Companion piece toTurkish-German Cinema: Displacement and Diaspora in Fatih Akin’s Head-On.

Almanya: Welcome to Germany (Almanya: Wilkommen in Deutschland, 2011, dir. Yasemin Şamdereli) is likely to be the first Turkish-German film I came across growing up. I was thirteen when the film was released in 2011 and have a vivid recollection of slowly noticing DVD copies of it show up on the media shelves of my German relatives in subsequent years. Although I didn’t see it until much later, the title and poster had permanently imprinted themselves into my memory. I remember questioning the title, what it meant, what the image represented; my years of taking Spanish did however lead me to draw the connection between the words “Almanya” and “Alemania” to mean Germany. When I finally saw the film years later while doing research on Turkish-German cinema, I recognized that the increasing omnipresence that the film took on in my surroundings was symbolic of a cultural and cinematic turning point for Germany.

In their writing on Turkish-German cinema, Sabine Hake and Barbara Mennel point out that the 2011 premiere of Almanya at the Berlin Film Festival, with both the German President and Turkish Ambassador in attendance, “served as a celebration of fifty years of labor migration from Turkey to Germany.” They go on to note that “this historic moment confirmed the status of culture, particularly film, as both object and subject in the history of labor migration and its aftereffects (Hake and Mennel).” Just as Fatih Akin’s Head-On (Gegen die Wand, 2004) was a symbolic recognition of Turkish-German stories and identities as German stories and identities, Şamdereli’s Almanya was a furthermore symbolic recognition of Turkish-German history as inextricably linked with Germany’s contemporary state. Befittingly, one of Almanya’s final scenes portrays the grandson of a former Gastarbeiter giving a speech in Angela Merkel’s presence on his grandfather’s behalf at the Bellevue Palace. The six-year-old grandson, having struggled with his identity, is able to vicariously assume his late grandad’s story as part of his own, allowing him to better reconcile his grandfather’s history and home with his own.

Almanya focuses on a Turkish-German family living in Germany as Hüseyin, the family’s patriarch, announces he has purchased a house in Turkey and expects his entire family to come with him to renovate it. His family members, although initially somewhat confused and reluctant, agree to go with him. Many members of the family are dealing with their own critical issues at the time that the trip either complicates or guides. Hüseyin’s grandson, the six-year-old Cenk, is disappointed and bewildered by not being able to speak Turkish and for being bullied by his classmates for not being “Turkish enough;” he is furthermore perplexed when a teacher asks him where his home is and his answer, Germany, is corrected to Anatolia by the teacher–a place Cenk has never been. Simultaneously, Cenk’s cousin, twenty-two-year-old Canan, is unsure of how to announce that she is pregnant and dating a non-Turkish man. Meanwhile, Canan and Cenk’s grandmother, Fatma, is trying to celebrate the recent acquisition of her and Hüseyin’s German citizenship but is intentionally undercut by her husband’s announcement of their new Turkish property. When an exasperated Cenk asks his family whether he is Turkish or German with a hope for an answer with finality, he gets told “You can be both, can’t you?!”. Displeased with the answer, Cenk digs deeper and asks to hear the story of how his family came to live in Germany in the first place.

