Germany has, in its post-war years, often been held up globally as a nation that has proactively confronted the darkest aspects of its racist history, having undergone a rigorous process of denazification that sought to eliminate not only the symbolism of the National Socialist party from public facades but all aspects of its ideology from citizens’ lives. To acknowledge responsibility for the Holocaust, a culture of memory has been pursued to memorialise those who were persecuted, disenfranchised, and murdered, and to educate young generations not to repeat the atrocities that brought such shame upon the nation. But skepticism at how effective this process has been growing stronger. Nazi supporters, after all, did not all simply vanish, or transform overnight. Zealotry was driven underground; opportunists adapted. Many officials maintained senior roles. Moreover, while prejudice reached a horrifying high in the genocidal Nazi era, racism is an older phenomenon against which the battle is never won for all time, and must be renewed constantly.
Pick up any newspaper today in the federal republic, and debate over a resurgent far-right is raging. Just how strong are neo-Nazi links within the German police force? How to counter support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, which surged after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened borders to a vast influx of refugees, in what her supporters welcomed as a chance to redeem the country’s sins? What to rename streets that to this day glorify German colonialism? And, as many liberal-minded Germans voice their support for Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, are they not hypocritically turning a blind eye to continued structural inequalities and bigotry closer to home?
A sinister portrait
It’s against this backdrop, as nationalist populism and emboldened xenophobia rises, not only, in Germany but around an increasingly resource-stretched and fear-based world, that Kosovo-born, Germany-based director Visar Morina’s film Exile comes to us. The arthouse pressure-cooker, which had its world premiere at Sundance and was awarded Best Feature Film at Sarajevo, does not explicitly delve into political ideologies and allegiances. But as a sinister portrait of a workplace and suburban community where ethnicity-based bullying is normalised and mental health en masse is ailing, it interrogates how creeping paranoia and toxic reactivity are seeded. The relevance of its particular poison to our climate of burgeoning neo-fascist autocracies is potently clear.
As many liberal-minded Germans voice their support for Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, are they not hypocritically turning a blind eye to continued structural inequalities and bigotry closer to home?
Misel Maticevic plays Xhafer, a chemical engineer who is from Kosovo and has made a life with his German wife (Sandra Hüller) and three young children in provincial Germany. They have a comfortably affluent house — but material trappings are meaningless for peace of mind when a campaign of hostile acts and workplace ostracism make Xhafer feel increasingly sabotaged in his ability to succeed and belong. These range from racist micro-aggressions (he is constantly mislabelled as Croatian), to setting him up to fail (workmates leave him off the mailing list of vital updates, and refuse to supply him with crucial data), and even threatening pranks (dead rats are left tied to his gate and in his mail-box, and the couple’s baby stroller is set alight.) As adverse to his peace of mind as these bullying incidents are in themselves, is the minimisation and doubt cast upon his experiences by those around him. While his largely inaccessible boss refuses outright to believe him, his wife suggests his ill-treatment may not be motivated by xenophobia, and him being foreign, but may simply stem from his workmates not liking him as a person. At any rate, the stress bleeds into marital tensions, and the uncertainty of who the culprits are, and what their motivations might be, creates an unbearable sense that any gesture is immediately suspect, and anyone might have it in for him; that reality itself cannot be trusted. Even the young policemen, who joke around when examining the burnt stroller, seem potentially less than well-intentioned.
«An old man fell from an apple tree. In hospital, he only wanted visitors who had also fallen from apple trees,» Xhafer recalls an old Albanian proverb goes. The gulf between immigrants and those with no comparable experience of being an outsider makes his alienation especially acute (it’s no coincidence that the cleaner he is having an affair with shares his origins.) His wife’s mother regards him with overt racism; in a way, it’s easier behaviour for him to reject and deal with than the constant ambiguous micro-aggressions he can never be quite sure about, but which together add up to a profound sense of existential solitude and self-doubt around his identity and perceptions. A suicide at the company, however, underscores that workplace cultures of power abuse are, by definition, unhealthy for every single person exposed to them; that the poison of hatred and oppression is an illness that befalls all in a system. When first, they come for vulnerable others, after all, it’s not long before you just may be next.
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