The Baiers are an average liberal family. French mum, German dad, two young boys and a teenage girl, Maxi. They hang a peace flag from their balcony and the opening scene sees them smuggling a Libyan refugee into Germany in their car. Then one day, father Alex accepts a package for their neighbour, the package explodes and a dozen people are dead, including mother and the two boys.
Maxi partially blames Alex for the deaths, as it was him who accepted the parcel. They are already estranging themselves, when she accidentally (or maybe not) meets Karl, who invites her to a youth Summer Academy in Prague. He is bright, articulate and can make powerful speeches in at least 3 languages. She needs time away from her father. What’s to stop her?
The Summer Academy is organised by Re/Generation, a shady youth organisation who are good on social media and seem to have got a sponsorship deal with a gin company. Karl gives the keynote speech which doesn’t actually say much apart from attacking the older people in government for ignoring young people. It’s a cross between Fridays for Future and the Nuremberg Rallies.
But when an Italian woman shouts “Sieg Heil”, she is quickly shut down. “That was the past”. Later, Karl explains to Maxi that he doesn’t think that Left Wing and Right Wing have a meaning any more. Some people call him a Fascist, but all he’s trying to do is prevent bomb attacks like the one that killed her family. What used to be Left Wing is now Right. Who’s to judge?
It’s not long before Maxi is following Karl to Strasbourg to a rally for the Death Penalty. The rally has been organised by Odile Duval, a young politician with more than a little of Marine Le Pen about her. Unbeknown to Maxi, Karl has arranged his own assassination, which will be used as a pretext for a right wing racist uprising throughout Europe.
Je Suis Karl seems to understand the New Right much better than most liberals do. Time was, when you could dismiss neo-Nazis as boneheads, but they now are trying to occupy subjects which were once the preserve of the Left. Even the bands that play at their parties don’t play OI! Music but angry rap which blames the government for betraying the youth.
One of Re/Generation’s key groups is called Daughters of Europe, which makes videos of young women insinuating that they’d been raped by Afghan men (it didn’t happen to me, one admits, but it happens all the time, and I’m speaking out for the victims who are too scared to say anything). The feminism of Daughters of Europe has its limits – a female academic urges the young women at the Summer Academy to become bosses – but of course the ultimate desire of every woman is to become a mother.
And then there is Europe – often seen by liberals as the touchstone for anti-racism. Yet there were always two sides to the Europe debate. There are many things that a European isn’t – an African, from an Arab country, indeed an archetypal European is not a Muslim. When French and German speakers at the Strasbourg conference call to “defend our borders”, they’re not talking about the border with Kehl just down the road. Freedom of movement inside Europe was always predicated on keeping refugees out.
So, just as the Re/Generation activists can very quickly express the generational anxiety of the climate movement, they can also very plausibly – and chillingly – say that they are building a new Europe. Countries are namechecked – like Poland, and indeed Le Pen’s France – where the far Right is on the rise. Je Suis Karl clearly and subtly shows the racism also inherent within the idea of Europe.
I find the film to be at its weakest when it goes too deep into unnecessary conspiracy theories. Turns out that the person who bombed Maxi’s house wasn’t an Islamist, as claimed in the press, but Karl in a beard and blackface. And Karl’s plan to die for the cause may add something dramatically, but distracts from the terror that movements like Re/Generation are growing without the need for such subterfuge.
I think I see the reason for the conspiracies – if you’re making a film about charismatic neo-Nazis, you want to make damn sure that part of the audience isn’t cheering at the wrong points. Director Christian Schwochow needed to make it very clear that Karl wasn’t just badly misunderstood. So I think the weaker parts of the film are maybe necessarily politically but weaken the film artistically.
Last, to the title. I am guessing that many of those critics who weren’t that impressed with this film are the ones who rushed behind the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign, which – whatever anyone’s personal reason for supporting it – only served to scapegoat Muslims. In Je Suis Karl, virtually the only dark faces that we see are being smashed by baseball bats and shot by guns right at the end. On this one occasion, I think the use of a largely white cast is justified. Racist prejudices start with social exclusion.
No film is perfect, and of course there are areas where Je Suis Karl is a little infuriating but its still the best film I’ve seen in a while. Highly recommended.