Serial Narratives and the Unfinished Business of European Identity #2
Serial Narratives and the Unfinished Business of European Identity #2
Postmigrant European Identities?
A multi-episode, virtual journey into European crime narratives.
Today’s Plural Europe in Crime Television
Álvaro Luna-Dubois (Université de Limoges)
With crime television series featuring ethnic minorities and immigrants as early as in the 1980s in France or the 1970s in Germany, it can be argued that the crime genre has and continues to challenge the long-attested underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and immigrants in European television. This inclusion, however, is not exempted from representation issues, and must be analyzed critically to study ways in which European crime series react to cultural diversity.
Recently, I completed a short study of the television series Tatort (2008-2012 season), Cherif (2013-2019), Last Panthers (2015), and Dogs of Berlin (2018), where the spotlight is on ethnic minority lead investigators in France and Germany. In addition to solving crimes, I argue that the protagonists are often confronted to cultural asymmetries, stereotypes, and mechanisms of social exclusion. From observing the characterization of the television detectives Kader Cherif, Cenk Batu, Erol Birkan and Khalil Rachedi, I identified three representational typologies.
The “Integrated” Detective
A prominent characterization of ethnic minority detectives follows the figure of an upward mobile citizen with strong work ethics and who possesses relatively few links to his minority culture. An example of this figure is the Turkish German undercover agent Cenk Batu. The first episode opens with his refusal to execute Germany’s biggest money launderer, a choice that places him on a six-moth probation. His new assignment consists on infiltrating as a Turkish ex-convict to investigate a local Turkish criminal ring that his superior notes, cannot be done by a “blond Hans.” What is soon clear is that Batu does not resemble other Turkish German characters: he neither speaks Turkish fluently nor cooks Turkish food, he does not live in an ethnic enclave, he drinks alcohol, works exclusively with white colleagues and dates white women. The only exception are his regular phone chess games with his father who lives in Turkey. Despite Batu’s unquestionable integration into German dominant culture, he encounters challenges due to his ethnicity such as facing prejudiced policemen, who, unaware of his mission, profile him as a Turkish assassin, as one tells him on his investigation: “You’d even kill your sisters if they fool around with Germans, right?”
The Culturally Hybrid Detective
Other ethnic minority detectives can appear as having strong cultural connections to their minority culture while being integrated into their nation majority’s culture. An example of this type of detective is Kader Cherif. In contrast to Batu, Cherif is fluent in Algerian Arabic, (although we only hear him speak it very briefly). He is very close to his mother, who he frequently calls over the phone and sends him Algerian food. He has a house with Maghrebi paintings, and often drinks Oriental tea with his guests. In duty, he holds a strong sense of ethnics and he rarely carries a gun. Later in the series it is revealed that he joined the police force partly because he wanted to be different from his father, a convicted criminal, but also because he was a fan of American crime series that he often evokes. Indeed, Cherif always solves crimes with smile and by quoting dialogues from popular crime television series. Socially, he is very popular in his squad, seductive with women, he is still friends with his ex-wife, and is a loving father of his teenage daughter. In France, this character was overall well received in its six seasons, but Annabelle Laurent (2014) criticized his characterization by comparing it to the British character Luther (Idris Elba) whose ethnicity is minimally discussed aside of a set of clichés.
The Unusual Detective
A third variation of the ethnic minority detective are those who do not strictly follow dominant culture’s codes and follow their own set of rules. Such characterizations tend to occur when the investigators deceive or challenge the justice system because they deem it corrupt. One of such characters is the Turkish German detective Erol Birkan from Dogs of Berlin who is an openly gay police investigator from the Berlin’s drug squad. In a similar scenario to Cenk Batu’s undercover investigation, Birkan is assigned the investigation of the murder of a Turkish German football player because the homicide unit needs a “Turk” for communication purposes. Birkan initially rejects the assignment because he prefers to investigate crimes affecting the community where he grew up but decides to join after he is beaten by a group of men presumably from the Tarik-Amir mafia. As the story unfolds, we learn that he grew up in an ethnic enclave and was bullied as a child by the gang that now terrifies his community. Hence, there is a personal motive behind joining his investigation. Contrary to Batu, he is fluent in Turkish, and is well involved in the Turkish German community. While his work ethics and moral codes are generally strong, he falls from police protocol during his investigation, and ultimately break his official police oath along with his unethical partner so that they combat the crime rings of Berlin.
