After studying at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Hanover, Ünel worked with directors like Frank Castorf, before he got a foot in the door to the film industry. He played roles (mostly petty criminals) in “Tatort” or in “Ein Fall für Zwei” before he was discovered by Fatih Akin, who used him in a supporting role in his 2000 road movie “Im Juli”.
Ünel has drawn associations with Klaus Kinski, for his shenanigans in front and off camera. He was reportedly a difficult person to deal with professionally and privately, often drinking on the set. In Fatih Akin’s “Soul Kitchen” (2009), Birol played another true-to life character: a hot-tempered cook, who screams and shouts, and generally raises hell.
“He’s a crazy guy. He’s evil, like a devil. But he loves food,“ Ünel told me, when I spoke to him in 2009. “I don’t want a kind of normal figure, good and bourgeois. It’s boring for me. There has to be a dark side somewhere.”
Asked what attracted him to Berlin, Ünel said, “artists without money. Rubbish. Doing something with rubbish. Old woods. Painting with blood. There is a ghost in this city” – by which he probably meant “spirit”.
I lost track of Birol for several years. I knew, though, that he was not doing well. He was spending less and less time in front of the camera and more and more time at Kotti with a bottle in his hand. The BZ declared him a has-been, and spoke sorrowfully about so much wasted talent.
I saw him in 2015 sitting beside a couple of drunks at Kottbusser Tor. He was homeless. His fellow flat mates had kicked him out of the WG where he was living. He had been shooting a film in Cologne, but he had pegged it and come back to Berlin. And now he was sitting here, alone and without a roof over his head. Mid September there was a front page picture in the BZ of Ünel lying, one hand in his shirt the other in his pants in front of a späti at Kottbusser Tor. Could the man have sunk any lower?
But the world hadn’t forgotten Birol. It appeared, friends had seen the BZ story and taken pity on him. The film director and screenwriter Hüseyin Yigit (42), paid for Birol’s ticket back to Cologne to continue shooting the movie.
“Birol is my best friend, I love him,” Yigit said in the BZ.
“I’m glad to be here and to have a roof over my head,” said Ünel, who claimed to be on the road to reform, cutting his drinking down to four or five beers a day. “Berlin can be a moloch. Especially for someone who has a fire in his bones.”
A couple of days later Ünel was back in Berlin. He had pulled another runner and was drunk again. “Can you put me up?” he slurred.
Well now, the man was dead. “The Turkish Klaus Kinsky”, actor in 70 films. He burnt the candle at both ends. “Be one of a kind” – that’s what his name meant in Turkish. And that he was.