How a Refugee Comedy Became Germany's Sleeper Hit of 2016

Welcome to the Hartmanns Still
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Germany

'Welcome to the Hartmanns' tells the story of a rich German family that takes in an African refugee. "Laughter can be liberating," says director Simon Verhoeven.

This time last year, Germany looked ready to explode.

In just a few months, nearly a million refugees had poured into the country, encouraged by the open border policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who refused to put a cap on migrants. The refugees were initially greeted with open arms — crowds in cities like Munich and Berlin held up “refugees welcome” banners — but the country had begun to turn against the new arrivals. There were anti-immigrant demonstrations and a spike in attacks: neo-Nazis firebombed migrant shelters and beat refugees in the streets.

So how is it, a year later, that Germans are turning out in droves for a comedy set smack in the middle of the European refugee crisis?

Welcome to the Hartmanns, a feel-good laffer about a rich Munich family that takes in an African refugee (played by Belgian actor Eric Kabongo), is the No. 1 German film of 2016, with a box office tally of more than $20 million to date, a result that puts it in the territory of Hollywood blockbusters like Marvel's Doctor Strange.

“[The success] surprised me, it surprised the whole [German] industry,” says Simon Verhoeven, the film's director, noting that both sides of the political spectrum were primed to hate the movie. “The left thought we were laughing at immigrants, and the right saw it as pro-asylum propaganda."

Instead, Welcome to the Hartmanns has done what even Merkel failed to do: find consensus (at least among German film fans) on the refugee crisis. In the movie, the Hartmanns' political discussions reflect those in the country as a whole. “It's bad enough Merkel has invited the whole third world to come here,” snorts Father Hartmann when his wife suggests hosting a refugee. His daughter, responding to criticism that she's only volunteering at a shelter to feel better about herself, shoots back: “Better to have helper syndrome than asshole syndrome.” Neo-Nazis are mocked (staging a “foreigners out” demo, more sad than scary, in the rich Munich suburb where the Hartmanns live), but so is a wacky hippie who thinks Germany should fling its doors wide open.

“We let everyone have their say,” notes Max Wiedemann, one of the film's producers. “And in the end show, yes, it's legitimate to have a different opinion on this issue. But let's not let it divide us.”

Verhoeven adds, “I was trying to find a middle ground, something that's been lost in the whole refugee debate. And I wanted to loosen things up. Help people laugh about themselves. Laughter can be liberating.”

It doesn't hurt that Welcome to the Hartmanns features some of Germany's biggest stars, including Senta Berger and Heiner Lauterbach as the parents, Palina Rojinski and Florian David Fitz as the Hartmann kids, and superstar Elyas M'Barek (Suck Me Shakespeer) as the daughter's love interest: a sexy young surgeon with a big heart and a sense of humor. A German-born actor with a Tunisian father, M'Barek is a living multicultural success story, and Verhoeven gives his character the film's most placative political speech: "We Germans are so uptight about our own identity, but we're a free, tolerant country, but we have to stand up for our values and defend them." Kabongo, who plays the African immigrant Diallo Makabouri, is a Belgian actor who appeared in the 2015 indie hit Black.

Personally, Verhoeven says he's moved closer to the middle when it comes to the refugee question.

“I understand the initial reaction to the refugees, to welcome them in -- it has something to do us Germans wanting to be on the right side of history,” he says. “'But I think we were naive as well and ignored the reality that not everyone coming is the kind of person we'd want to have in the country. I think we have to take the political correctness out of the discussion and talk openly about these issues.”

It seems to have worked. Wiedemann says there was heavy online trolling of the film before it was released but that it died down as soon as the movie came out. “[People saw] the movie is a lot more complex, the whole spectrum of opinion is in it. We have a very positive reception across the board,” he says.

The film is also impacting the German industry itself. Verhoeven says he's already eyeing projects that would have been considered too risky, too politically incorrect just a year ago.

“The success of the film gives us, and other German filmmakers, the courage to push comedy into new areas, to be more ambitious,” agrees Quirin Berg, another Hartmanns producer.

So far, it's unclear whether Welcome to the Hartmanns will have any real political impact. Current polls are forecasting that Merkel will be easily re-elected as German chancellor in national elections to be held next fall. But the far-right party Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), which has made the refugee crisis its main issue, is hoping to pull a Trump and confound the experts.