A movie confronts Germany's other genocide

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A movie confronts Germany's other genocide
Lars Kraume, director of the new film "Measures of Men,” which examines Germany’s little-discussed colonial-era genocide in Namibia, in Berlin, March 14, 2023. Kraume long wrestled with how to tell the story as a European filmmaker. “There were actually no good Germans,” he said of the genocide. (Gordon Welters/The New York Times)

by Thomas Rogers

BERLIN.- Germany is often praised for its willingness to confront the darkest moments of its history, but in recent years, activists have pointed to a blank spot in the country’s culture of remembrance.

Decades before the Holocaust, Germany perpetrated the 20th century’s first genocide: From 1904 to 1908, German colonial officials systematically killed tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia. This atrocity is little known outside academic circles, and there are few memorials or pop cultural depictions of those events.

Now, a new movie, “Measures of Men,” aims to change that and bring a debate about Germany’s colonial guilt into the center of society. The glossy film, directed by German filmmaker Lars Kraume, tells the story of the killings through the eyes of a German anthropologist. Aside from playing in movie theaters, where it opened last month, “Measures of Men” had a special screening for lawmakers in Germany’s parliament and was the focal point for a series of events at the Humboldt Forum, a central Berlin museum housing ethnological items. Its distributor, Studiocanal, said it was planning to show the film in school and educational contexts.

“Measures of Men” has also prompted a new discussion in the German media about what many see as Germany’s sluggish attempts to come to terms with its colonial past. In recent years, the country has moved to return numerous artworks acquired during the colonial period, but ratifying a reconciliation agreement between Namibia and Germany has stalled, and thousands of African human remains, transported to Germany from its colonies, remain in institutional collections.

In an interview in Berlin, Kraume, 50, explained that his movie was partly inspired by the 1978 NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” an early fictionalized TV depiction of the Shoah, which played a key role in spreading awareness of German guilt after it was broadcast here.

“You have the possibility through cinematic storytelling to reach an audience that doesn’t engage so much with history books,” he said, adding that he hoped his film would be the first of many, much in the way “Holocaust” paved the way for films like “Schindler’s List.”

“Measures of Men,” which was filmed in Berlin and Namibia, focuses on an ambitious German ethnologist (Leonard Scheicher) who develops a fascination with a Herero woman (Girley Jazama) after measuring her cranial features as part of his research. His fixation leads him to travel to German South West Africa (now Namibia), where he witnesses and eventually become complicit in the colonial slaughter.

“It’s not just a film about the genocide,” Kraume said, “but also about ethnologists who want to explore foreign cultures but destroy them.”

Many of the scenes were based on real events of the genocide, which took place during a conflict between Germans and Africans known as the Herero and Nama War. After thousands of Herero men, women and children fled into the Omaheke Desert in 1904 to escape the fighting, German troops sealed off its edges and occupied the territory’s water holes, leading many to die of thirst. Lothar von Trotha, governor of the colony, then issued a proclamation calling for all remaining Herero to be killed.

After the Nama joined the fight against the German colonizers, they were also targeted, and colonial officials set up concentration camps, ostensibly to provide labor for German-owned businesses, in which hundreds of prisoners died. The film depicts real facilities in one such camp in which the decapitated heads of Herero and Nama people were boiled and cleaned for export to German ethnological institutions. Thousands of skulls of unclear origin remain in German collections to this day.

Kraume long wrestled with how to tell the story as a European filmmaker, and said he had decided to depict it from a German perspective for fear that centering it on African protagonists would represent a form of “cultural appropriation.” At one point in the development, he hoped to structure it similarly to Hollywood films about the Vietnam War, such as “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now,” that center their plots on conflicts between “good” and “bad” American soldiers.

“But there were actually no good Germans,” Kraume said.

Jazama, an acclaimed Namibian actress who plays Kezia Kambazembi, the film’s lead female role, learned German to play her part. In preparation for the role, she spoke to relatives about her family’s connection to the genocide and discovered that her great-grandmother had been conceived in a German-run concentration camp.

“My ancestors need to be at peace,” she said in an interview. “That’s why I became a part of this story.”

Jazama said that although the film had largely been made to spur discussion in Germany, it had also been a talking point in Namibia, where the events of the genocide had often been passed down via family members.

“A lot of people are grateful,” she said, recalling that one audience member had shared appreciation that “now there is a visual representation of what happened, versus just it being told orally.”

The reaction in Germany has been more mixed. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, critic Bert Rebhandl wrote that the film focuses too much on “German self-understanding” while pushing African perspectives to its edges. A writer in the Süddeutsche Zeitung argued that the film depicts too little of the genocide to transmit the scope of the killing and does not do “justice to the horror.”

Henning Melber, a political scientist who has written extensively about German colonialism, said criticism of the film shouldn’t distract from its potential role in remedying what he described as Germany’s “colonial amnesia.” He said the film “triggers a debate in a wider German public in a way that none of us academics can achieve.”

Kraume emphasized that although “Measures of Men” is meant to appeal to a mass audience, it is an explicitly “political film,” and that its rollout was partly engineered to spur discussion. He hoped the screening for lawmakers would drive politicians to work harder at compensating the Herero and Nama, he added.

Although Namibian and German authorities agreed in 2021 on the terms of a reconciliation agreement, including around $1.1 billion in aid that Germany would pay over the next 30 years, the process has come under fire from groups representing victims’ descendants, who argue that the amount is too low and that they were unfairly left out of negotiations. The Namibian government has since backtracked on plans to ratify the agreement, and German authorities have resisted calls by the Namibians to reopen talks.

Kraume said Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, should travel to Namibia and officially apologize for the genocide, and all human remains still held in Germany should be returned.

“Europe has done far too little to reconcile with victims,” he said. “I think cinema allows us to awaken emotions and implant images that can let you see events differently, but this is only the beginning of the discussion.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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A movie confronts Germany's other genocide

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