The trouble with being a German Turk

The reviews are in for Netflix’s second German production, and most agree that "Dogs of Berlin" is overly grim, with too many clichés, too much going on, weak writing and cynical characters more representative of stereotypes than actual human beings.

That does not mean the series is a dog. It is worth watching, as a guilty pleasure, and as a somewhat overheated examination of the real-life tensions bubbling up in the German capital these days, particularly those of the city’s Turks.

The show centres on an investigation into the murder of Orkan Erdem, the son of Turkish immigrants who was widely seen as the best player on the German national team.

Leading the investigation are Kurt Grimmer (Felix Kramer), a corrupt homicide detective and former neo-Nazi, and Erol Birkan (Fahri Yardim), a gay German Turk from the vice squad, who clash like fire and ice. The list of suspects includes the victim’s family, the illegal sports betting mafia, an Arab criminal gang, neo-Nazis from east Berlin, and the German football association.

One of the recurring themes of the show is the tensions inherent in being a person of Turkish heritage in Germany. Germany has the second-largest Muslim population in Western Europe after France. Among Germany’s nearly 4.7 million Muslims, around 3 million are of Turkish origin, more than any country outside Turkey.

Anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish views have increased since Germany accepted a million refugees in 2015 and 2016. Just this week, Berlin marked the second anniversary of the Christmas market ramming attack by Tunisian refugee Anis Amri, which killed 12 people.  

The wave of migrants and several terror attacks have spurred the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) as well as a spike in anti-Muslim attacks, such as an arson attack on a Turkish restaurant in Chemnitz in September.

Understanding this, the series seems careful to present Turks as long-suffering yet good-hearted. At times, Dogs of Berlin almost reads as an apology, from liberal-minded Germans to their Turkish compatriots.

Consider Orkan Erdem, the murdered footballer. Some have compared Erdem to Burak Karan, a German Turkish footballer who ended his playing career at age 20, in 2008. Five years later he turned up dead in Syria. But I would argue that Erdem is meant to represent Mesut Özil, the German Turk soccer star who earlier this year quit the German national team.

The grandchild of Turkish immigrants, Özil rose to prominence after he played a key role in the 2014 World Cup-winning team. And yet even he dealt with discrimination. In the letter he posted on Twitter to announce his quitting, he cited racism and disrespect.  “When we win, I am German,” he wrote. “When we lose, I am an immigrant.”

He went on to admit that his loyalties were at times torn. “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” Özil wrote on Twitter. “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don't.”

In Dogs of Berlin, when Detective Grimmer goes with his colleagues to question Erdem’s parents’ at their home, he finds the walls filled with photos of their son playing football. Yet, in none of them is he wearing his Germany jersey.

To deflect suspicion, Erdem’s father Enfal (Mürtüz Yolcu) tells the officers that he always supported his son. Grimmer pushes back. “You never watched him play for Germany,” he says. “You and your family had a big problem with your son not playing for Turkey. Be honest with us. We’re looking for your son’s killers.”

This smartly underscores the tensions inherent in being a German Turk: Enfal is uncomfortable admitting his family’s allegiance to Turkey to the police, worried that it might make him and his family look inadequately patriotic, as well as possible suspects.

There are echoes of this issue between Birkan and his father, Emre (Tayfun Bademso). When they meet for the first time in years, they refuse to speak the other’s preferred language. Though father and son, the two are actually of different nationalities, as Germany had eased its citizenship laws by the time Birkan would have been born.

“There’s nothing that reminds me of home here, not even a Turkish carpet,” Emre says when he visits his son’s apartment. “You are just like a German. Everything is so dead and cold here.”

“I am a German,” Birkan responds. “Remember?”

Birkan is a triply persecuted minority, a sort of Turkish Job. Not only a Turk, and a Muslim, but, as a gay man in the police force, a sexual deviant. He is under constant physical assault and faces at least one assassination attempt. His hero, Karaca, is brutally killed by his nemesis, the buff, bearded Hakim Tarik-Amir, who heads the Muslim mafia.

Both grew up in Kaiserwarte, an obvious stand-in for Berlin’s Kreuzberg-Neukolln area, where Hakim and his friends bullied Birkan as a kid. Now, Hakim and his criminal minions regularly slip through Birkan’s police fingers. To top if off, he is marrying Birkan’s ex-girlfriend (Birkan left her when he realised he was gay).

Yet Birkan remains morally upright, unlike his partner, who is deeply corrupt and has a mistress with whom he spends more time than his wife and children. What is more, Grimmer is constantly battling his mother and brother, who lead a local neo-Nazi outfit he left years ago.  

Marzahn, where the group is based, is an actual neighbourhood in northeast Berlin known for poverty and neo-Nazism. In real life, extreme nationalism is not uncommon among German police officers. Last week, five Frankfurt police officers were suspended after an investigation discovered they had sent each other swastikas and Hitler photos and sent threatening messages to a Turkish lawyer leading a case against the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground.

The shows Arab mafia clan is apparently true to life as well, as Berlin’s Arab crime gangs are led by Lebanese former refugees and infamous for their violence and theft. In real life, Berlin’s Arab mafiosi often dabble in rap, mythologizing their exploits and daring the police to take them down. The actor who plays Hakim Tarik-Amir, the head of the Arab mafia in Dogs of Berlin, is the blue-eyed German-Iranian rapper Sinan-G, or Sinan Farhangmehr, who has actually served time in prison for burglary and forming a criminal gang.

“For every character, there is a role model in my real environment that I know,” writer-director Christian Alvart recently said about the series.

Yet several news outlets, including Vice, argue that the series inaccurately depicts the cultural and social reality of criminal gangs, the city’s clubs and immigrants, the police, and more. Having lived in Berlin just over a month, I am inadequately steeped in the city to know whether that is true.

But I can say that as a pop culture depiction of urgent tensions among Turks in Germany, and between Germans and their Turkish-origin citizens, their criminal gangs and their troubling past, Dogs of Berlin sheds light on the city’s trouble spots, and thus marks a step in the right direction.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.