The story that Cenk is told, and that we see via flashbacks, about his ancestors aligns closely with the historical and primary accounts of Turkish Gastarbeiter in Germany and their eventual, permanent immigration. A young Hüseyin, barely able to support his wife and young children in Turkey, sees an economic opportunity in the Gastarbeiter system. After leaving and having grown accustomed to higher wages and certain aspects of the German lifestyle, Hüseyin convinces his uncertain family to move with him to live in Germany. From here on, a slightly cliche-ridden culture-clash comedy unfolds: Fatma runs into a linguistic conundrum at a grocery store, the family finds German toilets and dress codes perplexing, and the children fear the gruesome Christian imagery of the crucifixion and glorify German Coca-Cola. We eventually see the family’s attempts at assimilation; for example, the children’s desire to celebrate Christmas. What distinguishes this string of events from films of similar nature, however, is the way in which German culture is positioned as “the other.” Şamdereli uses alienation tactics to provide a German-speaking audience a view of their own culture as foreign. Turkish is spoken as German and German is spoken as Germanic gibberish. German-speaking audiences are able to understand “Turkish,” but not “German.” In his reading of the film, Benjamin Nicki points out that “[Şamdereli] indicates that alternative language and an embrace of the unfamiliar are long overdue in German cinema (Nicki).” Although the reason for this stylistic choice is because Cenk, who is being told the story, does not understand Turkish, this choice reconsiders the notion of Germany as a monolingual country. Instead of presenting Turkish as a foreign language to native German audiences, it presents it as, metaphorically, German. Comparatively, earlier scenes in the present depict a collective family dinner while demonstrating the ease of interchanging and trading off languages one second to the next as if it were one fluent language; it is not one nor the other, but both, yet never the same. Having the film, therefore, play out mostly in German certainly aids its commercial appeal in the film’s native country. The relative, and greater, success of Almanya, twelve million at the domestic box office compared to Head-On’s five million, could possibly be attributed to this as well as its adoption of clear genre boundaries, making it more commercial. However, the choice of having Turkish spoken as German, although comedic and interesting for the German-speaking viewer, still raises the question of cinematic domestication. If the “foreign” (Turkish) is domesticated to adhere to the form of the native (German), is the “foreign” truly being accepted by the audience? Are the native German audiences provided with comfortable familiarity? These questions make one wonder who this film is actually intended for, and what it is trying to do. It is left to the viewer to decide what this choice represents.

The focus put on first and second generations of Turkish families by Akin in 2004’s Head-On, is shifted onto the first and third generations by Şamdereli seven years later. Although Şamdereli’s film also includes characters that belong to the second generation, the central tensions, contrasts, and parallels that the film emphasizes involve grandparents and their grandchildren. The history and origins collide with the present and future. Cenk obviously doesn’t see his identity as simply as his parents or grandparents see theirs, but as the film doesn’t provide a specific answer to this existential conundrum, it shows that it will not be the same for everyone and will continue to evolve with future generations. Canan’s yet unborn child might face a set of internal and external challenges distinct from their mom’s or uncle’s, or possibly the same. The film, however, suggests that if a place feels like home, then it is. Just as Hüseyin returns to Turkey, his birthplace and home, to pass away, Cenk returns to his home, Germany, as he stated without hesitation at the beginning of the film, regardless of what his teacher tells him his home is.

Şamdereli’s film, although stylistically and narratively incomparable to Akin’s, finds itself investigating similar themes and experiences as they relate to Turkish-German culture and identity almost a decade later. The stylings of and market for Turkish-German cinema have changed, and will, necessarily, continue to change; the raw and gritty portrayal of existential questioning of Head-On and the later commercial and family-friendly Alemanya point to the topic’s developing nature within the German cinematic landscape. Whether one presentation is better or more accurate will certainly continue to be debated. Turkish-German cinema will continue to reflect the issues and tastes of current and future German, Turkish-German, and Turkish generations as it will certainly continue to reflect the evolving identity of Germany as a diverse county.

Sources/Further Reading:

Nickl, Benjamin. “Clash Films.” Turkish German Muslims and Comedy Entertainment: Settling into Mainstream Culture in the 21st Century, vol. 7, Leuven University Press, Leuven (Belgium), 2020, pp. 61–92. JSTOR,

Hake, Sabine, and Barbara Mennel. “Introduction.” Turkish German Cinema in the New Millennium: Sites, Sounds, and Screens, edited by Sabine Hake and Barbara Mennel, 1st ed., Berghahn Books, NEW YORK; OXFORD, 2014, pp. 1–16. JSTOR,