My two favourite films, Eden a l’Ouest and Endstation der Sehnsüchte, present different views of people moving to a strange country. Perhaps they touched me because I, too, am an immigrant.
The first was a German documentary by Korean Sung-Hyung Cho, Endstation der Sehnsüchte (Home from Home). In 1966 a group of Korean women, wearing their traditional costumes of long skirts and wide sleeves, landed in Hamburg airport. Germany’s hospitals needed qualified nurses; the Korean women were looking for a new life in a new world and for this they willingly left their old lives behind, including, often, young children. In general, they were successful, well adjusted Gastarbeiter. Some married German men. They sent hard currency back to their families. As a tribute to them, a picturesque, authentic German village, Dogil Maeul, was built on the coast of South Korea. I can only confirm the press notes which say, the village is “indeed more German than Germany,” with red-tiled roofs, absolute cleanliness, Wurst and black bread.
The film features three of these successful Korean nurses (Young-Sook, Chun-Ja and Woo-Za) who 30 years later have returned to Korea to retire in Dogil Maeul with their German husbands. Director Cho shows them repairing their houses, baking bread, complaining about the loud tourists on the weekends, visiting a temple to rub gold leaf on an image of Buddha, and crawling into a Korean sauna, built for smaller people than a 70-year-old German man. The German husbands accept their new country with humor. Their South Korean wives suffer the same reverse culture shock as everyone else who immigrates and returns many years later. The old country isn’t the same any more.
Director Sun-Hyung Cho is the 43-year-daughter of a Korean nurse who came to Germany in 1971 and married. Her 2006 documentary Full Metal Village about the rock concert in Wacken Schleswig-Holstein was very successful and I certainly hope that Endstation der Sehnsüchte opens at local cinemas. It is humorous and slyly revealing of human nature. I talked to a Korean woman next to me in the cinema. She said that it was the first time she had ever attended a movie alone, but she couldn’t miss this film. She could identify with all of it and it definitely reached her expectations.
In Eden a l’Ouest (Eden is West) by Costa-Gavras (France/Greece/Italy) Elias (Riccardo Scamarcio) is a young man on a boat full of immigrants on their way to a better place. The police appear on the horizon; the handlers abandon their passengers and flee in a smaller boat. Elias jumps ship, swims ashore and washes up on a nude beach, part of a wealth resort called The Eden Club. Elias is like Adam in Paradise. He steals a shirt and attempts to blend in. He is propositioned by a gay resort employee; a rich older woman in need of a gigolo hides him. In the resort he meets a magician (Ulrich Tukur) who, so he thinks, promises him a job “when he comes to Paris.” Always on the alert, he manages to leave the resort and takes off on a long sojourn to his own personal paradise. Rough truck drivers pick him up; rich people cheat him; a landsman is unreliable; an unknown well-to-do woman helps him. An innocent abroad, there is no way he can anticipate danger or good-will. He muddles through at the mercy of his surroundings.
The film is full of subtle symbolism. Elias is a new person, a representative of all nationalities and we see our world through his eyes. The refugees speak a fictitious language, made up like Esperanto. Costa-Gavras said that he didn’t want to point the finger at any certain country; he wanted the refugee to be universal – a human being. Elias is practically dumb due to the lack of any mutual language so that there is little dialogue. In the resort guests hunt for refugees as a game. These western people are rich but lonely; they exploit others, not only sexually. The Club is a metaphor for the West and it is far from being paradise, more like an empty bubble. Elias changes his jacket frequently; thus his clothing becomes symbolic and each jacket indicates a new direction. Costa-Gavras said, “Clothes show only the outward person, not the inner mensch, but still people are treated according to what they are wearing.” In the end Elias does a little Charlie Chaplin dance toward the twinkle-y Eifel Tower looming ahead. Perhaps the world is such a mess that only a magician can change things.
At the press conference, Costa-Gavras (who headed the Berlinale jury last year) discussed the plight of illegal immigrants who suffer everything to reach European shores. This is difficult because the Schengen Agreement has simultaneously loosened inner borders and tightened the outside perimeters of European countries. (An example: I showed no passport upon entering Lithuania for a conference because I had flown in from a Schengen country, namely Germany. Staying in my hotel were 50 young men who worked for border patrols from several European countries. They were on a four-week assignment to learn about patrolling outside borders in Italy, Lithuania, Greece, France, etc.)
Gavras said that 25 to 30 thousand potential immigrants are sent back to their original countries each year. European Union policy calls for no sentencing, no attempt to respect their dignity; the basic goal is to get rid of them. He said, “We expect that 200 to 250 million people will be moving in their search for water due to climate change.” Throughout Europe there are 300,000 sweatshops which employ illegal aliens for little money, doing jobs which no one else wants, without the usual labor protection. They are vulnerable and weak. About 30-35% of the residents of France come from an immigrant background. European societies are aging so that technically these countries should be eager for “new blood.” The idea of attracting only well-educated foreigners, siphoning them off from their own countries, is even crueller and more egotistic. Costa-Gavras said that Greek myths are full of immigrants, e.g., Odysseus travels ten years to find his way home.
I had high expectations for anything from Costa.Gavras (his Amen showed at the 2002 Berlinale) and I was not disappointed. In spite of the serious message, the film is entertaining and Riccardo Scamarcio in the lead role is excellent. Eden a l’Ouest was a perfect film to close the 2009 Berlinale.