Fatih Akin Talks About ‘Rhinegold,’ ‘Marlene’ and Whether the Middle East Can Become a New Film Mecca

German-Turkish director Fatih Akin is attending the Red Sea Film Festival for the screening of “Rhinegold,” about young Iranian-Kurdish immigrant Giwar Hajabi, also known as Xatar, who is one of Germany’s most successful rap stars.

The pic was released in Germany on Oct. 27 and has grossed over $10 million, becoming Akin’s biggest hit to date.

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As in many of Akin’s previous features, “Rhinegold” explores the energy released by the encounter between Middle Eastern and European culture.

The pic begins with Xatar’s musician parents escaping from Tehran during the 1979 Iranian revolution and includes scenes in Iraq, prior to the family’s departure to Europe and Xatar’s subsequent imprisonment in 2010 in a Syrian jail. Although much of the film takes place in the streets of Europe, the Middle East is a core element of its visceral energy.

Akin is fascinated by such cultural clashes and has said that as a Turkish kid growing up in Germany he always felt a bit of an outsider, a misfit, and has used this perspective to inspire his films.

In March 2022, he signed a first-look deal with Warner Media, covering German and Turkish language movies and series, for theatrical release, TV and HBO Max.

Warner Media previously worked with Akin on “Rhinegold,” “The Golden Glove” and “In the Fade,” for which Diane Kruger received a best actress Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

Two projects that Akin has announced but whose financing is still being finalized are WWII drama “Amrum,” written by Hark Bohm, and his first TV series, “Marlene” – a five-part biopic on Marlene Dietrich in which Akin will team up again with Kruger, who will also exec produce, alongside Scott Levenson and Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter.

“Marlene” will be produced by UFA Fiction and Akin’s production house, Bombero International, in Hamburg. It will cover Dietrich’s early career in Berlin, as Nazi storm clouds began to swirl, her time in Hollywood, alongside other European emigrés and then her return to Germany and final years in Paris.

Akin talked to Variety about why it is so important for him to be attending the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and his future projects.

Why did you choose to come to the Red Sea Film Fest?

Kaleem Aftab, the Red Sea’s international programmer is an old friend of mine and has been following my work since my very first film. So when he invited my film I was delighted. The Red Sea is the perfect place for “Rhinegold” and is a very fast-growing fest.

Your films often feature characters linked to the Middle East.

My roots are from the part of the word we call Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of world civilization. Here, in the case of Saudi Arabia, it’s the center of the Islamic world. So this is a major center of world culture. There are many other centers – New York is a center, L.A. is definitely a young center, Beijing is a center. But you know I don’t feel like Europe has any powerful centers anymore. When you go to Mecca you see the entire Islamic world. You see people from Asia, Bangladesh, Africa, from all over the world. Wherever there is a center I think it’s a strongly charged place, with a lot of stories. This is a new center for filmmaking, which is now emerging but which has huge potential.

How is this tendency reflected in the audience for your films?

People were telling me that cinema is dead and that people no longer want to see films like mine, that kids just want to see Marvel movies. But suddenly people came in droves to see “Rhinegold.” My main audience was people from this part of the world. That was the main audience in Germany. Everybody was surprised and said: “Where are these kids coming from? They’re coming straight out of the ghettos into the movie theaters?” Nobody had them on their radar! Audiences are now looking for other viewpoints. For example, when my film “Rhinegold” was released around a month ago, it shared top place with “Wakanda” in Germany for around two to three weeks. These are not films whose leads are traditional white characters. There is a kind of new perspective that they’re bringing in.

Do you think audiences are looking for a different kind of story?

Maybe there’s a shift, you know. From the Western storytelling model. I mean Hollywood is a great place in terms of the history of cinema, but it faces a challenge to maintain its centrality. There are new centers, like Nollywood for Nigerian cinema or Indian cinema. Whenever an Indian film comes out in Germany it just come out for a weekend or two, but they’re like blockbusters. I would like to be part of that movement. I think cinema from the Middle East will be a growing force.

These themes are also linked to your project about Marlene Dietrich, in particular when she moved to Hollywood.

That’s right! Hollywood really benefited when a lot of Jewish storytellers had to leave Europe and came to Hollywood and reinvented it or rebuilt it, to find a new home.

You’ve said that making ‘Marlene’ will be the biggest challenge of your career. Why?

Marlene Dietrich has become an icon, and you have to be careful with such topics. Because people are romanticizing people like her. There is a real person behind that icon. We can analyze who she really was. Through reading biographies and books and talking to people who knew her. That’s how I usually work. But in Marlene’s case she has become intimately linked to the much wider and vital question of female empowerment. She has somehow become a role model for these topics. So to do a biopic, I can go for this idealized woman or try to analyze or create an intimate portrait of how she might really have been. I do street films, you know that’s what I’m good at. In this case, I can’t make her a street woman, sure. But I can identify with the fact that she was an immigrant. I mean, I know if she was working today, she’d be someone like Diane Kruger. She would be at ease with the world of high fashion, of brands like Armani. I’m not really in that world but I am familiar with it, because of Cannes and Venice and all those places, and I’m observing it and studying it.

Marlene’s story covered a period of huge social and cultural change.

There was huge racism in Europe, there was an economic crisis in Europe, which led to Fascism in Germany and other countries. You can’t compare it with what’s happening today. Because what the Nazis did and what happened at that time is so awful and unique. I think it’s not right to say we have similar things today. But it’s true that we have some similar dangers. There’s an economic crisis. There is a tendency in Europe to vote for very right-wing movements, in Sweden and Italy, and things like Brexit.

Since Marlene is a TV series will you start focusing on TV rather than cinema?

Cinema right now in Europe is a very fragile thing. You really have to care for it, like a fragile plant that needs sun and water. Anything can happen these days, but cinema will always be my home.

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