Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the Other Side of Monolingualism: Fatih Akin's Linguistic Turn(s)1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the Other Side of Monolingualism: Fatih Akin's Linguistic Turn(s)1

Article excerpt

Within a single week in late 2006, two films with multhingualism as their thematic fulcrum stormed the US box office. Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, a passion play about the fragile linguistic ecology of globalization, depicts multhingualism as the unavoidable and often treacherous byproduct of planetary free-marketeering. Throughout the film, communicative impasses across languages serve as emblems of economic globalism, which is shown to be a random and seething monstrosity on the back of which all things domestic are precariously reproduced. Even the most intimate kinships in Babel - between a Tokyo businessman and his hand-signing daughter (Rinko Kikuchi) and between two Anglo-American tourists and their Spanish-speaking nanny (Adriana Barraza) - are riven with non-comprehension and cross-lingual silences. The film's title openly declares its scriptural animus and epic ambition.

Released a few days earlier, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (dir. Larry Charles), forgoes the soaring, rhizomatic grandeur oí Babel, portraying in its stead one multhingual person's "power to impose reception" in the china shop of monolingualism (Bourdieu 75). The international tourist and investigative correspondent Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) "comprehends" the American milieus he enters by overwhelming them with tone-deaf filibuster, symbolic violence and radical reinscription. The apoplexies of linguistic irreconcilability so vigorously tableaued in Babel are nowhere to be seen in Borat, a film in which the ideals of intercultural understanding are always subordinate to the opaque ritual follies of faceto-face talk.

One a neo-liberalism tragedy and the other an intercultural farce, these artifacts of early twenty-first century cinema jointly signal how multilingualism has become a uniquely germane thematic terrain for the global simultaneous-release feature film, a medium that itself requires elaborate, time-sensitive accommodations prior to distribution to a patchwork of multilingual viewerships around the world. But Borat and Babel present their multilingual dilemmas in tropes that are so incongruous with one another that the two films hardly deserve to share the genre category "polyglot film," as Chris Wahl has coined it. Where Babel portrays the crippling absence of an Ur-language, mourning the multhingual circumstances that have taken its place, Borat assumes quotidian untranslatability as one of the world's eternal resources. Borat cheerfully prods his (mainly monolingual) interlocutors with a beguiling gamut of translingual riddles. The two films thus diverge sharply in how they understand symbolic power, foreignness and nativeness, global linguistic hierarchies, and the relationship between monolingualism and nationhood.

In light of the broad and contradictory range of operations at work in these two film texts alone, this article turns to multhingual film as a still untapped domain for theoretical inquiry, alongside the abundantly attended parallel concepts of transnational, multicultural, and migration film and/or "accented cinema" (Naficy) . The title borrows from the German filmmaker Fatih Akin's recent feature, Auf der anderen Seite (2007), a film that also serves as a conceptual touchstone for the argument that follows. The phrase "On the Other Side" is a de jure mistranslation of the official film title, which debuted in English-language distribution instead as The Edge of Heaven. This official English translation, however, profoundly alters the symbolic scope of the film narrative, replacing a spatial rhetoric of antilogy ("sides") with one of otherworldliness ("heaven"). Such a strident reorientation of the allegorical frame gives us cause to speculate on current conditions for the global exportability of cinematic text, and, more broadly, on the dilemmas that arise when monolingualism and multhingualism collide on the free market.

Fatih Akin's fifteen-year directing and screenwriting career provides a rich arc upon which to hone a critique both of monolingualism as an aesthetic structure and, at the same time, of polyglot film as a genre. …

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