Subverting supremacy Majub’s Journey by Eva Knopf

Majub's Journey
Majub's Journey | Photo: © Filmakademie

Majub’s Journey traces the life of Majub bin Adam Mohamed Hussein aka Mohamed Husen. Born in Dar es Salaam under German colonial rule in 1904, Majub joined the army and left for Germany as a teen, to claim payments due to him for years of service. In Europe, he ended up playing in German films.

In November and December 2014, the Goethe-Institut joined forces with Alliance Française, the French Institute of South Africa, the South African History Archive and other institutions, under the banner Reflections on 100 years of war, genocide and mass violence. The purpose of the joint initiative was to observe the anniversaries of the two World Wars and the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis – three catastrophes inflicted on humanity by itself that together saw close to 100 million people dead.
 
Among the films screened during the month-long event was German anthropologist and filmmaker Eva Knopf’s 2013 documentary Majub’s Journey, which traces the life of Majub bin Adam Mohamed Hussein, also known as Mohamed Husen. Born in Dar es Salaam under German colonial rule in 1904, Majub joined the army at age nine and left for Germany as a teen, to claim payments due to him for years of devoted service. In Europe where Majub would stay for the remainder of his life, he ended up working mainly as an extra and a bit player in German films. He also worked for Berlin University’s Foreign Institute before the zeitgeist of the time caught up with him and he was interned in a concentration camp where he died in 1944.
 
Ironically the volatile years that preceded the Second World War offered the confident and resourceful ex-soldier an opportunity to carve out a unique niche for himself. Majub knew how to take advantage of the wave of national nostalgia and vanity that swept through Germany at the time. As a brown-skinned man in a racist context, his presence afforded white screen-characters authority, sophistication and cleanliness. At Berlin University his knowledge of Swahili came handy to the German neo-colonial movement.
 
Through archive footage and a scatter of old state records, Eva Knopf weaves together a mysterious and intriguing account of Majub’s years in Germany. Outside the screen, the man, whose main function was to cement the myth of white supremacy, led a purposeful life that stood in stark contrast to the existences of his ridiculous onscreen-personas.
 
While restoring the name and dignity of Majub with a precise and gentle researcher’s touch, Eva Knopf’s elegantly illustrates how neither whiteness nor the illusion of white supremacy can exist in a vacuum. Both concepts rely on black bodies onto which fantasies and fears can be projected and without which white bodies wouldn’t even be white.
 
Eva Knopf, in her graduation film from the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy,  as well as veteran filmmaker Michael Haneke and rising Rwandan star Kivu Ruhorahoza, whose films White Ribbon and Grey Matter screened alongside hers, all show how deliberately and meticulously the ground was laid for the Third Reich in the 1930s and the Rwandan Genocide pre-1994. In both cases formidable propaganda machineries, which included cinema in Germany and radio in Rwanda, were employed to nurture supremacist ideas and mobilising the public’s support for the unthinkable.
 
Cinema has always played a crucial role in promoting ideas and concept in general, and the concept of racism in particular. In the early days of filmmaking, American director D.W. Griffith was lauded for his 1915 cinematic celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation. In Germany twenty years later, Hitler’s favourite filmmaker Lene Riefenstahl, who made the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, enjoyed similar praise.
 
Eva Knopf, who came across Majub’s destiny through the work of another German researcher, was intrigued by Majub’s role as an extra, both in the literal sense of the word and metaphorically. Though he appeared in a multitude of films, few Germans today know of his existence - or that of other Africans living in the country during the same period. The filmmaker was intrigued by how the Second World War had taken prominence over Germany’s colonial history in the collective memory, she told the audience at the Q&A after the first screening at The Bioscope Independent Cinema.
 
That the only available records of Majub’s existence were produced by the very state that denied him his inherent human dignity added to the intellectual and emotional challenge Knopf stood before - to do justice to the life of her protagonist. She relied as heavily on this material as she did on the gaps caused by the absence of documentation and knowledge about Majub. Not convinced that filmed interviews with experts would allow the audience to connect with him emotionally, Eva Knopf chose to link Majub’s story to that of a highly contested colonial monument, which consisted of a sculpture of a German commander in chief and one of an African Askari, erected and later dismantled at the Hamburg Observatory.
 
Majub was a complex man - both a proud foot soldier in the German East African Army, and a man who considered himself inferior to no one. Like Knopf he subverted the imagery and symbolism of his oppression, for the purpose of his liberation and restoration of self. Knopf concludes that this act was made easier by the fact that regardless of the intentions of the producer of the images she had found, she could still access the person Majub through them.  By shifting the camera and compiling the scenes differently, as the poetic and soothing voice of the film’s narrator proposes over a magnetic manipulated sequence, Majud – the invisible extra - is rendered not just visible, but a star under the direction of Eva Knopf. Film, better than most other mediums, she confided at the Bioscope-screening, offers the opportunity to elicit other meanings than those intended by the person capturing the moving images.
 
The master’s tools might never dismantle the master’s house, as Carrebean-American Audre Lorde suggested in 1984. They will however go a long way in disclosing historical facts that the oppressor found irrelevant, wished to keep secret or underplay. For highlighting such facts, and making the story of Germany’s and Europe’s colonial and World War pasts a bit more comprehensible, the rest of us owe both Eva Knopf and Majub bin Adam Mohamed Hussein thanks.
 

Reflections on 100 years of war, genocide and mass violence.
Various commemorative cultural events from 11.11. - 10.12.2014
in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.