When We Leave (Die Fremde, 2010) is a simple art house drama that packs a huge socio-political wallop. It is one of those rare and tricky films where all its component parts seem to work against each other, but really move as fluidly as a well oiled machine.
The plot is hardly a new one, though it is far reaching and sadly, universal. It concerns a young Turkish woman named Umay, forced to live with an abusive husband named Kemal, within the confines of an ‘old world’ culture. After one beating too many, Umay and her young son, Cem board a plane to Germany and arrive at her parents’ front door. Unfortunately, life with her family is not as she hopes, and if anything is even more constraining and violent than the one she leaves behind.
It would be very easy for When We Leave to veer into tragic melodrama were it not for the sensitive artistry of writer and director Feo Aladag and the new slant she places on the age-old tale. Not a household name (yet) Aladag is a creative force to be reckoned with, and her debut feature is not one we can easily discard.
Aladag approaches filmmaking as a trained theatre and movie actor. In fact, she worked as an actor for the two years it took to write the screenplay for the film. Born and raised in Vienna, Aladag studied Psychology and Journalism, gaining a Ph.D. in 2000. She is not afraid to admit that her film is derived from her personal life and observations.
Shot in two countries, in cinemascope format with a hand-held 35mm Ari, this modestly budgeted film is a true work of art. Not only do scenes often resemble Dutch masterworks – complete with low-lit distant doorway-scenes and vivid blues and golds, but lengthy, silent intervals are evocative of the passive yet seething moods set by the great Vermeer.
Music also plays a major role in the film, but not in the ordinary way of setting the emotional tones of the plot, or as a ‘Hitchcockean’ vehicle of suspense. If anything, the lush, poetic and sometimes fragile strains of Stéphane Moucha and Max Richter’s score seem not to go with the often horrific situations Umay and her son find themselves in. What the music does, is illustrate with sound, the inner workings of Umay’s mind or soul, much like image distortions were used in German Expressionism. Aladag’s use of mirrors accentuates Expressionist and, later, film noir tendencies and drive home her interest in presenting a fractured psychological portrait of not only Umay, but all characters within the film’s social network.
To further emphasize silent and verbal disconnections between characters, Aladag cleverly opts not to place her camera and lighting on anyone’s eyes. She also tends not to focus on reaction-shots, and either has characters converse without looking at each other, or seated side by side.
While abrupt changes in language from Turkish to German create a certain shock factor, fadeouts to bright white, as well as claustrophobic or distant shots likewise disturb the peace of Umay’s world. Still, there are many serene and joyful moments within the film, and these provide a necessary balance. Examples of these may be seen between Umay, Cem and Umay’s new boyfriend, Stipe – a representation that love really can conquer all problems. Oddly, Umay herself is a symbol of serenity, even when she knowingly makes choices that almost inevitably will provoke a violent reaction. This creates an ambiguous religious/martyr undertone to her character, which is paralleled in her son. It also implies a twinge of hope even when none seems to exist, and that is a lesson that can benefit everyone.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.