Stereotyping Sinti and Roma in German Film

„Time of the Gypsies“, Emir Kusturica, 1998
“Time of the Gypsies”, Emir Kusturica, 1998 | Photo (detail): © Winklerfilm

Dancing, stealing, laughing – it is difficult, it seems, to jettison the stereotyping of Sinti and Roma in German film.

The director Rosa von Praunheim was awarded the prestigious Grimme Prize in 2012 in the category of information and culture for his affectionate approach to a taboo topic: in Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo (Rent Boys) he portrays five young male prostitutes, including three heterosexual Roma who finance their families back home with the income they make from their gay johns and so keep an entire Romanian village above water. Praunheim presents his main characters not as victims, but rather with great respect and free of uptight morality. He tells their story as his camera follows them into the well-known Schöneberg clubs, with their friends in Berlin, and in Romania in their home village.

Narcissistic Leni Riefenstahl as the fiery-eyed Marta

When in 1932 László Moholy-Nagy shot his barely twelve minute-long experimental film Großstadtzigeuner (Big City Gypsies), he confirmed the widespread image of the Sinti and Roma as fortune tellers, musicians and trainers of dancing bears, but at the same time showed them as a happy and confident community. Moholy-Nagy could have had no idea that in only a few years the Sinti and Roma, like the European Jews, would come into the crosshairs of Nazi extermination policy.

It was quite different with the mistress of the Nazi propaganda film, Leni Riefenstahl. In 1934 she began to plan the filming of Tiefland (Lowlands), an opera by Eugen d'Albert, based on a work by Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler's favorite composer. Placing herself in the limelight, Riefenstahl played the main role of the “beautiful gypsy”; the shoooting turned into one of the most expensive and protracted Nazi film productions. In 1940 Riefenstahl had Sinti and Roma from the “gypsy” concentration camps Berlin-Marzahn and Max Glahn near Salzburg commandeered to work in the film. Many of these extras died in Auschwitz. To the end of her life Riefenstahl denied having had knowledge of this; she had, she said, “seen all the gypsies who participated in Tiefland after the end of the war. Nothing happened to any of them”.

Today Roma are still stereotyped as “gypsies”

The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma has repeatedly admonished productions of the popular German television series Tatort (Crime Scene) when they have spared no gypsy cliché and manipulated anti-ziganistic prejudices. The same stereotypes have also made their appearance in the award-winning and highly popular works of Emir Kusturica such as Time of the Gypsies, Black Cat, White Cat and Underground. In these the Roma, like all the other main figures, become caricatures of a grotesque, surreal post-socialist world. Kusturica’s travesties blur differentiated views of the Sinti and Roma.

The Albanian

“I have nothing against ‘gypsy’ clichés; they provide me with good material for my theater work”, smiles Hamze Bytyci, 30 years old, actor, director and Roma activist, who prefers to call himself a “midwife” for Roma projects. When he was seven, he and his parents had to flee the Kosovon city of Prizren, where he was born, and during his school years he lived in eleven different refugee homes: “I couldn’t choose my living circumstances”. He began acting as an interpreter for the other refugees and engaged in social work. In the early 1990s, in Freiberg, he stood for the first time on the stage in the Roma fairytale Die Blume des Glücks (The Flower of Happiness). Bytyci then became known through his roles as a Muslim in Rosa von Praunheim’s critical assessment of religion Rosas Höllenfahrt (History of Hell) (2009) and as an interpreter in the German Tatort series entitled Leyla.

Bytyci has recently relinquished his longtime chairmanship of the youth organization Amarodrom so as to devote himself all the more to his activities as an actor, director, theater teacher, radio producer, DJ and intercultural family counselor, all of which he unites under the label Roma Trial. He has spent many years researching the roots of the minority to which he belongs, especially so as better to understand not yet questioned and automatically adopted family rituals. Until he was twelve, Bytyci wanted to pass as an Albanian. When he confided to his best friends that he was a Roma, they only laughed and said: “We’ve known that for some time, but it’s high time you admitted it to yourself”.

In German film, Bytyci remains an exception; he has yet to meet another Sinti or Roma director. “At every casting call, I realized that I’m a Roma. At the auditions I was often asked what I, as a ‘gypsy’, could do particularly well. ‘Stealing? Lying? Dancing?’ Then they would say: ‘Com’on, show us’. It became clear to me that, as an actor, I had to liberate myself from the role of ‘the gypsy’”.