Narrative films about Germany's large Turkish immigrant population have been a staple for German filmmakers for quite some time. The most notable recent example is probably Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, but Head-On and Lola and Billy the Kid also come to mind. Invariably, these stressful dramas — they're always stressful — involve a heavy element of kulturkampf, the idea being that East is East and West is West and heaven help anyone who tries to bridge the gap (cf. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). The newcomers from more conservative societies are shocked to discover what life in a Northern European parliamentary democracy is all about, and naturally most of the adjustment problems begin in the bedroom.
Feo Aladag's When We Leave (German title: Die Fremde) follows that blueprint closely. It was Germany's official entry in the recently completed Academy Award sweepstakes. But it's so melodramatic, with such crudely drawn, oversimplified characters and hackneyed situations, that it drains its own pond.
As Austrian-born writer-producer-director Aladag pictures it, it's the tale of one courageous, headstrong, but ultimately compromised woman named Umay (German native Sibel Kekilli). The film opens with Umay living in Istanbul with her young son Cem and an abusive, battering husband. Rather than accept the beatings, Umay takes Cem and flies to Berlin to be with her family, seeking emotional support.
What she finds is a continuation of the same, with her unassimilated immigrant father (Settar Tanriogen) and her brother, the family's eldest son (Tamer Yigit), beating her for the shame she has brought on the family by leaving her husband, while Umay's mother (Derya Alabora) cowers in fear of the menfolk. The terrorized Umay responds by taking steps to go out on her own with young Cem — but her deep love for her family always seems to pull her back, no matter how barbarically she's treated.
Actor Kekilli is oddly moving as the flawed but resolute Umay — flawed because she refuses to quit her family for her own protection. In a Fassbinder film, someone like Umay would no doubt choose the life of a prostitute, and after being brutalized by her pimp would then return to her family because, after all, it's better to be clobbered by family than strangers. But Aladag, who started as a maker of commercials, is no Fassbinder (who else is?).