When We Leave: Die Fremde

When We Leave is one of the finest foreign films to grace the America cinema in years. It is masterful, full of intellect, grace and beauty, and is exquisitely profound. Written and directed by Feo Aladag, the film tells a profoundly moving story of a young Turkish-German woman, Umay, played to perfection by the remarkably gifted Turkish-German actress, Sibel Kekilli, who skillfully portrays a young woman trapped between a deeply patriarchal Turkish-German community, and the world of secular Judeo-Christian Germany, where she has lived the overwhelming majority of her life. She seeks to strike a healthy balance between the demands of the Turkish-German community, who live a highly segregated and ghettoized existence within the bowels of central Europe, and the world of contemporary Berlin in which she was raised.

The film has been awarded the Lola, the German equivalent of an Oscar, for best picture, and Kekelli has been awarded the Lola for best actress. Kekilli performs with a grace and beauty that is truly timeless. Capable of drawing the viewer into a secret inner-world of breathtaking emotional depths, brutally crushing heartache, and deeply disturbing cultural contradictions – Kekilli is unforgettable.

In the beginning of the film, Umay, who has been wedded to a Turkish man and has moved to Turkey to live with him, suffers emotional and physical abuse under his tyrannical roof, and when he turns on her son, Cem (Nizam Schiller), in a similarly despotic manner, she flees and returns to Berlin.

Umay’s father, played with impressive emotional depth and nuanced acting by Settar Tanriogen, initially believes his daughter is simply homesick and warmly greets her. When he and the rest of the family learn that she has left her husband and returned for good, they grow increasingly upset with her, feeling that she is bringing an unspeakable act of shame and humiliation upon the family, threatening their standing both with the in-laws and with the Turkish-German community.

Umay’s mother, Halima (Derya Alabora), and her deeply possessive older brother, Mehmet (Tamer Yigit), who is even more patriarchal and inclined towards medievalism than his brother-in-law, are both adamant that she return to Turkey immediately, or destroy the good name of the family forever.

Umay’s younger sister, Rana (Almila Bagriacik), and younger brother, Acar (Serhad Can), are initially sympathetic, however this changes when they begin to feel the hostility of the Turkish-German community bearing down on them. In the end, Umay is tragically and hopelessly alienated from those she loves.

One of the subtler mysteries of When We Leave is how Umay has managed to assimilate into German society far better than the rest of her deeply segregated family. She continues to believe until the bitter end that her family will forgive her, and that it will somehow be possible to strike a reconciliation and peaceful marriage between these two diametrically opposed cultures.

The film is filled with marvelous subtleties and nuances, such as when Umay speaks Turkish to her parents one moment, and German to her younger siblings the next.

When Umay initially pleads with her father for understanding, he refuses to take her side, even when she tells him that her husband has beaten her. “The hand that strikes is also the hand that soothes,” he tells her. However, as the drama unfolds, Umay’s father reveals himself to be a man of conflicting emotions and profound complexity.

When We Leave may also force the more intellectually astute in the audience to consider the implications of a government bringing foreign workers into a Western country so as to exploit them as cheap labor, while simultaneously doing everything in the power of the state to see to it that they stay as segregated and ghettoized as possible.

For innocent souls like Umay, who grow up in the West, yet are taught from the earliest possible age to not integrate, the clash of cultures that invariably ensues is often terribly tragic, and not the romantic utopia that liberals are always promising it will be.

The film’s German title translates as “strangers.” Indeed, Umay’s family have become strangers to Germany, alienated from the land of their birth, and in the end, most tragically, strangers to each other.

Devastating, somber, and gripping, When We Leave is a heart-wrenching tale of globalization in the throes of darkness, and a people lost in a world of terrifying and dehumanizing barbarism.

Written and directed by Feo Aladag; director of photography, Judith Kaufmann; edited by Andrea Mertens; music by Max Richter and Stéphane Moucha; production design by Silke Buhr; costumes by Gioia Raspé; produced by Feo Aladag and Züli Aladag; released by Olive Films. In German and Turkish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Sibel Kekilli (Umay), Settar Tanriögen (Kader), Darya Alabora (Halime), Florian Lukas (Stipe), Nizam Schiller (Cem), Ufuk Bayraktar (Kemal) and Tamer Yigit (Mehmet).

David Penner has taught English and ESL at Kingsborough Community College, and at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, both of the City University of New York. Read other articles by David.