In the new TV series 4 Blocks, director Marvin Kren delves into the Kurdish-Lebanese mob scene, showing a side of Neukölln light years away from the district’s typical hipster experience.
As Neukölln gets ever more colonised by cocktail bars and vintage boutiques, it’s become harder and harder to imagine it as gang territory. But behind the scenes, the neighbourhood’s so-called arabische Großfamilien – powerful extended organised crime families with roots in the Kurdish-Lebanese immigration wave of the 1980s – are still holding the reins. Co-starring Kida Khodr Ramadan and Frederick Lau, 4 Blocks depicts a fictionalised version of the world behind shisha bar doors, informed by the real-life stories of current and former gang members. Marvin Kren, a Viennese director best known for his work on horror films, told us what he’d learned from helming the six-episode series ahead of its May 8 premiere on TNT Germany.
How did you start working on this project?
I was asked by [producer] Quirin Berg, with whom I’d done two films before, and I was immediately fascinated at first sight. At first, the whole story was told through the eyes of a policeman, but then TNT told us they’d like to have it told through the boss of the Arab family. So I made some contacts, people who live in Neukölln who knew some Lebanese-Kurdish families, and I spent half a year talking to them. I heard all about where they came from, why so many of them are criminals… They understood the serious approach I wanted to take, so they trusted me, and they were very eager to tell their stories.
What surprised you the most during your conversations with them?
What I found really interesting was the origins of these families. As Sunnis, they were refugees in Lebanon even before they fled the Lebanese civil war for Germany. And the German state didn’t treat them very nicely. They gave them Duldung [“tolerated”] status, instead of a real visa. They couldn’t work; they weren’t allowed to go to school; they didn’t get money, only Essensmarken [food stamps]. It’s absurd, especially since Arabs have a different relationship to power and status. They want to work, they want to have money, they want the big cars… So the German system encouraged them to find ways to get money that are not legal. Meanwhile, the government never pushed them very far to integrate, learn the language…
Do you think the state’s learned its lesson with the current wave of Syrian refugees, who’ve mostly been provided with work permits and language classes?
Yes, I hope those actions will lead to something different than what we have on Sonnenallee right now. Although back then there were 30,000 refugees, and now we have, what, a million? And many of them are coming to Sonnenallee… I don’t know if you’ve read about the nightly fights between Syrians and Lebanese there. We don’t address that in this season, but if we get a second one, I’m sure it’s going to be a topic.
How much in the series is real? You show the huge sphere of influence of one family, the Hamadis… Is Neukölln really controlled by these gangs?
Of course, it’s a mafia series. It’s in that genre. But all the ingredients we’re using are real. Last week, for example, there was an article in Bild about Lebanese-Kurdish families bribing policemen – this happens in our series as well. And yes, the gangs have a huge influence in Neukölln. The whole of Sonnenallee belongs to different families. Wedding is controlled by Arab families – even some parts of Charlottenburg. The Arabs are kind of in the middle status-wise, though. They’re not as high up as the Russians, for example.
What about the scene from the first episode that takes place in Das Gift? It’s not like gangs are coming into hipster bars and beating up the owners to pressure them into buying Spielautomaten… or are they?
No, that’s fiction! I guess there’s aggression between the gangs and the hipsters, but not in that particular way. The funny thing with that scene, though, is that before we even shot there, one of the owners of Das Gift started a fight with one of our Arab actors. He was eating the nuts behind the bar without asking, the owner got angry, the Arab guy got insulted, one thing led to another and I had to get in between them and talk them down. So the tension in that scene was very real!
Considering the current climate of Islamophobia and headlines about “migrant crime” in Germany… aren’t you worried that a show about Lebanese criminals is only reinforcing prejudices?
Of course I was thinking about that, but on the other side, this is what’s really happening. If you don’t watch the show, you could absolutely get the idea that we’re reinforcing the picture of the “bad migrant”. But we’re giving them a story, a face, a life… we’re showing how bad people can actually be good people. Famous TV shows like The Sopranos, The Wire or Gomorrah have taken a similar approach. Why can’t we do the same thing?
Some might also question whether you, a white guy from Austria, are the best choice to tell this particular story…
I was wondering that myself before I started! I grew up in Vienna, I’m not a Muslim and I’d only occasionally been to Neukölln. But sometimes, as a filmmaker, you just know you have the right approach, even though you’re not from there. I don’t know if I could tell a story about the neighbourhood where I grew up – my view would be too subjective. I went there like a documentary filmmaker. I didn’t try to exploit anyone. They felt me, I felt them, we were loyal to each other and we promised to take care of each other. Kida Khodr Ramadan, the main actor, was a very important part of this whole process – he was the first door opener to this world.
Naming his character “Toni”… that’s an homage to The Sopranos?
To Tony Montana from Scarface, actually. I’d say 90 percent of 4 Blocks is influenced by the stories we heard and by the colours, sounds and smells of Sonnenallee, and the rest is influenced by mob series and mafia films. What’s funny is that all the real gangsters on Sonnenallee know all those films, line by line. They can quote every single character from all three Godfather movies… It’s in their behaviour, how they walk, how they dress. We’ve had gangster movies since the early 1930s, so it’s been this continuous process of life imitating art and vice versa.
So what’s the biggest difference between Toni Hamadi and Tony Montana?
Toni Hamadi has a better reflection on his own life. He doesn’t do coke. He wants to live and have a happy family life. There’s this strange contradiction of being a “good gangster” – we try to show that it’s a Minusgeschäft, a “negative business”. A filmmaker makes a film, a journalist writes a story, a baker bakes bread, but a criminal doesn’t do anything that contributes to society. It’s not good, karmically. And Toni finds that out in the very end. But to say any more than that would be a big spoiler.
4 Blocks | Starts May 8, 21:00, TNT (in German)