Central Airport THF
Many documentaries have been made about the refugee situation in Europe, but few manage to provide such a boldly humanistic take as Central Airport THF.
Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport was a jewel of aviation built by Adolf Hitler. Its enormous scope made a kind of air palace for the Reich. Following the war, it became the base for the Berlin Airlift, keeping a direct conduit to the city from the Western reaches of Germany to this oasis within Soviet-controlled Europe. Now, decades later and after larger if less ornate areas have been taken up for air transport, the building is home to relaxing locals luxuriating on the lawns, and hundreds of individuals from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere looking to make better lives within Europe.
Karim Aïnouz’s calm, polite style crafts a keenly observed documentary that feels part the memoirs of the protagonists, part a rumination on the remarkable last century of Berlin. Much of the film follows a young Syrian refugee named Ibrahim Al Hussein, who misses his homeland but realizes the place he has left has no safe space for him. He’s in limbo, stuck in a giant hangar where doors are dropped in favor of fireproof curtains and each box-like room is roofless to the harsh lighting directly above.
The airport provides both sanctuary and the ability to acclimate, with language classes and medical care to break up the mundane waiting. A temporary solution stretching from weeks to months to years, Ibrahim and his fellow residents find their own ways of keeping spirits up while hoping for a chance to move on to a more secure status.
The film lacks any harsh scenes of escape and turmoil that led these individuals to head to Europe in the first place, which may at first lull one into believing that the relative security, combined with numbing boredom, may be more of a convenience than a true respite. Yet behind each of these faces is a story that’s truly harrowing, where the risk of death is constantly at hand.
The airport provides asylum, becoming in many ways its own kind of polyglot country. It’s a surreal place, with concrete walls and prison-like fencing dividing those living on base from the locals out for jaunts on the grass or runways. Thanks to Aïnouz sensitive yet profound handling, we’re treated with a year-long look at the lives of these individuals. The film may be a bit repetitive, but that only makes Central Airport THF perfectly in keeping with the rituals of those whose stories it captures so effectively and warmly.