Welcome To Germany (Willkommen bei den Hartmanns)

Germany (2016) Dir. Simon Verhoeven

Immigration is a divisive issue that has proven ripe pickings for filmmakers in delivering stark and thorny social dramas on the subject, mostly in depicting the negativity and hostility it engenders. So, it is to some surprise that the one country to make a comedy out of it would be the Germans, but here we are.

Retired teacher Angelika Hartmann (Senta Berger) is climbing the walls with boredom, whilst her doctor husband Richard (Heiner Lauterbach) still works but is trying to stay young. Their children, mature student Sofie (Palina Rojinski) and divorced lawyer Philipp (Florian David Fitz) with his 12 year-old son Basti (Marinus Hohmann) return to the fold for a family get together.

During the dinner, Angelia shocks the family by announcing they are taking in a refugee, getting support from Sofie but not from Richard or Philipp. Interviews are held, with Nigerian Diallo Makabouri (Eric Kabongo) the only agreeable candidate, but it seems not everybody in the neighbourhood is happy with this decision. But to be granted asylum, all Diallo has to do is keep a low profile.

A subject like immigration being given the comedy treatment would almost certainly be a recipe for disaster in the wrong hands, and as humour is subjective and doesn’t always travel well, it is understandable to have some reservations ahead of watching this film. Putting aside some lazy tropes being present in Welcome To Germany the mission of the film is to dispel any sense of prejudice towards immigrants.

Simon Verhoeven (son of Michael but no relation to Paul, who is Danish) has the difficult task of approaching this topic seriously yet needs to be light and entertaining enough not to appear didactic. It’s quite the balancing act and the jury will be out as to whether this was achieved, largely as Diallo is more a catalyst than the focus of the story, a role that befalls the dysfunctional Hartmann family.

Each member has their own issues which have been slowly festering long before Diallo comes into the picture, but the avoided cliché is he isn’t the cause for them spiralling out of control, but in bringing the family back together again. Whether this is a cop-out to make the film more accessible will be a talking point as it implies Verhoeven is trying to avoid the real issue at heart but he has other ways of addressing this head on.

For instance, the Hartmann’s devout Christian neighbour Mrs. Sobrowitsch (Ulla Geiger) immediately denounces the arrival of this “Muslim devil” to the neighbourhood without even bothering to learn his religious leanings, becoming a regular complainant about the happenings next door, regardless of how innocent they may be. By the end of the film, a 100 strong fascist protest keeps Diallo and the Hartmanns under siege in their home for no apparent reason other than discrimination.

But when things need to be serious they are. For a school project Basti’s presentation is on terrorism, with Diallo speaking openly of his experiences in Nigeria as a victim of Boko Haram group which saw his family killed. It’s a brief scene but emotionally wrought in driving home the reason for Diallo being in Germany in the first place, and how any suggestion of him being a terrorist himself is offensively erroneous.

Unfortunately, living with the Hartmann’s seems to inadvertently increase any concerns the police have about Diallo, like the wild party Angelika’s activist friend Heike (Ulrike Kriener) holds that gets out of control, or the rap video Basti makes with Diallo living it up with guns, drugs, and hookers. This threatens to cost Diallo’s chance at being granted asylum, yet the family are too wrapped up in their own issues to notice.

Angelika is struggling with retirement, Richard is hitting the town with his plastic surgeon friend and his young clients, Philipp is trying to broker a huge deal in China leaving him no time for Basti, and Sofie has a psycho stalker. In the middle of this Diallo is trying to set Sofie up with Tarek (Elyas M’Barek) a volunteer at the refugee centre and doctor colleague of Richard’s, with whom he regularly butts heads, which Diallo is unaware of.

It’s a packed script given the central premise, which might be its biggest flaw as each subplot requires further exploration to feel fully fleshed out, yet the characters are well drawn and presented that the rushed denouement is forgiven. But the purpose for this litany of complex skeins is to show that immigrants are not always the problem or the cause of them and we should be looking closer to home to find someone to blame.

Yet on too many occasions, Diallo’s plight is secondary to the family squabbles, leaving his role redundant in the sense he could have just been a hired help and still have the same effect as the hub around which the problems are solved. If this is the positive spin that immigration is good for Germany, Diallo needed more prominence to show this on a more substantial level.

Taking Germany’s history into account, there might be accusations of cheekiness in the general message imparted is Germany is a tolerant, progressive and welcoming country, though in the interest of balance, Richard does rant about Angela Merkel opening the doors to everyone. Along with a brief tirade from Tarek, this is as overtly political as it gets – direct but not intrusively so.

Humour being subjective, as discussed earlier, means some of the racial elated jokes are too broad to hit the target whereas the subtle ones are more effective, but overall there are some laughs here. The cast all work well together, some having worked before with Verhoeven, including his mother Senta Berger.

Good intentions may not be enough for some in appreciating what Welcome To Germany has to offer, so take it at face value with lower expectations in how it approaches its topic and find a politically safe but fun enough distraction.