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Liebe, D-Mark und Tod / Love, Deutschmarks and Death

Director: Cem Kaya (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

In 1961, the German-Turkish Recruitment Agreement paved the way towards the influx of Turkish Gastarbeiter into West Germany. The country needed the workers, and poor Turks needed the money. Liebe, D-Mark und Tod uses archive film footage to show these workers and the vast difference between their expectations and reality. Instead of lots of money and a new lifestyle, they met a cold country (in more way than one) full of racism and shitty working conditions.

Existence precedes essence, and the experiences of the “New Germans” (who were never really accepted in Germany) was reflected in their music. These songs were called Gurbetçi Lieder – songs from a distance. They were about melancholy and loneliness, homesickness and exile, but also everyday racism and exploitation. They sold by their million in cassettes sold in Turkish shops, but were completely unknown by most people living in the country in which they were produced.

Many Turks had come to the country as a temporary measure, to earn some money for their families and then return. This meant that they tended to meet in Turkish cafés and clubs where they were not made to feel that they were not wanted. A large Turkish bazaar was created in an old S-Bahn station near Bulowstraße. Turkish musicians played live music in these places, and most of it was in Turkish.

Gastarbeiter only came to Germany in any numbers for just over a decade. The oil crisis of 1973 led to fewer jobs with worse working conditions. Turkish workers were told to leave the country. We see tv footage of Prime Minister Willy Brandt, thought by many to be a great liberal, saying “our own workers come first”. Turkish workers got involved in strikes to defend their living conditions, often alongside their German contemporaries. Turkish music became correspondingly militant.

One of the bands to emerge at the time was Die Kanaken, who named themselves after a word used by racists to describe Turks, roughly equivalent to the N- word. Die Kanaken sang in German and were the first Turkish group signed to a German record label. But their singer Cem Karaca could not fit in to his new country. In an interview he said he felt “not uncomfortable in Germany, but you can’t have two homelands. There is only one homeland, and it’s like a mother”.

But history intervened. A 1980 coup in Turkey meant that “intellectuals” like Karaca were banned by the new government from returning to Turkey. For years, Karaca could not go home. He missed his father’s funeral and was unable to watch his son grow up. In 1987, due to loosened restrictions, Karaca went back home. Other singers and musicians remained banned from their country of birth.

This is how Germany became, what someone in the film describes as “a land of migration by mistake”. Turkish workers and their children started to accept that they were in Germany for the long haul, whether they wanted to be or not. They stopped singing nostalgic songs about the old country – especially the next generation of German-Turks who had been born in Germany. Songs concerned themselves increasingly with the reality of life and love in Germany.

Then reunification happened, and with it a resurgance of racism. Places like Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Mölln and Solingen became synonymous with the arson attacks which were organised by Neo-Nazis in the early 1990s. Politicians started to use the odious phrase “the boat is full”. At roughly the same time, many German-Turkish musicians were discovering rap, with which they identified as being the voice of an oppressed minority.

A song by the rap group Cartel had the following lyrics: “for all Turkish youth in the world, we have found a new way in music … We are happy / But for Germans we just make their Fatherland dirty / we take away their jobs and are a burden / Unexpectedly we become successful / The time is ripe to rebel with music – because the Germans are looking for your life and insult you.” These are no longer the melancholic lyrics of the songs sung by their fathers.

Turkish rap music also found an audience amongst German youth. For the first time, a significant amount of Turkish music found its way into German record shops. We hear an anecdote about a record signing in MediaMarkt, where Turkish kids, who had never been to MediaMarkt in their life, walked off with their signed records without paying. They weren’t on the rob, they just didn’t know that at an event like this you were supposed to hand over money.

While all this was going on, traditional Turkish music continued. We see film of a Turkish wedding, which looks a hell of a lot more fun then most I’ve experienced by Germans or Britons. There was money to be made in playing in a wedding band, whose musicians learned to play songs from all 81 provinces of Turkey, and learned songs in Kurdish and Arabic.

When asked what he was looking for in his film, director Cem Kaya said “I was looking less for similarities than for differences. What was different here and why? The artists here interpreted song, traditions and dances under local living conditions. A Turkish or Kurdish wedding in the 1980s in a sports hall somewhere in the Ruhr valley had quite different social functions to a similar event in Turkey.”

It is to Kaya’s credit that his film brings out exactly these specificities about social conditions for people who were born in Germany but are still not accepted as being fully part of the country. As with all good films, you could wish for more. There is not much about music in the 21st Century, and though we become aware of women starting to become aware in creating music, this is never directly addressed. But why complain about what’s missing when what is there is so informative?

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