A few years ago, I saw
the German 1943 film version of “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen,” made over
40 years before Terry Gilliam’s better, well-known 1988 take on the same fantasy
There is an
extended sequence in the film that takes place in some Sultan’s palace in
Turkey, and there are several black extras playing slaves or harem guards. Of course, considering the time and place the film was
made, you would think that the roles of the slaves would be played by German white
actors in blackface. Instead, they are
actually played by black men, which made me immediately wonder where they
found black men in Nazi Germany in 1943, to play those extras.
thought is that, they were concentration camp prisoners, or captured enemy
soldiers in POW camps in Germany, enlisted to play those roles; most likely, captured free French Army soldiers, since (a little known fact) that the overwhelming majority
of those soldiers were black and Arab men from the then French colonies
of West and North Africa, and the Middle East.
I bring up
all of that to put the unusual story of Mohamed Husen, whose real name was Majub
bin Adam Mohamed Hussein, into context. His story is rather amazing and, of
course, ultimately tragic. But it does tell the story of black people and
people of color in Germany during that period – those who were lucky enough
Husen was born
in 1905 in what is now Tanzania, during the time when the entire continent
of Africa was carved up into colonies by British and European powers, such
as France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Portugal. At the young age of
9, during World War I, he became a
child soldier in the Askari, elite
native troops who, helped Germany keep a tight grip on its dominions.
war, Husen became a ship’s steward, eventually making his way to Germany – first to Hamburg, and then to Berlin, where he petitioned the government to get his still unpaid
back wages for himself and his father (who was killed in action), from the German
Needless to say,
they laughed in his face and ordered him out of the country. But, due to some bureaucratic
error, he wound up staying in Germany as an illegal alien, in effect, without papers, and went on to work in a circus – a western cowboy themed bar – and even taught Swahili to government civil servants and
diplomats, who were assigned to work in the then German colonies in Africa.
meantime, he even found time to marry a white German actress and had two children – a son and a daughter, both of whom died young before the age of 5. But he also fathered
a son with a mistress (that story itself would make a pretty interesting
film, don’t you think?).
However, by the
1930’s, he started appearing in German films, and became a regular face in some 11 films, from 1934 to 1941, always as either an extra, or, sometimes, as a bit player, with a few lines of dialogue.
say, as with many of the films made during that period, as Hitler and Nazism extolled the virtues of Aryan racial purity and colonialism, one must wonder what Husen himself was thinking, or going through, at the time, while working on those films.
even further than that. As a Guardian article states “… by the mid-1930s, he was dressing up in military gear and appearing
at rallies in front of banners bearing the slogan, “Germany needs colonies.” What internal conflicts must he have been battling? Was it a case of survival, being a
stranger in a strange land, knowing that working on those films and rallies was
better than being sent to a concentration camp?
Things did eventually turn out bad for Husen. In the 1941 film “Carl Peters,” about a real life German colonist, in which Husen had the supporting role of Peters’s servant, it was discovered that he was having an
affair with a white actress in the cast, and thus was arrested by the Gestapo, and sent
to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he died 3 years later, in 1944.
Unfortunately, not much more is known about Husen. There are no diaries, no correspondence and
very few photographs exist; his son by his mistress died at the age of 12, during British and U.S. allied bombings of Berlin in 1945, and it’s believed that his wife was also killed during the bombings.
Thankfully, there is a recently completed documentary about Husen, by German filmmaker Eva
Knopf, titled “Majub’s Reise” (“Majub’s Journey”), which brings attention to the actor, giving him an identity, as it pieces together what is known about him. Hopefully the
film will make its way to the U.S. – perhaps via film festivals. It screened in Germany of course, and Brazil (according to IMDB), but no other countries it appears.
speaks to what I always like to say: that there is nowhere in the world, during any period
of history, in which we (black people) weren’t present.
Watch the trailer for “Majub’s Reise” below: