Fatih Akin's Cinema and the New Sound of Europe by Berna Gueneli
Anyone who has paid attention to German cinema of the past couple of decades will surely know the work of writer-director Fatih Akin, whose films include such award-winning, internationally acclaimed features as Gegen die Wand (2004) and Auf der anderen Seite (2007). Akin made his debut, after directing a couple of shorts as a student at Hamburg's Hochschule für bildende Künste, with Kurz und schmerzlos (1998), a kind of update to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973) with striking affinities to John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995), set in Akin's native Hamburg-Altona neighborhood. The child of Turkish immigrants, who came to Germany as guest workers in the mid-1960s, Akin was born in the northern German city in 1973. The bulk of his cinematic output, from Kurz und schmerzlos through Der goldene Handschuh (2019), is set in Hamburg and in the Altona district, yet often with a certain tug toward Istanbul and Turkey, more generally.
Although Akin has earned plenty of recognition from scholars and critics, garnering a steady stream of articles, profiles, and reviews, he has not received a book-length treatment of his career (Daniela Berghahn's 2015 BFI Film Classics monograph on Gegen die Wand notwithstanding). This is part of what makes Berna Gueneli's thoughtful, engaging, and remarkably ambitious study, Fatih Akin's Cinema and the New Sound of Europe, such a welcome addition. Gueneli focuses principally on three of Akin's best-known features—Im Juli (2000), his early road movie that follows a twisted path from Hamburg to Istanbul, and the first two entries to his Liebe, Tod und Teufel trilogy, Gegen die Wand and Auf der anderen Seite (2007), each receive a chapter—as a means of understanding how they point toward a "normalization of ethnic minorities in Europe and in European cinema" (6). By taking the wide-scope approach that she does, Gueneli moves Akin from the overly circumscribed German Turkish, or Turkish German, context and instead looks at his work as a prime example of "a transnational film history" which, as she puts it further, "changes our perception of traditionally existing national film archives and museum" (32).
As the full title of her book suggests, Gueneli is concerned with the "new" sounds (it's curious to me that the singular "sound" is used over the plural) of Europe in Akin's work. Beginning with Im Juli, she calls attention to such critical aspects as the inclusion of the local Hamburg band Niños con Bombas, and their song "Velocidad" (Speed), as a foil for conveying the polyglot universe in which Akin's work resides (in a similar vein, readers may recall that film's ganja-induced rendition of "Blue Moon," with the two protagonists in full levitation while on a freighter headed down the Danube). Likewise, she observes how the Afro-German character in the film engages in a kind of "code switching and role playing" (64), something that we see in Kurz und [End Page 213] schmerzlos with the three hoodlums—one Turk, one Greek, one Serb—mimicking both the broken German of their immigrant parents and the stylized, self-conscious patois of the streets.
That same sort of "code switching," moving rather effortlessly between one language or dialect and another, is on full display in Gegen die Wand, as the two leads, Cahit (Birol Ünel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), both Turkish transplants in Hamburg and both "character[s] in transit" (91), negotiate their twin allegiances in a way that is often articulated in distinct sounds. As she does in her chapter on Im Juli, Gueneli draws due attention to the music used in the film (e.g., the recurrent Turkish chorus, filmed along the Bosporus, which is used to poignant effect between the core segments of the film or, equally affecting, Wendy Rene's mid-1960s R&B hit "After Laughter (Comes Tears)" played as Sibel rides an amusement park roller-coaster). To my mind, the hopped-up dance number between Cahit and Sibel, listening to Sisters of Mercy's "Temple of Love" and shouting at the top of their lungs "punk is not dead!" encapsulates the kind of subcultural negotiation that Akin's characters are frequently made to perform.
Gueneli devotes an equally instructive chapter (fittingly titled "The Sound of Music") to Auf der anderen Seite and the different ways in which the dramatic collisions between the German and the Turkish occur within a multivalent soundscape, whether in music or speech. "A Turkish human rights activist and a German student of languages," writes Gueneli, describing a pivotal scene in the film, "fall in love in Hamburg dancing to a song that merges variations of Balkan, Romani, French, and German musical traditions" (118). The intricate, interwoven story that Akin tells in that film, which earned the Best Screenplay award at Cannes that year, demonstrates the degree to which these seemingly disparate cultures are indeed bound up together in the new Europe.
Like Emir Kustirica, Stephen Frears, Matthieu Kassovitz, Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilgen Ceylan, and other contemporary auteurs—to whom Gueneli compares Akin in her provocative final chapter ("Expanding the Scope of European Cinema")—Akin's films emerge from a transnational space in which regional borders no longer uphold difference and identity, in general, is more fluid, protean, and evolving than fixed. Although Gueneli trains her gaze on what she call's Akin's "Turkey-engaged cinema" (165), she ultimately shows how these films transcend their more local origins and circulate, both in terms of sound and image, in a larger global sphere. Indeed, that is the ultimate achievement of Fatih Akin's Cinema and the New Sound of Europe, and one to which students and scholars of Akin's work are apt to return, building upon the important foundation that Gueneli has established. [End Page 214]