Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark (We are young. We are strong.)
Director: Burhan Qurbani
Release Date: January 22nd, 2015
Run Time: 123 Minutes
Language: German, Vietnamese
Riots. Poverty. Shiftless youth. Anti-immigrant hysteria. Impotent authorities. Descent into violence. Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Germany, 1992. This is the world Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark occupies for 123 minutes of continuously-ramped up tension. Director Burhan Qurbani presents an increasingly tense black and white world that eventually explodes into full color and uncontrollable rage.
I figured I’d open my blog with something different than most public history blogs and explore a historical film in my first post. One of the interesting aspects of my exchange at the Free University of Berlin has been how German public history students are much more likely (than their American counterparts) to mention things like journalism, film, theater, and even literature as ways of practicing public history. This is a theme I’d like to continue exploring on this site.
Wir sind jung, Wir sind stark is based on the Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots, which took place from August 22 to August 24, 1992. I actually first became aware of the film after presenting on an article about these riots with a Danish friend for my German immersion class. In February, we saw the film at the cozy Hackesche Höfe Kino.
The film follows a group of friends from the depressed port city of Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Stefan (Jonas Nay), the son of a local social democratic politician, is the film’s central character. A side plot follows Vietnamese asylum seeker Lien (Trang Le Hong) as she navigates the working world and increasing racial tensions in Rostock. Lien is portrayed as a three-dimensional, flawed human being rather than a victim without agency. Through Lien’s point of view, the audience is able to empathize with the asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen and fear for them as their home becomes threatened. We see Lien’s daily life at work and at home, and tensions within her family over her decision to apply for a German residence permit rather than return to Vietnam. With few exceptions, most of the characters are multi-dimensional and change in surprising ways.
The film begins with a brief introduction to Stefan and his friends. All of them grew up in East Germany and the film graphically details the subsequent poverty and joblessness after reunification. A group of children is repeatedly seen gathering discarded bottles for deposit money. All of the young characters reminisce about their past in East Germany. The neo-Nazi Sandro (David Schütter) encourages the group of friends to join the rioting (or as he calls it, the “racial revolution) after the sudden suicide of their close friend.
The first half is restrained, the camera explores wide spaces; the director uses black and white to frame a fundamentally depressing world. Qurbani plays with sound and empty space a lot in the film’s first half. The clatter of empty bottles and rush of wind through deserted parking lots emphasizes the community’s emptiness. He frames several shots through burned-out car windows; early parts of the film remind me of the classic La Haine, another film that explores crime and poverty in 1990s Europe.
The way this film explores the how young people join the extreme right is its greatest strength. The characters do not just fall into the wrong crowd. The most outwardly violent of the group, Robbie (Joel Basman), seems to channel his sexual frustration into a desire for anarchic destruction and increasingly erratic behavior. Stefan is the most sober-minded character, but after the suicide of a close friend earlier in the film, he ultimately goes down the path of violence. For me, his journey is similar to the average middle class “man on the street” often referenced in studies of fascism and Nazism. Rather than a diehard extremist like Sandro or a loose cannon like Robbie (Stefan even describes himself as “normal” and apolitical in response to a leftist classmate asking him if he is “left or right”), he slowly transforms into the film’s most terrifying character precisely because of how “normal” he appears to be.
Towards the halfway point, the film switches into vivid color and handheld camerawork reminiscent of Paul Greengrass (most famous for films like United 93 and the Bourne Trilogy). This, along with a widening of the aspect ratio, works to the film’s advantage. This dramatic shift in tone really set this film apart for me compared to other docudramas.
Qurbani has no love for what he sees as the ineptitude of the democratic left. Rather than parent Stefan or actually take action in defiance of his party bosses, his father loses himself in classical music at home while the city burns to the ground on the television directly behind him. This heavy-handedness is one of the reasons American critics have greeted the film coldly.
Compared to more subtle German films, this criticism holds up (see the wonderfully understated Barbara). One of the film’s biggest flaws is a coming-of-age/sexual awakening subplot that seems shoehorned into the main storyline and occurs just before a character decides to start throwing Molotov Cocktails. However, given that anti-immigrant movements like Germany’s PEGIDA and France’s National Front have only increased their prominence in the past year, I can forgive Qurbani. The film ends with a shot of schoolchildren about to throw stones at Lien and a group of her neighbors who have escaped their destroyed homes. During this scene, I couldn’t help but think about PEGIDA’s recent activity and contemporary fears of a resurgent extreme right in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.
The most haunting aspect of the film is Robbie’s reaction to his friend’s suicide. In the suicide note, his dead friend describes how reunification left East Germans without a past, because the nation simply ceased to exist. Later on in the film, Robbie turns to Stefan and says “Fuck the past…let’s just destroy everything.” A central feature of extreme right-wing movements is their explicit rejection of what they see as an unpalatable past in order to remake society. The most infamous example of this is the Nazi rejection of both the German defeat in WWI and arrival of Weimar democracy. One of the central questions of Qurbani’s film is: What happens when you no longer have a past? The characters of his film answer that question with a haunting decision to destroy everything.
Do fellow public historians agree that film can be an effective way of communicating history to the public? Does the “big tent” of public history have room for fictionalized elements?
Availability: Still in German theaters, about to hit the US festival circuit.