Multifaceted Views on the Interrogation of Asylum Seekers in Two German Radio Plays

Picture Source: Bayerischer Rundfunk

Guest contributor Monika Preuß (Technische Universität Dortmund), author of the three-part MGP blog post series on radio plays about the NSU trial, analyzes the rare representation of the interrogation of asylum seekers in two recent German radio plays, “Die Anhörerin” and “Die Ohrfeige,” demonstrating both the ethical dilemma that the German bureaucrat experiences and the intense indignation felt by the subject of the trial. You can read this post in its original German here.

Despite the large number of contemporary German novels thematizing flight and asylum, such as Dunya brennt by Ercüment Aytaç, Der falsche Inder by Abbas Khider, and Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall by Ilija Trojanow, not so many focus explicitly on the actual process of applying for an asylum. Contending this trend, two recent German radio plays, “Die Anhörerin” (“The Interrogator,” 2019) by journalist Andreas Unger, and “Die Ohrfeige” (“A Slap in the Face”, 2016), which was adapted from the same novel by Abbas Khider, both focus on one key moment in asylum-seeking: the hearings, during which the applicant has to explain the reasons for their flight. 

After the submission of the written application for asylum, the hearings play a significant role in the final decision on whether refugee status could be granted. Depending on the total number of asylum seekers in a given year, the applicant may have to wait for months or even years before being scheduled for a hearing, making it a strenuous, distressing process. The radio plays analyzed in this blog post develop two different perspectives that reveal the connection between language and power.

In “Die Anhörerin,” public servant Anne is trained to become a decision-maker for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF). The radio play is characterized by many short sequences that collectively convey a multitude of opinions on asylum. It grants the listener a glimpse into Anne’s moral quandary through the case of Hassan Farah, a young man who fled the terror of the Al-Shabaab militia in Somalia. Anne’s family, who come from a Bavarian village, are skeptical of refugees. They fear that an influx of refugees would create economic burden for the state and hence support a hardline approach towards granting asylum (cf. 13:29ff.). By contrast, Anne’s left-leaning friends support a more lenient approach towards asylum seekers. Anne is torn between the need to follow official regulations and her own emotional identification with the applicants when she hears their stories. Neither her family nor her friends could fully grasp her dilemma (cf. 31:14ff.). 

Even though the refugee himself has “no voice,” the consistent presence of shootings and screeches in the background adds another layer of sensorial information (cf. 21:06ff.). Without explicitly expressing Hassan’s perspective in words, the radio play nevertheless emphasizes the traumatic experience that he has been through. Although “Die Anhörerin” makes no use of an omniscient narrator-commentator, Anne’s thoughts gradually become more nuanced and reflective. A didactic undertone is still palpable, but the strength of the radio play lies in its ability to allow for an interplay between diverse opinions from multiple sides.

Instead of bringing in the outsiders’ views, “Die Ohrfeige” focuses mainly on the parties directly involved in the hearing: the asylum seeker and the government official. Karim, a refugee from Iraq, imagines a scenario in which he gags Ms. Schulz, the officer in charge of processing his asylum application, thus forcing her to hear his story. This scenario temporarily reverses the power dynamics in a traditional hearing. Whereas Karim is able to express himself freely, the government official is forced to remain silent, with her mouth sealed by a tape. 

Different from the original novel, which is largely monolingual, we can hear Karim talking to Ms. Schulz in both Arabic and German. Nonetheless, the Arabic voice is muffled and therefore remains in the margins. In addition, Karim claims that even if Ms. Schulz could understand Arabic perfectly, she wouldn’t be able to identify with him, because their experiences and living circumstances are too different to be relatable (cf. 01:39ff.). Although this imagined conversation allows the refugee a rare chance to freely express his frustrations towards the German bureaucratic system and its draconian treatment of the individual applicant without fear of retaliation, the mere fact that this exchange could only take place inside Karim’s head demonstrates how a complete reversal of existing power structures is inevitably out of reach for the underprivileged asylum seeker (cf. Waldenfels 2006, 42ff.). 

In this sense, “Die Anhörerin” and “Ohrfeige” collectively convey a multitude of perspectives in regards to the process of interrogation, thereby enriching literary representations of asylum seeking with polyphonic aural experiences unique to digital media (cf. Moosmüller/ Previšić 2020, 3ff.).

Works Cited

  1. Khider, Abbas. Ohrfeige. Hanser, 2016.
  2. Khider, Abbas, and Julia Tieke. “Die Ohrfeige.” Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 2016. Published on CD by HörbucHHamburg.
  3. Kory, Beate Petra. “Im Dickicht der deutschen Asylbürokratie: Jenny Erpenbecks Gehen, ging, gegangen (2015) und Abbas Khiders Ohrfeige (2016) im Vergleich.” In Auswanderung und Identität: Erfahrungen von Exil, Flucht und Migration in der deutschsprachigen Literatur, edited by Christel Baltes-Löhr, Beate Petra Kory, and Gabriele Sandor, Transcript, 2019, pp. 107-29.
  4. Moosmüller, Silvan, and Boris Previšić. “Polyphonie, Multiperspektivität, Intermedialität: Eine Einführung in die terminologischen Grundlagen und den Aufbau des Bandes.” In Polyphonie und Narration, edited by Silvan Moosmüller and Boris Previšić, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2020, pp. 1-19. 
  5. Unger, Andreas. “Die Anhörerin.” Bayerischer Rundfunk 2019. Available at:
  6. Waldenfels, Bernhard. Grundmotive einer Phänomenologie des Fremden. Suhrkamp, 2004.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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