On Sunday I saw Werden Sie Deutscher, a documentary about immigrants learning German in a Berlin Integrationskurs, at the fsk Kino in Kreuzberg. An Integrationskurs is a special course for foreigners living in Germany; it combines language instruction with cultural information meant to help the participants better integrate into German society. The film follows its characters’ lives both inside and outside the classroom as they struggle with German grammar, visit sites related to German national identity, and try to wrest visas from the gray clutches of the Ausländerbehörde.
The characters come from around the world — Bulgaria, Thailand, the Palestinian Territories, Bangladesh, Argentina — and range in age from their twenties to their fifties. The film captures the humor of learning a foreign language (the students are lower intermediate, a level I remember as particularly foible-ridden: you’ve begun to talk but can’t really understand the other students) in a sympathetic way — the viewer is never really laughing at the students’ German. What you are laughing at is German culture as presented in the course. “I always work very long hours,” a glum-sounding man says in a listening comprehension exercise. “Time is money,” the teacher writes on the board. “First work, then fun.” A comic strip about incorrect behavior that is distributed to the students shows a hapless foreigner tossing a banana peel into the paper recycling bin. At one point a student looks genuinely confused at the mention of German humor. “This is the first time I have heard that such a thing exists,” she says. (Ironically, the film’s self-deprecating humor shows that such a thing does exist.)
The film depicts discomfort especially well, from the German unease with patriotism embodied in the teacher’s awkward posture as he plays a CD of the national anthem to the students’ constant suffering in the Berlin weather. As a foreigner who also experiences German weather as relentless misery, I especially enjoyed this aspect of the film. “Look how cold they all are!” I kept whispering to my fellow filmgoer. “Look, the Thai woman is shivering in a giant wool scarf indoors! The Bangladeshi guy is wearing a wool hat in summer!”
All that said, I have a problem with the movie: it implicitly suggests (and the reviews posted on its website explicitly state) that an Integrationskurs is something every foreigner who wants to live in Germany must participate in. I have been dealing with the Ausländerbehörde for many years and I am here to tell you: This is not true. I have never been sent to an Integrationskurs, and none of my fellow-non-EU-foreigner friends have ever been sent to an Integrationskurs, not even the ones whose German sucks. See, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), not every foreigner is entitled to take part in an Integrationskurs. You’re not entitled if your German is already too good (above level B1), which seems fair enough, but you’re also not entitled “bei erkennbar geringem Integrationsbedarf” – if you’re “clearly lacking the need to integrate.” So what the hell is that supposed to mean? That you appear to be well integrated already? That you are allowed to retain your own cultural identity rather than integrating because yours is a high-status culture/language? That you have a decently paid job?
If it’s the first, how exactly does the Ausländerbehörde appraise how well integrated you appear to be? Many of the topics covered in an Integrationskurs are things I did not in fact know in my early years in Germany, and could certainly have used some formal instruction in — the complex system of recycling, all the different forms of noise it’s illegal to make in an apartment building at certain hours, the importance of keeping official pieces of paper stored in ugly binders. If these things — the concrete elements of “integration” in the curriculum of an Integrationskurs — are in fact what the German government means by Integrationsbedarf, why did nobody at the Ausländerbehörde ever ask me or my friends any questions probing our knowledge of them? It seems that the Ausländerbehörde just looked at my face and passport and decided I had no Integrationsbedarf. I say this not in a spirit of selfish complaining– oh, poor white American me, never getting to reap the fruits of an Integrationskurs — but because my experience reflects how murky, subjective and bound-up-with-prejudices this Integrationsbedarf criterion is.
So given that foreigners in Germany are NOT automatically sent to an Integrationskurs, how exactly were the characters in the film selected for the course? Was their participation totally voluntary, or did they have to take the class to get their visas renewed, or was it something in between? Werden Sie Deutscher is a good documentary, it’s definitely worth watching, but it could have engaged with the German concept of integration much more substantively by addressing these questions.