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The airport you never leave

Regissør: Karim Ainoush
(Tyskland, Frankrike, Brasil)

Tempelhof, the former German pride and architectural gem of an airport, has been given new life as a refugee reception.


"I used to wake up to the songs of Fairuz and the smell of fresh coffee."

The statement to the young boy at the beginning of the movie gives me the feeling of being there, present, as he hums and smiles drinking the hot coffee his mother made. A life, a family, a home in a small Syrian border village still lives in his memories. Now he is here, at Tempelhof Airport, the ancient German pride and architectural gem. Messages are still being shouted over the speakers in many languages; now they no longer apply to departure and arrival, but influenza vaccines.

reuse Hall

The barren airport, with its majestic grandeur, creates an even stronger sense of homelessness for those who are here indefinitely. They dream back to their homeland, recreating old memories until they are exhausted. Hot summers fade quickly in the face of hangar halls and airstrips. Simple partitions in the hundred-meter class are inserted between the camp beds. The cubicles, without roof, are the homes of these people for weeks, months, maybe years.

The friendliness of the employees is evident in all the meetings between them and the refugees. The laughter sits loosely and grate in the huge rooms. All sound is thrown back and forth as in a swimming pool.

Here, too, in the old departure hall, people need a haircut while they wait.

On the gym-like benches along the walls, young people sit in line. Daily life goes its way. Here, too, in the old hall for departure, people need a haircut while they wait. In response to where they can move on, again from those who remained. The newcomers learn German, wash clothes. Time is shortened with friends and tobacco from the hookah. The man who digs the architecture at the airport and would rather have lousy food served than cook it himself, charms me. But the echo sound bothers me. It never stops.


Families and young people on picnic. Space people collecting bottles. We are still at the Tempelhof. The former airstrip has now been transformed into a playground. Bikes and people flock to the black stripes. The scene is full of speed and bubbly joy. Rarely have I seen better utilization of smooth asphalt surfaces.

At the beginning of the movie, the use of this airport as a refugee reception was something that seemed absurd – drawn from a science fiction-
film. A short while into the documentary, I have nevertheless accepted the use as something natural: Here are the high fences and gates to lock. Those who deal with people on the run have a full view.

In an evening scene, an escape from the reception is sought. The sound of a helicopter in the night makes me realize how organized the place is. Right after that I splurge on my own thoughts – when tiled rooms and people living together awaken associations to World War II and death camps. Perhaps they have tried their utmost, those who have organized this reception, so that the evils of past crimes will not creep in here.

scene Change

The film works the same way, for the most part. The days pass, and small events at the doctor and at the reception office are broken up with meals and a smoke out in the rain. Young boys are connected – they resemble each other, whether they have fled or not.

The airport's huge outdoor area is perfect for jogging. It sounded long and youthful on the soundtrack. It makes an impression – but we have heard so much now, about lived life and lost life, that they no longer touch as before. Some get to stay, some get a job, others stay.

A scene with a bee-smoker in the gray lights gives a much needed break from the claustrophobic life in the huge halls, where the gigantic walls of the various hangars make everything seem so small. The bees buzzing around the man shrouded in protection provide room and air for the story. The haze, through flimsy vegetation, seems lush. Is the place on the edge of the airport? The film never answers, but later returns to honeymoon cubs and bustling lives. A lively contrast to the monotony in the waiting rooms. Fortunately, there are seasons.

They dream back to their homeland – recreating old memories until they are exhausted.

With the winter and snow falling, the film's aesthetic is lifted into something richer – it's as if the airport is getting lighter. But inside the halls it is roaring as before. How are they, those who never escape the screeching sound? How many nights are needed before you get acquainted with these surroundings?

Or are everyone obedient, polite and quiet at night? Considerable in this huge echo chamber of a dormitory? From above we look straight into the various booths. There is no place for privacy here. Everything is visible.


The film takes time, faithfully follows airport life day after day, month after month. Outside, the snow is gone and the ground is bare. A Christmas tree is fenced and seems too small and misplaced. The idyll never lasts long, maybe it never was. A Santa Claus pops up – then another. Residents have fun taking selfies with the reds.

Arabic music and dance with rockers are Christmas entertainment. The expectation for a party was probably greater, and the conversation quieted fast. Still, those who are here know that they are among the lucky ones: They have food, a roof over their heads, access to medical care and tuition; social workers who assist with the integration into the newly promised country. What makes a party without full speed on the dance floor then?

New Year's fireworks are gaining momentum on the mobile cameras again, but also getting some to keep their ears open. The bangs do not bring everyone into the party mood. A man clings to his ears; the sound takes him back to the firing line.

Two years have passed at the airport for several, yet the discouragement is kept down. This time it's just fireworks.

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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