Jump directly to the page contents

At the end of winter, the news that director Uwe Boll had just finished shooting a film about the terrorist attacks in Hanau was met with disquiet. This film wasn’t a documentary to give the relatives of those murdered a chance to have their say, but rather a feature just as concerned with the drastic and the explicit as his previous ones, based on the logic that this would presumably get the point across in terms of the subject matter. The mayor of Hanau and the victim’s families were horrified: “We would all like to appeal to you once again to acknowledge the urgent request made on the part of the relatives of the victims and refrain from dealing with the attacks in sensationalist fashion in the film.”

Boll’s refusal to listen to the relatives of the Hanau murder victims comes at a time when the connections between cinema in particular and culture in general, society and racism are the subject of passionate discussion. Racist passages in the oeuvre of Immanuel Kant, the composition of book prize shortlists or commissioning appropriate translators are all debated in lively fashion in the arts sections of newspapers and on social media. Hardly a week goes by without axiomatic texts in favour or against identity politics appearing. The tone is abrasive and there’s a widespread tendency to counter criticism with personal attacks instead of stopping to engage with what’s been said; the pandemic robs many of their calm, and a lot of straw men have wandered into the debates. That they’re just as vocal when it comes to cinema is by no means merely demonstrated by Boll’s Hanau film. My decision to highlight this particular work, however, is mainly due to the fact that it illustrates a key concept of this debate in exemplary fashion. Cultural appropriation refers to exactly this: seizing upon a story without being aware of the objections, arguments and affects of those who the story is actually concerns.  

Not only white, middle class and educated

This lack of awareness is also indicative of a blindness to the society in which we live. For Germany in 2021 is home to people with different life paths, family stories and experiences, with such gestures as that of Boll’s more likely to be met with protest when these people are not relegated to the sidelines and are able to participate in public discussion with greater persistence. As there are so many straw men doing the rounds, it’s worth inserting a brief clarification here: protest doesn’t mean prohibition. As long as Boll doesn’t break any law, he is permitted to release a film about 19th February 2020, the day of the Hanau attacks, whether direct-to-video or otherwise. It’s equally not about saying that a white director shouldn’t make anything about Hanau per se. The question is whether what he or she does is productive, appropriate and well-considered, whether it produces insights and finds aesthetic forms that do justice to the subject.

The sort of protest expressed today by authors and cultural producers such as René Aguigah, Mohamed Amjahid, Fatma Aydemir, Kübra Gümüsay, Alice Hasters, Hasnain Kazim, Natasha A. Kelly, Mahret Ifeoma Kupka, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Biene Pilavci, Pary El-Qalqili, Anta Helena Recke, Mithu Sanyal or Hengameh Yaghoobifarah is nothing new ; what’s new is that such protests now have social media as an echo chamber and thus gain greater momentum and receive greater attention as was the case 25 years ago. The power of definition no longer lies automatically with the heads of cultural institutions and the editors of the broadsheet arts sections. Anyone responsible for heading such an institution would be well advised to engage with these developments. How is it possible that the people who work in the cultural sector and those who take advantage of what it offers are, with a few exceptions, so white, middle-class and educated, although so many taxpayers are not?

Before I turn to film and cinema, I would like to explore an example from theatre, as it provides an apt description of the scope of the problem in the German-speaking context and also marks a point “at which the processes become irreversible“. In June 2020, Ron Iyamu, an actor at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, publicly revealed in his dissertation that he’d been subjected to racist insults on several occasions while rehearsing a production of “Danton’s Death” under the direction of Armin Petras. Initially, little happened after the dissertation was published. It was only several months later, in March 2021, that audible reverberations started up. Wilfried Schulz, the manager and artistic director of the theatre, and Armin Petras, the director of the production, first reacted with shock and then with understanding to Iyamu’s accusations. Both announced that they would deal more intensively with individual and structural racism in the future and take park in corresponding sensitivity workshops. Schulz emphasised that he had already taken care in the past to reform the structures at the Schauspielhaus accordingly and affirmed that he would continue to do so in the future. Petras didn’t make a direct public statement, but a friend of his, theatre director Michael Börgerding, wrote about the case and quoted a section of a email exchange with Petras in which he took responsibility for the mistake:

“Today, it’s not enough to just not be a racist, it’s about behaving in an anti-racist way and also communicating that constantly; with words, gestures, images, one’s own behaviour, regardless of where, whether in the changing room, at the coffee machine or at rehearsals. I’m in the middle of this learning process right now.”