Another character fitting this typology is the Franco-Maghrebi detective Khalil Rachedi from the Franco-British series The Last Panthers (2015). Like Birkan, Rachedi is assigned to investigate an international diamond heist because he is a local from an ethnic enclave of Marseilles as well as a former petty criminal. Similarly, the detective is teamed with a corrupt white chief investigator. Working against the system, he begins a counter investigation with his criminal brother, Mokhtar. With Mokhtar, Rachedi intimidates criminals and attempts to expose his partner’s corruption. In the end, Rachedi kills his brother, signaling his choice of moral duty over family.
Shaping the European Minority Detective
Despite their very different experiences, the four detectives share some storylines and visual imagery that hint that they are still confronted to literary tropes and forms of typecasting. These include a recurrence of scenes that sexualize them and persistent narratives of family links to criminality. It is also noteworthy that all their love interests are white. According to Catherine Squires (2014), interracial couples in television work can work as a convenient device for expressing post-racial aesthetics, integrating a cast, and and/or bringing racial controversy and difference to the small screen (105). In the mixed couple scenes in the series, I could add, ethnicity is rarely evoked, an aspect that may suggest a rhetoric of colorblindness that disregards discourse about ethnic and racial difference.
Narratives of Postmigrant Europe?
There some aspects in the series, however, that clearly point towards the weakening and overcoming of othering categories. Such subversive moments do not embrace a post-racial ideology, but rather a postmigrant perspective that describes a historical condition in which migration and its legacy is central to the everyday life in Europe. The concept of Postmigration conceives society as a site of conflicts, negotiations, conflict, and cultural hybridity resulting from past and ongoing migrations. It stresses that society as a whole has experienced migration, not only those who have actually migrated (Foroutan 2019 150).
In contrast to former representations where ethnic minority characters are exclusively teenagers, petty criminals, or immigrants, these series from the 2010s center on older characters working at the police. The protagonists also have more complex relations with their ethnic community as seen in Birkan’s conflict with the local mafia or Cherif’s rejection of his criminal father. The white majority society is also represented as heterogenous, especially in regard to accepting cultural diversity: European whites in these series include the Berlin Neo-Nazis, the older soldier who tells Cherif that his father should have killed “his kind” during the French-Algerian War, but also the protagonists’ lovers, friends, and colleagues who accept the plurality in society.
Despite the presence of lead minority detectives in French and German series, they remain marked by topoi of criminality, sexualization, and integration discourse. The depiction of minority cultural identity or thorough reflections on interethnic conflict continues to be limited, but it cannot be underestimated the progress that the characters bring to European screens: they offer identificatory figures for minority and majority audiences and attests to a shifting understanding of the “us” and “the others” in European societies.
Eberl, Jakob-Moritz et al. 2018. “The European media discourse on immigration and its effects: a literature review.” Annals of the International Communication Association, 42:3, 207-223.
Foroutan, Naika. 2019. “The Post-migrant Paradigm.” In Refugees Welcome: Difference and Diversity in a Changing Germany. Ed. Jan-Jonathan Bock and Sharon Macdonald, New York: Berghahn Books, 142-170.
Laurent, Annabelle. 2013.“‘Chérif’, le nouveau flic «cool» de France 2.” 20 Minutes.
Squires, Catherine R. 2014. The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York: New York University Press.
Ter Wal, Jessika. 2002. Racism and cultural diversity in the mass media. An overview of research and examples of good practice in the EU member states, 1995–2000. Vienna: European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.
Akın, Fatih. 2008. Tatort: Cenk Batu, Undercover Agent. Strand Releasing, 2008. Series.
Alvart, Christian. 2018. Dogs of Berlin. Sigi Kamml. Netflix. Series.
Olenga, Lionel, Laurent Scalese, and Stéphane Drouet. 2013-2019. Cherif. France 2. Series.
Thorne, Jack and Johan Renck. 2015. The Last Panthers. Canal+.Seires.
A Study of Maghrebi French and Turkish German Detectives
A comparative study of French and German crime series with a focus on detective figures who are immigrants and belong to an ethnic minority.