«It’s much safer to be feared than loved», advised Macchiavelli in his sixteenth-century guide for rulers on consolidating power. German-born director Eva Weber’s glossy and conventional but fascinating film Merkel, screening at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, broadly implies there are two such kinds of statespeople and that Angela Merkel, who was Germany’s chancellor for sixteen years, is the type that took risks that adhere to an underlying ethical compass of compassion. The same could not be said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, if the story Merkel recounts, of him bringing out a large dog to intimidate her after learning she had a canine phobia is anything to go by. Weber draws other such contrasts and parallels with world leaders of her day (including American presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump) to form her largely glowing portrait of Merkel and consider what psychologically formed her approach to governance and geopolitics.
Growing up in the DDR
Merkel recalls that the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was her first overtly political memory. The early clip of her talking about her childhood in the DDR, then part of the Eastern Bloc, is one of many archival television segments that elucidate her roots (as well as showing just how much her appearance and no-fuss outfits were scrutinised by the media in a manner her male counterparts were exempt from.) Recent footage of former American President Donald Trump at a campaign rally stirring up crowds to chant about building a wall to keep out undocumented migrants is intercut. The juxtaposition, though a very obvious choice, is one of undeniably potent symbolism. Merkel, it suggests, saw her time in power as serving a greater openness and path to democracy that would overcome brutal manifestations of Cold War oppression and division, whereas Trump has ignited a new wave of populist fervour by cynically leveraging xenophobia through a brand of narcissistic personality cult she had hoped was consigned to the past.
Growing up in the DDR, Merkel could understand the Russian language and the communist sphere Putin rose out of, giving her an easy initial understanding of her Russian counterpart. It’s easy to forget, since Merkel came to be regarded as the de facto head of the European Union and a symbol of western neo-liberal power, that she emerged from the East (and certainly, the choice of politicians such as Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice for character references in the film show how much a part of mainstream establishment politics she became.)
Growing up in the DDR, Merkel could understand the Russian language and the communist sphere Putin rose out of, giving her an easy initial understanding of her Russian counterpart.
However, living under the ever-watchful eye of Stasi surveillance while her father worked as a Lutheran pastor in the East, Merkel learned what was at stake in a dictatorship. She recalls a climate of fear and desperate citizens being blackmailed over any rule-breaking, from extramarital affairs or traffic infringements. «You always wondered what you could do that didn’t involve lying on a daily basis», she says in a television clip, by way of explaining why she studied physics, scientific facts being less open to interpretation and ideological positioning. Swapping her role as a physicist in East Berlin for politics after reunification, she continued to see her duty as solving problems and operated, as colleagues attest, with a relative absence of ego and material greed. Under chancellor Helmut Kohl, who needed to recruit East Germans and women into his government, she was thrown into the deep end as a cabinet member — and, underestimated by others, was able to manoeuvre a path to the eventual top, calling for a cleaner kind of politics when, in 1999, he became embroiled in an illegal donations scandal.
Merkel’s position as an outsider, an Ossi (Easterner) and a female, resonated with Obama (who in 2008 awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom), the documentary argues. Her selection of East German punk Nina Hagen’s ’70s pop song Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen (You Forgot the Colour Film) as part of her official retirement send-off last year acknowledged not only her origins behind the Wall but what that context taught her about rebellious free expression. When Putin told her that the collapse of the Soviet Union was, for him, the worst event of the twentieth century, the seed of the irreconcilability of their differences was already there.
The one criticism of Merkel in an otherwise lionising evaluation by Weber is that she relied too closely on Russia and its energy resources to prop up German prosperity. Merkel’s handling of the 2015 migrant crisis is portrayed as a stance on the right side of history, although, or even because, her decision to keep the borders open hurt her politically after the euphoria of a new German «welcome culture» dissipated. Power was not just an end for Merkel, the film argues, and this example of moral leadership, so rare among leaders today, may be her greatest legacy.