The edge of a dusty village, near a big wall – presumably somewhere in the West Bank or 1948 Palestine. A villager is arguing with an armed soldier. As the argument escalates, other soldiers come and mishandle him. A boy arrives and throws a stone. The soldiers bundle the boy into the back of a van.
Cut to: a football court in Berlin-Wedding. Soheil watches as the others play. They say that they haven’t seen him around before. No, he’s new in the area. Where’s he from? Göttingen. No, where’s he really from? Iran. Oh come and play with us – we’re all brothers here: Kurds, Turks, Palestinians…
It is not irrelevant that the Wedding shown in Ein Nasser Hund seems to be entirely inhabited by people “with a migrant background”, as they euphemistically say round here. It is not just that Soheil and friends “self-isolate” (the term use for those who are wary of mixing with people who might shower them with racist abuse). They appear to be living in a ghetto.
It reminds me of school trips when I was a kid. When the bus passed through the Manningham district of Bradford, the less progressive people in the bus always suggested a game of “Spot the White Man”. It was not a difficult game – although having more migrants than anywhere else in town, Manningham was 60% white. Similarly, I have lived in Wedding for many years, and know it to be a district of many cultures, united in their relative poverty.
Anyway, back to the plot. Soheil is confronted in the supermarket by a couple of other Muslims who see the Star of David round his neck – a present from his grandmother. When he confesses that he is, indeed, Jewish, they threaten to kill him if they see him in Wedding again. From then on, he hides his religious identity from the rest of the gang.
Believing him to be a Muslim, they bond together in Boy Things like ogling girls in the swimming pool, spray painting, fighting a rival gang and getting hassled by the police. Soheil proves himself twice – once by stabbing someone from a Kreuzberg gang, and once by spraying the back of a police car. Then they find out that he really is Jewish, and everyone – or nearly everyone – disowns him.
You see all the members of Soheil’s gang are full-on antisemites. One – a Palestinian – because “the Jews killed my family”, but most just repeat old clichés like the Jews are all rich and control the world. It’s like a meeting at Donald Trump’s golf course, except that none of the people here would be allowed through the door.
Soheil’s reaction is to go on full Zionist. He visits the Jewish library to find out about “his” history, although he is hassled by the doorman each time for looking a bit Arab. He puts up a poster of Avrahim Stern, much to the disgust of his liberal, secular parents, You may know Stern better from the Stern Gang which tried to ally with the Nazis to fight the British in 1940s Palestine.
Can a film have reactionary content but still have artistic quality? Before trying to address this question, let’s be clear, this is no On The Waterfront, not even a Triumph of the Will or Birth of A Nation, which all in their different ways use pioneering film making techniques to push through a deeply conservative message. Ein Nasser Hund’s acting and script are adequate at best – it’s ok in the same way that many films depicting the lives of 16 year olds are rarely profound or innovative.
Nonetheless, there is an important point to be made. Directors and Screenwriters and Producers decide to a large extent which stories they tell and which stories they don’t tell. They do not release their films into a historical void, but into a society in which certain political discussions are active. The content of their films are both affected by these debates, and contribute towards them. Art is never neutral.
Ein Nasser Hund is being released after years if not decades in which the German media and politicians have raised the artificial concept of “imported antisemitism” – the idea that Germany has never had any problem with antisemitism until those Muslims came over filled with illiberal ideas which are incompatible with our shared “Judeo-Christian heritage”.
You may care to pause and think about both the offensiveness and the audacity of such an argument. In a country where the official parliamentary opposition is the AfD, an organisation which is riddled with both Nazis and antisemites, when neo-Nazis feel free to shoot up both synagogues and Mosques, politicians and press would prefer to blame Muslims for antisemitism. And this is before we start to consider the Unpleasantnesses in Germany’s recent history.
This is the context in which writer and director Damir Lukacevic has chosen to release Ein Nasser Hund. All the antisemites in the film are Muslims, and virtually none of the Muslims are anything but the worst type of antisemite. This is more than just telling a story about a particular group of people – it is an intervention in an ongoing discussion with an insinuation that Islam and antisemitism are pretty much indivisible.
Lukacevic was born in Zagreb, not Germany, but he grew up here and does not feel like a reliable witness to the life and opinions of migrant youth in Wedding. Furthermore, although the film is “based on a true story” (that deception again), the author of the autobiographical story is now a major in the Israeli army.
Which leads me to the thing that I find most objectionable about the film. This is impossible to explain without plot spoilers, so if you’d like to first see the film (and I assure you, there’s no reason you should), either first do that or jump straight to the final paragraph.
Remember the opening scene? It plagued me as I was watching the film, as I found it hard to reconcile an apparently nuanced understanding of the everyday indignities suffered by Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers (not of Jews) with the sweeping intolerance to Muslims that permeates the film. This, of course, was based on the assumption that the boy with the stone was the young Soheil.
And, yes, Soheil does take part in the opening scene – but not as the young stone thrower. Instead, he is one of the Israeli soldiers, cowering in a tank. Shortly afterwards he receives a letter from his Turkish ex-girlfriend in Wedding explaining that it is a good thing that she has found her escape and he has found his.
Let’s be clear what is being said here. Not only does the film assume that Arab antisemitism is everywhere and unavoidable, it is arguing that the best way to deal with this is to join an occupying army. As Soheil says shortly before he leaves for Israel, the others have their Mosques, and he needs something to help him find an identity.
If this were just trying to explain why some people’s reaction to oppression can be to reach wrong-headed conclusions, this could work, but this film lacks any of the subtlety and nuance to do this – even if it wanted to. We are left with racist clichés – Arabs (apart from the occasional “Good Arab”) are all antisemites, and occupying someone else’s territory is regrettable but necessary to preserve one’s Jewish identity. Now if you’re looking for an antisemitic opinion you might start here.
Ein Nasser Hund is a pernicious film dressed in well-meaning liberal clothing. It pretends that it’s asking why we can’t all live together peacefully, yet it only makes demands of Arabs, Turks and Muslims. It is hard to know if it is wilfully racist, but it certainly freely adopts a number of racist stereotypes and assumptions. We deserve much, much better.