‘Most are unaware’: film highlights Germany’s genocidal past in Namibia

Director hopes to educate Germans about ‘brutal’ colonial history of mass killings in early 20th century

It was one of the darkest eras in German history, and the first genocide of the 20th century: the mass killing of tens of thousands of people in German South West Africa after a rebellion against colonial rule by the Herero and Nama tribes.

More than 100 years later, a feature film about the violence perpetrated by Germany in what is now Namibia explores that brutal colonial past for the first time. Its director hopes Measures of Men will bring the calamitous episode to the attention of ordinary Germans.

“Germany has denied its colonial past for 120 years,” Lars Kraume said, in advance of the film’s domestic release on Thursday. “Most people are unaware Germany even had a colonial past, let alone anything about the brutality of it – it is not even taught in schools.”

Measures of Men, filmed mainly on location in Namibia using local crew and expertise, tells the story of Alexander Hoffmann – played by Leonard Scheicher – a young, idealistic but wide-eyed ethnologist who questions the evolutionist racial theories of the time, according to which sizes and shapes of skulls determined intelligence.

His attempts to rebut the pseudoscientific legitimisation of the superiority of white people over people from the colony of south-west Africa leads him to take first an intellectual and then a romantic interest in Kezia Kambazemi, the interpreter of a delegation of Nama and Herero people who are shipped to Berlin to participate in the Kaiser’s “Völkerschau”, or human zoo exposition.

Despite studying history for his final exams in Germany, Kraume became aware of Germany’s colonial past only when he visited Namibia in the early 1990s, immediately after its independence from South Africa. That experience sowed the seeds for his film, he said. His aim was always to make an accurate historical retelling of the events “but one which is also relevant and important to the present”.

Kraume was particularly shocked by the existence of thousands of skulls of people murdered by Germans, which were gathered and shipped to Germany in large quantities and still exist in museums across the country.

“I cannot comprehend the fact that we have these skulls, like artefacts, stored in ethnological museums,” he said. “I cannot understand why they are still being kept and have not been given back.

“You ask yourself: ‘Why were the skulls collected in the first place, and why have we not seen fit to give them back?’”

Kraume said it was “shameful” that Germany had yet to give an official apology for the genocide, or for the theft of human remains and cultural artefacts.

The film’s relevance to the present day, Kraume said, is also in its depiction of how those in power choose to ignore scientific facts and truth for political gain and in order to maintain the status quo. The same bogus theories of race espoused at the time later became subsumed into the Nazi regime’s policies, which were used to justify the Holocaust.

Captured prisoners during the 1904-08 war between Germany and the Herero and Nama tribes in Namibia
Captured prisoners during the 1904-08 war between Germany and the Herero and Nama tribes in Namibia. Photograph: National Archieves of Namibia/AFP/Getty Images

In Germany, debate about the country’s colonial project has long been overshadowed by the crimes of the National Socialist era. While most German cities commemorate the victims of the Nazi period, there are no significant monuments to the victims of German colonialism.

Girley Charlene Jazama, who plays the part of Kambazemi, is one of hundreds of Namibians involved in the project. A Herero herself, she said participating in the film was more than just taking on a film role, but was connected directly to her own family history.

“My own great-great-grandmother was imprisoned in the concentration camp Alte Feste in Windhoek. She worked as a tea lady for one of the German commandants,” Jazama said in an interview in Berlin. “She was raped by an officer in the camp. My great-grandmother was subsequently born in one of these concentration camps in 1909.”

Jazama appealed to the German authorities to facilitate the return of the skulls to Namibia as soon as possible. “They quite simply do not belong to the Germans. I hope that over the course of time they will return to their rightful owners, the Namibians, so that they can be given a dignified burial. They are part of the trauma that has been passed from generation to generation,” she said, adding that many Namibians are yet to be made aware of the facts of the colonisation.

Kraume said one of the moral dilemmas he had experienced shooting the film was how to persuade Namibian actors to reconstruct scenes of violence based on real-life events. “How do you tackle a scene in which soldiers hang two Herero men? How dramatic and how factual do you dare to make it?”

The film charts the moral degeneration of Hoffmann the ethnologist. Kraume insisted that because of Germany’s perpetrator role, not only in this period but later in the Nazi era, there could be nothing redeeming about the character. “Make a film of real heroes where you find them, but you simply cannot invent a German hero.”

Hoffmann’s cowardice, Kraume said, is a reflection of Europeans’ attitude towards Africa. “Like Hoffmann, they have run away – that’s what we keep doing with Africa, failing to admit to the terror we have brought to Africa, turning away from their problems as if they’re nothing to do with us.”

Germany, he points out, while admitting to the genocide committed by its army and having returned the remains of Herero and Nama men and women in 2018, has yet to sign a reparation agreement with Namibia.

In recent weeks, the film has been viewed by audiences across Namibia in a solar-powered mobile cinema. “The whole purpose of this film is that it will trigger debate, that people will exchange opinions wherever it is shown,” Kraume said.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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