Is it ok to laugh about stereotypes? A new Turkish-German comedy film shows that humorously exaggerating clichés might just be a way to break them. But it's not for the hyper-sensitive.
A Kanake is a derogatory term sometimes used in Germany to refer to people with Turkish or Middle Eastern backgrounds. Some young German-Turks have turned the word around, adopting it to identify themselves.
Still, when the Cologne Commissioner for Foreigners Ludwig Sarheimer, a character in the new film "300 Worte Deutsch" (300 words of German) declares, "We've got to stop those Kanaken," he's not being affectionate.
His family name and personality caricature the politician and author Thilo Sarrazin, whose controversial best-selling 2010 book "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Germany does away with itself) predicted that Muslim immigrants would soon outnumber the native German population and also stated that their intelligence was lower than average.
In the movie, which opens in German cinemas on February 5, Sarheimer's archenemy is mosque superintendent Cengiz Demirkan. When he once again brings a group of Turkish brides into Germany, Sarheimer smells fraud.
After analyzing their files, he roars: "How can all the Turkish brides have gotten an A+ in German? What is this, the grammar brigade from Ankara?"
He is convinced that these "imported" women aren't able to speak the 300 words of German required by law of foreign spouses who want to get married in Germany. Unmoved by bribes, the commissioner threatens the mosque superintendent: "Our war will only end when all of your headscarf-wearing Ayses have left my country."
German lessons with pitfalls
Sarheimer's suspicions are not completely unfounded: Demirkan has a cousin working at the Goethe-Institut in Ankara. He's the one who forged certificates attesting to the Turkish women's language skills. In reality, they can't speak a single word of German. Before delivering their residence permits, Sarheimer organizes a new test.
Demirkan's daughter Lale then has to teach the newly arrived young women basic German vocabulary as quickly as possible. It quickly becomes apparent that she is actually leading a double life. The young student plays the good Muslim at home, but gets rid of her head scarf and traditions as soon as she leaves the house, speeding on her motorcycle and fighting off unwanted arranged marriage candidates with martial arts.
She teaches the Turkish brides useful expressions such as "leave me alone" and "men are pigs" - not quite what their unseasoned husbands would want to hear.
Marc is Sarheimer's nephew and employee. Unlike his uncle, he is a proponent of integration and becomes Lale's ally in her "teach-German-quickly" mission. And without giving too much of the story away: The German and the Turk fall for each other too.
Pushed to the extreme
Chaos is inevitable. Resentment and prejudice are humorously pushed to the extreme. Beyond provoking laughs, the film also encourages its viewers to question their own preconceived ideas.
"It shows that Germans and Turks share many common values and are perhaps more similar than they think," says film director Zuli Aladag.
They've been rivals for 26 years: mosque superintendent Demirkan and Commissioner for Foreigners Sarheimer
Before directing this movie, Aladag, who grew up in Germany, tackled these issues in a more serious way, for example with his award-winning drama "Wut" (Rage).
This time around he chose comedy. "It's a nice format to discuss difficult issues and conflicts, while appealing to a wider audience," he says.
Some will be put off by the blatant clichés and Sarheimer's profuse use of racist slogans in "300 Worte Deutsch." The image of the backward Turks who massively force women into marriage will also shock the politically correct. But this shrill, exaggerated tone is quite intentional.
"Especially when the atmosphere is already as heated as it is now with all these PEGIDA demonstrations, which feed from abstract fears of Islam and Muslims, I believe people want to laugh about this whole uptightness," adds Aladag, referring to the right-wing, anti-Islamist political organization that grew out of Dresden in fall 2014.
Absurd fears and a grain of truth
Zuli Aladag hopes that when the movie opens to the public, even PEGIDA followers will watch it and find it funny: "A comedy can be liberating. People might start noticing how absurd their own fears are."
This film about the clash of civilizations actually mirrors some real issues. Lale's conflict with her father reflects a situation that affects many German-Turkish girls. Emancipation and self-determination are often more difficult for them than for their German girlfriends. But it should be noted that the conservative character Ludwig Sarheimer has little use for emancipation either. As he tells his nephew: "Women belong in the kitchen. But without a headscarf."
And then there are the more subtle moments, which show that even supposedly tolerant people are not free of prejudice. The young lovers, who meet secretly, fight because their happiness is complicated by cultural differences. When Lale blames Marc of thinking like "a typical German" he counters by reminding her that she pulls the "poor foreigner card" whenever she finds it convenient.
Turkish-German happy ending
But what is really typical? Beyond the movie, film director Aladag pleads for a more differentiated discourse about immigrants. "We always use generalizations to talk about people, religions and ethnicities," he says. "It's a shame that it's still the case in Germany, because it's an outdated discussion. I think our children won't need to talk about it as much."
In the end, the scriptwriters and the director of "300 Worte Deutsch" have created likeable characters, in spite of all their weaknesses. The way Lale describes her father to Marc embodies this well: "He is the dearest and most warm-hearted man in the world, but if you get too close to me, he'll kill you."
Even Sarheimer turns out to be a lonely soul who finds comfort with Daisy, a prostitute whose real name is Ayse.
A German-Turkish baby at the end will ensure they all live happily ever after. Call him Mesut-Anton or Anton-Mesut, depending on your perspective. It doesn't really matter where he's from.