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'Measures of Men' sheds light on German colonial crimes

March 27, 2023

A new German movie picks up the country's dark history of genocide against the Herero and Nama in what is now Namibia. Director Lars Kraume tells DW why it's so important that Germans learn about what happened back then.

Film still 'Der vermessene Mensch': a Black woman writing on a blackboard, and a white man in a suit standing next to her.
The Herero woman Kezia serves the ethnology doctoral student Alexander Hoffmann to develop his own racial theoryImage: Julia Terjung/Studiocanal GmbH

Almost 120 years ago, the Herero people rose up against German colonial rule in German Southwest Africa, what is now called Namibia.

The German military commander, General Lothar von Trotha, suppressed the uprising ruthlessly and issued a notorious "extermination order," which led to what has gone down in the history books as the "first genocide of the 20th century."

With "Der vermessene Mensch" (Measures of Men), German director Lars Kraume has directed the first German feature film dealing with the issue.

In the movie, a fictional young German ethnologist embarks on a research trip to the colony German South West Africa and begins collecting human skulls for his so-called "racial research." In the process, he witnesses the genocide committed by the "Deutsche Schutztruppe," as the military formation that maintained the German Empire was called, against the Ovaherero and Nama tribes between 1904 and 1908. But beyond witnessing the crimes, the ethnologist increasingly mutates into a perpetrator.

Still from film 'Der vermessene Mensch': Students in a lecture hall examining human skulls.
Students compare skulls as part of what was believed to be "evolutionist race theory" — a common practice at universities 120 years agoImage: Julia Terjung

The 'moral decay' of a young scientist

The story is about the "moral decay" of its main protagonist, Kraume tells DW. As a German director, he felt it would not be right to tell the story from the perspective of the Ovaherero and Nama. But some critics disagree on the angle with which Kraume approached the film.

The very first scene of the film makes one shudder. Berlin scientists are measuring skulls of German and African skeletons in a lecture hall of Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelm University, now Humboldt University. A pseudo-scientific, evolutionist racial theory is taught, based on the premise that the skull of a "Berlin worker" is larger than that of an African "bushman." These comparisons are meant to prove that Germans are supposedly "more intelligent" than Africans — a theory that prevailed during the colonial era, and long after as well. 

Kraume succeeds in capturing the zeitgeist of the time through these abstruse investigations.

The ambitious ethnology doctoral student Alexander Hoffmann — played by Leonard Scheicher — refutes this theory of superiority, developing his own "race theory." He gives a lecture on the fact that all humans are descended from one and the same "race," namely Homo Sapiens. He proves his thesis with the knowledge he gained by talking to and examining the Herero woman Kezia Kambazembi, who is portrayed by Namibian actress Girley Charlene Jazama.

Hoffman becomes aware of her at Berlin's Völkerschau, an ethnic show also known as a "human zoo," where she is forced to serve as an exhibit for paying visitors. She serves as his scientific research object, and the young researcher initially seems like someone who will fight against the established race theory.


Film still 'Der vermessene Mensch': a row of people in the desert.
The film reenacts historical events such as the expulsion of the Herero to the desertImage: Willem Vrey

Stealing the skulls of the victims 

"For this provocative thesis, he doesn't get the lectureship he wants at Friedrich Wilhelm University," explains director Lars Kraume. "Then, years later, when the Herero uprising breaks out in German South West Africa, he gets a second chance."

As part of an ethnological expedition, he travels through the German colony, accompanied by the Imperial Army, collecting artifacts and skulls from the dead of the conflict for the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. He then evolves into an anti-hero as the plot progresses.

"The film shows the moral degeneration of this young ethnologist," Kraume elaborates. "He's really only driven by his own success. That's his real motive, and in the process he becomes part of this destructive machinery of the colonizers in Africa." With tomb looting and the theft of artifacts, "he makes himself a conformist of the imperial system. All the while, he remains in search of the Herero woman, Kezia, who so fascinated him back in Berlin, and finds her even in the climax of the plot."

Film still from 'Der vermessene Mensch': A woman in a period dress, standing next to a mud hut.
Namibian actress Girley Charlene Jazama, herself an Ovaherero, plays Kezia, an interpreter whom the protagonist meetsImage: Willem Vrey

Even though his film sheds light on a dark piece of Germany's colonial past, it is still very relevant today, says the director.

After all, there are still "scientists and technicians from large German industrial corporations in Africa who exploit and convince themselves that they are bringing work into the country. In truth, however, they are simply practicing a kind of modern slavery," Kraume said. "The self-legitimization of this amoral scientist is something we see all the time today. That's why I took this character. It just wasn't meant to be a white-savior figure. He's a destroyer."

Fiction based on historical facts

Alexander Hoffmann's story is fiction, but the events he observes in the film are based on historical facts.

In the film, the protagonist repeatedly comes into contact with real locations in history, including the 1896 imperial ethnic show, Lothar von Trotha's extermination order, the expulsion of the Ovaherero into the desert, a concentration camp on Shark Island and missionaries collaborating with the Germans.

"The major stages of this odyssey are based on facts. And to get to these places that are vouched for and researched, of course I needed a biography that was fictional. You can't find a biography that traces this exact path. That's why Hoffmann is a fictional character. He is, so to speak, an observer of these real events," Kraume explains.

The desecration graves and theft of artifacts in the name of science were also commonplace at the time, Kraume says, referring, for example, to the then-director's assistant at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Felix von Luschan, who "was a great skull collector and had a private skull collection of over 10,000 pieces," many of which are still in the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation today.

Some critics have taken swipes at Kraume, saying he should have told the film from multiple perspectives, and also included the views of the Ovaherero and Nama. In their view, the film comes across as a post-colonialist reappraisal that only takes up the German view of history, they argue.

Director Lars Kraume and other people on set look at a camera.
Director Lars Kraume: 'This story, even though it was 120 years ago, is an unhealed wound'Image: Willem Vrey

But Kraume defends himself against this argument by replying that he wanted to prevent a cultural appropriation of the topic. He worked closely with Namibian authorities and artists on the shoot, he says.

One costume designer belongs to the Herero tribe, as does the actress of the main character Kezia (who is actually only seen at the beginning and end of the film). But he did not want to presume to tell a heroic story of a Herero leader. As a result, however, the suffering of the Herero in the film recedes into the background and they become mere backdrops for the plotline in a white perpetrator story.

'Public must become aware of terrible crimes'

Lars Kraume, at any rate, wants his film to come to terms with Germany's colonial past. "The public must become aware that we were once this great colonial power and also committed terrible crimes," says the director, who has already dealt with other controversial topics of German history in films such as "The State against Fritz Bauer" (2015) and "The Silent Classroom" (2018).

Women in colorful African dress sit next to a building where a poster for the film 'Der vermessene Mensch' hangs.
The film was also shown in Herero areas in Namibia. 'People were definitely skeptical, but the halls were always full,' Kraume saysImage: Sydelle Willow Smith

The denial of these crimes must stop, says Kraume. The reparation agreement with Namibia must finally be reached; human remains, thousands of which are still in museums, must be restituted; and the discussion about looted art must continue, he adds.

He also shows his film in German schools. "Schoolchildren are insanely open and comment on everything. They are honestly my favorite audience," Kraume says. "I have sons myself who are teenagers. Of course, I don't want them to travel to Africa to look at the elephants, as many people do, without knowing what our real connection is to countries like Namibia."

 "Der vermessene Mensch" is out in cinemas in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by John Silk.