Last Saturday, I holed myself up to rest before I competed in a triathlon on Sunday morning. My friend/neighbor/colleague Robin and I sat on the couch, eating a hefty pre-triathlon meal of roasted vegetables and salmon, while watching “Aus Dem Nichts / In the Fade,” a German film recognized as the 2018 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. Naturally, with my German being still less than elementary, we watched the film with English subtitles. With myself and my instructor both on holiday, I’ve been without German lessons for all of August, so the subtitles were good practice to gain familiarity with words and tones. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll leave you with a recommendation to watch it and a footnote that I walked home a bit paranoid and not as relaxed as I’d hoped to go to bed. I’m glad to get into foreign films, to be the outsider who needs subtitles, and to see true stories reflected on the screen.
With today’s near repeat, maybe Saturday nights will be movie nights for the foreseeable future. The first time is an accident; the second time is a tradition. I spent a good portion of today running 30 kilometers around Berlin. Though my training has been subpar at best, I figured doing one long run two weeks before the event would be a worthwhile endeavor. With tired legs, I wanted relaxation for the afternoon and night, and decided to venture to the cinema – das kino – for the evening. I took the train to Hackescher Markt, a quaint series of connected courtyards in the pseudo-posh Mitte neighborhood and waited in line to buy a ticket for BlacKkKlansman, a 2018 film by Spike Lee and Jordan Peele. I didn’t know of the title before I looked at the movie listings today, but the ratings were high enough to intrigue me.
Only one part of the cinema experience caught my attention: I bought the ticket at the same stand/counter where the refreshments were sold. There was no separate box office. They offered popcorn, bottled sodas, and beer, though the popcorn machine warned “sweet only!,” which I guess means they have kettle corn, not our beloved, buttered, lick-the-salt-off-your-fingers American movie popcorn. I took a rhubarb lemonade with my ticket, then found a seat in the theater, which was otherwise similar to American movie theaters.
Cut to the chase: this film is not for the faint of feelings. Be ready to feel history. BlacKkKlansman follows the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he goes undercover in investigating the Ku-Klux-Klan. It’s a timely and necessary story to bring to the surface, with the present day race conversations in the US. Aside from offering an intriguing historical narrative, the plot elevated my heart rate, my hands were clasped knuckle-to-knuckle, and I had to remind myself to let my head rest against the padded chair. It sounds bad, but I actually enjoy a movie when I am able to fear and feel for the characters.
Yet, these weren’t just characters, they are real people’s stories. I sat and witnessed behaviors – events that actually happened – that go beyond “discrimination” as we often see it. Discrimination is more than a white page with black text describing a company or organization’s commitment to not treat people different on the basis of x, y, and z. Discrimination happens every day in verbal, physical, and subconscious forms. The film brought subconscious realities into my conscience.
The German-language subtitles flickered consistently through each frame, reminding me of the city, the country, the history, the Holocaust that once happened outside of the theater. This awareness scared me. As an audience, we witnessed relentless derogatory comments that positioned people as lesser because of their skin colors and their religions. These atrocities rolled from the mouths of the actors like butter on a biscuit in the heat of summer. Meaning everything, but said like nothing. Let me say again: I’m in Germany. This country knows all too well the realities and effects of ostracizing certain races and certain people. Sitting in a crowd of Germans, I watched America with a different perspective. I saw the word “Führer” – compounded with another word – flash across the screen when describing David Duke’s role in the Ku-Klux-Klan.
The film ends with clips from recent events in the US. The sound of a glass bottle rolling along the theater floor. Otherwise, solemnity and air stale as popcorn from last year. I thought of the one character, a Klansman, whose dumbness, drunken stupor, and lack of common sense brought comic relief to the plot’s tensest moments. I’d heard people in the audience laughing, and suddenly, nothing was funny. This is a true story, and though I watched it on a screen, I watched it in a place where people know worse is possible.