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2.19.2011 Where the Germans Speak Gibberish: A Comic Take on the Immigrant Experience

By Siobhán Dowling

Most German films about immigration take a grittily realistic approach, focusing on urban tension and social problems. But one filmmaking duo of Turkish-German sisters decided to use humor to tell the story of a guest-worker family. SPIEGEL ONLINE talked to Yasemin and Nesrin Samdereli about their comedy "Almanya."

When the Samdereli sisters started working on their script for their movie "Almanya" eight years ago, they had little inkling that its premiere at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival would come hot on the heels of a heated debate about integration in Germany. They simply wanted to tell a story about a Turkish-German family that differed from the usual gritty dramas about immigration.

"It is not that we wanted to make this movie because of the political situation," director Yasemin Samdereli told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Instead, she says, they just wanted to tell a story about an immigrant family, one that bears some autobiographical similarities with their own lives. The result is a funny, at times sentimental, tearjerker that focuses on the comical misunderstandings between cultures rather than the fraught challenges of a multi-ethnic society.
Her younger sister Nesrin, the film's screenwriter, explains how they wanted to show the reality of Turkish guest workers coming to Germany in the 1960s from a new perspective. "The story we wanted to tell hasn't been told so far, so we thought we should try it another way."

"We want people to see each other as human beings and just to see the family in the movie as a normal family that could be anywhere in the world," Yasemin says, pointing out that the image of Turkish-Germans is currently quite negative. For example, they wanted to show that "not every Turkish father loses it because his daughter or granddaughter does things that he might not agree with."

Language Barriers

The film contains two interweaving stories. One strand focuses on a former guest worker, Hüseyin Yilmaz, now in his 70s, and his extended family. In a parallel story within the story, his granddaughter Canan narrates the tale of how her grandparents fell in love and eventually came to "Almanya" or Germany. Neatly switching the language spoken by these Turkish immigrants into German so that her six-year-old cousin Cenk can understand, she shows how the new arrivals are then confronted by Germans speaking a strange gibberish, an incomprehensible invented language, they cannot fathom.

Yasemin Samdereli explains that she always wanted the Turkish characters to speak in German rather than Turkish during the flashback sequences. "I wanted the German audience to be close to our protagonists." The audience is then drawn into their experience, confronted with the confusion of fitting into a new country, the challenges of going shopping or taking one's children to school without speaking the language.

The film also pokes fun at prejudices on the Turkish side. The new immigrants are warned before they embark on their journey that Germans are dirty and that they eat people. Once in the foreign country, the family has to get to grips with the unheard-of habit of keeping pets, as well as European toilets and a strange religion.

While the characters are fictional, the filmmakers reveal that there are many autobiographical elements in the film. Like the character Hüseyin Yilmaz, their grandfather came to Germany in the 1960s and settled in the city of Dortmund in Germany's industrial heartland. And like Yilmaz's wife Fatma, their grandmother was a strong feisty woman. "She definitely wore the trousers," Yasemin says.

Other elements such as the Christmas scene are also based on their own lives, Nesrin admits. In the film, Yilmaz's young children, who have been wrenched from their happy-go-lucky lives in Turkey, slowly become more German and even start speaking the local gibberish that their parents don't understand. Finally, they demand a Christmas tree and presents. Their bewildered mother puts up a sorry twig of a tree with barely any decorations and doesn't know that she is supposed to wrap the gifts. The kids look crestfallen at her paltry efforts. "That was something that really happened with our mom," Nesrin recalls.

'Things Are Always Changing'

While the flashbacks to the 1960s have a fairy-tale quality, the present-day scenes are more realistic. Canan, a 20-something university student, is pregnant but hasn't even told her family that she has a boyfriend, because he is not Turkish. There are ongoing tensions between two of Yilmaz's adult sons. Meanwhile his youngest son, Ali, the only one of the four siblings born in Germany, is resistant to Turkish culture -- he is married to a tall blonde German woman, rejects spicy food and has failed to teach his own son Turkish. Many of these family dramas become resolved on an eventful road trip to Turkey to visit a house that the patriarch has bought in the village of his youth.

The character of Cenk, the six-year-old boy, is crucial to the film's exploration of the current generation's search for identity. He is bullied at school and is left out of a football game where the "Turkish" kids play against the "Germans," because he does not fit into either side. He is confused about how he can be Turkish but not speak the language. His plaintive question: "So are we Turks or Germans now?" kicks off the series of flashbacks depicting the family saga.

"The next generation is going to be completely different again," explains Nesrin Samdereli. "Things are always changing." She points out that her partner is German, while her sister's is English, so it is likely that any children either of them might have would only be half-Turkish.

Holding onto Culture

The sibling filmmakers grew up in a largely German setting. "We were the only Turkish family," Yasemin says, adding that the only other non-Germans where they lived were a few Sinti and Roma families. Neserin even went to Catholic school. "I was the only Muslim girl but they never talked about it. I had to say the 'Our Father' and go to mass, so I know a lot of things about the Catholic Church," she says with a laugh.

Yasemin feels that this balance helped them become well integrated, and she feels it is something that not all immigrants benefit from today. "If a school has 90 percent immigrants, then how do you learn German?" she asks. "I think the latest generation has quite serious difficulties and they are left alone with their problems."

For both sisters, the issues of integration and identity would be made easier if Turkish-Germans were allowed to be citizens of both countries. "I have never understood why you can't have both nationalities," Yasemin says. She feels it is "bizarre and not respectful," particularly for the older generation who contributed so much to Germany's postwar economic miracle but who are reluctant to give up their Turkish citizenship -- a dilemma alluded to in the film. "If you had a child you wouldn't say that you have to choose between your parents."
The sisters admit that there is no easy answer to the question of whether they are German or Turkish. "A lot of people from the second and third generation like us have problems with this question," Nesrin says. "They wouldn't be able to define themselves clearly as just Turkish or German or 50-50." Yasemin admits with a laugh that their Turkish is "really rough," and says that when they visit Turkey they are immediately labeled as German.

For their German-born generation, it can be difficult to hold onto their Turkish identity, the sisters feel. "If you don't take care, you can lose this aspect of your culture," Nesrin says. "Maybe this is one of the reasons we wanted to make the movie, just to make it clear in our minds. To see where we are."