A Movie Confronts Germany’s Other Genocide

“Measures of Men” tells the story of the systematic massacre of Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia. Its maker hopes the film will bring a debate about Germany’s colonial guilt into the center of society.

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By Thomas Rogers

Reporting from Berlin

Germany is often praised for its willingness to confront the darkest moments of its history, but in recent years, activists have pointed to a blank spot in the country’s culture of remembrance. Decades before the Holocaust, Germany perpetrated the 20th century’s first genocide: From 1904 to 1908, German colonial officials systematically killed tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia. This atrocity is little known outside academic circles, and there are few memorials or pop cultural depictions of those events.

Now, a new movie, “Measures of Men,” aims to change that and bring a debate about Germany’s colonial guilt into the center of society. The glossy film, directed by the German filmmaker Lars Kraume, tells the story of the killings through the eyes of a German anthropologist. Aside from playing in movie theaters, where it opened last week, “Measures of Men” had a special screening for lawmakers in Germany’s Parliament, and was the focal point for a series of events at the Humboldt Forum, a central Berlin museum housing ethnological items. Its distributor, Studiocanal, said in a statement that it was planning to show the film in school and educational contexts.

“Measures of Men” has also prompted a new discussion in the German media about what many see as Germany’s sluggish attempts to come to terms with its colonial past. In recent years, the country has moved to return numerous artworks acquired during the colonial period, but the process of ratifying a reconciliation agreement between Namibia and Germany has stalled, and thousands of African human remains, transported to Germany from its colonies, remain in institutional collections.

In an interview in Berlin, Kraume, 50, explained that his movie was partly inspired by the 1978 NBC mini-series “Holocaust,” an early fictionalized TV depiction of the Shoah, which played a key role in spreading awareness of German guilt after it was broadcast here. “You have the possibility through cinematic storytelling to reach an audience that doesn’t engage so much with history books,” he said, adding that he hoped his film would be the first of many, much in the way “Holocaust” paved the way for films like “Schindler’s List.”

“Measures of Men,” which was filmed in Berlin and Namibia, focuses on an ambitious German ethnologist (Leonard Scheicher) who develops a fascination with a Herero woman (Girley Jazama) after measuring her cranial features as part of his research. His fixation leads him to travel to German South West Africa (now Namibia), where he witnesses and eventually become complicit in the colonial slaughter.

“It’s not just a film about the genocide,” Kraume said, “but also about ethnologists who want to explore foreign cultures, but destroy them.”

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