Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Questions Of Identity And Nationality

The recent win of the Palme d'Or for Michael Haneke's Amour threw the question up again: is it a French film by an Austrian director or a French film by a German director or an Austrian film shot in French by an Austrian director ... or simply a European film by a ... European (?), Austrian (?), German (?) director?

To be sure, Amour was co-produced by France, Germany, and Austria while Haneke is German born, yet has lived in Austria for most of his life. The question of identity is one that as far as Haneke himself is concerned, only he can answer - is he German, because that's not only where he's been born, but that's also where he shot many of his films, or is he Austrian, because that's where he grew up and that's - perhaps - how he feels? Does it matter with two countries so similar in culture? Does it matter to Haneke? Does it matter at all? Especially in a global age such as ours where for many people, the question of identity is increasingly difficult to answer, not to mention the fact that with regard to Europe, borders disappear and with it, border controls.

But do they?

Michael Haneke 

Sometimes, I get the impression that if anything, the disappearance of these borders seems to have resulted in an increase for a need of a national identity - at least in Europe - so as if to seek shelter and reassurance behind a country's flag in exceedingly precarious and unsettled times. I wonder, if this need for identity, to belong to a particular nation, is a European phenomenon. In other words, is it the same for American (directors, actors, etc.), or are identities in the US easier to define: if you're not born American, moving to America makes you so?

Romy Schneider 

The question is by no means a new one. The most prominent example (in European cinema at least) may well be Romy Schneider. She was born in Vienna, but grew up in Germany, where she's lived for the better part of her life. Yet she's perhaps most identified today as a French actress, France having been her, shall we say, spiritual home, and I daresay, the country she was most happy in (if 'happy' is indeed an apt term to use in connection with Romy Schneider whose much troubled life ended way too soon). Today, Romy Schneider is claimed by all three countries - Austria in particular, although she never actually lived there and only one of her parents was Austrian. Her breakthrough as an actress and her biggest success, commercially, took place in Germany.

That said, Romy detested her German films more and more and wanted nothing more than shedding that 'Sissi' image which, so she said herself, "stuck to her like oatmeal". Moreover, the fact that her mother had a house close to Hitler's in Berchtesgaden which is where Romy grew up, tormented her more the older she got. Especially, after she'd moved to France which, after all, suffered heavily under Nazi occupation, never mind that there were a substantial number of collaborators on the French side, too. On the same token, though she made a number of commercially successful films in France, too, and was voted the most popular French actress in 1980 - the directors of the Nouvelle Vague had as little use for her as did their German counterparts.
Alexandra Maria Lara 

More recent examples regarding the question of identity include, for instance, Alexandra Maria Lara, who's Romanian-born, but immigrated with her parents to Germany at the age of four. I'm fairly certain that if someone were to ask her how she felt, she'd most probably say German, after all, that's where she's lived for most of her life. And yet, the international media usually calls her a German-Romanian or even a Romanian actress.

Again: It's probably her only that knows how she feels about her national identity or indeed if she has any at all. Is it one's language(s), the passport, the place of birth or the place one grows up in that determines one's national identity? And again - what does it really matter? It seems to, somehow, because be that BBC or most other media, there appears to be an eradicable need to put a country before a person's name, 'the French actress so-and-so', 'the Brazilian director ...' and so on.

Marlene Dietrich 

Oddly enough, in the case of Marlene Dietrich it has never been contested that she was German. That's how the German people and the German as well as the international media saw her. However, how did Dietrich see it? How did she define herself? Did she at all? Though I suppose she must have done, for it was upon her own request that her body was buried in Berlin, though one could also rightly argue that the place of burial says equally little about one's national identity (though that would make Romy Scheider French, for she's buried in Boissy-Sans-Avoir, the village she'd bought a house in just a few weeks prior to her death).

And yet, Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939 - and never gave up her American citizenship, not even after her move to France in the mid-1970s - and following her departure for the US in 1930, she only returned to Germany on a couple of occasions: twice before the war, and twice after the war. So surely, one's passport or citizenship say as little about a person's national identity as everything else.

Anyhow, both would make, say, Fatih Akin a great deal more German than Dietrich could ever wish to be for Akin was born in Hamburg - where he's lived all his life - and has a German passport, though Fatih Akin, too, is frequently - and I believe incorrectly - introduced by the (international) media as German-Turkish. Whether he sees himself as German or German-Turkish I don't know. To me, he's German.

Fatih Akin 

The question of one's national identity, brought to the fore with the emergence of the nation state, seems to become increasingly difficult to define in the globalised world of the 21st century. As the world has become smaller, it has made people across the globe more mobile. The UK of today regards itself as an 'immigrant country', so do many in Germany view their own country where close to 25% of the population have an immigrant background ( or both parents are of foreign descent). Whether this fact makes the issue of national identity redundant is open for discussion. It certainly contributed to rekindle nationalist movements across Europe that strive to emphasise particular values they believe to be indigenous to a certain people by excluding others.

While it cannot be denied that there are things, traits, and customs that may be labelled typically French or typically German or whatever, perhaps with immigrants accounting for a substantial part of a population in  countries across the globe, national identities have become more supple, less rigid, and therefore they need, I believe, to be redefined.

That, of course, still doesn't answer the question whether Michael Haneke (or Romy Schneider) are German or Austrian or even French. But, as I suggested earlier, perhaps in this day and age, it simply no longer matters. Or, if anything, it's a question everyone has to answer for themselves.