What’s in a title? Die Fremde and When We Leave
Having watched Die Fremde, Germany’s Oscar nomination for the Academy Awards next month, I have been thinking about the film’s German and English titles and the different expectations raised. As Feo Aladag, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, explains in an interview (on the German-language DVD) ‘Die Fremde’ (literally ‘the foreigner’ or ‘the alien’) refers to Umay’s estrangement from her family, that is, her parents, brothers and her sister. ‘Die Fremde’ can also mean ‘a foreign country’ (normally used in the collocation ‘in der Fremde leben’/’living in a foreign country’) and, in this sense, it refers to the experience of Umay’s family, in particular her father and mother, who are first-generation Turkish immigrants living in Berlin.
Their ‘foreignness’ is expressed in the language they speak throughout the film, Turkish rather than German, and in their adherence to a code of honour and morality which, from a Western perspective, seems archaic. But the portrayal of Kader, Umay’s father, and Halime, her mother, does not reiterate the usual stereotypes of traditional Turkish Muslim patriarchy. It renders Kader and Halime’s inner conflict in a nuanced and emotionally gripping way.
In fact, the dilemma Umay’s parents are faced with is reminiscent of that experienced by the parents of Effi Briest in Theodor Fontane’s novel (1894), who also feel compelled by social convention to make a choice between their daughter, whose adulterous affair with Major Crampas many years ago is eventually discovered, and between society. They disown their daughter and ostracise her from the family and social circle. Effi’s moral trespass is additionally and cruelly sanctioned when she is separated form her child, Annie, for whom her ex-husband is granted custody (a constellation comparable to that of Die Fremde, in that Umay also fears to lose Cem to his father). There is also an ‘honour killing’ in Effi Briest, though the practice of duels of honour in nineteenth-century Prussia (and elsewhere) put men, not women in the line of fire. The comparison with Effi Briest, far-fetched as it may seem, may reinforce the notion that the diasporic family portrayed in Aladag’s film abides by a system of values and social practices that is very archaic indeed. But one could also argue that Die Fremde addresses issues that, in a different shape and form, have played a significant role in German cultural history, making Umay’s family not so ‘alien’ after all.
When We Leave, the English title, evokes a different set of connotations for me. It obviously refers to the constant departures and goodbyes which propel the narrative forward: Umay and Cem leaving Turkey and Kemal, her abusive husband the father of Cem; leaving Umay’s family home in Berlin; leaving the women’s shelter and so on. And 'each time we leave, we leave something of us behind', Umay explains to her little son Cem. The English title draws attention to the theme of mobility and displacement, a theme When We Leave shares with many other migrant and diasporic films. Displacement in this film is at the root of the moral conflict and confusion experienced by the family, especially by the family patriarch, Kader.
One scene is particularly relevant in this respect: Kader goes on a long journey that takes him across Turkey’s vast expanses of barren, wide open plains and rugged mountains, until he reaches his father’s home. The journey is reminiscent of the journey undertaken Metin in Dügün – The Wedding (Ismet Elci, 1991) and Keltoum in The Daughter of Keltoum (Mehdi Charef, 2001). Here, too, the duration of the arduous overland journey translates spatial into cultural difference. The house of Kader’s father is literally at the other side of the world, it is basic, remote and furnished with some rugs. Kader has embarked upon this journey to seek his father’s advice in this important family matter, or so we assume. Not a word is spoken in this scene, but the expression on Kader’s face, when he leaves again, reveals that the advice he was given is not the advice he may have hoped for. When we leave one cultural context, how can we expect to be able to translate its codes and conventions into another?
Edited on 15 Feb 2011 around 10am