When the UFA-backed and Disney+ subsidiary STAR launches in Germany on February 23, first out of the must-see gate will be Sam – Ein Sachse. Based on the real-life story of Samuel Meffire (born in Zwenkau near Leipzig to Cameroonian-German parents), this Sachse became the first Afro-Deutsch police officer and a symbol of post-reunification migrant assimilation. The eight-part series tells of Meffire’s meteoric rise and fall: from difficult beginnings when he was called a “N****kind” in school to Vorzeigepolizist, followed by a stint as an armed debt collector, then prison – and rehabilitation.
The series is co-produced by 49-year-old Black actor, producer and musician Tyron Ricketts. Of Austrian-Jamaican parentage, Ricketts grew up and was schooled in Austria and Germany. After some transatlantic hopping, he has lived in Berlin since 2017. Besides delivering hip hop on VIVA from 1996-2000, he achieved media fame with a 2006-2009 stint as a crime commissioner on Soko Leipzig, but has been working on getting Sam Meffire’s story onto the screen for a lot longer: “I tried to get the story off the ground 20 years ago,” says Ricketts, “but no one was interested.” Instead, Ricketts himself got used to playing “the American, or the refugee.” These were, he says, stories that told another story – “that people like me don’t belong here.”
The Three Musketeers?
Disney+, Amazon Prime and Netflix are the main commercial streaming services available in Germany. They bring not only American ideas and the increased visibility – think marketability – of a melting-pot culture to the table but also deliver an international audience base and immunity from box office returns. Netflix broke ground with productions such as Dogs of Berlin (2018), for which show runner Christian Alvart left a cautious ARD when Netflix asked him specifically to “break the mould of German television.” Netflix productions such as Frankfurt-set Skylines (2019) and the Tyrolean-skiing drama Kitz (2021) – also featuring Ricketts – followed.
So the meta-paradigm of content production is shifting, and as Ricketts himself says: “As long as German production companies produced films for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, a diverse cast was not desirable.” Now, with the arrival of streaming platforms, “the whole world is their potential market.”
The question remains: does this knock on into the daily lives of actors, producers and directors of colour, whose careers still play out largely in an industry dominated by white males?
A recent government-sponsored overview of German-speaking film and television Vielfalt Im Film established that negative stereotypes persist in portrayals of Arabs (87.5%), Muslims (82.9%), people with a migration background (79.7%), Black people (77.5%), Asians (74.9%) and Turks (74%). The consequences? In the 18 most successful German films of 2019, only nine out of 86 roles went to representatives of ethnic minorities, all of them men.
According to Turkish-German director Murat Ünal (born 1975 in Hildesheim) star roles for such actors tend to be of the gangster/terrorist variety, epitomised in the Neukölln-set 4 Blocks (2017-19). Ünal’s own self-funded film Hollywoodtürke (2019) satirises the casting process in Germany, with his self- styled Muslim protagonist Alper pretending to be Italian to avoid playing characters with racist names such as “Ali Kackficker” (“Ali Shitfucker”).
Actress Lara-Sophie Milagro, co-founder of the Label Noir movement for Black creatives in the film and theatre industry, is more specific: “to be considered German is very much connected to being white. If you look at dancing or opera, it’s much more diverse, but in film an actor’s face still stands for the culture.”
Reelers and dealers
Changes in the film-making process behind the camera are key. A McKinsey study on film production in the US established that producers of colour are more likely to choose directors of colour, asserting that “all dimensions of diversity need to be on the table.” Funding is also important. Of the 350 decision makers leading the production process in Germany, only ten have a migration background. Sure, Fatih Akin who directed and also co-produced 2004’s Golden Bear winner Gegen Die Wand is often wheeled out as inspirational, but his remains the only such award given to a German with a migrant background.
