Almost 61 years ago, on October 30, 1961, a labour agreement was signed «in the interest of the systematic recruitment of Turkish workers to the Federal Republic». This contract facilitated the employment of many Turkish workers in post-war Germany. In the hope of more lucrative work in the fabled Almanya, many Turks pinned their hopes on the Federal Republic. In many cases, reality did not match their expectations, and workers were confronted with poor work conditions, low wages and racism.
These economic migrants, also known as Gastarbeiter, brought their culture and a longing for home with them. The emotions accompanying their arrival in Germany found expression in their music, which often spoke of hardship and heartache.
With approximately 7 million Turks in Germany, this nationality continues to be the largest ethnic minority in the country. However, up until now, outside of the Turkish-German community itself, little was known about the music of Gastarbeiter or the evolution of Turkish music in Germany.
Cem Kaya, the Turkish-German film director behind the music documentary Love, Deutschmarks and Death is on a mission to change that. In one hour and thirty-eight minutes, Kaya presents the viewer with a veritable crash course in the music that has shaped the musical heritage of this sub-section of German society.
As Ryszard Kapuscinski notes in The Other, starting a life in a new country can be a challenging experience, particularly as society culturally conditions people to fear the unknown: «Man is by nature a settled creature, a trait that has been fixed in him ever since agriculture and the art of building cities were devised. […] Every culture has a whole set of charms and magic spells designed to protect anyone setting off on the road, who is bid farewell amid outbursts of weeping and regret as if he were about to climb the scaffold».
Instead of prescribing to a narrative of rupture and regret, Kaya represents the experience of Turkish Gastarbeiter and further generations of Turkish immigrants in Germany in a heart-warming, humorous and thought-provoking manner that, above all else, highlights their resilience in the face of adversity.
And rather than focusing on clichés, as is the case in Yasemin Şamdereli’s comedy Almanya — Welcome to Germany, or veering into the realm of the melodramatic, which can be seen in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cult classic Fear Eats the Soul, Kaya combines facts, history, personal narratives, deeply felt emotions and laughter in a documentary that manages to make you laugh and cry, often while tapping your toes.
Kaya combines facts, history, personal narratives, deeply felt emotions and laughter in a documentary that manages to make you laugh and cry, often while tapping your toes.
The film features singers such as the «voice of Turkish workers in Germany», Metin Türköz, the «Nightingale of Cologne», Yüksel Özkasap, and the «Turkish Jimmy Hendrix», Derdiyoklar Ali, whose live disco-folk performances were highly sought-after at Gastarbeiter weddings.
Kaya’s rapport with his interview partners is clear to see on screen. From candid interviews with Ismet Topçu, a charmingly eccentric musician who dreams of playing his saz (a Turkish string instrument) on the moon, to a personal conversation with successful noughties rapper Muhabbet, it is evident that Kaya has a talent for making people feel comfortable in front of the camera. From wedding venues across Germany to the Türkischer Basar in the Berlin U-Bahn station Bülowstraße, Kaya uses original footage and artists’ anecdotes to showcase the places that defined Turkish musical history in Germany.
As the name of the film suggests, death also left a significant mark on the Turkish population in Germany. Kaya does not shy away from demonstrating the impact of xenophobia and right-wing political ideologies on Turkish immigrants. The surge in racially motivated arson attacks in the 90s, such as the fatal incidents in Mölln (1992) and Sollingen (1993), led to mass outrage among the Turkish population in Germany. This anger was not only visible in the street protests that followed the attacks but also in much of the music that emerged in reaction to the increasing number of attacks on Turkish families, such as the work of rapper Alper Aga and hip-hop group Microphone Mafia.
In short, Love, Deutschmarks and Death achieves what few other films about the Turkish population of Germany have achieved – the authenticity of the narratives presented catapults the film far beyond the veneer of stereotypical preconceptions, providing the viewer with genuine insight into the musical and cultural landscape of Turks in Germany. As the Turkish author Emine Sevgi Özdamar writes in A Space Bounded by Shadow (Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum), «Once you have left your own country, you will no longer arrive in a new country. Then only some special people will become your country». Similarly, Love, Deutschmarks and Death tells a community-building narrative in which people far from home found a way of coming together and recreating spaces of comfort, joy and emotion through the power of music.