Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin shot to international fame when his fourth feature Head-On won the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlinale. Since then he’s competed in Cannes twice, winning Best Screenplay for The Edge of Heaven and earning Diane Kruger a Best Actress prize for In the Fade. That’s a very impressive streak carried by poignant, deeply sensitive observations of the Turkish immigrant experience. This track record took quite a hit with his ill-received serial killer portrait The Golden Glove in 2019, a rare film so repulsive it practically smells. And now Akin’s rebounded somewhat with a thoroughly entertaining (if wholly unambitious) biopic that could well become his biggest commercial success to date.

Premiering at the 30th edition of the Filmfest Hamburg, Rheingold tells the rather extraordinary life story of refugee-turned-gangster-turned-musician Giwar “Xatar” Hajabi, who we first meet in the Syrian desert in 2010, where he’s kept in captivity and tortured alongside two buddies. We don’t know why this German and Kurdish-speaking man is being held in Syria until the officer administering torture provides a clue: there’s gold involved. But it will be a long while before we get to the gold part. Instead the hero reminisces that his earliest memories are from a prison—taking us all the way back to 1979, when he was born in the middle of an armed conflict between Iran and Iraq. Xatar’s father, being a renowned Kurdish composer, eventually managed to pull strings and get his family out of the warzone to Europe, where they settled down in the Rhenish city of Bonn.

Growing up displaced and dispossessed, Xatar learns to be incredibly resourceful and resilient from a young age. But the keen business sense he’s developed as an adolescent, which helps support his mother and sister after his father’s departure, soon leads down a path of career criminals. In an attempt to come clean he would meet even more shady characters and commit a most preposterous gold heist that sees him running away from authorities halfway around the globe. And that’s all before he becomes a hip-hop sensation inside prison walls.

The film’s stranger-than-fiction twists and turns, based on Hajabi’s autobiography, are its biggest, undeniable asset. Though details of how certain events took place have probably been tweaked for theatrical purposes, certain things herein are so wild you’d think they have to be true. Especially the circumstances surrounding the heist—how it came to be, how it went down—are genuinely bizarre, likely to be met with incredulous laughs and applause. Akin, who also wrote the screenplay, is smart to cover such a wide arc of Xatar’s journey. Spanning decades and continents, the sheer breadth of his experiences elevates the story to the stuff of legend befitting the film’s mythic-operatic title.

But Akin’s direction doesn’t do much elevating for its part. While the story is told with obvious competence, unfolding at a clipped speed (those 140 minutes buzz right by) and hitting all the emotional marks it’s supposed to, there’s a distinct lack of edge and narrative inventiveness that one can’t help but notice. Nothing against broadly accessible mainstream films, but in this case the whole thing is so watered down it’s doubtful if a single frame will stick after the credits roll. From unspectacular production design (including some very unconvincing Middle Eastern sets) to the polished, impersonal cinematography, nothing really pops. Yet Akin’s great use of music contributes vitally. Beginning with the ’90s, when the classically trained Xatar is exposed to street music for the first time, a hip-hop-fueled soundtrack joins in to bring some much-needed flow and soul to what’s happening on screen. And in the final act, where the protagonist records an entire album while serving his prison term, Akin is able to use these rhythmically charged scenes to tap into the quick, explosive mind of someone wise far beyond his years.

Playing the adult Xatar, Emilio Sakraya delivers a solid performance that showcases unmistakable star quality. Whatever the pretty formulaic setup, his confident, unself-conscious presence never fails to add warmth and truth to a scene. His portrayal of this larger-than-life character feels grounded, unforced, yet packs the easy charisma of an inspirational figure. Hero or antihero, it’s hard not to root for this force of nature he so winningly embodies.

Rheingold is a smooth watch that coasts on the fun, eclectic nature of its source material. If this may not be the return to form for a Cannes- and Berlin-winning filmmaker some anticipated, it’s a rousing good time nonetheless. All eyes will next turn to the recently announced series project about German film icon Marlene Dietrich that reunites Akin with Kruger. For the sake of all involved, Fatih better really bring it with this one.

Rheingold screened at Filmfest Hamburg.

Grade: B-

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