Law student Naima is late for her first lecture at Frankfurt University. It’s not easy leaving the flat on time as her mother has to work silly hours for little pay and her deadbeat brother can’t be arsed looking after the baby. She thinks she’s managed to slip into the lecture hall, when the door loudly slams shut. The lecturer is livid, saying that this is to be expected of “her kind”. Although he swears he just means first year law students, his diatribe mentions suicide vests and he names her Fatima.
Unfortunately for Professor Pohl, a student films his tirade on their camera. The film goes viral, and there is an online petition to get him sacked. As he has previous form abusing his students, his chances don’t look good, but he has one slight chance. If he could mentor Naima through a couple of rounds of an inter-University debating competition, maybe this would win him a few brownie points before his disciplinary hearing.
I didn’t have many hopes when I went to see Contra. If there are two things that recent German cinema has not dealt with well, its comedy and a sensitive handling of racism. And from the opening credits – a quote from Joseph Joubert saying that “the aim of argument should not be victory, but progress”, I was convinced that this would be a typical liberal film which exonerates a racist because he’s educated and, you know, freedom of speech.
How wrong I was. Contra shows a nuanced understanding of both race and class. Although Naima and her brother were born in Germany, the family still has to make regular payments to the state to avoid them being deported to Morocco, where they’ve never lived. Naima has applied for an internship at every law firm in town, but always receives the same rejection letter. You get the feeling that if she applied under a different name, she wouldn’t be getting these letters.
Naima’s friend Mo is about to organise a “Kartoffeln-Party” (sorry, it will take me too long to explain this one) to celebrate his newly won German citizenship. Mo is a taxi driver who is obviously very much in love with Naima, just unable to tell her, until she uses a rhetorical trick to drag the words out of him. As a sensitive and thoughtful working class migrant, Mo’s very existence contradicts Professor Pohl’s understanding of how the world works.
One of the most impressive things is that we are gripped although the plot seems so very obvious. Of course Naima’s performance in the preliminary round is terrible (she’s only saved when her opponent is disqualified for racism). Of course she improves as she goes on. There is a particularly impressive scene where she gives a devastating refutation of the idea that Islam is a religion of terror, that I’m pretty sure was not in the French original version of this film.
We should give significant credit to Nilam Farooq and Christoph Maria Herbst for pitch perfect performances as Naima and Pohl. She is slightly Westernized with fashionable holes in her jeans which mystify both Pohl and her parents. He is formal, with suit and tie, briefcase and elegantly trimmed beard. He is good at what he does, and boy does he know it.
As the film progresses, Pohl teaches Naima the art of rhetoric. That plausibility is more important than the truth. That one key to winning a debate is winning over an audience. There’s a fantastic scene near Frankfurt Opera where, on Pohl’s insistence, Niama reads from Goethe’s Faust, earning only derision from passers by. Pohl takes over with a magnificent performance. First passers-by take notice. When he’s done, they burst into spontaneous applause.
I think that Contra can only work because it allows the possibility that Professor Pohl is not a conscious racist – he is “just” a broken cynic who makes borderline racist statements to provoke his students. In his head, he is doing this for their own good, to make them better challenge abuse. It should go without saying that this is an unacceptable tactic, but at the very least this allows Pohl to have some redeeming features. Nonetheless he is indisputably an arrogant arsehole.
He is also afforded a back story – a dead child and wife who left him because she blamed him for the death. The one time he shows vulnerability is when an unknowing Naima insults his children. And there are several scenes of him sitting in a restaurant, savouring a glass of red wine, but looking awfully, wretchedly, alone. He is in no sense a heroic figure.
For Contra to work at all, it requires us to accept all sorts of unlikely events as plausible. It is to the credit of the writing that we – or at least I – unquestioningly took it all as gospel. That the objectionable lecturer had a streak of likeability, that Naima’s working class mates were just as intelligent as her college contemporaries (ok, that one was a lot easier to believe). That a debating competition is about more than just posh kids showing off.
And perhaps the most amazing thing of all. Here is a German comedy that actually made me laugh. This is, I think, because it didn’t try too hard. It didn’t go looking for laughs, pleading for us to like it. Rather it showed us believable characters in a plausible story arc, so that when the situation did get occasionally silly, your reaction was to laugh – and not at the desperation of the film makers but with them. There’s plenty of writers and directors who could learn from that – and not just in Germany.