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Tausend Zeilen

Director: Michael Herbig (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Juan Romero and Lars Bogenius have been assigned to work together on an article for Chronik magazine. Juan is to take his photographer Milo to interview a caravan of refugees moving through Mexico towards the US border. Meanwhile, Lars will talk to the Border Wolves, armed vigilantes who have sworn that they will protect that border.

Lars is German, efficient and silently ambitious, although he feigns modesty when congratulated in public. He lives alone in a designer flat, but regularly tells people that he must spend his spare time looking after his sister, who has contracted a fatal illness. Juan is Spanish and a bit dishevelled. He has 4 daughters and a wife. He adores them all, but tends to ignore them when he is busy with work, which is most of the time. He is unable to let a phone just ring without answering it.

Juan and Lars try – largely unsuccessfully – to befriend members of the caravan. Juan tries to ingratiate himself with the young mothers by showing photos from his phone of his daughters. But most of the Mexicans have no interest in either talking to a journalist or of being photographed. Meanwhile, Lars takes to the pool and dashes off an “interview” mainly culled from a documentary film. They then return to Chronik’s offices, where Lars berates Juan for the paucity of his material.

Juan becomes convinced that Lars’s part of the article is somehow not kosher, and complains to their boss. The boss is more excited at the prospect of winning journalism awards than in questioning his most successful journalist. Besides which, it’s all been fact checked. A propos. Lars gives biscuits from his travels to the fact checker who says “Arizona is in the USA, it’s North of Mexico. It looks like all the most important features of the article is true”.

Meanwhile, the lead editor of Chronik calls the journalists into his office. He pokes fun at the veteran journalist who insists on visiting the SPD Conference – where’s the news in that? He explains that news is about writing what the readership finds interesting and exciting, nothing more. This is all leading up to him praising Lars for a string of award winning articles – about Syrian children, an interview with Colin Kaepernick’s step-parents, and, of course, the Arizona interviews.

Tausend Zeilen is “based on a true story”, as they like to say – the case of Spiegel journalist Claas Relotius, who was found to have falsified a series of reports for which he had received great acclaim. We see how Lars succeeds not just because of lax fact checking, but because the people on the top floor are more interested in playing golf and winning awards than in producing effective investigative journalism. This is potentially a great examination of the decline of print journalism.

And yet, there is something about Tausend Zeilen that doesn’t quite work. I’m still trying to work out exactly what it is, but i think it’s something like this. For satire to be effective, it has to be either entirely believable or utterly preposterous (the best satire, like Network, contains a bit of both). This film was neither believable nor ridiculous. Yes, some of the things that we see could happen – indeed, some of them did happen – but not in the way they are shown.

Everything is a little too pat. For most of the film, everything goes terribly, until suddenly, it’s all been resolved within a very short space of time. Virtue is rewarded everywhere. After we spend most of the film watching an expose of endemic systemic corruption, all of a sudden everything is ok. The new lead editor of a publication that until now has delivered jobs for the boys is a woman of colour, who has also proved – shock, horror – to be a competent journalist.

The old structures remain, but now they are in the right hands. The message is simple. Yes, there has been a deterioration of print journalism, which has enabled people like Donald Trump to denounce everything they disagree with as fake news. But there’s nothing to worry about. This all happened because of…. ooh, reasons that we can’t and don’t want to talk about now. All we need to do is wait until the system corrects itself and everything will be ok again. 

Maybe Juan is the wrong hero. We see too much about how his need to pursue a good story leads to him neglecting his family. If you are going to expose the decline of the news industry, you’re not helping yourself if your message is also that good journalism comes at the expense of looking after, or even noticing, your wife and kids. The fact that Juan’s wife is a yuppie food porn writer doesn’t excuse the fact that he is really taking the piss.

Beside which, Juan’s main motivation in exposing Lars is less a fight for journalistic truth than his anticipation of the shame of being the co-author of a fraudulent article. His fear is less that Lars is making it up as he goes along, a little more that he might be found out. For all Juan’s disdain for the populist journalism with which he must coexist, he is equally liable to equate “great journalism” with journalism which wins awards. He is little better than his bosses.

Tausend Zeilen addresses important issues, and comes at them from the right side, The acting is never less than competent. And yet, when given the chance of exposing scandals which affect the credibility of world journalism, it prefers to take the easier, sentimental option, of concentrating on an individual and his cute kids. It’s ok, but given the material it had, it should have been much better than that.

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