Director: Fatih Akin (Germany, Italy, Netherlands). Year of Release: 2022
Syria, 2010. An army truck offloads 3 prisoners just in front of a large wall. They are separated, and one of them is led into a jail cell, full of other prisoners sat on the floor. The prisoner who seems to be in charge beckons him over and asks him where he’s from. When he says he’s from Kurdistan, he’s sent to sit with the other Kurds.
He is soon called into questioning, where his interrogator starts out by making nice, saying that he, too is a Kurd, and that they’ll let him go if he tells them where the gold is. When the prisoner says that he doesn’t know of any gold, apart from his tooth filling, the guards start to get rough. They call in the torturer in chief, who carries several sets of pliers. The gold tooth is removed without anaesthetic. We hear deathly screams from the prisoner.
Cut to: Iran, 1979, a classical concert. The conductor smiles seductively at the female clarinet player. Suddenly, the Revolutionary Guards burst in, firing their guns into the air. They denounce the concert as being decadent, and tell everyone to go home. When one woman gets up to object, they shoot her through the head. The audience and orchestra quickly disperse, although the Guards have continued shooting, killing some of the people who are running away.
A voiceover tells us that the prisoner’s parents – the conductor and a now very pregnant clarinettist – have fled to a Communist camp in the Iranian part of Kurdistan. As we watch them, the camp comes under heavy shelling from the Iranian army. The clarinettist – now in full army fatigues – realises that her waters have broken. She leaves the rest of the fleeing refugees and enters a cave filled with low-flying bats. She gives birth, cutting the umbilical cord with a stone.
Cut to: Iraq, 1982. The composer, the clarinettist, and their baby boy have used the Iran-Iraq war as an opportunity to cross the border. But Kurds are no more welcome in Iraq than they are in Iran. The family is imprisoned, while diplomats try to negotiate a way out, using the leeway that the composer is revered in Kurdistan. Eventually, the family is released and given visas to move to Paris. Once they’re there, a friend says that there is more composing work in Germany.
After struggling at first, dad gets a job with the Bonn opera, the same place where he had earlier told his son Giwar the story of the Rheingold – which makes you immortal, but once you have it, you can’t lose it. Finally, he is getting a decent wage, enough for the family to rise out of poverty. But he’s been smiling seductively at the female violinist, and chooses this moment to leave his wife and kids. His last word is to tell his wife to make sure that Giwar must continue his piano lessons.
Rheingold has barely started, but we have already experienced several films’ worth of experiences. This intensity continues at a slightly lower rate as we see Giwar’s adolescence. Trying to help his family out of its financial problems, he moves from selling porns film on VHS to small-time drug dealing. An early experience with customers who refuse to pay means he takes to the gym until he’s muscled up enough to visit the non-payers one by one and beat the shit out of them.
On the side, Giwar also develops an interest in music. He gave up his piano lessons as a reaction to his father leaving, but retains a musical ear. Seeing an unknown rapper hold an audience, he wants some of that adulation for himself. Visiting a local record producer, he sees that his ability on the piano means that he can write his own backing tracks, saving heavily on publishing rights. He uses the money from some drug deals to enrol himself at Amsterdam’s elite music conservatory.
The film is by now about an hour in, and I am absolutely hooked. Then we move to Amsterdam, and it becomes a different type of film entirely. The actor playing Giwar changes, and we witness his rise from a bouncer (who gains work by physically threatening the competition) to becoming a big-time criminal. When a big job selling liquid cocaine goes horribly wrong, he ends up getting involved in a heist to rob a shipment of a shitload of gold being sent to be used for fillings.
The second hour of Rheingold is not bad, but it lacks most of the energy of what came before. Whereas the opening of the film was riddled with events of social and personal interest, we are now just watching gangsters doing gangstery things. There is a mild subplot, with Giwar trying to woo the girl who used to live opposite him, but her character is so horribly underwritten that it’s hard to see what’s in it for her. Then again, she doesn’t count for much in a film about men’s men.
I blame Martin Scorsese. It is not that films about gangsters are not interesting – Scorsese more than anyone showed that they are. But after all his films in the 1980s and the 1990s, any new film about Goodfellas getting involved in heists may be slightly interesting, but doesn’t feel like it’s telling us anything new. Added to that, Fatih Akin has directed some of the best German films ever made. Derivative stuff like this is good, but doesn’t feel good enough for him.
Giwar’s interest in music disappears for a good hour, then returns when he sent to prison and decides to record an album using portable speakers smuggled into his cell. This is roughly the point where the film starts getting much more interesting. Those who know the story already will not be surprized that Giwar, now know as Xatar (Kurdish for Danger, or “the dangerous one”) becomes a chart topping rapper.
Rheingold tells a fantastic story, and is well worth a visit. But it sags too much in the middle to be a truly great film. Akin should have trusted his own inventiveness more than borrowing from tropes which are starting to get a bit tired.