Ethnic Body—Eccentric Physicality: Birol Unel
In terms of acting, star persona, and film roles, Birol Unel differs from Mehmet Kurtulus, yet also shares similarities. Unel began his career in acting school at the Academy of Music and Theater in Hanover. Early on he worked with directors Thomas Brasch and Andy Bausch who were impressed with his personality, especially his face and facial expressions (Hillenkamp 2005). However, in the midst of filming, both directors cut Unel's parts due to constant conflicts with the actor. Ultimately Unel's temper, eccentric personality, and altercations with crew members on the set precluded him from future work with these directors. Thereafter
Unel—who played the quintessential German part of Siegfried in the theater—appeared in minor roles, mainly types without much character development such as a barman, a criminal, or an insane person, and once in a while a Turkish or non-German figure in German film.
With his critically acclaimed role in Head-On, Unel became known to larger audiences. In Germany, he received the German Film Award for Best Actor; in Barcelona he was nominated as Best Actor at the European Film Awards; Turkish newspapers celebrated him as a Turkish star; and the readers of one Turkish magazine even declared him to be the most "erotic man of the year" (Hillenkamp 2005). Ever since Unel has been cast not only in various roles in Turkish and German film productions but also in French films such as the 2011 Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night) or the 2006 Transylvania. In his German roles after Head-On, Unel has been cast as an irresponsible parent in The Unpolished, a street vendor and lover in Der Mond und andere Liebhaber (The Moon and Other Lovers, 2008), an eccentric chef in Soul Kitchen (2009), and an unconventional theater director in Method (2011). While Unel's new film roles do not always imply a Turkish German background, they often refer to his eccentricity, as well as to his manic and at times erratic behaviors. These characteristics led journalists to compare him to Klaus Kinski, which in turn continues to inform Unel's public persona and image (Corriere della Sera 2011; Kino.de 2011).
Kinski's difficult relationship with Werner Herzog is well known, particularly through the documentary Mein liebster Feind (My Best Fiend, 1999) based on material from the filming of Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, 1972). At the same time, Kinski was also a sex symbol, a quality Kinski himself promoted in his autobiographies Ich bin so wild nach deinem Erdbeermund (I Am So Crazy about Your Strawberry Mouth, 1975) and Ich brauche Liebe (All I Need Is Love, 1988; Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski, 1997). The comparison to the sexualized, eccentric, ill-tempered star certainly gave Unel an edge, connecting him to an actor who represents New German Cinema and German culture with an ethnically ambivalent body, since Kinski had a Polish father.
Discussing stars acting in films, Dyer states that a film "may bring out certain features of a star's image and ignore others" (1998: 127). In Unel's
Figure 10.3 Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) and Molly (Claudia Cardinale) in Fitzcarraldo, DVD capture case his Kinskiesque chaotic, unreliable, and eccentric personality features predominantly in the discourse that surrounds him: "Birol Unel, Traveler and Impostor: Star and Alcoholic" are the concluding words of journalist Sven Hillenkamp in his article about the actor (2005). An analysis of Unel's roles suggests that these predicates seem to be the central features that Unel brings to his film roles. Although Unel's main filmic character is associated with high alcohol consumption, a lower class milieu, or a vagabond lifestyle, he nonetheless performs a complex sexuality tied to ethnic masculinity. This can be seen in his role as Cahit in Head-On, which has influenced his subsequent casting in films. Throughout Head- On, Cahit, an alcoholic and drug user in his forties, is repeatedly depicted nude and in sexual scenes with two women, Maren and Sibel, who fall in love with him. Furthermore, multiple closeups in the second half of the film emphasize his facial features.
Cahit is shown twice in explicit sex scenes with his long-term sex partner Maren, each of which lasts two minutes. Both scenes take place in Maren's apartment. The camera shows a high angle medium long shot of a dark room, which features a large bed in the center of the room. The sheets have leopard patterns, suggesting an unrestrained sexuality. Both sex scenes expose Cahit's completely nude body. Closeups of lines of cocaine being snorted precede the first sex scene and a medium shot of the naked couple playing tavla (Turkish version of backgammon) in the kitchen succeeds it, framing their sex life as intoxicated and intoxicating.
Cahit's nude body and its (sexual) presentation complicate notions of Turkishness in German popular culture, which stereotypically imply (female) modesty and veiled bodies. While the unveiling of the exotic body can please an Orientalist gaze, it can also complicate views about ethnic bodies. Cahit's nudity in the film, for example, is not always displayed erotically. In the beginning of the film we see him intoxicated and partially nude in a chaotic apartment. His middle-aged torso and the mise en scene of his small apartment (music posters, dirty dishes, cigarette butts) expose a certain lifestyle reminiscent of the punk-rock attitude of the 1980s generation. In the following sequences,
Figure 10.4 Cahit (Birol Unel) and Maren (Catrin Striebeck) in Head-On, DVD capture however, when Cahit experiences his growing affection for Sibel, his body becomes increasingly eroticized. The aggressive sexual encounter between Maren and Cahit is opposed to the more tender, romanticized depictions of Cahit and Sibel. This tenderness is achieved through closeups of Cahit gazing at Sibel, smelling or touching her softly on various occasions, accompanied on the soundtrack by the couple's breathing. Correspondingly the lighting captures Cahit's body and face as appealing through the natural light in Istanbul, or by means of closeups of his sunlit, now shaven face.
Ultimately the sexualized and ethnicized figure of Akin's Cahit is reincarnated in Unel's future parts: the drug dealer Axel in The Unpolished engages in explicit sex scenes; Gansar in The Moon and Other Lovers plays the object of desire for the middle-aged Hanna; Tchangalo in Transylvania is a Romanian vagabond and love interest of the French Romanian traveler Zingarina. Just as in Head-On, these roles romanticize, eroticize, or sexualize Unel's body and its filmic presentation. It seems that Unel's Cahit, the groundbreaking role as a Turkish German that finally brought the actor artistic recognition, has become a blueprint for all subsequent roles. Remembering his collaboration with Unel in the making of Head-On—during which Unel's alcohol consumption and unreliability caused problems on the set—Akin claims that everything in the script about Cahit goes back to Unel himself (Hillenkamp 2005). Similarly Kinski—equally famous for his violent outbreaks toward directors and journalists—played characters that dovetailed with his erratic and eccentric personality such as Aquirre, Woyzeck, and Fitzcarraldo.