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A film confronts Germany’s

short but cruel colonial rule

Film: Measures of Men

Early in the 1900s, German colonial forces massacred tens of thousands of local people in South West Africa (now Namibia). While historians have always described the events as the first genocide of the last century, the atrocities, overshadowed by the Holocaust, never became part of Germany’s historical memory. The country’s short but cruel colonial era was never thought significant enough to be included in school curricula. There has been no willingness from successive governments, of the left or the right, to agree to reparations for descendants of the victims.

Now, a movie aims to raise public awareness of the crimes committed by colonial Germany in Africa. Film director Lars Kraume, known for his works ‘The Silent Revolution’ and ‘The People vs Fritz Bauer’, released his latest film ‘Measures of Men’. In the film, the fictional Alexander Hoffmann, a young scientist from Berlin and son of an ethnologist, gets caught up in the teaching of evolutionist race theory. At first, he despises fellow scientists who aim to prove the superiority of the white race, but he later becomes complicit.

In Berlin, the young Hoffmann meets and becomes romantically involved with Kezia Kambazemi, the interpreter of a delegation of Nama and Herero people who were shipped to Germany to become part of a public exhibition (Völkerschau). Shortly after the group returned to Africa, an uprising against the German colonial power begins in South West Africa. As an anthropologist, Hoffmann becomes a member of an expedition that travels all over the country under the protection of the colonial army in search of skulls. Hoffman also hopes to meet Kezia again.

German colonial rule

During the German rule in South West Africa from 1884 to 1918, colonial scientists tried to prove that White Europeans were superior to Black Africans by means of skull tests.

In January 1904, the Herero ethnic group launched an uprising in protest against the theft of their land, cattle and women by German settlers. After killing some 200 Germans, they were met with a ruthless response from German forces. Governor Lothar von Trotha issued an extermination order.

Tens of thousands were slaughtered, others died in camps. Many historians call the killings the first genocide of the 20th century. Around 300 skulls of Herero and Nama who died in German prison camps during the conflict were brought to Germany to be examined for ‘scientific’ purposes. Of the estimated 50,000 to 80,000 Herero, only 15,000 survived when the war ended in 1907.

Director Lars Kraume explains

In the film, Alexander Hoffmann witnesses the slaughter of native Africans and by silently standing by becomes a Mitläufer (sympathiser), as did many ordinary Germans during the Holocaust.

In an interview, filmmaker Lars Kraume said that he wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a young anthropologist. He decided to depict the story from a German perspective. “As a white German, I am not entitled to tell the stories of the Herero or the Nama, because that would be cultural appropriation. I have to tell it from the perpetrator's perspective.”

‘Measures of Men’ was filmed in Berlin and Namibia. While the work is fictional, many scenes are based on real events which took place during the war between the German Empire and the Herero and Nama peoples. Kraume added that during the editing of the film, the distributors wanted him to cut some of the recurring scenes. “I said the film needed them so that the viewer could have exactly this epiphany. Hoffmann steals from dead people and sends everything to Europe. I didn't make the skull-stealing in the desert up either.”

Before the film went on general release in Germany, Kraume took it on a tour across Namibia, showing it on the original sites of the genocide for crowds of Herero and Nama villagers.

Initially, the audiences were skeptical. “They were curious but reserved. They waited to see how the Herero were portrayed in the film, how the German colonialists were depicted,” Kraume said in the interview. “But after the film, there were these incredibly emotional statements, this real outpouring, not so much questions but just comments, ranging from the very personal to the very political.”

Esther Utjiua Muinjangue, a native Herero and Namibian deputy minister of health and social services, told Kraume she thought his film could be a "weapon" in the battle for restitution with the German government. Since the mid-1990s, activists from the Herero and Nama have been talking about the genocide and wanting reparations payments and the return of art, artefacts and human remains, including those stolen skulls.

In Germany, the reaction to Kraume’s film was mixed. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) wrote that the film focused too much on German self-understanding while pushing African perspectives to its edges. The Süddeutsche Zeitung criticised that the film depicted too little of the attrocities to show the audiences the full horror of the genocide.

Kezia Kambazemi was played by Girley Jazama, a Namibian actress who studied German to play her part in ‘Measures of Men’.

Alexander Hoffmann was played by Leonard Scheicher, a German actor whose previous work includes roles in ‘The Billion Dollar Code’ and ‘Das Boot’.

Lars Kraume is an Italian-born German film director whose previous works include ‘The People vs Fritz Bauer’ and ‘The Silent Revolution’.

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