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Gangs of Neukölln

"Knallhart" (Tough Enough) follows an innocent kid from the burbs as he tries to survive in Berlin's rough and tumble Neukölln district. The film's director Detlev Buck tells Daniela Sannwald that he's not exaggerating, but just showing things as they are.

Tagesspiegel: Mr. Buck, your film is set in the traditionally working class Berlin district of Neukölln. Why Neukölln?

Detlev Buck: I find Neukölln very lively because so many nations live together there – not just Turks like in Kreuzberg, but everything: Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Russians, Thais, Chinese, even a lot of Indians are there. But Neukölln is no ghetto, it's a place where everything clashes and of course, that creates problems.

Director Detlev Buck with leading actor David Kroß
All photos courtesy of Boje Buck Produktion

Don't you worry that many will find your film – in which Turkish gangs terrorise school kids – a bit exaggerated?

We showed the film to the mayor of Neukölln and another politician from the Green Party, and the Green said, "But it's not like that," and then the photographer said, "My son had already been beaten up at 15." I want people to accept that the many different nations do create problems. For me, it's also a film about families. A kid from an Arabic family might not get targeted, because his family has 200 members, but the son of a single mother will be. That has changed a lot, socially. I don't want to dramatise but you have to face this. Many people said that the depiction was exaggerated but they're blind, they're just turning away. To say "It's not like that," or "Thankfully we don't have that" is to lie.

Polischka (David Kroß) and his mother Miriam (Jenny Elvers-Elbertzhagen)

Were there other reactions? What's it like for the kids from that milieu?

We had sneak previews with Turkish youth in Marburg. They said, that's a cool film because it's something they can identify with. They also said "I've been to Neukölln," not "I've been to Berlin," which I found very funny. If you look carefully, you see that Neukölln's image is changing. It's livelier than many other areas where there are no young people. And they don't say, "I'm sick of Germany." They say, "You get ripped off there" but they're actually proud of that.

And the "bucket bashing" scene, where Polischka is strapped to a chair with a tin bucket on his head and waits for Erol's baseball bat to hit him: is that also based on reality?

The gang, Erol (Inanç Oktay Özdemir), Polischka (David Kroß)

No, we thought that up. I wanted to shoot an extremely violent scene. First we thought of something in the subway, but you're not allowed to shoot violent scenes there, that ruins its image. So we decided to pervert a kid's birthday party game.

And if certain viewers decide to try it themselves at home?

This danger always exists when you make films. But I don't think that people are going to misunderstand "Tough Enough" as a film.

The much-discussed German "Leitkultur" (defining culture) is hardly to be found in your film. At the moment there is a debate over a school in Berlin that decided to make it mandatory for German to be spoken in the school yard.

I understand that teachers should speak German and teach in German, otherwise there would be no classes. That I understand no problem, we are in a German cultural space here. But in any major city, you're going to find different nations, that's what makes it a major city. Now you even find that in small cities. There are many Russians where my daughter goes to school.

This was the first time that you shot a screenplay you hadn't written yourself. How was that?

I re-wrote or added onto some of the scenes in the novel by Gregor Tessnow. Especially the scenes with Erol. I wanted for him not to be a plain old bad guy. He needed a back-story, he's actually a nice guy when his testosterone comes down a bit. He's the father of twins. And when he runs into Polischka with his pram, that's actually quite a decent encouter. That wasn't in the screenplay.

David Kross, the actor who plays Polischka, has a very tough scene where he has to kill Erol in order to show due respect for his boss Hamal.

Polischka (David Kroß), Lisa (Amy Mußul)

Many kids that auditioned took the weapon and pulled the trigger, David handled it as though it were a hot potato. While we were shooting he was constantly having nose bleeds but he really wanted to play the role. "Tough Enough" meant a lot to him because he lives in Bargteheide, where he's experienced similar things.

The film deals with rules in social structures. For instance, Polischka is brought back to Hamal's place where the Arabic family lives and he has to take off his shoes which he first understands to be a humiliation but later realises is a ritual.

We discussed that forever and got advice. To be invited to a meal is a great honour, of course one takes off one's shoes. A policeman told me that if you want to humiliate an Arab, you go through their home in your street shoes with a sheepdog and inspect the place. That's something like ego-busting.

Crille (Arnel Taci), Polischka (David Kroß), Hamal (Erhan Emre)

The film is also a very detailed protocol of gangster gestures and rituals. Where did you pick these up?

I did some research on the Russian mafia and went out with a Mafioso. One of his bodyguards stared at me the whole time, for hours on end. It's all about attitude, big gestures. I had said that I wanted to pay for everyone, but I only had $3,000 on me and that wasn't enough. Doesn't matter, they said, next time. It's the gesture that counts.

You left out the cliche of Berlin as "heart with attitude" in "Tough Enough."

That's all gone, you might find traces of it in little pubs. But the classic West-Berlin Charlottenburg is in there. When Polischka's mother tries to find a man with money, she sits in Café Kranzler rather than walking around Neukölln. But she realises that the 50 year old men are already out with 20 year olds who stand around outside the Botox-to-go store that actually exists. That's classic Berlin: getting older.


This interview originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel on February 11, 2006.

Interview: Daniela Sannwald

Detlev Buck, born in 1962 in Bad Segeberg, shot his first film at the age of 21. Further films by Buck here.


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