Criticism of New Racism Film Journalist Goes Undercover to Discover Life as a Black Man in Germany
Günter Wallraff is Germany's most famous investigative journalist. He's made a name for himself by going undercover to reveal the hidden side of many social issues. In his new film, he disguises himself as a black person to explore racial discrimination in Germany. His approach, however, is drawing criticism.
German journalist Günter Wallraff has accomplished a lot in his career. He has revealed to the German public how so-called "guest workers," immigrants from Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and other countries who came here in the 1950s and 60s and stayed, are discriminated against in this country, the questionable working methods of Bild, the country's top-selling tabloid newspaper, and how call-center employees are exploited. His latest project also seems like a noble one. "I want to find out," he says, "what it's like to be black in Germany."
The project involves both a book, "Aus der schönen neuen Welt" ("Out of the Beautiful New World"), and a film, "Schwarz auf Weiss" ("Black on White"), which will be released in theaters in Germany on Thursday. As part of the film, Wallraff has a makeup artist cover him in dark brown makeup, he wears brown contact lenses and he dons an afro wig. Then, using the alias Kwami Ogonno, he takes a trip across Germany. He goes to a soccer game in the eastern city of Cottbus, attends a city festival in Magdeburg, tries to secure a place to pitch a tent in campground in the Teutoburg Forest and takes his German shepherd to dog training in Cologne.
The film reveals the frightening degree of both blatant and latent racism in Germany. When he goes to festivals, people refuse to drink beer on the same bench. Landlords refuse to rent apartments to him. People seem to have no compunction about calling him the German word for "negro." And hooligans in Eastern Germany even threaten him with physical violence.
Reception in the Black German Community
There's just one odd thing about the movie: If Wallraff really wanted to find out what it's like to live as a black in Germany, why didn't he take the time to let any blacks living in Germany answer the question?
Wallraff's modus operandi is to go undercover and film it to help show and tell what he experiences. He became famous for his 1977 film in which he infiltrated Bild under the alias of Hans Esser. Six years later, he disguised himself as the Turkish guest worker Ali Levent. But is this method appropriate for his new subject matter?
Black Germans are on the fence about the film. "We find the mindset behind Mr. Wallraff's film very problematic," says Tahir Della, a spokeswoman from the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD). "As is so often the case, someone is speaking for rather than with us." Noah Sow, an educator and musician associated with the media watchdog organization Der braune Mob (The Brown Mob), even goes so far as to accuse Wallraff of "making money from our suffering" regardless of whether he "really intends to combat (racism) or not."
There's something odd about how Wallraff handles the issues of racism in his movie and book as compared with how he handles his other journalistic excursions. For example, in the book's chapter on homelessness, his conversations with several homeless people -- including Manfred, the software entrepreneurs, Walter, the truck driver, and Timo, the high school dropout -- take up several pages. But you'd be hard-pressed to find the transcript of a conversation with anyone black.
Granted, in one episode in the film, Wallraff talks about the stories blacks who have been discriminated against in various German administrative offices shared with him. And then he dons his disguise to see what it's like for himself. Accompanied by Avad, a black German, he tries to sign up to take the exam to get a hunting license. But the bureaucrats react aggressively to his request and refuse to provide him with information about the test. Avad doesn't say a word, though, and he is never asked what it's like when public servants refused to help him land a job. In the end, Wallraff pushes him out of the picture, too.
- Part 1: Journalist Goes Undercover to Discover Life as a Black Man in Germany
- Part 2: The State of the Debate