This insularity also proved difficult for German-Chinese director and Berlin Asian Film Network member Dieu Hao Do, himself born and raised in Germany. When presenting a documentary script looking at his family’s Chinese ethnic background in Vietnam at the Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg, he was told that since there was already one Asian-German film in development, a second wasn’t feasible. Not surprising, says Do: “when you see who graduates and who gets the funding from the TV commissions, it is mostly white males.”
NOTABLE GERMAN FILMMAKERS WITH A MIGRATION BACKGROUND
With films such as Auf der anderen Seite (2007) and Gegen die Wand (2004), few filmmakers have done more to draw attention to the unique position of Turkish-Germans than Fatih Akin. With a Golden Globe for Aus dem Nichts (2017), the Turk- ish-German auteur filmmaker is able to pick and choose exciting and fasci- nating projects that don’t necessarily have to focus on race: his latest film, Der Goldene Handschuh (2019), was a critically divisive portrayal of a serial killer stalking the pubs of Hamburg in the 70s. Incidentally, the lead female role in Gegen die Wand was played by Sibel Kekilli, a German actress of Turkish descent whose subsequent excoriation as a former porn actress hotly followed by Game of Thrones fame opens up a whole new chapter on the volatility of cultural expecta- tions in the entertainment industry.
Qurbani’s film school diploma effort Shahada (2010) – an episodic film focusing on the life of three very different Muslims in Berlin – was a surprise inclusion in the 2010 Berlinale competition sector. Its international reception enabled him to make the artistically challenging visions of Wir Sind Jung, Wir Sind Stark (2014), on the racist Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots of 1992, and Berlin Alexanderplatz (2020). He is currently working on a Germany-focused take on the French language Three Colours Trilogy (the tricolore’s blue, white and red) by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, centred instead on the black, red and gold of the German flag.
When it comes to mainstream appeal, Turkish-German Bora Dağtekin is one of the most successful commercial directors of the 21st century. His TV show Türkisch für Anfänger (2006-2009) was a cross-generational hit, while Fack ju Göhte (2013) – featuring Elyas M’Barek playing a bank robber forced to take a job as a substitute teacher – remains the second highest-grossing German film of all time with €55 million in box office returns.
The lives of others
Some players on this stage have been more fortunate, occasionally as a result of the prevailing political climate. Burhan Qurbani was born in Erkelenz in 1980 shortly after his Afghan intelligentsia family fled the Soviet Union. He says that his family “were the right kind of immigrants at the right time. The Russians had just invaded Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War and my parents were greeted with open arms. I was lucky.” Like Akin’s success, the relative acclaim that greeted Qurbani’s 2020 version of Berlin Alexanderplatz (which re-invented the main character as an undocumented migrant), as well as his earlier 2010 Golden-Bear-nominated Shahada, remains the exception.
A younger generation of German filmmakers has continued to break with convention, creating original migrant and POC portrayals. In 2021, Potsdam-born, Berlin-based and self-designated Afro-German director Sarah Blaßkiewitz made German cinematic history with Ivie Wie Ivie (2021), the first German feature with two female Afro-Deutsch leads. Her tale is of two half-sisters – the light-skinned Ivie and the darker-skinned Naomi – one living in conservative Leipzig, the other in liberal Berlin. After the death of their Senegalese father, the sisters are forced to confront questions of racial identity. Blaßkiewitz’s subtle, humorous and sensitive take on this process was rewarded with the Best Film Prize at the 2021 Ludwigshafen Festival of German Film.
While Ünal ended up paying for Hollywoodtürke by getting out the begging bowl and maxing out his credit cards, others have found support from sources such as Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, a ZDF-backed series which supports young and debut directors. Recipients include Jarmusch, Fassbinder and Varda – and Sarah Blaßkiewitz, who received funding for Ivie Wie Ivie. Do tapped into the same fund for his upcoming documentary. Another regional film fund that supports greater diversity is the MOIN Film Fund Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, whose jury-based system distributes an annual €15.7 million budget. Helge Albers, who took over in 2019, has been proactive in getting “good mix of very different backgrounds onto these juries.” The fund has recently backed the Russian- German directed Garagenvolk (2020) and Faraz Shariat’s Teddy Award-winning queer Iranian-German drama Futur Drei (2020).
