Int’l Critics Line: Fatih Akin’s ‘Rheingold’


East and west clash in Rheingold, the latest feature from Fatih Akin, which takes him back to the streets of urban Germany after 2019’s controversial serial-killer drama The Golden Glove. This too, though, is a biopic of sorts, with a similarly notorious subject matter: Kurdish rapper, record label boss and sometime jailbird Giwar Hajabi, AKA Xatar. 

Born in a bat-infested cave under heavy bombing during the Iran-Iraq war, Hajabi — still only 40 — has had an interesting life, to put it mildly. One suspects this often warts-and-all portrait is simply the tip of a very dark iceberg (the eye-popping extent of Hajabi’s drug-dealing career is only glimpsed in a brief montage), but a charismatic, even vulnerable performance by star Emilio Sakraya is enough to keep us onside.

The start is bold, with a would-be epic set-up that it can’t quite deliver on: Hajabi and his three accomplices are delivered to a prison in Syria, where they are quizzed about a missing cache of gold. Hajabi is tortured but feigns ignorance, and before you can say Goodfellas we are treated to a précis of his life up until this point.

The film takes its title from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, referring to a legendary seam of gold that will grant immortal life to whoever owns it. Wagner’s works are very much admired by Hajabi’s musician father Eghbal, a Kurd who took his family to Germany after persecution by the Iranians and then the Iraqis. In their new life, Eghbal wants his son to follow him into the music world and pays for piano lessons. Instead, the teenage Hajabi sells porn videos to his classmates and quickly upgrades to weed-dealing.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, and a couple of actors play Hajabi’s younger selves before Sakraya arrives. Thankfully, he comes in at a crucial point, after the young man is taught the brutal facts about street fighting from a local tough guy: “You wanna be street? Know where the street is? On the ground! And when he’s on the ground, you run over to him and keep smacking him till he’s finished.” Hajabi takes this advice to heart and takes out a local gang in an incredibly violent revenge spree, thereby earning himself the nickname “Xatar,” a Kurdish word meaning “The Dangerous One”. 

Around the same time, he takes an interest in rap music, but his future as Germany’s very own Suge Knight goes on the back-burner while Akin returns to the subject of the missing gold: after accidentally smashing several boxes of liquid cocaine during a rainstorm, Hajabi masterminds a potentially lucrative heist involving gold teeth harvested from corpses in funeral homes. This takes us back to the beginning, although, again, there seems to be a lot missing from the recap, omitting any forensic scrutiny of any further illegalities that almost certainly accrued in the journey to and from Syria.

The old-as-time accusations of films like this glamorizing crime are applicable and, at times, do ring true, since Hajabi doesn’t really show much remorse and simply abandons crime when he has enough money to do things legally. Nevertheless, Akin does put him into context as a child of war (his first name literally means “born of suffering”), and this film certainly convinces as a very modern gangster movie, with terrific use of rap and R&B as the music that will eventually tame the savage beast. Unfortunately, at 140 minutes, it’s a reminder that “epic” is often just another word for a very long story.


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