IF YOU DIDN’T know it was true, you’d deem it unbelievable. That’s Angela Merkel’s charmed life: It fits the parameters of a classical fairy tale. Clever girl born into marginalised village grows up to see democracy happen and later to become the country’s chancellor and lead it on to moral victory. It’s like Nelson Mandela’s life story. Eva Weber’s polished and beautiful portrait of Merkel made in 2022 features in this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival.
And from all the fashionable perspectives, this is an eminently legible tale of a path from smallness to greatness. It’s immensely inspiring in how it presents a woman who doesn’t need the bits and pieces of a personal designer, of cleavage and footage, and make-up and hairdos to be herself in the public eye.
Not without wit, it presents an implacably strong leader who stood on her moral grounds in the face of other leaders and buffoons (and some who are both). Hers is the face and presence of rationality, social consciousness and wisdom. Growing up in a context deeply redolent of the dystopia George Orwell created in his novel 1984, Merkel studied science, because it was the only place where truth could not be sullied under the corrupt yoke of East Germany. She was the one who controversially granted over one million Syrian refugees sanctuary in Germany during a time of great turmoil. And to the filmmaker’s credit, spoofs of the ilk of Tracy Ullman’s hilarious contemplation of Merkel’s poker face, has a presence here.
But what do you think of when you encounter the idea of Germany? Is it the commercial give and take of today’s quick-running economy and highly sophisticated democracy? Is it the Berlin Wall, which came down in 1989 and represented a hefty chunk of Cold War politics for almost three decades? Or is it, perhaps, the Second World War, where Germany was left with a complex and blood-stained level of guilt? Granted, it’s not considered polite these days to crudely mull over Germany’s role in the war and of the scourge of hatred it fostered under Hitler’s reign from the 1930s, but that’s as much a part of its history – and Merkel’s – as anything else.
In many respects, Germany’s world war history becomes a proverbial elephant in the room of Weber’s portrait of Merkel. It is completely absent from the film’s trajectory or any of its clear references. A google search reveals that Merkel came of parentage that were good solid citizens with nothing to do with Nazi values. But, born in the late 1800s, both sets of her grandparents lived through a time in central Europe when hate was on the street and in your face. There were two world wars, in which Germany was a central villain. Surely, this remains of relevance to a contemporary audience? The aspect of Merkel’s story in her allowing asylum-seeking refugees into the country in 2015, refers obliquely to the masses of Europeans who, a generation earlier, were ousted from the country at a time when few countries would be so bold as to allow them refuge. But this reference doesn’t feel enough, historically, in this film to hold the comparison.
Merkel is a compelling piece of filmography, with a great understanding of clean narrative that is not without intelligence and broader social commentary, but it’s almost too good to be true. If you’ve just emerged into the world and don’t know facts, a great swathe of history in which millions of lives were violently obliterated is completely absent here.
Merkel is written and directed by Eva Weber. Produced by Sigrid Dyekjær, Lizzie Gillett, Sonja Henrici and Eva Weber, it features creative input by Jon Opstad (music), Daniel Greenway and Alexandra Strauss (editing), Rick Blything (sound effects) and Ted Snow, Reinhold Vorschneider and Konrad Waldmann (cinematography). It features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 22 June until 2 July 2023, in Cape Town at the Ster Kinekor V&A Waterfront, the Labia Theatre, the Bertha House in Mowbray and in Johannesburg at Ster Kinekor Rosebank Nouveau, the Goethe-Institut and the Bioscope in Milpark.