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BERLINALE 2023 Berlinale Special

Review: Measures of Men


- BERLINALE 2023: In his historical drama, Lars Kraume shows the appalling legacy of German colonialism in modern-day Namibia

Review: Measures of Men
Leonard Scheicher and Girley Charlene Jazama in Measures of Men

“I am studying these cultures.” This is the justification given by Alexander Hoffmann (Leonard Scheicher) as he severs the skulls of dead Herero tribe members, robbing their graves, taking their belongings, or even looking on as the natives themselves remove the remaining tissue from their loved ones’ bones. The year is 1896, and Germany is committing genocide in its colony of German South West Africa – a dark chapter in German history. But it’s one, that, unlike the Holocaust, has largely been forgotten. Director Lars Kraume, whose Measures of Men [+see also:
interview: Lars Kraume
film profile
premiered as a Berlinale Special screening at the 2023 Berlinale, has made it his mission to rekindle this memory.

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In the beginning, there is pure idealism. Hoffmann, a man of simple means, but with lofty scientific ambitions, wants to become an ethnologist like his father and study these “savages”. His mother, on the other hand, does not see a future in this endeavour and wants him to marry into a good family. It’s an amusing scenario, as in most historical pictures, the roles in this situation would be reversed. Also, harbouring any ambition to be part of the scientific community would have been the healthier choice. At the turn of the century, eugenics, distinguishing the “superior white race” from the “inferior black race”, is the dominant scientific approach. This is done by measuring skull sizes or categorising skin colour. Interacting with these “objects”, and learning about their culture through observation or dialogue, is not the intention.

Hoffmann, however, is confronted with the first crack in this worldview when he meets Kezia Kunouje Kambazembi (Girley Charlene Jazama), a Herero who was forced to work as a translator for her people during a world fair in Berlin. Smart and assertive, she challenges Hoffmann, who treats her and her people like curios. Kraume thankfully refrains from dipping into a plot played out too often in bigger, more preachy productions. Hoffmann is not presented as a naïve person who can be changed, but rather as a product of his time. He starts having doubts about whether these people are inferior, yet he is still more aghast at Kunouje being rude to the German emperor than Germany stealing these people’s land.

His paper on the equality of the races does not find much favour, especially with his professor (Peter Simonischek). But in order to prove himself right, he joins an expedition to the colony a few years later. This is where Hoffmann, as well as the viewer, is confronted with the real horror that goes way beyond some outdated assumptions about skulls. Kraume shows the agony and murder that economic and territorial imperialism enabled. So-called men of science scavenge in one village after another, looting one grave after another. The treasures are thrown into bags, and the approaching Herero, looking for water, are shot at. To crush an uprising, they are driven into the desert to die, while others are captured and thrown into concentration camps. Their skulls are collected, “as they don’t need them any more”. Kraume gives these images of the unforgiving land a majestic look. Death lies in every direction, be it caused by nature or the Germans.

Hoffmann, shattered by this experience, but still driven by the will to “study these people”, sets out to look for Kunouje. His conviction that her underprivileged life is not a product of her race, but of her circumstances, will be challenged on more than one occasion, however. And as Kraume shows, this is not the story of a hero, a man changed and willing to fight the status quo; this is the story of how certain horrors of the mid-20th century found a fertile breeding ground despite people’s conscience.

Measures of Men was produced by Germany’s zero one film, StudioCanal Produktion, ZDF, Akzente Film & Fernsehproduktion and WunderWerk GmbH. Picture Tree International is in charge of its international sales.

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