What is an airport to you? Is it a transactional business center that conveys you from one location to another via long security lines and the power of flight? Does it represent happiness as loved ones reunite after hours in a metal tube miles off the ground? Is it just one long headache for you? But, what if an airport was something more than any and all of these things? In Karim Aïnouz’s beautifully shot Central Airport THF, the history of the Berlin-Tempelhof Airport (coded as THF) is explored, as is its remarkable transformation into something more after its closure.
The Berlin-Tempelhof Airport opened in 1923, to serve Berlin as a major transportation hub. While that is fairly early on in terms of air travel, its claims as the oldest operating commercial airport have been disputed by several other airports. During the terrifying reign of the Nazi regime, the oppressive government did a massive overhaul/ expansion of the airport, realizing the need for a central air traffic destination.
“… announced that THF would become an emergency refugee shelter, with a housing capacity of 1,200 people.”
With several other airports popping up in Berlin since then, in 1996 it was decided that all international travel should be routed to one airport. That airport was not THF, so 12 years later, it shuttered its doors, despite efforts to save the historic site. After that, the space played host to various trade shows, festivals, concerts, and sporting events. In 2010, Berlin-Tempelhof’s expansive runways were opened to the public as a park. Five years later, it was announced that THF would become an emergency refugee shelter, with a housing capacity of 1,200 people.
The first 30 minutes, give or take a few, of Central Airport THF, lays out the extensive history of the airport, introduces Ibrahim Al Hussein, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee who is the primary figure of the film, and the ways in which the terminal has been transformed to suit their needs. However, after that, while waiting to discover if visas have been granted, there is nothing much to do but wait. This kills the momentum for the middle section.
See, the film focuses, almost exclusively on young Hussein, meaning that there is a whole lot of waiting to be had. While the resilient man’s voice-over about times before the war in Syria and his hopes for his future and working prospects in Germany gets the audience in his head and easily empathize with him. While the use of spatial awareness, the vast structure with its canopy style roofing, swallows everyone in its orbit into a hypnotic landscape, makes for impressive shot compositions, it can’t move the story any faster than bureaucracy can move.
“…once a landmark feat of a hateful government transformed into the opposite of everything the Nazis stood for.”
The director tries his best to get around this problem by highlighting some of the more intriguing elements now present at the airport. There are little classrooms set up throughout that teach the refugees German. A good amount of the more lighthearted moments of the film come from watching the teachers’ interactions with their pupils. The physical therapist cume translator Qutaiba Nafea is patient and understanding and got into this work for extra money. However, there are only so many times you can cutaway to them, and there are only so many, however gorgeously mounted, slow-motion shots of teens doing tricks on their bikes you can look at until a sense of repetition sets in.
However, as stated repeatedly, Central Airport THF is gorgeous. Every frame of this observational documentary is stunning to look at, as Aïnouz finds the irony in this location’s current purpose. Expressed almost entirely through a visual language that recalls a hazy, beautiful dream, the director highlights how this building, once a landmark feat of a hateful government transformed into the opposite of everything the Nazis stood for. As the camera sits back and watches the numerous refugees come in and out, seek assistance from employees and the government, and how open the citizens of Berlin are to THF’s use as a shelter, there is great historical resonance to be felt.
Central Airport THF avoids the pitfalls of many observational documentaries by zeroing on one person’s plight. But, because of the very structure of the very government institutions that turned the famous airport into a beacon of hope for thousands across the world, the film loses some of its initial allure. However, due to being shot with epic, breathtaking vistas and stunning shot compositions, these are always something to capture the viewer’s attention.
Central Airport THF (2019) Directed by Karim Aïnouz. Starring Ibrahim Al Hussein, Qutaiba Nafea. Central Airport THF screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
8 out of 10 Gummi Bears