In parallel to this, a group around author Natasha A. Kelly, who had been working at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and decided to terminate her contract, demanded that the city of Düsseldorf make money available to create a stage for black theatre directors, a safe space that would guarantee protection from the experience of racism. In April, dramaturg and commentator Bernd Stegemann waded into the debate in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung by explaining to Ron Iyamu how he might have avoided losing his composure and then proceeded to get personal about him. I wasn’t the only one to rub my eyes in disbelief: when will prominent intellectuals learn that listening to criticism is a sign of strength and not cause for defensive reactions that seek to discredit whoever expressed the critique in the first place? An open letter challenging Stegemann’s piece came hot on its heels, which 1400 people signed. Mithu Sanyal also voiced her opinion in the FAZ and dismissed Stegemann’s demand that Iyamu should have tried to keep his composure: 

“The standard kneejerk reaction is also to accuse people who have been hurt that they’ve lost their composure. For that’s what being hurt does to us, it removes that magical social skin from our bodies for a moment that allows us to be at once part of society and ourselves – invulnerable because our being hurt would mean hurting the community at the same time.”

There’s no doubt that what’s happening in Düsseldorf is part of a painful process. Even if heads of cultural institutions and directors do change their behaviour and start working on reforming structures, those who suffer from racism are losing patience. Improvements have been far too long in coming and the more the gloves come off when people like Bernd Stegemann demand to wield the power of definition, the more the situation moves towards a dead end. There is no path that leads back to a homogenous society (if such society ever existed in the first place), except for in the far-right AfD’s election manifesto. For this reason, it’s necessary to endure the dilemmas and conflicts and the different fronts and their accompanying severity for the length of the process. Contradictions and double binds are a necessary part of things, also and in particular in critical practices. The appeals to public spirit being propagated by the arts sections of German-speaking broadsheets come across by contrast as hollow and at some remove from reality.

Between tokenism and isolation

People affected by racism can pursue different strategies to interrupt its flow. Anyone being discriminated against can attempt to make their way through the institutions, enter the important positions there and thus bring about change. This is risky, however, as while a livelihood can certainly be made along the way, the structures themselves will remain the same and even endure into the future in ever more rigid fashion, with such appointments also serving the institutions in question as a form of tokenism, if the towel hasn’t been thrown in already due to sheer exasperation.

The opposing strategy involves establishing spaces and structures of one’s own. These may guarantee security, but they also run the risk of making one withdraw into a shell of group affiliation that one should perhaps be trying to deconstruct if the goal is to do away with rigid conceptions of identity. When the adjective in the term “strategic essentialism” is overlooked and all the attention thus goes to the noun, it gets tricky. The counter-strategy here, that is, the deconstruction of identity and the dividing lines between different groups within society, can also be treacherous as long as one is still subject to racist abuse and is thus thrown back onto one’s identity from the outside. And how can you argue for shared interests if you can’t even come together to form a group in the first place?

Anyone seeking their fortune in universalism in the face of all these dilemmas also won’t get very far: as this position takes a utopia as reality, it tends to forget real existing misery. Yet this implies that some must wrestle far more violently than others in gaining entry to the paradise of a discourse without dominance. Their limbs are thus already heavy, and they’ve already lost a few teeth before they get to stroll among those who are all free and equal. And if their good arguments come across more muffled and mumbled as a result, those already in heaven feel deceived: the way they speak, it’s hard to understand a single word!

What does this all mean for film culture?

What does this all mean for film culture, for the discourses surrounding cinema, for festivals and people that make films? British film curator Jemma Desai published “This Work Isn’t for Us” online last year. In considerable detail, she explains how often she, as a curator of colour, has taken her place in meeting rooms where everyone else was white and what that meant for the discussions subsequently conducted. She writes about the difficulties the British cultural sector and the arts sections of the broadsheets have in including and permitting ideas of quality and aesthetics they are not familiar with. According to one of Desai’s hypotheses, diversity initiatives in particular are little more than window dressing, something that cultural institutions adorn themselves with to seem progressive without anything having to change with respect to real power imbalances. In April, Desai was appointed Head of Programming at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. The next years will show the extent to which a staffing decision can play a role in setting a different structural course.

As far as the reception of films and the love of cinema is concerned, Girish Shambu published a flaming manifesto in Californian film journal Film Quarterly two years ago that challenged the viewing habits and affects of many cinephiles. The text is marked by the sort of short cuts characteristic of the genre, but it strikes a chord nonetheless. Shambu calls for a new cinephilia, one that lets go of its fixation on the auteur, that doesn’t just grapple with what’s on the screen but also with what lies beyond it, and that draws its enjoyment not just from arrangements of colours, visual compositions and editing styles, but also from a profound connection to the social shifts and awakenings that characterise the present.  

