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German newspaper correspondent Robin Alexander's meticulously researched account of government policies around the fall of 2015, when Angela Merkel opened the borders to refugees, is a page-turner — and now a movie.
The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a fateful situation for governments and political leaders around the world. In it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has earned praise for her caution, level-headed decision making and clear communication.
Almost five years ago, in 2015, Merkel and the coalition government she was leading faced a major challenge of a different kind. The ongoing war in Syria was driving people to flee toward Europe in unprecedented numbers. Merkel's by-now famous rallying slogan, "We can do it!" and the decision to keep Germany's borders open for refugees won her admiration and support at home and abroad — but it also triggered massive protests and harsh criticism.
Read more: Coronavirus a stress test for Germany's refugee homesSeveral years on, Germany still grapples with the consequences of the decisions made back then, decisions that have strongly shaped the public's perception of Merkel and her chancellorship.German newspaper correspondent Robin Alexander, who for years was part of the press pool that accompanies Merkel, chronicled those events and behind-the-scenes decisions in his gripping, eloquent 2017 non-fiction book Die Getriebenen ("The Driven Ones").
Reviewers mostly praised the book for its meticulous research and detailed narrative, which some called "riveting as a crime novel." Others took a more critical stance: The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung felt the "often pronouncedly conservative" journalist Alexander was acting out his "anger at Merkel," while tax, another daily, described the book as "manipulative."
Merkel's famous slogan from 2015 was, 'We can do it!' The chancellor is played by Imogen Kogge (above).
Driven by events: News clips and re-enactments
Two years later, German film director Stephan Wagner tackled the book and turned it into a TV docudrama, which is being broadcast on German television on Wednesday.
Actors play persons of contemporary history, showing up the connections between politics and society in a "very direct, understandable, emotionally suspenseful manner while sticking to the facts," Wagner says.
Wagner also uses powerful images from news broadcasts, including clips of thousands of refugees stranded in front of Budapest's Keleti train station, enthusiastic helpers along the route many refugees decided to walk, and welcome committees in German train stations, as well as footage from an angry anti-refugee rally in Heidenau, a small town near Dresden. The film also has some fictional scenes, mainly involving the German chancellor and her husband.
Alternating news clips and re-enacted sequences works well for the most part, and the lead actors closely resemble the real politicians. Imogen Kogge, who plays Angela Merkel, a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), uses none of the chancellor's typical gestures, however; her only concessions were the hairstyle and the choice of pants suits.
Josef Bierbichler plays Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, the man who — despite being a member of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) — adamantly rejected Merkel's course, only to be attacked by his fellow conservative colleague Markus Söder (Matthias Kupfer). At the federal level lurks Timo Dierkes, who plays a cynical Sigmar Gabriel, head of the chancellor's coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who is just waiting for the "eternal chancellor" to make a mistake. Wolfgang Pregler plays Thomas de Maiziere, Merkel's close ally and loyal interior minister.
Pillar of strength
Events were unfolding at breakneck speed around her, but Merkel/Kogge do not act at all "driven." Instead, the chancellor appears as a pillar of strength among the impulsive alpha males in the film and refuses to be pushed into making quick decisions. Often criticized for waiting out problems, in the film Merkel comes across level-headed rather than hesitant.
The film makes it clear that Merkel faced issues she and her government had clearly put off for too long, even as several other crises still demanded her attention: Greece teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and leaving the eurozone, the scandal in which it emerged that the United States National Security Agency had been spying on Germany and power struggles within her own government coalition.
2015 seems like a long time ago as people and nations grapple with the fallout of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. But the problems are still the same. The EU member states are preoccupied with their very own issues while thousands of refugees still suffer unbearable conditions in reception camps, notably in Greece.
The book ends with the sentence, "The refugee crisis is not yet over." The last word Imogen Kogge, the actress who plays Angela Merkel, utters in the film is "Sh--."