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Director Lars Kraume knows a bit about the hidden corners of German history. His award-winning 2015 drama The People Vs. Fritz Bauer looked at the role played by the eponymous German Jewish state Attorney General in tracking down and bringing Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann to justice. And his 2018 The Silent Revolution followed the true story of a group of grade 12 pupils in 1956 East Germany who defy the authority of their teachers and state authorities by staging a silent protest in solidarity with the victims of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.
But until he visited Africa himself in the early 1990s, Kraume had never heard of the darkest chapters in German history: the massacre, between 1904 and 1908, of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people by officials and soldiers of the German colonial empire in what is now Namibia. The killings of the Herero (now often known as the Ovaherero) and Nama is widely considered the first genocide of the twentieth century. But it wasn’t until 2021 that Germany officially used the word genocide to describe the colonial crimes, and while Berlin has promised to pay Namibia around $1.2 billion in what the German government has called a “gesture of reconciliation,” it has so far refused to agree to legally binding reparations for descendants of the victims of the massacres.
Until very recently, there was also no political pressure to do so. While the crimes of the Nazi era and Holocaust are permanent features of Germany’s cultural memory — the Holocaust Memorial stands a few hundred meters from Berlin’s parliament buildings, the Bundestag, and there are scores of films and television series, from Downfall to The Counterfeiters to Babylon Berlin, exploring every facet of German history in the 1930s and 40s — the crimes of the German colonial era are, in the words of German culture minister Claudia Roth, “a blank spot [our] memory culture.”
“There’s been no feature film about the genocide,” says Kraume, “Werner Herzog has made some films and documentaries in Africa, but they were not really about the German colonial era.”
So Kraume decided to do one himself. Measures of Men traces the story of the Herero and Nama massacre from the perspective of well-meaning but naive German ethnologist Alexander Hoffmann, played by Leonard Scheicher, who initially tries to refute the unscientific evolutionist theories of his time, which tried to establish a racial hierarchy based on the size and shape of skulls from different ethnic groups, with, unsurprisingly, white Europeans coming up on top and Black Africans on the bottom.
“It would have been easier to tell the story of the freedom fighters, of [Herero] leader Samuel Maharero, for example,” says Kraume. “But, as a German, I don’t think I have a right to do that story. It would be cultural appropriation. I have to tell the story from the perpetrators’ point of view. And I found the ethnologists to be interesting because, on the one hand, they’re interested in these African cultures, they want to study and understand them. But on the other hand, their ideas are helping to destroy what they study.”
Florian Hoffmann never existed, though Kraume drew on scientific writing at the time, as well as historical documentation of various events, including the so-called “Völkerschau”, where Nama and Herero people were shipped to Berlin to be presented as part of the German Kaiser’s human zoo exposition.
When Hoffmann visits the Völkerschau, he becomes fascinated by Kezia Kambazemi, an interpreter of the Herero delegation, played by Girley Jazama, a Herero herself, one of hundreds of Namibians involved in the project, whose own great-great-grandmother was imprisoned by German forces in the concentration camp Alte Feste in Windhoek.
Initially, Hoffmann tries to use Kambazemi — an intelligent, multi-lingual Herero woman — as an example to disprove his professor’s racist evolutionary theories. But when his career stalls and he is given an opportunity to do on-site research in Western Africa, Hoffmann the idealist becomes morally complicit in the atrocities committed by the colonial authorities. He is on hand when German General Lothar von Trotha, a military veteran obsessed with the idea of “race war,” is brought in to take control of the colony and put down the nascent Herero and Nama rebellion.
In August 1904, Trotha attacked some 50,000 Herero men, women and children at an area called the Waterberg in the north of the territory. When survivors tried to escape into the Omaheke desert, the general set up a perimeter to enclose them, secured all wells and water sources and ordered those fleeing from the desert to be shot on sight. His now-infamous proclamation, in October 1904, is reproduced in full in Measures of Men:
“The Hereros have ceased to be German subjects…. they must quit this country. If they do not, I will compel them to do so with the Great Cannon. Within the borders of German territory, any Herero, with or without a firearm, with or without livestock, will be shot; nor will I give refuge to women or children anymore. I will drive them back to their people or have them fired upon.”
What follows are scenes of massacre and despair, as Herero are hunted down or systematically starved and forced to die of thirst. Those that survive are packed into concentration camps — a chilling foreshadowing of the coming Nazi era — and forced into slave labor. The exact number of victims of the genocide remains uncertain, but by the time the prisoners were allowed out of the camps in 1908 up to 100,000 Herero and approximately 10,000 Nama had perished. Hoffmann’s moral degeneration is complete when he oversees a shipment of Herero skulls back to Berlin for study and display. Hundreds of those skulls are still part of the archives of collections of German ethnological museums.
“The figure of a naive, innocent ethnologist who allows himself to be corrupted and becomes a conformist and morally reprehensible person is, of course, a symbol for colonialism,” says Kraume, “I know there’s a danger in showing these things, showing the racism of a racist age, but we’ve had 120 years without a noteworthy German novel or film about this time, and if we don’t tell the story, we leave it to the right-wing extremists, who have already tried to co-op this period as some sort of German grand adventure in Africa, all that shit.”
Measures of Men was well-received at its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February (Picture Tree International is handling world sales on the film). But before it went on general release in Germany, Kraume took the movie on tour across Namibia, screening it on the original sites of the genocide for crowds of Herero and Nama villagers. Because there are few theaters in rural Namibia, the screenings were done using a solar-powered mobile cinema system.
“For many people it was the first time they’d seen a movie together with an audience and on a big screen not just on their phones,” said Kraume, “it was a tremendous, moving experience.”
The audiences, initially, 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 says. “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 of art, artifacts and human remains, including those stolen skulls.
“No one can explain to me why Germany still has those skulls,” says Kraume. “The genocide was 120 years ago and they’ve been negotiating for 30 years, I really don’t know how much longer they want to drag it out. It’s only possible [for the German government] to keep ignoring the issue because the public isn’t interested in it. If this film manages to raise awareness in the audience of this injustice, then at least that ignorance will stop. If this film can be used, by the Herero as a tool to achieve that justice, that would be a good thing.”
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