Roaming over the weekend, I stumbled onto a sidewalk sale in my neighborhood (common this time of the year), and, as I often do, I stopped to take a look at what the seller had to offer. Books, CDs, DVDs, VHS cassettes, clothing, shoes, etc, etc, etc.
I immediately settled on the VHS tapes, because, as I’ve been lucky enough to experience in the past (in recent years, with the death of that specific medium certain at this point), I sometimes find *forgotten* or relatively obscure films and TV shows that aren’t available in any current format (DVD, Blu-ray, streaming or available for download online, etc).
It was how I first learned about Wendell B. Harris’ woefully under-seen and under-appreciated award-winning film “Chameleon Street” years ago, before it was finally released on DVD, which was only recently. Prior to that discovery (which I’ll say was in the late 1990s or very early 2000s), I had never heard of, nor seen the film.
This time around, my little sidewalk sale junket over the weekend, introduced me to a VHS tape of a German film I’d never heard of, with a title that I simply could not ignore: “How I Became A Negro.” The actual title was in German – “Wie ich ein Neger wurde.” It wasn’t subtitled on the tape itself (there was no official cover; instead it was a blank case with the title hand-written in block letters). If it wasn’t for the fact that I knew that “Neger” is German for Negro, I likely would’ve skipped over it. But, really, even if I didn’t know that “Neger” was German for Negro, the word as it’s spelled certainly would’ve been enough to tickle my curiosity, enough to pull out my smart phone and translate; or at least ask the seller to do so, assuming he was armed with the information.
I did inquire about the tape (where it came from, if he’d seen its contents, etc), but he had no idea. In short, it was something (along with everything else that was on sale) that had been buried in his father’s basement, who had passed away, and he was simply getting rid of miscellaneous items.
He didn’t even know if the tape worked, and seemed to really not care all that much. At least, that was my read.
But he offered me the tape for 50 cents (actually, he offered me the entire lot of VHS cassette tapes – about 20 of them; but I didn’t want the others, some of which I was already familiar with); And at that price (50 cents) it obviously wasn’t a purchase I hesitated to make, even though I had no idea what the tape contained and whether it even played (He didn’t own a VHS player, so I couldn’t test it before buying). But I figured, it’s a measly 50 cents, whether the tape works or not.
I own a VHS player, so when I eventually got home, I immediately inserted the cassette and played it, and thankfully, it worked – at least, initially. But more on that later.
By the way, the cassette itself didn’t have a director’s name on it, which I would eventually find out on my own, via my smart phone, at the site of purchase: Roland Gall – a name I wasn’t at all familiar with, and, sadly, online research returned little. He is listed on IMDB, with director credits starting in 1967 and ending in 1986. I couldn’t even determine whether he’s alive or dead. Although a more extensive search will probably answer that question.
According to his IMDB page, Gall directed primarily for German TV, with “How I Became A Negro” his only theatrical release. My research tells me that it was released in 1971, in what was then West Germany, and screened in the USA (in New York specifically) a year later, in 1972.
I also couldn’t find very much on the film itself, sadly, aside from variations of the story it tells: A young professor under Hitler who is attacked by parents and students for his liberal views, who leaves for Africa (specific country not given) to start a new life in a mission school. Now himself an outcast – a “Negro” – he joins his fellow Negroes.
And here’s another: A dedicated teacher tries to enlighten his racially prejudiced students in the days following World War II. When the class goes on a retreat at a pre-military facility, one student is killed by one of his classmates. The teacher incurs the wrath of parents for his liberal attitudes and is reviled by most students. The teacher soon emigrates to Africa where he believes his skill can make a difference in a more tolerant society.
I did watch the film, part of it anyway; as I said, it worked initially, but that didn’t last. First of all, it’s not subtitled in English, so I had to rely on images alone to understand what I was watching. But that wasn’t something I considered a major hindrance. It’s something I’ve had to do a number of times in the past. It is after all called, the moving image.
The image quality, as you might expect, wasn’t particularly great.
But what ruined the experience was that the tape eventually got jammed in my VCR (recalling a problem with VHS tapes and VCRs I remember being frustrated by many years ago, prior to DVD becoming the standard). And I was only about 30 minutes into what is said to be a 104-minute film. That twisting, winding sound that you’d typically hear when a tape reel gets entangled with your VCR’s interior parts. I heard it and freaked out! I hit the stop button immediately, but, unfortunately, that didn’t help much.
To make a long story short, in wrestling with my VCR, trying to separate the tape from the parts, the cassette reel snapped in at least 2 places, which all but signifies the end of that tape.
Or maybe not – as I learned, thanks to several YouTube videos, that I can “easily” splice the tape back together again.
I’m at my work desk starring at the disaster, as I type this, planning to attempt to put it back together again. Although it’s not something I’ve had the time to bother with just yet (likely not until the weekend). I’m more likely to pay someone to do it.
But I thought it was worth a mention on this blog; Maybe someone out there saw the film when it screened in NYC in 1972; Maybe someone else has a copy that’s preferably subtitled in English. If you have seen the film in full, I’m curious to know more.
I’m not aware of many films made by German filmmakers during those years, that were set, whether in full, or in part, in any sub-Saharan African country, nor any that actually seem to have wanted to somehow equate the struggle of the “Negro” with that of an “outcast” German school teacher with liberal views under Hitler’s rule.
As I said, I found very little about the film online; next to nothing. I did learn that it’s mentioned in Amos Vogel’s 1974 book “Film as a Subversive Art,” a book I ordered via Amazon today. Once I receive it, I’ll share what Vogel had to say about the film. A snip from Vogel described the film as: “This clandestine film by a new German director subtly uncovers complicity, vacillation, impotence, and national character under the stress of the Nazi regime, daringly never shown or openly characterized as repressive; not a single swastika appears and Hitler’s accession to power is only ‘heard’ in military music and indistinct oratory through an open window.”
“How I Became a Negro” (“Wie ich ein Neger wurdes”) was actually based on a novel by German refugee author Oedon von Horvarth, as I also learned via research.
The title alone certainly gets one’s attention. It’s quite bold and daring I’d say. And even if it contributes little to the depictions of Africans on film historically, I’m still curious to see it in full, to examine any correlations between experiences it seems to want to make (equate the struggles of black people with that of an “outcast” German school teacher with liberal views under Hitler’s rule), based on what I’ve seen and read of it thus far.
In terms of available media, as you’d expect, I found no trailer and no clips – just a few still images, which don’t really tell us much. One of them is above.
Again, if you’ve seen the film, or are familiar with the director’s work, or the novel, chime in!