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Re-Humanizing a Crisis: Close-Up on “Central Airport THF”

Karim Aïnouz’s documentary is an engrossing ode to Berlin’s former airport, and to the refugees struggling to leave it.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Karim Aïnouz's Central Airport THF (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from February 8 – March 9, 2019 as a Special Discovery.
There is something genuinely disturbing in watching Berliners bask in the sun around Templehofer’s park, only a few meters and a fence away from the refugees stashed inside the former Berlin Central Airport. Brazilian-born, Berlin-based Karim Aïnouz’s engrossing documentary Central Airport THF thrives on the strident contrast between two worlds that almost touch, but never quite come together. It is an observational piece that reads like a two-part tribute: a testament to the singular beauty of a long-destitute place, and to the people who’ve unwillingly come to call it home. 
“Always obsessed with airports,” as he candidly admitted in a Notebook interview last May, Aïnouz had originally envisaged his latest film as part of a triptych about the capital’s airports: Berlin Brandenburg, which ought to have opened in 2011 but got mired in endless delays; Tegel, due to close in its place; and finally, Tempelhof (THF) itself. Anyone mildly familiar with Berlin’s geography will recognise THF as that crescent-shaped terminal embracing a runway-turned-public park in the city’s south. Opened in 1923 and designated as the capital's main airport, THF soon appeared ill-equipped to serve the needs of an ever-growing city, though a revamp only came about under Nazi Germany, as Hitler became convinced the place ought to serve as “the country’s most beautiful airport.” 
The irony that an emblem of Nazi opulence should become a refugee shelter is not lost on Aïnouz, who opens by trailing behind hordes of tourists marvelling at the airport’s vast interiors and belittling murals, only to then cut to a drone shot synchronised to the strings of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, and eventually move to the building’s other, fenced side. Tempelhof became a refugee shelter in November 2015. In July 2016, by the time Aïnouz was finally allowed to shoot inside its premises after several months of research and informal chats with its temporary denizens, the hangars had turned into a Playtime-like beehive of cubicles and makeshift lodgings. 
Neatly divided into monthly chapters, an excursion that opens in a blistering hot Berlin June day and ends a year later, Central Airport THF follows an 18-year-old chaperon, Ibrahim Al Hussein. A Syrian refugee who’s left home to embark on a solo journey across the Mediterranean, the boy’s connections with his native turf are reduced to sporadic phone calls and melancholic voiceovers. It’s tapestry of memories of an idyllic if irretrievable time and space, recounted with a lyrical tone that elevates them onto a poetic terrain. Like many other THF residents, Ibrahim’s struggle is one of bureaucratic impasses: a “protected” category guarantees him only a short-lived solace from the prospect of being shipped back home—entry into the world German nationals and tourists frolic just beyond a metallic fence is contingent on his acquiring a “refugee” status. 
There is a sinister irony to the conundrum, which Aïnouz obliquely hints at by letting us eavesdrop on Ibrahim’s phone calls home. Horrifying as it may be, the idea that the situation in Syria could deteriorate further might actually expedite the boy’s refugee application. Squeezed between an aching longing for a long-gone childhood lulled by the tunes of Lebanese singer Fairuz and a need to break from his terrifying past, Ibrahim kills time by hanging with fellow THF denizens. The boy’s bureaucratic transition and the film’s tight temporal scaffolding may don Central Airport THF the semblance of a three-act plot, but this is a film of episodes and vignettes, its energy bursting most strongly in the moments of intramural camaraderie between Ibrahim and his mates. An endearing charm permeates them, the sort of “magic in misery” that alights Aïnouz with the humanist touch of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project
In between German classes and legal counselling sessions, hookah puffs and canteen meals, Ibrahim and his pals fantasize of a future away from the “crisis situation” they’ve grown accustomed to. There’s a moment when the whole hangar watches in awe as Berlin’s sky breaks in a carpet of fireworks sprouting like sunflowers against the night. It’s New Year’s Eve, a polyphony of languages erupts from THF’s babel, and for a brief, flickering moment, the nostalgia that congeals in Ibrahim’s face teems with hope. Sure, Aïnouz leaves ample space to dwell on the anxieties of the Tempelhof community—a leitmotiv that becomes even more pronounced as the documentary changes chaperons, focussing on an Iraqi doctor with a stellar track record of surgeries back home, and little chances of resuming his duties in Germany—but Central Airport THF remains resolutely committed to contrast the hysterical coverage Western media have given the refugee crisis, re-humanizing individuals otherwise all too readily reduced to statistics.
Though a point could be made that this goes a tad too far, making Central Airport THF possibly too cheerful to be credible, whatever happy-go-lucky vibes may exude from Ibrahim’s Tempelhof sojourn are cleverly reined in by Aïnouz’s ability to frame the airport in all its spectral proportions. An architect by training—and a participant in the Cathedrals of Culture project—Aïnouz’s gaze relishes in the humbling vastness of Tempelhof’s interiors. To be watching Central Airport THF is to marvel at a study of glacial symmetries, an exploration of the ways a non-place dictates how its residents behave therein. The former airport remains a liminal terrain of spectral proportions. In the documentary’s most chilling shots, the THF denizens wake up and go to sleep as nauseatingly bright neon lights switch on and off above the cubicles-turned-bedrooms—a testament to the place's inhumane aura, closer to a factory than a shelter.
That THF has become somewhat familiar to Ibrahim and fellow denizens doesn’t mean it is truly home to any of them. “The room is neither specifically for [other people] nor for me,” a man complains about the lack of privacy inside the improvised accommodation, though the statement may well be taken as a synecdoche for the place as a whole. And if the inclusion of exteriors portraying people picnicking along the runway reiterates that normal life somehow continues for those privileged enough to live outside the hangars, the juxtaposition also problematzes that proximity in a way that echoes Sergei Loznitsa’s own excursions into the desecration of horror in his 2016 Austerlitz. "The hardest part of the journey was over," Ibrahim recalls the moment his ship landed on a Greek island. Central Airport THF does not reveal much as to the boy's final destination. But at the very least, it grants him a voice and ample time to speak. And that, against a discourse that's come to understand refugees as numbers, as a crisis to be fixed, is no small accomplishment.

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