We Are Young. We Are Strong.
German drama about immigration and xenophobia hits home
We Are Young. We Are Strong. (2016)
Directed by Burhan Qurbani
Cast: Jonas Nay, Trang Le Hong, Devid Striesow
Back in 1992 the only recently united Germany experienced the worst mob attacks against migrants since World War II. The infamous events took place in the impoverished Lichtenhagen district of Rostock, Germany. While an estimated 3,000 bystanders looked on and cheered, a mob of right-wing vandals attacked and set fire to a residential building housing more than 120 Vietnamese men, women and children. Miraculously no one was killed, but it certainly encapsulated Germany’s past, present and future. That violent incident is the inspiration for Afghan-German filmmaker Burhan Qurbani’s stark, unsentimental drama We Are Young. We Are Strong.
The title refers—ironically, one assumes—to both the film’s young protagonists and to the freshly reunified country in which they live. Qurbani’s fictional narrative concentrates largely on three main characters, each with a very different connection to the events that are about to transpire. Set in the 24 hours before the riots, the film begins by introducing us to Stefan (Jonas Nay), an unemployed teenager knocking around the streets with little to occupy his time. He and his punk friends have no direction in life. The economy of Germany, burdened by the introduction of 16 million or so former communists from East Germany, is in the tank. Poverty has led to anger, and anger has led to xenophobia. On the streets, most people are placing the blame for the country’s woes on recent immigrants—
Our representative from the Vietnamese community is Lien (Trang Le Hong). Lien works hard at a local laundry facility. While her family seriously discusses returning to Vietnam, Lien does her best to assimilate—learning German, dyeing her hair and working on establishing her residency. The Vietnamese have largely been left alone by the local neo-Nazi gangs. But they know that as soon as the Romani are gone, anger will shift to them. Lien figures if she just keeps her head down, no one will bother her. But as she wanders the streets, children and teenagers scream the word “Chink!” at her. It’s not even the correct ethnic slur, pointing out that no one here is very picky about who and what they hate, so long as they get to direct their anger at someone else.
The final point in our triad of main characters is Martin (longtime character actor Devid Striesow from This is Love and Downfall). Martin is a low-level schlub of a city politician, who just happens to be Stefan’s father. Sensing the danger brewing on the sidewalks, the liberal Martin does his best to help while navigating the maze of local politicians—each of whom has their own agenda-driven solution to the problem.
Given the tensions involved and the historical outcome of this particular day, it’s a bit unusual that Qurbani decides to set his pot at such a low boil. The film proceeds through the day at a slow, methodical pace.
Given the tensions involved and the historical outcome of this particular day, it’s a bit unusual that Qurbani decides to set his pot at such a low boil. The film proceeds through the day at a slow, methodical pace. But Qurbani, having grown up as an immigrant in Germany himself, knows the things he wants to concentrate on. For him, it’s about this particular group of characters and what’s going through their minds.
For Stefan it’s a fog of teenage confusion. He just wants to hang out with his friends, have a couple of bucks in his pocket for beers and maybe get laid. But as the economic situation in Germany gets worse, a lot of his pals are leaning closer to neo-Nazi ideals. Skinhead Oi! music blares from car stereos and Nazi flags are pinned up in bedrooms where pops stars once dominated. If you know anything about teenagers, you know that it’s easy for them to just go along with the crowd—even if that crowd is starting to pick up bricks and Molotov cocktails.
For Lien it’s a frustrating question of cultural identity. She’s young enough to have little loyalty to Vietnam; but no matter how much she assimilates, she’s always going to be marked as an outsider beyond her homeland. When she dyes her hair, her brother questions the “camouflage.” Does she really think a change in hair color will make her blend in? At work Lien befriends a young woman who is dating one of Stefan’s most virulently racist chums. The young woman’s daughter hurls racial insults at Lien, who treats it like a silly game. She knows that the little girl doesn’t even understand what she’s saying—they’re just words she’s heard at home. But the psychic toll of trying to shake off her own ethnicity starts to wear on Lien.
And Martin? Clearly he’s a good man. But he’s got next to no power. How can he help his country when he can’t even steer his own apathetic son along the right path? Cruelest of all is the fact that Martin is smart enough to know very little of this has anything concrete to do with race. The problems Germany is facing are far deeper and more lasting. Racism, jingoism and xenophobia always crop up in difficult times—which is what makes We Are Young. We Are Strong. such a timely piece of filmmaking. Strengthening borders and throwing out foreigners? Hmm, where have we heard that kind of talk recently?
Qurbani’s film, driven mostly by dialogue and character, works best in the small moments. At one point, an older politician advises Martin of the circular path of politics. His father was a fascist, so he became a communist. Martin is a democrat. What is his son going to become in order to rebel? In another chilling exchange one of Stefan’s teenage friends discusses the lack of employment in Germany. “Work sets you free,” says the teen. “I wouldn’t use those words,” replies Martin as diplomatically as he can. Both people in the conversation know perfectly well that those words were the motto of the Nazi concentration camps, emblazoned on the gates above Auschwitz, Dachau and others.
We Are Young. We Are Strong. is shot in a tight, documentary-like, black-and-white frame, which breaks into widescreen color when the inevitable riot finally flames to life. There are no last-minute redemptions here—just ugly, inescapable truths. The film does miss a few opportunities. The narrative could have been tighter and more tense. In contrast to his more lively friends, Stefan comes across as a bit too affectless to function as a main protagonist. But Qurbani’s bright, flaming metaphor of misplaced hatred at the heart of it all remains a powerful one.