Director: Eva Weber (GB). Year of Release: 2022
Angela Merkel is a prime example of the worst aspects of identity politics. At the beginning of Covid, the world’s social media were swamped with memes saying that Germany was coping so well because Merkel was a woman and a scientist. The problem was that Germany wasn’t coping. Death rates were no lower than most other countries, as Merkel’s government closed playgrounds while forcing people take overfull public transport to go into work under unhealthy conditions.
One big reason why Merkel has been treated with kid gloves, particularly by journalists in Britain and the USA, is a fortunate accident. Her final years coincided with the accession of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. This resulted in many commentators not judging Merkel on whether she improved people’s lives. It was sufficient for her not to be as blatantly corrupt as the arrogant blond popinjays on the other side of the English Channel and the Atlantic.
Early scenes of this film – made by a German director who has been living in the UK for over 3 decades – betray many of these assumptions. The opening credits are barely over before we see film of Merkel telling a Harvard audience about growing up behind the Berlin wall. This is spliced with footage of Trump encouraging his supporters to shout “Build that wall!” A running theme of the film will be the promotion of moderate politics against populist extremist, Left or Right.
Film of Trump’s fanaticism is almost immediately followed by Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton telling us how they think that Merkel typifies the United Germany. They have a point, but not in the way they mean. It is surely no coincidence that, although we hear from German politicians from both the CDU and SPD (nothing too radical), all international politicians interviewed – with one exception – are from Left-Liberal parties.
The single exception is Condoleezza Rice, who has presumably been chosen, not because she’s a Republican, but because as a Black woman, she is a token, in more than one sense, of benign liberalism. Somewhat scandalously, Rice says that Merkel growing up in East Germany was analogous to Black US-Americans under the Jim Crow laws. This assumption that, notwithstanding the repression in the DDR, it could compare to the racism of the Southern States, is not challenged.
Merkel was Chancellor for 16 years, but the film only really looks at one of her political actions – her reaction to the “refugee crisis” of 2015. We are told a story which is familiar to many consumers of Western media – that in the face of racist opposition from the German public, Merkel stood firm and welcomed 1 million Syrian refugees, appearing in state television to say that “wir schaffen es” we’ll manage it.
This story is partial at best. Germany was split on the refugee issue. While Nazis did organise some violent actions against refugees, 240,000 people demonstrated for refugee rights in Berlin, and welcoming committees regularly greeted new arrivals at German stations. While the film portrays ordinary Germans as being racist without exception, it was the overriding pro-refugee sentiment in the country which forced Merkel’s hand.
With refugees camped on the South-East German border, Merkel was faced with the choice of reacting with repression or pragmatically opening the borders. She took the latter option, while continuing her government’s policy of deportations and paying Greece and Turkey to stop refugees reaching Europe. Playing good cop, bad cop with CSU leader Horst Seehofer, Merkel implemented racist policies while maintaining her own personal reputation as being a Liberal.
She followed a similar strategy in one of the most important acts of her government, which does not merit a second’s coverage in this hagiography. In 2015, Syriza won the Greek election promising significant reforms, but was brought to its knees by the EU under the leadership of Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Once more, Merkel hid behind the actions of her minister, and the overthrow of democracy in Greece occurred entirely on her watch.
This does not fit the picture of Merkel that the film is trying to paint. Any opposition to her is shown as coming from the far right, the same people who she courted with a series of Islamophobic policies. There is no mention of her opposition to gay marriage, or of her government’s assaults on the social state, at home or abroad. There is not even an attempt to justify Germany’s increased militarisation in Afghanistan and Africa. This is simply ignored.
Director Eva Weber is a Green who nearly voted for Merkel. She uses footage of some of Merkel’s favourite music, which was played by a military band at her farewell ceremony. But Weber drew the line at one sing – “König von Deutschland” by the gay socialist singer Rio Reiser. As Weber says, Reiser was “an idol of the left alternative scene, and the song is a satirical reflection of the West German political establishment of the time”. The film wants to hide any idea of left wing politics.
Such right wing politics in the name of moderation reach their peak in an interview with Blair, who says Merkel “is completely unideological. In all the time I’ve known her, I’ve never heard her say, ‘reason telly my one thing, but my ideology tells me something else, so I’ll do it differently’”. This admission that he contemplates ignoring reason for political gain tells us a lot about Blair’s personal opportunism, but it also shows that he does not understand how ideology works.
There is no statement, no work of Art, which is not ideological, and the most pernicious are those which sincerely believe that they are simply being neutral. Merkel, the film, may claim to be unideological but it is committed to maintaining a status quo of inequality and repression. This is a film made for an international audience of people who have not directly suffered from Merkel’s politics. It may get good reviews, but these will largely come from people who know no better.