Director: Sobo Swobodnik (Germany). Year of Release: 2021
In Against the Tide, director Sobo Swobodnik told the story of Thomas Walter, his daughter’s uncle who was accused of planning to bomb a deportation jail and went off the radar for a couple of decades, resurfacing in Venezuela. Now Swobodnik is back to tell his own story, and once more questions of class and of political resistance are not far from the surface.
Swobodnik was born in Härstfeld, a village in Baden-Württemburg with around 200 inhabitants. Although these people were poor – mainly workers and farmers, they were in the main conservative Catholics who regularly voted for the CDU. His parents were part of the so-called “Kriegsgeneration”, the people who grew up after the Second World War and who’s only ambition was to get a job and to have some security.
The film’s story is of how Swobodnik is simultaneously repulsed by his origins, and does his best to escape them, although when he tries to enter the middle class intelligentsia, he feels equally uneasy with them. His first retreat from his family was when he got involved in the growing anti-war movements and refused to take military service (then pretty much compulsory in West Germany).
He quotes extensively the statistics which prevent working class kids getting into academia – children from professionals are nearly 4 times as likely to be recommended for high school than children of skilled workers with the same cognitative capacity and reading competence. 79% of children where at least one parent has a degree go to University, if neither parents has a diploma, this figure is 12%.
And yet, Swobodnik defied the odds, and studied theatre, and then got a job in radio journalism. At the beginning of the Millennium, he moved to Berlin to write. When his parents visited him, shortly after he’d moved, he was embarrassed by them and felt that they were from an alien culture. He asks himself out loud whether an accountant’s son from Bremen would feel the same way.
With this history, its not surprizing that Swobodnik is great fan of Didier Eribon’s book, ‘Return to Reims’ in which the French philosopher discusses his move from his working class family to a comfortable career in academia. Like Eribon, he is fascinated by the class domination which is used to maintain the social order and the emergence of the so-called “precariat”.
Swobodnik explains his thinking more (and I hint at which bits I find more convincing than others), in this interview that I carried out with him before the film was released. As I said in the interview, in the main I agree with most of his arguments, and where I have a slightly different opinion, the film is provocative enough to make you think.
I do feel that he overestimates the impotence of the precariat. As I am writing this article, Gorillas riders are striking in Berlin, mirroring other actions by the precarious workers who, argues the film, “ have only few possibilities left to organize themselves.” Nonetheless, there is a trend for the exploitation of precarious workers to rise on the back of the relative absence of trade union organisation – even if this trend is not necessarily permanent.
I realise that I have not yet mentioned what the film looks like. As we hear long passages from philosophical and political tracts, we see the actress Margarita Breitkreiz in a cornfield, in a gym on a treadmill, in a graveyard, as she articulates the thoughts of the director. If this sounds pretentious beyond belief, it actually works and acts well, in part acting as a sort of alienation effect which helps us to think about what we are hearing.
Maybe it helps me that I was born in the same year as Swobodnik, and have made that move from Baden-Württermberg to Berlin. Although I’m from a city and my family was solidly social democratic, I do share some of his insecurities. I have, very occasionally, been the deadbeat at a posh dinner party who really doesn’t know what he’s doing there. At the same time, I think there are sufficient universal truths for the film to speak to everyone.
Maybe the best thing to do is to just go and see it and to make your own mind. It is not the film where you’ll agree with every last sentence, but that just makes it more interesting. It is a film to take seriously, and one which takes its audience seriously, and has ambitions to create a better world.
And as Swobodnik said at the end of our interview “For many people, this scenario may seem to be a utopia that sounds like a fairy tale, but who is against fairy tales? Dreams are important – they are not lost just because they can’t be realised”.