Film director Fatih Akın: Son of Turkish immigrants, demanding the Oscar

Film-director Fatih Akın is a prime example of the “German dream” – the son of Turkish immigrants from a small Black Sea village, his movies have won international acclaim and his latest work "In the Fade" has been chosen as Germany’s official candidate for the best foreign-language film Oscar.

"In the Fade" tells the story of a woman seeking revenge for the murders of her husband and son in a bomb attack carried out by the neo-Nazi NSU.

Awarded the Golden Globe best foreign-language award last week, the jury said "In the Fade" was at the same time a drama, a court movie and a thriller.

“Fatih Akın relates law and justice, revenge and pain – with complexity, unsparingly, and with a stirring narrative. The film gives a political issue a human face and unfolds with a ripple effect from which the audience cannot escape, from the first to the very last minute,” the jury said.

The chief columnist of Germany's tabloid Bild newspaper, Franz Joseph Wagner, wrote:

In 1973 you were born the son of a Turkish carpet cleaner in Hamburg-Altona. You were in a Turkish gang during your youth. They put gel in their hair and wore bomber jackets. They fought with other gangs. As fists became knives, you went to high school...

Only one who has experienced love, hate and fear can narrate these feelings. Fatih Akın is the great storyteller of his life. He grew up in a horrible skyscraper in Hamburg-Altona … What in God's name should become of such a child? He is the narrator of our Germany. NSU murders, xenophobia. The genius of Fatih Akın is that he films the truth.

Fatih’s father, Mustafa-Enver Akın, came to the poor, outlying Hamburg district of Altona as a factory worker in 1965 from the village of Çamburnu on the eastern side of Turkey’s Black Sea coast. His mother Hadiye, a primary school teacher, arrived in 1968. 

The children of many immigrants in Germany proceed from vocational schools into manual factory jobs or low-paid work, but Akın managed to gain a place at Hamburg's Fine Arts School. As a teenager, Akın and his school friend Adam Bousdoukos, the son of Greek immigrants, both dreamt of becoming actors.

"Fatih and I were both the class clowns and we realised early on that we have similar roots, dreams and longings," Bousdoukos said.

Cinema was a way to escape Altona, a district of immigrants and outcasts dotted with tower blocks, bordering St. Pauli, famous for its red light district.

Akın was active on the school stage and that led to performances at Hamburg’s famous Thalia Theatre. But the roles he received were stereotypical "dark bad guys", so Akın started writing his own screenplays. 

Even so, in his first film role, the 1997 Luxembourg production “Back in Trouble”, directed by Andy Bausch, Akın was typecast as the character Kebab-Fatih. Akın also cast himself in a cameo appearance as a Turkish drug dealer in his own first film “Short Sharp Shock”.

The tale of three gang members from Altona, in which Bousdoukos played a major role, became a surprise hit at the German cinema in 1998 and was nominated for the top prize at the Locarno Film Festival.

A picture taken during the shooting of Fatih Akın's 1998 film Kurz und Schmerzlos (Short Sharp Shock). Wüste Filmproduktion.
A picture taken during the shooting of Fatih Akın's 1998 film Kurz und Schmerzlos (Short Sharp Shock). Wüste Filmproduktion.

After the film, Bousdoukos took over the Taverna Sotiris, where he and Akin were to spend much of their 20s. The Hamburg restaurant became the inspiration for Soul Kitchen, Akın’s 2009 movie starring Bousdoukos that received a special award at the Venice International Film Festival.

In 2000, Akın shot "In July", a homage to his future wife Monique. The film was a pan-European road and love story, extending all the way to Istanbul. The brightly lit adventure was an instant success. 

But it was with the film "Head-On" (Gegen die Wand)* in 2004 that Akın found global success. It starred ex-porn actress Sibel Kekilli and the talented Birol Ünel.

While many Turkish immigrants and their children have struggled to adapt to life in Germany, Akın came to be regarded as a model of the community. In 2004, Green Party member of parliament, Özcan Mutlu, himself from a Turkish background, said: "With Fatih Akın's success, a new era for us Turks in Germany has begun."

A scene from Fatih Akın's 2004 film Gegen die Wand (Head On).
A scene from Fatih Akın's 2004 film Gegen die Wand (Head On).

Akın has not shied away however from delving into controversial issues for both his Turkish and his German sides – the Armenian genocide and Neo-Nazis.

His film “The Cut” was a timely drama commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian Genocide – the mass killing of Armenians in eastern Turkey by Ottoman forces during World War One.

But the film was a first career setback for Akın, who had thought condemnation would come from Turks and Armenians, with neither side of the hotly debated issue satisfied with his view of events. The costly film received scathing reviews and was a box office flop. After that, Akın said, he fell into a "creative hole" and faced financial problems.

Akın’s 2016 film adaptation of Wolfgang Herrndorf's bestselling novel "Tschick" saved him from bankruptcy. Another director dropped out of filming at the last minute and Akın took over only a few weeks before shooting. It was a risky decision that paid off. The comedy drama of two teenagers on a road trip through eastern Germany was both widely acclaimed and a financial hit.

That success allowed him to make "In the Fade", a film addressing issues around Neo-Nazis that Germany has put forward for an Oscar.

* This version corrects title of Fatih Akın's 2004 movie as "Head-On".