Cem Kaya on the Sound of Turkey in Germany

15 September, 2022
A still from Love, Deutschmarks and Death from direc­tor Cem Kaya (cour­tesy Cem Kaya).


I am here and I am stay­ing. F**k you!


Necati Sönmez


For years, Fatih Akın’s Cross­ing the Bridge: The Sound of Istan­bul (2005) has been the sole glob­al­ly known doc­u­men­tary about music orig­i­nat­ing from Turkey. Now we have anoth­er film which has become immense­ly pop­u­lar — even before its the­atri­cal release. Love, Deutschmarks and Death is the lat­est from Cem Kaya, who is, like Akın, a Ger­man-Turk­ish film­mak­er. Not only did it win the Audi­ence Award for Best Doc­u­men­tary in Panora­ma at Berli­nale 2022, receiv­ing a stand­ing ova­tion dur­ing its world pre­miere, but Kaya’s doc has also been high­ly acclaimed in all the fes­ti­vals in which it has par­tic­i­pat­ed so far, adding many more awards to its col­lec­tion. The film has yet to open in cin­e­mas in Turkey and Ger­many, yet has already been seen by thou­sands of festivalgoers.

While Akın’s film was a glance at the Istan­bul-cen­tered music from a Ger­man per­spec­tive (embod­ied by both the direc­tor and Alexan­der Hacke, the main char­ac­ter of the film), Kaya’s archive-based doc­u­men­tary is an up close and per­son­al exam­i­na­tion of Turk­ish music pro­duced and con­sumed in Ger­many. As much as the for­mer is a kind of a log­book of a curi­ous trip­per, the lat­ter is more like a com­pact doc­u­men­ta­tion of a large­ly unknown musi­cal his­to­ry, in an infor­ma­tive but at the same time enter­tain­ing and dynam­ic way. In fact, it may not be real­ly reward­ing to com­pare the two films, as they have lit­tle in com­mon con­tent-wise, apart from the fact that, as high-bud­get pro­duc­tions, they both indi­cate the Ger­man inter­est in Turkey-cen­tric music, and will both prob­a­bly remain the most pop­u­lar doc­u­men­taries on the topic.

Fol­low­ing the sign­ing of the Ger­man-Turk­ish Recruit­ment Agree­ment on Octo­ber 30, 1961, hun­dreds of thou­sands of so-called “guest work­ers” (Gas­tar­beit­er) from Turkey made their way to West Ger­many, which was fac­ing a labor short­age after World War II. Ini­tial­ly, the “guests” were sup­posed to return home after a lim­it­ed stay. How­ev­er, things did not go as planned, as their fam­i­ly mem­bers were allowed to join the work­ers. Many of these guest work­ers and their fam­i­lies end­ed up stay­ing in Ger­many for good. Even though sim­i­lar agree­ments were signed between Ger­many and, for exam­ple, Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia, the Turks — and Kurds from Turkey — would even­tu­al­ly become the largest immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty in the coun­try, with a pop­u­la­tion of about three mil­lion. As a mat­ter of course, these peo­ple brought not only their labor, but also their cul­ture and tra­di­tions.1 Their socio-cul­tur­al vis­i­bil­i­ty (and audi­bil­i­ty) in this new home called Ger­many would man­i­fest itself at best on the music scene.

Coin­cid­ing with the 60th anniver­sary of the Recruit­ment Agree­ment, Love, Deutschmarks and Death is an intrigu­ing sound­track to this long his­to­ry of immi­gra­tion. Unlike with many films, here the score does not deter­mine the mood, but the oth­er way around — the social mood deter­mines the music. More pre­cise­ly, the film offers, through the music indus­try, an alter­na­tive look at the lives of those recruit­ed to take on menial jobs in Ger­many over the past six decades.

