Love, Deutschmarks and Death (2022) Berlinale 2022

February 15th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Cem Kaya; Documentary with Ismet Topçu, Yuksel Ozkasap, Cem Karaca, Ferdi Tayfur, Hatay Engin, Nellie; Germany 2022, 96 min.

Sixty years of Turkish music comes to life in this joyful documentary from Cem Kaya (Arabeks) taking us back to the early 1960s when the first trainload of migrant workers set off from Turkey for a foreign, mainly hostile, ‘guest’ country. Through their music these newcomers forged a collective identity which rapidly raised a red flag against the arrogance they met from the ‘Master Race’ ideology, still alive and kicking despite the withering defeat of the Second World War.

After the heart-wrenching scenes at Istanbul Central Station, where wives and children bade tearful good-byes to their departing menfolk (echoing the Italian neo-realist portrayals of those Italian ‘guest workers’ leaving), Kaya interweaves clips from a German documentary and TV/film archive clips showing the Turkish men gathered in a huge hall, ready to meet local doctors, who will sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’. “We are not looking for Olympic athletes here” says the commentator benignly, “but for reliant, capable workers”. And so it goes – the able-bodied are separated from the unfit. And then, the lucky ones get little numbers stuck on their wrists. No surprise that the Turks will have to learn basic German (the French are still putting their British post-Brexit resident hopefuls through the same ordeal in 2022!).

The first phrase they learn is: “Ich bin ein Ausländer (“I am a foreigner”), it will come in handy – as the voiceover narration nonchalantly declares – since 60% of Germans want nothing to do with these guest workers, two-thirds having a negative opinion of the newbies, viewed as “sub-humans” during Germany’s Fascist dictatorship.

Metin Türkoz was one of the first stars of the immigrant music scene. He sold millions of records. Yüksel Ozkasap was next, listened to not only in the Turkish villages, but by immigrant workers all over Europe, and selling more than 315 singles. In 1973, the Global Oil Crisis hit the German economy, and the Turkish immigrants were told to leave. Despite the solidarity between German and Turkish workers, the German Unions declined their support. Chancellor Willy Brandt made it clear in an interview “that our own workers come first”. The answer came loud and clear from “The Kanaken”, who performed without microphones. Their star was lead singer Cem Karaca, who had been exiled by Turkey for political reasons. But he got homesick, and returned after seven years of German life. There were odd figures in the Berlin Turkish scene, like Ferdi Tayfur, the star of the “Gazino’ culture, which flourished in Oranien Strasse in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Turkish culture was at that time centred around the Turkish Bazar, which was set up in the then-disused over-ground Tube-Station ‘Bülow Strasse’ close to the wall. Zeki Mühren and Oztürk Serengil featured heavily; as did Hatay Engin, a trans-singer who flirted openly with the audience. Female artists had a hard time, even though they abandoned their Burkas and head scarves. Derya Yildirm, a Baglana virtuoso, was one of the successful exceptions.

Xenophobia was on the rise in the mid 1980s, but when the Wall came down in 1989, violence against foreigners exploded in Germany. The outsiders were literally burnt to death in their flats, and jokes like “What’s the difference between Jews and Turks? Jews take it from behind”, were common. Turkish rap was a way in for young people who suffered parental neglect, roaming the streets from the age of ten onwards, while parents kept their noses to the grindstone. They are neither Turkish nor German – but very angry. “Islamic Force” from Kreuzberg was one of the early groups, followed by “Cartel” who only recorded one album, after their lead singer, Boe B, died of a heart attack at 28. Nowadays, Turkish rap music can still be found in German stores, six decades after its pioneers started selling their cassettes which are now collectors items amongst the older generation – together with the cherished old Deutsch Mark banknotes!

Informative and entertaining, this history of music as an identifier and political weapon is a joy to watch; full of irony and odd-ball characters who made life for themselves and  kept the faith: “Kanak for Life” declares Ismet Topçu, leading us through the decades of wild musical adventure. AS

Panorama Audience Award Winner –Panorama Dokumente 2022:| BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2022

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