If Germans are notoriously stoic, then Angela Merkel is extremely German. The notoriously unflappable former German chancellor served for a nearly record sixteen years, only outlasted by Otto Von Bismarck and Helmut Kohl, her predecessor and mentor who appointed her to her first government position in 1991. Throughout her tenure, she steered Europe through the 2008 financial crisis, oversaw healthcare reform, developed renewable energy resources, opened German borders to a record number of migrants, and navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. During her time in office, she was often refereed to as the de facto head of the European Union and the most powerful woman in the world. And yet, unlike her friend Barack Obama, very little is known about her personally.
The new film “Merkel” valiantly attempts to paint a portrait of Angela Merkel, from her childhood in the former DDR (East Germany) to the most momentous days of her political career. Though she became more tight-lipped and poker-faced as time went on, early interviews with a young Merkel reveal a more jovial side to the inscrutable leader. Through interviews with journalists and former world leaders like Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton, coupled with clips from Merkel’s favorite childhood music and films, filmmaker Eva Weber paints a more human portrait of the woman who would grow up to save democracy. At least, as full a picture as can be painted.
The film opens with Merkel delivering a commencement address at Harvard in 2019, in which she outlines how growing up behind the Iron Curtain instilled in her a fierce love and appreciation for democratic ideals. As she explains how the Berlin Wall limited her opportunities, the film cuts to Donald Trump’s glorifying of his proposed wall at the Mexican border. The film’s uniting thread is that she approached the challenges she faced, including the European migrant crisis throughout the 2010s, with this singular guiding principle: To tear down walls and borders wherever they may arise in the name of freedom.
With so few revealing anecdotes to share, Weber squeezes poignancy from Merkel’s favorite entertainment. An East German song from her youth, a rousing oompah with a melancholic undertone, says a lot with very little: “You forgot to bring the color film, now no one will believe us how beautiful it was here.” A lively dance club scene from one of her favorite East German films, “The Legend of Paul and Paula,” plays as an early interview sees Merkel detailing how they circumvented the “60/40” rule of Eastern to Western music.
Merkel’s on-air interviews, translated from German, offer some of the most interesting tidbits. As often happens with archival interviews with women (and even still today), questions about her appearance or appeals to appear softer are awkward and uncomfortable, though they hardly seem to phase her. One show plays a Merkel a clip of her mother saying she was more playful as a child, which could be said of most people. By the way she raises her eyebrows, it’s clear she disputes the characterization.
“The defining feature of Angela is the lack of ego,” says Sir Tony Blair in his interview. “Most politicians want to be overestimated. She seemed to want to be underestimated.” Most of the pundits interviewed are in agreement that Merkel saw her role as one of service — to further democracy, freedom, and German prosperity — and that she never sought personal enrichment from her position. Even her most political move, which involved ousting Kohl after a donations scandal, seemed to be for the good of her party and in service of what was right. As Clinton points out, sure, it could be seen as opportunistic, but “that’s not just politics, that’s life.”
Clinton provides some color to the sometimes dry proceedings, telling of the time Merkel pulled her aside to ask what she thought about this Obama guy. Of course, the two would develop a warm diplomatic friendship throughout Obama’s presidency, born of their shared outsider status amongst world leaders. Former Obama staffer Ben Rhodes shares a telling story of their official farewell in 2016, when Obama remarks that he was surprised to see a tear in Merkel’s eye when she hugged him goodbye. “She’s all alone out there now,” he reportedly said.
Weber, who was born in West Germany but moved to the UK in 1991, approaches Merkel’s career from a unique point of view. She packages Merkel’s story enough for non-Germans who may not know the details of her life, while remaining politically neutral enough to stay credible to Merkel’s German detractors. Merkel’s dealings with Russia for oil, for example, does not go overlooked; neither does her unprecedented response to the refugee crisis and the backlash to it.
From her early days in East Germany, Merkel learned how to play things close to the chest. As the unassuming world leader who would rather get things done than draw attention to herself, that tactic served her strikingly well. She may not make the most exciting subject on personality alone, and the film shows that strain, but her remarkable life and accomplishments more than make up for it.
“Merkel” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.