“What we need now is a cinephilia that is fully in contact with its present global moment—that accompanies it, that moves and travels with it. No matter how ardent and passionate our love for this medium, the world is bigger and vastly more important than cinema.”

Positions such as those of Shambu und Desai aim at radical structural change. In parallel to this, many companies in the entertainment industry are aware of the economic advantages that go along with moving with the times and being open to the heterogeneity of society. Diversity is also a commercial argument. By showing Nigerian films and series, launching “Dear White People” or exploiting Omar Sy’s star potential, Netflix, for example, is actively courting Black viewers. While this platform diversifies its repertoire via such additions and also makes this principle of addition into a narrative and visual one for its own productions, other platforms more aimed at the classics exercise restraint and restriction instead. In order not to alienate customers, they look for ways of providing a historical/critical framework to convey racist content. HBO Max and GONE WITH THE WIND (USA, 1939) can be taken here as a suitably representative example. Films that pursue identity politics of the old kind by, say, putting slavery in a positive light like Victor Fleming’s melodrama or idealising the Ku Klux Klan as is the case in D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (USA 1915), are supposed to be revealed to be doing as such via the additional of extra, critical material. Such approaches are regularly accused of telling viewers what to do. According to such critics, self-righteous didactics obscure how we see art and no attention is paid to the idea that that artworks obey their own legitimacies against which the sword of ideological critique is apparently awfully blunt.

I have several questions here. The first is: who is watching and from which position? When a viewer who hasn’t experienced racism watches BIRTH OF A NATION, she/he can, in the best case, grapple with it with a large degree of distance. If she/he comes from a family who had a lynching in their history, she/he would maybe lack the necessary composure; perhaps, but not necessarily. What’s important to acknowledge is that a less privileged background can influence, shift and cast a shadow across reception, in ways that are not always entirely conscious. Cinema ultimately works with affects and in darkness. For this reason, the concept of re-traumatisation makes sense, even if many German speaking arts sections only use it gingerly, and is certainly a reason why, in certain circumstances, it can also make sense to stop showing certain films in public for a specific period.

The second is why white cinephiles don’t think more about why they are so willing to hurl themselves into the breach for films that propagate white supremacy. Four decades ago already, director Charles Burnett found clear words in analysing film as something that can perpetrate and perpetuate racism:

“I’ve seen many films full of prejudices. Black people have been treated very unfairly on the big screen. What really dismayed me were the American films about the war against the Japanese, who were depicted like savages, that was dreadful. And when you see allegedly African films, the image of the ‘native’ is so distorted that you could believe they’re not even people. You can understand what function these stories have and why such rubbish has to be conveyed, why film and television spread the view that a whole category of people are not human beings. A large number of ideas, prejudices and injustices stem from films.“

In view of the many unconscious processes at work during the reception of films, it’s hardly a great leap to ask the question as to whether enjoyment isn’t perhaps generated not in spite of but rather because of the celebration of dominance. And what then? Is it then enough to protest that one isn’t a racist but merely interested in the innovative use of iris shots?

The third question is about the relationship between the well-illuminated areas of film history and its blind spots. Why do so many people know GONE WITH THE WIND and so few Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP (USA 1978, shown at the 1981 Berlinale Forum), Med Hondo’s SOLEIL Ô (France/Mauretania 1970, shown at the 1971 Berlinale Forum), Ayşe Polat’s AUSLANDSTOURNEE (Germany 1999) or Sema Poyraz and Sofoklis Adamidis’ GÖLGE (West Germany 1980)? Why is the canon, the idea of quality and artistic value, so rigid? It’s here at the very latest that it becomes clear that the discrimination which plagues society also rages in film history. It’s not about something outside cinema here and equally not about the simple demand for social justice that could be simply pulled over an artistic sphere that obeys its own laws. To put it bluntly: it’s about the exclusion of filmmakers of colour and thus the loss of aesthetic positions and potentials. It’s about obstacles, about careers that fizzled out or never even began, about projects never realised, stories never told, about the absence of complex and contradictory characters of colour; or, in short, a cancel culture that is so old and powerful that it’s become second nature.

Similar to the case at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, it’s worth recalling how everything is a process. What is appropriate today can take on a very different form tomorrow. In 2021, GONE WITH THE WIND requires a historical, critical framing. Perhaps it will be different in 2031, as long as more films, museums, books and theatre productions spread a less distorted image of slavery and the resistance to it. Perhaps one day, everyone can watch BIRTH OF A NATION without re-traumatisation, namely when white dominance has really come to an end and African-Americans no longer have to be scared of losing their lives when going to buy cigarettes. In the meantime, I recommend Jordan Peele’s GET OUT (USA 2017), a feature which grasps white Americans’ longing for the antebellum era in all its horror. Which leads to the fourth and final question for now: What aren’t there many more films like GET OUT, MOONLIGHT (USA 2016, Barry Jenkins) or BAMBOOZLED (USA 2000, Spike Lee)? Why do we find out so little about the complexities of the African-American experience in discerning arthouse cinema?

The discussion is getting going in Germany too. The fact that film festivals are offering panels such as “Storytelling beyond Stereotypes” is very new. At the website www.nichtmeintatort.de, blog entries can be found that take a closer look at the characterisations and casting policies of the venerable German crime series. An another initiative, Vielfalt im Film, has collected data on the subject of discrimination via an online survey. In Berlin, the film and discourse programmes of SİNEMA TRANSTOPIA give insights into the aesthetics of a transnational, post-migrant cinema. Film critic Till Kadritzke has explored Girish Shambu’s manifesto and developed an essay series based on it, which deals with the areas where identity politics and cinema touch. He expresses the demands that each has of the latter and doesn’t avoid the conflict potential of the two coming together:

“As unsatisfying it is to simply lock up films following successful accusations, however, it’s just as insufficient to react by being content to pick out a few subversive flowers from the jungle of accused works and make them into a cautionary bouquet. This gesture, which I refer to as cinephile acquittal, attempts to deny any attempt at politicisation – whether in terms of narrative dynamics, aesthetic decisions, or production and reception conditions – by dismissing it as an unpermitted infringement.”


Over the last year, the Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein has launched several diversity checklists so that directors and screenwriters deal with plots and characterisations with a suitable degree of reflection. These lists are not obligatory and more conceived as a guide, but still managed to generate a huge amount of indignation nonetheless. Many commentators feared for the autonomy of art and saw this with horror as further proof that bureaucratic thinking was paralysing film funding. In their view, the fact that the funders accompanied the initiative with metaphors relating to colour was hackneyed and ran the risk of tokenism. At the same time, there’s no reason why filmmakers shouldn’t be made to think about how they conceive roles. The inevitability with which a script involves a Congolese character in the diamond trade creates friction with a reality in which a Congolese character could be an art historian or curator of the Lubumbashi Biennale. It’s not about restricting the imagination, but rather giving it a nudge.  


To conclude this essay, I would like to examine the idea of the autonomy of arts, which is often emphasized in the German-speaking discourse on cinema and diversity in particular as if thinking about how relations within society demand space in artistic productions and how artistic productions affect these relations in turn is a threat to this very autonomy. Yet autonomy is not a fixed, unchangeable value, but rather has its own temporality and dialectic. In his smart essay “Feindbild werden”, Wolfgang Ullrich describes this based on the example of shifts in the fine arts in general and more concretely with respect to Neo Rauch. The Leipzig painter  didn’t want to have to put up with being criticised by Ullrich for his political statements and thus created a painting in which he denigrated Ullrich in particular and the figure of the critic in general. According to Ullrich, a transfer is taking place here: the idea that art inhabits its own sphere that is separate from all everyday measures is extended by Rauch to encompass the artist’s personality too.  For if it’s barely possible to get to grip with art with the rules of the everyday, the artist’s personality is barely subject to these rules either, meaning that a critique like that of Ullrich ends up going nowhere. What then remains is just an atrophied version of autonomy in Ullrich’s view:

“For instead of considering how art can make a contribution to the society, the artist is merely protesting against how he is being treated. But this can create the impression that his real interest lies in protecting his special position and thus ultimately also his leftover privileges from times of religious art adoration via an act of obscene protest. But for him, the idea of autonomous art has lost any sort of utopian potential and that to a far greater extent than was the case for the critic. Self-determination has given way to self-assertion and maintaining one’s intellectual superiority, and instead of hoping that his art might create something new and unexpected, the artist takes up a position against real or perceived enemies.”

Self-assertion, maintaining intellectual superiority, confusing autonomy with a religious reverence of art, constructing images of your enemies, the idea of the director as an exceptional being who doesn’t have to follow the normal rules of human coexistence: all this equally applies to the sort of defensive reactions that seek to rescue cinema and film culture from the demands of the present. There is a certain irony here that the need to hold on to the known is being projected onto a medium that is totally inconceivable without movement and without the ability to unfold over time. To return to Ullrich’s words: whoever emphasises autonomy today as a commodity that needs to be protected at all costs can’t hope for any dynamic “that will lead society into an open future”; instead, “it will be understood as a force to protect against foreign, supposedly dangerous influences and that is supposed to assimilate the new and link it back to tradition. It will become a reactionary position”.

I prefer the open expanse.

Cristina Nord has been section head of the Berlinale Forum since August 2019.

Translated from the German by James Lattimer


Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur