“I have always had a passion for writing and when I started making my first films, I saw this as being the ideal combination,“ says 39-year-old Özgür Yildirim who has made four features since his debut with the drama CHIKO in 2008. Hamburg-born Yildirim had published a collection of horror short stories under the title of Grey Nights at the tender of age of 14, but subsequently borrowed a Hi-8 camera from a friend and started experimenting in making short films. It didn’t take long before he had caught the film bug and then concentrated his writing talents on developing screenplays for the cinema.
One of his Hi-8 films – DON JUAN DE TÜRKO – won the Audience Award at Hamburg’s International Short Film Festival in 2000, and he also won other prizes for shorts made during his studies at the Hamburg Media School (2002-2004), including LIEBE AUF TÜRKISCH and ALIM MARKET, the latter being nominated for the Short Tiger Award at the Filmfest München in 2005.
Produced by fellow Hamburg-based director Fatih Akin’s production outfit corazón international, Yildirim’s feature directorial debut CHIKO focused on two young men of Turkish background from the suburban ghettos of Hamburg – played by Denis Moschitto as Chiko and Volkan Özcan as his best friend Tibet – who believe that money, power and respect are all important until their friendship is put to the test when Chiko becomes embroiled in working for the local drug lord Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu). The film – which premiered at the Berlinale’s Panorama in 2008 – received German Film Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Editing as well as nominations for Best Film and Best Leading Actor and established Yildirim with one fell swoop as one of the most exciting new filmmaking talents to appear on the German film scene.
Three years later, he followed his debut with the hip-hop comedy BLUTZBRÜDAZ, produced by corazón with Constantin Film and starring real-life rap artists Sido and B Tight as two talented rappers who have a habit of attracting trouble. He then started a collaboration with local Hamburg production house Wüste Medien from 2012 on directingepisodes of the North German strand of the TATORT detective series.
In 2014, Yildirim then directed BOY 7, a German adaptation of Mirjam Mous’ novel starring David Kross, Emilia Schüle and Ben Münchow, which was made at the same time as a Dutch version by Lourens Blok, with the German film subsequently awarded the Newcomer Producer Award to producer Dorothee Beinemeier at the 2016 Bavarian Film Awards and receiving Jupiter Award nominations for Best Film and Best Actor.
Meanwhile, Yildirim’s fourth feature, ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME, saw him reunited with Moritz Bleibtreu almost 10 years after CHIKO for another drama set in the world of petty gangsters, but this time with a change of setting from Hamburg to the mean streets of Frankfurt. Bleibtreu, who also co-produced the hard-hitting film through his own production company Paloma Entertainment, plays a small-time gangster Ricky who has served time in prison for a botched heist by his brother Rafael and partner in crime Latif. Shortly after his release, he is made an offer by Latif that seems too good to be true and ultimately too good to refuse. But none of them have reckoned with the crooked cop Diana who needs the loot to save her child’s life. Produced by Constantin Film subsidiary Rat Pack Filmproduktion, ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME was presented with the 2017 Hesse Film and Cinema Prize for Best Feature Film and was released in German cinemas at the beginning of this year.
CHIKO and ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME have led some critics to label Yildirim as ‘Germany’s gangster filmmaker’. “I can understand to a certain extent why people think this way when you look at my past films, even BLUTZBRÜDAZ, and now the second season of 4 BLOCKS which I have shot with Oliver Hirschbiegel,“ he says. “I admit that I do have a soft spot for this milieu, but, as a director, I like telling stories wherever they might be set. I have never planned to make films about gangsters my particular trademark. But there aren’t so many people making gangster films in Germany, so that’s why they come on this label.“
At the same time, Yildirim, who has drawn inspiration from watching films by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino and Denis Villeneuve, has made his contribution to the development of a genre cinema in Germany over the past decade. “The Americans, French and Scandinavians are a lot further than the Germans as far as genre films are concerned,“ he explains. “There’s more risk taking and more writers and directors interested in working in this field. There have been improvements in Germany in recent years, but it is still much harder to convince people to back a genre film than, say, a comedy or a drama. I have always been interested in genre,“ Yildirim continues. “It began with the horror stories that I wrote, and genre allows one to express certain things in a much more abstract and profound way than if one has to adhere to the need for authenticity.“
“In Germany, audiences always have certain expectations if a film is from Germany: it has to be credible. If something happens which wouldn’t happen like that in Germany, they then say that the film isn’t any good. That’s why genre films have a hard time of it in Germany because a large part of the audience isn’t prepared to accept this. However, the story in an English film is so far away that they will accept what is presented. The best combination is to have a mix of fiction and the authentic,“ he suggests. “This worked in CHIKO and ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME because people could see that we have crime and gangsters in Germany and that some resort to the AK47.“
Authenticity is also something he aims to achieve when working with his actors. “It’s always important for me that I can believe what’s happening to them at a particular moment and that I’ll believe the emotions they are expressing. Every word must be spot on and that’s a big challenge,“ he explains. “I’m someone who goes through the lines with the actors on set and discusses the scenes and characters so that I can give them a clear idea about each character and their actions. I give them a framework for them to move within.“
Meanwhile, a new exciting chapter in Yildirim’s career began this year when he was hired to direct four episodes in the second season of the high-end series 4 BLOCKS, which is produced by Munich-based production house Wiedemann & Berg for pay TV channel TNT Serie.
“It was an exciting new experience,“ he observes. “You have the chance to tell a longer story and have more time for each of the characters. A particular challenge is that there is less shooting time on set: on ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME we had 31 shooting days, but there were only 37 days for four episodes of 4 BLOCKS, so it meant that I had practically shot two feature films in almost the same time.“
The gangster drama set in Berlin’s Neukölln district – which began airing on TNT in October – also marked the continuation of a collaboration with the Swiss-born DoP Matthias Bolliger whom Yildirim has known since his student days in Hamburg. “I rate him highly because he is always prepared to re-invent himself from one project to the next,“ the director says about his cinematographer. “We always come together to talk about the projects at a very early stage before the actual shoot to decide on the kind of visual style we want to follow. He is someone I can trust unconditionally, and the same goes for my editor Sebastian Thümler who has worked on my feature films as well as the TATORT episodes.“
As for the future, Yildirim is loathe to make any high-falluting statements about future projects for the cinema, although one currently in development could see him making a foray into quite a new area. Certainly, with his ability to move seemingly effortlessly between cinema and TV projects, Yildirim looks set to remain a name to watch in the future.