Angelica Fenner is the author of Race Under Reconstruction in German Cinema.
Rather than comment further on the content of my book, what I’d like to share here are personal ruminations about the motivating forces behind its research and writing. As scholars and researchers, many of us become accustomed to encountering the perennial query, “So how did you get interested in this topic?” It is a question that sometimes irritates me as much as the question, “So how did you and your husband meet?” Both questions I sometimes (and perhaps inaccurately) perceive as insinuating that the match at hand is incongruous and demands justification. Such inquiries into the origins of another person’s motivation or desire have often struck me as alternately impudent or symptomatic of a stenotopic mind, one for which only that which has been rationalized can also be legitimated.
Admittedly – and this is probably true for many scholars – we don’t often pause to consciously contemplate why we’re interested in a topic – it would be like asking why any of us inhale and exhale on a regular basis to sustain the local body we inhabit. We become researchers out of an innate curiosity about the world and a desire to understand how things work, and perhaps also, to offer insights gleaned along the way on how they might work even better. But as we systematically, and often intuitively, forge onward with our inquiries, there is no denying that our endeavors are, at least unconsciously shaped by vectors of identity, by formative life experiences, an evolving understanding of society and our place within it, and also of course, pragmatic limitations placed on time and resources available to pursue our inquiries.
Setting myself on the analytical couch, I promise not to retrace as clinical an etiology as might have been proffered by a certain bearded and bespectacled psychoanalyst in fin-de-siécle Vienna, although his theories may bear some relevance nonetheless. According to Sigmund Freud, children frequently use their imagination to escape uncomfortable situations in life. When discontent with their immediate family of origin, for example, they may fantasize themselves to be secretly an orphan whose true mother or father corresponds with a certain ideal or norm. What Freud thsly coined a ‘family romance’ constitutes for most children a normal phase of development and individuation compensating for occasionally unsatisfying episodes of childhood. As a child, I was surely no exception in this regard, harboring a strong fascination for stories about orphans – Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Lucy Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, the Madeline books, and, of course, many Shirley Temple films. However, the figure of the orphan can be compelling for adults as much as for children, perhaps touching upon some deep-rooted universal anxiety about abandonment or about being outcast. Orphans can also represent the resilience of the human spirit, a capacity to survive the loss of primal relations, drawing on inner resources to forge new relations, find one’s way in the world, and thrive against multiple odds. As well, they represent the possibility for rebirth, having shed their origins and transformed into something entirely different.
The very first time I encountered the German film Toxi (Robert Stemmle 1952) was in a retrospective curated by Madeleine Bernstorff at the Arsenal Kino in Berlin in the late 1990s. It wasn’t exclusively the orphan motif that captured my attention, but it was certainly an element in the equation. I was also struck by the film’s self-conscious thematization of the phenomenon of racism in the early postwar era, when many (West) Germans outside the few metropolitan centers of an essentially agricultural nation would have had little, if any, practical encounters with Black Europeans. Historically speaking, German society was already heterogeneous, but traditionally, it had been Romani and Sinti, Eastern Europeans, and Jews that had served as the repository of difference. Toxi‘s exploration of difference may be problematic by contemporary standards, but as an historical artifact, the film possesses tremendous value for the way it refracts historical concerns surrounding race, gender normativization, class, and national identity. The story revolves around a bourgeois family (auf Deutsch, “eine gut bürgerlich Familie”) that takes into their home a 5-year old Afro-German child mysteriously deposited on their doorsteps. Toxi, the name with which the little girl introduces herself, becomes a didactic vehicle for exploring diverse responses – both empathetic and anxious – to her presence in the family. As such the family becomes metonymic for the nation, grappling with questions of group belonging that hold salience for social historians of early West German society but also offer insights into mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion still prevalent throughout the modern world.
The film self-consciously acknowledges Germany’s immediate historical past and what is referred to as ‘das Rassenproblem’ by the film character, Theodor Jenrich, who is explicitly situated as negative object choice, but also as a model of moral transformation. Simultaneously, the storyline introduces as politically progressive mouthpiece the young soon-to-be married couple, Hertha Rose and Robert Peters, who aspire to adopt Toxi and start a new family with her. They model a positive alternative to the segregationist politics reaching a boiling point in the United States during the same era. Indeed, West Germany arguably looked with some anxiety across the Atlantic to the violent outbursts that scarred especially the Deep South, and sought within its own ‘divided nation’ a more peaceful civil solution. No other feature film in the postwar era addressed with quite such forthrightness as did the popular and left-leaning (although hardly radical) former Ufa-director Robert Stemmle the issues at stake. The film was also unique in critically identifying early patterns of socialization that may shape children into racist citizens; for example, childhood tales such as Heinrich Hoffman’s nineteenth century compendium of children’s tales, “The Inky Boys.”
Equally fascinating for me was the way the film’s intergenerational cast of characters captured the habitus of that early postwar era, the same era in which my own parents had come of age before immigrating to the United States in the late 1950s. In every scene, I was struck by how a turn of phrase, a facial expression, a gesture of the hands, a shrug of the shoulders seemed to reflect the world of my parents — a world that also became my inheritance. I could both relate to the familiarity of these figures on the screen, while also discerning the historical gap of critical, if empathetic distance facilitating my own interpretation and research, which eventually coaxed forth from me an entire book manuscript. When I was young, my parents had hosted African-American children from New York City through what was then and today still called “The Fresh Air fund.” This organization brings children from disadvantaged inner city communities into the homes of families in the U.S. and Canada for a few weeks in the summer months when all children incline towards exploring the outdoors. I don’t doubt that my parents were impelled at some level by a desire to make good on Germany’s past, their legacy by default, even as they both came from families politically persecuted during the war. Doubtless they also sought to inculcate in us, their own children, a different sensibility for social integration. For as immigrants, they, too, struggled with questions of integration in a new language and a new culture. Being White in the United States certainly was and is not a unilateral leveler or uncontested site of privilege; speaking with an accent, or eating different foods, wearing different clothes, or having a different understanding of codes and cues of social interaction can all become markers of difference, and also, pretexts for exclusion.
Doubtless, whatever insights I have generated in this book are the result of my dual heritage and a certain ‘bifocal vision’ associated with that. Ironically, on a more personal note, my eye doctors since childhood have always enjoyed remarking upon the hidden disability of a profound astigmatism in my right eye, with which I currently cannot even read, although I’m holding the intention for a late life miracle: “You’d never guess these two eyes belonged to the same person,” more than one jolly optometrist has been known to chortle. And so it is that I have spent a lifetime grappling with a worldview that emerges from reconciling radically opposing data, both that sent from my left and right eyes, but also as mediated through the experiences and perspectives of different generations, cultures, and identities in a world both remarkable and devastating for the contradictions that cohabit there. This is the duality of the human condition, which we are tasked to simultaneously embrace and overcome.