A prodi­gious sto­ry with numer­ous charis­mat­ic char­ac­ters yet a sole pro­tag­o­nist at its core, Love, Deutschmarks and Death uses song as a tool for the under­rep­re­sent­ed to speak out. For the major­i­ty of the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion, the kind of music in ques­tion is noth­ing more than noise heard from the loud­speak­ers of a car dri­ven in the streets of Berlin or Cologne. Yet by means of this music, the Turk­ish com­mu­ni­ty would estab­lish con­nec­tions between “here” (Ger­many) and “there” (Turkey), between the new home and the “Heimat,” or home­land. They would express their com­mon griev­ances in the lyrics, includ­ing life cir­cum­stances, ill-treat­ment in the work place, “out­sider­ness,” and the over­whelm­ing pain of sep­a­ra­tion from home and fam­i­ly; in oth­er words, all the aspects of gurbet, which in Turk­ish lit­er­al­ly means “state of exile,” but also refers to a strong home­sick­ness and nos­tal­gia. That’s how the word “Gas­tar­beit­er” was iron­i­cal­ly trans­lat­ed into Turk­ish as “gurbetçi” (one liv­ing away from home). When you become a “guest” some­where, it’s no won­der that you are detached from home!

The film takes its name from a poem of the same title by Aras Ören, which was per­formed as a song in 1982 by Ide­al, a well-known Ger­man rock band of the time. From a musi­cal per­spec­tive, the his­to­ry in ques­tion can be rough­ly divid­ed into three peri­ods, span­ning three gen­er­a­tions — 1) Love: when the emo­tion­al attach­ment to home­land and the grief of sep­a­ra­tion were promi­nent in wist­ful songs, 2) D‑Mark: when a cur­ren­cy that sym­bol­izes pros­per­i­ty came to the fore, and 3) Death: when neo-Nazism is on the rise and a new kind of music react­ing to dis­crim­i­na­tion, xeno­pho­bia and racism emerges.

After a short intro­duc­tion to the his­tor­i­cal con­text, sev­er­al faces begin to appear on screen, one after anoth­er: Yük­sel Özkas­ap, the “Nightin­gale of Cologne”; İsm­et Topçu, a vir­tu­oso of elec­tric-bağla­ma; Metin Türköz, a work­er-turned-folksinger; Ali Derdiyok­lar, who designed his own spe­cial instru­ments; as well as casette col­lecters, record pro­duc­ers, writ­ers, and retired instru­men­tal­ists who still gath­er on reg­u­lar basis in Berlin’s Hasen­hei­de Park.

How­ev­er, not all the names are eco­nom­ic immi­grants linked to the 1961 Recruit­ment Agree­ment. For instance, there is Cem Kara­ca, whose sto­ry alone could be turned into a film and who was already a star on the Ana­to­lian rock scene when he took refugee in Ger­many as a polit­i­cal dis­si­dent fol­low­ing Turkey’s mil­i­tary coup d’e­tat in 1980. As under­lined in the part oft he film ded­i­cat­ed to his exile, he had to start from scratch; nev­er­the­less, he made an epochal con­tri­bu­tion to Turk­ish-Ger­man music. As touched on by the inter­ti­tles, he ulti­mate­ly made the con­tro­ver­sial deci­sion to return home, dis­ap­point­ing his fans with the com­pro­mis­es he made with the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment in Turkey.

The truth is that, occa­sion­al­ly the polit­i­cal fac­tors in this sto­ry are not as clear-cut as one pre­sumes. No doubt the “Gas­tar­beit­er” com­mu­ni­ty was exposed to all kinds of dis­crim­i­na­tion, inhu­mane work­ing con­di­tions, labor exploita­tion and so on, and the music its mem­bers made was often an answer to that. On the oth­er hand, some songs were not exempt from, for instance, a good deal of occi­den­tal­ism or machis­mo, as evi­denced by their lyrics.

Among the very inter­est­ing remarks expressed by the inter­vie­wees, there is one par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant state­ment by author İmr­an Aya­ta, who reflects on the ele­ment of racism, say­ing that in fact it worked as a strong moti­va­tion trig­ger­ing artists to sing and say: “I am here and I am stay­ing. F**k you!”

Eight years in the mak­ing, the doc­u­men­tary, a splen­did exam­ple of cre­ative mon­tage, is based on exten­sive archival research and involved an incred­i­ble amount of work.3 Con­ver­sa­tions held in the form of authen­tic cof­fee chats are inter­min­gled with orig­i­nal footage from 1970s TV shows, wed­ding tapes, con­cert record­ings, scenes from old Turk­ish pop­u­lar films, etc. Thanks to the metic­u­lous edit­ing, all these frag­ment­ed pieces enter into a del­i­cate and some­times fun­ny dia­logue with each oth­er through­out the film.