The big picture
The debate over whether Germany is an Einwanderungsland (nation of immigrants) only began in earnest in the 2000s when it became clear that Gastarbeiter were staying put. Now the new centre-left government wants to be more accepting of its migrant population by softening the laws against dual-citizenship. Albers for one is sure that societal changes will affect film funding at large: “I know it’s already on the agenda.
It wasn’t on the agenda before.” Time-lag is also a factor: as Albers says, “every film released now is a reflection on how diversity was perceived in cinema three or five years ago.” Black Lives Matter was one element of change. Blaßkiewitz, however, found funding much earlier: “This was before BLM and the diversity debate. We were part of the train that then started moving.”
The train appears, for now, to be heading in the right direction. When Qurbani met Ivie Wie Ivie co-star Lorna Ishema during the first lockdown, “we went for a walk and she said: ‘I can’t even get an agency.’ Twelve months later, she’s the first woman of colour to win the German fucking Film Prize [for best supporting actress]. That’s fucking fast. So I’m cautious, but very hopeful.”
The matrix is being reloaded with a new generation of filmmakers such as Blaßkiewitz, producers of colour in positions of power such as Tyron Ricketts, film funds committed to change, and international streaming companies transplanting American values onto German cinema without having to rely on box office returns. Watch this space: the next three to five years could prove very interesting indeed.
A HISTORY OF MIGRANT REPRESENTATION IN FILM
As outlined in the recent ZDF documentary Kino Kanak – Warum der deutsche Film Migranten braucht (Why German film needs migrants), directed by Memo Jeftic and David Assmann, Germany had close to zero percent foreign-born citizens before an influx of immigrants arrived in the 1960s and 70s to help with the Wirtschaftswunder. Whereas German actors were previously used to play foreigners in mediocre, now forgotten titles in the 1950s, the large scale arrival of immigrants led, with time, to films depicting their experiences: two notable examples are Fassbinder’s 1974 Angst essen Seele auf and the first Turkish-German directed film, Tevfik Başer’s 40 qm Deutschland (1986).
These were bleak films depicting hardscrabble, uncertain existences that reflected assimilatory difficulties, a trend that still finds expression today in the Integrations-Komödie, with culture-clash titles such as Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland (2011) and the TV series Türkisch für Anfänger (2006-2009). The protagonists appeared luckier — but that luck depended on their acceptance of a more German way of life. Austrian-Tunisian actor Elyas M’Barek is a rare success story in this context, able to escape the genre and become a leading man in his own right, starring in non-racially specific roles in the romantic comedy Nightlife (2020) and the dinner party drama Das perfekte Geheimnis (2019).
A more artistically significant cross-cultural cinema came from Turkish-German filmmaking, heralded by Fatih Akin’s 1998 debut Kurz und schmerzlos. Focusing on a younger generation who felt neither fully Turkish or German, it heralded a more nuanced portrayal of POC in German screen and television. The Hamburg-set Tatort that introduced Cenk Batu (German-Turkish actor Mehmet Kurtuluş) as its first detective of Turkish descent in 2008 was groundbreaking. With his broken Turkish and fluent German, he captured the bridge generation, caught between two different cultures.
Today, a rising generation of filmmakers and actors, including Jerry Hoffmann, Faraz Shariat, Sarah Blaßkiewitz and Burhan Qurbani, look beyond clichés or integration woes to focus on more nuanced portrayals of mis- or under-represented sectors of the German population: people of colour and those from migrant backgrounds.
This article was updated on February 23, 2022 to correct information about funding received by Sarah Blaßkiewitz. She did not receive a ‘million-dollar budget’ for Ivie Wie Ivie.