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Der vermessene Mensch

Director: Lars Kraume (Germany). Year of Release: 2023

Berlin, 1896. A makeshift mortuary. Two well-dressed men ask after one of the most recent guests – 24 years old, from the working class district of Wedding, stabbed to death. They seem happy that they have found exactly the right sort of person, and take out giant metal tools with which they start measuring the size of his head.

Not long later, in a University lecture hall. The professor is watching his students deploy similar instruments. Using phrases invoking progress and citing Darwin he explains how modern science shows that Black Africans have differently sized skulls to white Europeans and are therefore an inferior race. One of his students, Alexander disagrees. He will later suggest that the differences might be cultural, only to be told that he won’t progress in academia with ideas like that.

We move swiftly on to Treptower Park, home of the Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin. Alongside caged wild animals, we see Black Africans wearing traditional dress (or at least the Western idea of what African traditional dress would look like). Like the animals, they are also in cages. Scandalously, this exhibition really did happen, and Germans paid good money to stare at “savages” paraded in front of them in the name of scientific discovery.

Some of the Black Africans are taken into the University to have their heads measured. After Kezia, who learned German in a missionary, translates what will happen to them, a man in a bowler hat declaims that they are not going to take part in this farce. Kezia summarizes his many eloquent sentences in one word: “No!” But he Is persuaded that these are the hoops they need to jump through if the Kaiser is to fulfil his promise to meet them.

Der vermessene Mensch starts at a gallop, exposing the racist assumptions behind much of the science pursued in Western Universities at the end of the Nineteenth Century. As you would expect from the director of Der Schweigende Klassenzimmer, about an uprising of schoolkids against the East German State, this is a film which is appalled at injustice. Which makes it an even bigger shame that it eventually descends into a pool of liberal mush.

Alexander’s understanding of why Black Africans are “almost as good as we are” only serves to expose his own prejudices. In the Uni he gives Kezia a blackboard and chalk to show how she can answer some IQ-type tests. This is itself a problem, as IQ tests – developed by the eugenecist HJ Eysenck – prove little more than some people are better at IQ tests than others, and actually do discriminate against people with certain cultural and racial backgrounds.

This means that all Alexander is actually doing here is trying to prove that Kezia is able to think the way that a White European thinks – and does not begin to question that other ways of behaviour are equally valid. He is impressed that Kezla is able to conceptualize religion in the same way as Westerners do, and does not for one moment consider that other ways of seeing the world may be equally valid, or even better,

Alexander cannot process the Africans speaking dismissively about the Kaiser, even though some of them were also of royal birth (if that even matters). At this stage, you wonder whether Alexander might be a figure of fun, and the film is just pricking his self-regarding pomposity. Yet, as director Lars Kraume recently said: “empathy for the main character is something few films avoid. How can you spend 2 hours following a figure if they have no humanity?”

This problematic gets deeper as Alexander talks his professor into sending him on a mission to “German South West Africa” to accompany a “defensive mission” of German troops trying to put down an uprising of Herero and Nama people. Alexander is obviously ill-at-ease with the bloodthirsty soldiers whom he is accompanying, who think nothing of hanging Black men to keep order. And yet he is entirely dependent on their protection.

Every so often we are forced to confront the barbarity, not just of the soldiers who shoot Africans who are dying of thirst, but of Alexander himself. He plunders the possessions of the recently massacred and ends up desecrating native tombs. He has a crisis of conscience after making a deal with a corrupt sergeant who allows to ship his findings back to Germany for a share of the profits, but why should anyone be making a profit from the possessions of the colonised?

I’m sure that the film’s defenders will argue that the naked brutality of what we see just shows up German colonialism for what it is – but we only ever see this through Alexander’s eyes, although he is complicit in what is happening. We are expected to identify with the good coloniser and to think that if only colonialism were a little less greedy and brutal, at least it brought civilisation. This may not be Kraume’s intention, but it is clearly the opinion of the main character.

In a recent interview, Kraume asked: “I believe that a historical film should correspond to the time it shows. How else can you explain racism in colonial times?” This misses the film’s main problem entirely. It is not that it shows racist acts, still less that it tries to discuss this racism. But everything is seen from the POV of the racists and their liberal apologists. The message – at best – is: racism is bad, not because of its effect on Black people, but because it makes White liberals feel bad.

Maybe even more insultingly, although we do see the occasional barbarity, the driving force of the film is not a search for justice (or even for world domination). Instead, we follow Alexander in an attempt to reunite with Kezia and feel better about himself. Don’t worry about the concentration camps, or of the tens of thousands of people who were slaughtered. As long as the white liberal hero can fins a romance that makes him feel a little less guilty, all’s well with the world.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that Stephen Jay Gould’s extraordinary anti-racist analysis “The Mismeasure of Man” was published in Germany with the title “Der falsch vermessene Mensch.” Gould’s book is a phenomenal attack on the Bell Curve theory which used pseudo-science to justify racism. This film, in contrast, lacks any of Gould’s analysis and is more prepared to wallow in liberal hand wringing. This comes from its inability to comprehend that the victims of racism can have any agency.

It’s worth seeing because it addresses an issue that has been largely ignored by the film industry, but is very disappointing in its execution.

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