Cem Kaya is a Berlin-based doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er of Turk­ish descent with a quirky inter­est in found footage work. Com­ing from the field of cul­tur­al stud­ies, he com­bines humor­ous sto­ry­telling with deep back­ground knowl­edge in his films, which include Arabeks, Remake, Remix, Rip-Off and Love, Deutschmarks and Death.

Kaya, who also edit­ed the film, has already proved him­self in the field with his pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary, which relied to a large extent on archives. Remake Remix Rip-Off4 (2015), an inves­ti­ga­tion into the pla­gia­riza­tion cul­ture in pop­u­lar Turk­ish cin­e­ma dur­ing the gold­en age of B‑movies, was a com­pre­hen­sive labor of mon­tage, remix­ing the images and sounds tak­en from these movies, which in fact copied Hol­ly­wood block­busters. (One can only imag­ine the crazed amount of work it must have required just to clear the copy­rights for such a documentary!)

Kaya is also no stranger to music con­nect­ed with immi­gra­tion. An ear­li­er film of his, Arabeks5 (2010), co-direct­ed with Gökhan Bulut and com­mis­sioned by Arte/ZDF, explored Turkey’s pop­u­lar music aes­thet­ic known as “arabesk” (arabesque), which emerged in the wake of the inter­nal migra­tion from east­ern rur­al provinces to the big west­ern cities, par­tic­u­lar­ly İst­anb­ul. Hence, before eco­nom­ic migra­tion to Ger­many there was inter­nal migra­tion dur­ing the 1960s, and “arabesk” rep­re­sent­ed the musi­cal out­put of that social development.

As seen in Love, Deutschmarks and Death, the diver­si­ty of the music scene of Turkey is read­i­ly appar­ent in the case of the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty in Ger­many, where the gen­res vary from arabesque to protest rock, from soft pop to dis­co, from rap to hip-hop. What brings all these musi­cal tra­di­tions togeth­er are the com­mon socio-polit­i­cal strug­gles of the peo­ple singing them, and the peo­ple about whom they are sung —the fight for bet­ter working/living con­di­tions, wom­en’s strug­gle for their rights, the chal­lenges fac­ing labor orga­ni­za­tions, etc. Music became an out­let for those striv­ing for a bet­ter life on any of these fronts.

One can’t help won­der­ing whether the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of this music might have helped forge a col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, and whether it was help­ful in eas­ing the bur­den of life. Has this music func­tioned as a sur­vival kit for immi­grants from Turkey in Ger­many? Albert L. Lloyd, a folk singer and key fig­ure in the British folk music scene of the 1950s and ’60s (and a mem­ber of the British Com­mu­nist Par­ty), wrote in his mag­num opus, Folk Song in Eng­land (1967):

“Gen­er­al­ly the folk song mak­ers chose to express their long­ing by trans­pos­ing the world on to an imag­i­na­tive plane, not try­ing to escape from it, but colour­ing it with fan­ta­sy, turn­ing bit­ter even bru­tal facts of life into some­thing beau­ti­ful, trag­ic, hon­ourable, so that when singer and lis­ten­ers return to real­i­ty at the end of the song, the envi­ron­ment is not changed but they are bet­ter fit­ted to grap­ple with it.”6

The mad dream of İsm­et Topçu, the like­able char­ac­ter who opens and clos­es Kaya’s film, is to be hired by NASA and asked to play his instru­ment on the moon. He seems to believe that out­er space is where he can expe­ri­ence the ulti­mate free­dom. Topçu may be right. Still, it is not hard to imag­ine that he would feel freer even once he is back from the space voyage.



1) “We want­ed a labor force, but human beings came,” as Max Frisch would put it lat­er. For a detailed account of the his­tor­i­cal back­ground, see here.
2) “Aşk Mark ve Ölüm” by Ideal.
3) “Remake Remix Rip-Off” (2015) by Cem Kaya.
4) In one recent inter­view, Kaya refers to Bruce Con­ner’s “Mar­i­lyn Times Five” (1973) as one of his all-time inspirations.
5) The term “arabesk”(arabesque) is delib­er­ate­ly mis­spelled in the title as “Arabeks,” which is the way it is usu­al­ly pro­nounced. “Arabeks” (2010) by Gökhan Bulut and Cem Kaya.
6) A. L. Lloyd, “Folk Song in Eng­land” (1967), pp. 180.


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