Many of you may know her as Shae, the lover and prostitute of Tyrion Lannister from the Game of Thrones series and have probably heard the discussion about her previous history in the adult film industry, like several actresses in the series. With background like that, you might have been hesitant to type “Sibel Kekilli filmography” into Google (or conversely, intrigued), but at the very least, you probably wouldn’t expect her to claim many major roles in any renowned films. Hardcore adult-film actresses and actors don’t often make the transition to the mainstream, and when they do, they often fill the role as “the stripper” or “the model” in films that most would consider less than the peak of artistic achievement (watch Zach and Miri Make a Porno or the series Entourage and you’ll see what I mean.)
But Sibel Kekilli is different, so I wanted to shine some light on this actress’ outstanding career, not in the US, but in Germany. Some of her greatest performances include her work in Die Fremde (reviewed by our own Jasmine Dell here) and Winterreise, but I wanted to specifically focus on Fatih Akin‘s critically-acclaimed Gegen die Wand (2004), for which she won and was nominated several awards internationally.
Gegen die Wand is a hard-hitting punk romance that, like many of Akin’s films, deals with Turkish identity in Germany, but this identity crisis is not the main focal point of the film, which I think adds a lot to the whole. The film takes place in Hamburg, Akin’s city of birth, and begins with the main character Cahit (Birol Ünel) driving his car straight into a wall, with hopes of ending his life. After being admitted to a clinic, he meets Sibel, played by Kekilli, whose conservative
Turkish family drove her to also attempt suicide. After convincing the anti-social, alcoholic Cahit to help her escape her family by agreeing to a marriage of convenience, the movie takes off in a cycle of self-destruction and renewal as both characters search for identity and freedom through sex, drugs, love, and eventually family.
Kekilli’s performance is remarkable as she portrays this conflicted and extreme young woman who wants to live life to the fullest, which to her, means having wild promiscuous sex, doing drugs, and dancing until dawn in the underbelly of Hamburg’s nightlife. Her lust for freedom is what first fuels her lifestyle, but soon love makes things a lot more complicated, as jealousy and frustration lead to some pretty intense scenes for both Kekilli and Ünel.
All the while, Sibel’s family also puts the pressure on, and the unique structure of a Turkish family in Germany is presented, showing the role of gender and honor that may not be familiar to most western cultures. Her performance as a threatened Turkish daughter in Gegen die Wand is especially interesting considering occurrences with her real life family after the German tabloid “Bild” exposed her as having a history in adult film. This slandering of the actress’ name, or “media rape,” as Kekilli called it, resulted in Kekilli’s family disowning her. The role of a persecuted Turkish woman is all too real for Kekilli, and she portrays the character expertly.
“Gegen die Wand” literally means “against the wall,” which explains the “no-way-out” situations as well as the extreme impacts that occur in the film. This title does not, however, describe Sibel Kekilli’s career, and any use of this actress’ past to defame her is petty and unprofessional. I think Kekilli said it best herself:
“Ich will nicht, dass ihr mich liebt. Aber respektiert endlich, dass ich ein neues Leben angefangen habe”
“I don’t want you to love me, but in the end, respect that I have started a new life” (Der Spiegel)
Whether or not you agree with Sibel Kekilli’s past, I find it pretty hard to deny the fact that she has some serious acting capability. It would be a shame to write her off completely and miss the depth and range of character she can bring to the table, especially in light of her difficult experiences in life. I hope to see more of her talent displayed in the upcoming seasons of Game of Thrones, as well as in German films that demand an actress that can push herself to the limit in her craft, as she does in Gegen die Wand.