The days when actors of Turkish origin were considered exotic in Germany or relegated to supporting roles are long over. A prime example is the former Miss Germany, Asli Bayram, who in her role as Anne Frank deliberately breaks with the old stereotypes. Nimet Seker reports
The scar on her left upper arm is hidden by her cardigan. But the large red flag emblazoned with a swastika hanging over the stage is impossible to overlook. In front of it are arranged a closet, table, chair and bed in cold gray. Purely utilitarian. A radio. Asli Bayram clasps her red-checked diary tightly. Her voice is delicate, almost intimate.
For one-and-a-half hours she stands alone on the stage performing a dramatized reading of "Anne Frank: The Diary." As the minutes pass, her voice takes on an increasing note of desperation:
"In the evening I often see the rows of good, innocent people before me, their children wailing! Always having to keep walking, commanded by a few tough guys, beaten and tormented almost to the point of collapse. No one is safe from their grasp. Old people, children, babies, pregnant women, the sick ... all of them, everyone takes the train to their death. And all because we're Jews."
Change of scene: Darmstadt 1994. On February 18th a neighbor knocks on the Bayrams' door. Asli is twelve years old at the time. She opens the door. The neighbor curses, Asli calls her father. Several shots ring out. One shot hits Asli in the left arm. Her father is shot dead before her eyes. By the time the ambulance and police arrive it's too late: Asli's father bleeds to death as his family watches. The neighbor is a Neonazi.
A strong statement
In 2005 Asli Bayram was the first Turkish-born woman to be chosen as Miss Germany. She was studying law at the time, like two of her sisters. Her mother encouraged her to take part in the Miss Germany contest. Many German Turks were thrilled that Asli Bayram had won.
Usually, beauty queens fade into anonymity after a few years. But not Asli. Soon after taking up her duties, she realizes that the beauty show world is not for her. Instead, she concentrates on her acting career. She wants to play only serious roles, "character parts," as she says.
In January 2008 she appeared for the first time on a German stage, as Anne Frank in a dramatic reading at the Frankfurt Theater. The press was full of praise. "This is a wonderful woman who is makíng a very strong public statement," said Dieter Graumann, Vice President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
Her story would make for the perfect tabloid headline: "Neonazi Slays Beauty Queen's Father." But Asli does not wish to speak in public about her father's death, nor to be the focus of tabloid attention.
Through the incident in February 1994 the actress grew up faster than other children. When she's on stage, you can't see the scar on her arm. But the maturity and authenticity with which she speaks the role of Anne Frank are qualities that can't be learned at acting school. "One of Germany's most convincing and subtle actresses" is how the "Times" described her.
Hope, despair, truthfulness
Anne Frank was forced to hide from the Nazis in a back-courtyard annex in Amsterdam. Together with her family and four others she was sequestered for two long years in only 50 square meters of space. Her diary, which she dubbed "Kitty," documents her physical and mental development under these extreme conditions.
Asli prepared herself intensely for the role of Anne Frank. Repeatedly reading the diary, with which she was already familiar, visiting the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam's Prinsengracht and research into the history of the Nazi era were all part of it.
What does she find the most moving about the story of Anne Frank? "Her clever, courageous thoughts, her hope, her despair, her truthfulness," says Asli Bayram.
The Holocaust has already played a role in Bayram's acting career once before. In Vienna she performed a dramatic reading of an imaginary conversation between Hannah Arendt and Adolf Eichmann. But shouldn't German history be something of interest only to Germans?
Integration means participation
Up until now, Turkish-born actors in Germany have generally been relegated to playing more exotic roles. Or banal parts without any political or social significance. They were commonly stereotyped as Turks, most roles leaving them no room to unfold their creativity. Themes from the German Nazi past were taboo.
This is finally changing. With the role of Anne Frank, Asli Bayram is sending a double signal. For one, she is breaking with the stereotypes, and for another she is taking a public stand against the anti-Semitism that is resurfacing amongst European Muslims.
It's only in Germany that people ask her why she as a Muslim would want to play a Jew. "Theatrical Sensation: Muslim Miss Germany Plays Anne Frank," announced the "BILD Zeitung" tabloid paper.
But Asli Bayram is not the first German-Turkish actor to occupy herself with the Nazi past. Serdar Somuncu has already gained acclaim with his readings from Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
These artists are demonstrating that German history has something to do with them as well. That they want to and are capable of contributing to shaping German culture. That as multifaceted artists they are able to take on many different roles and can, and want to, deal with specifically "German" themes.
Integration means participation. This also includes coming to terms with German history: "We live in a world in which both the present and the future, and thus the past as well, affect everyone, no matter where they were born or where they live," says Asli Bayram.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor