Given the rise of supremacist and ultra-nationalist parties and movements around the world, the movie “Je suis Karl” seeks to educate its audience on the dangerous potentials of contemporary right-wing extremism. Unfortunately, the movie provides an action- and drama-packed story rather than confronting the viewer with the unsettling reality of far-right violence and terrorism in Germany and beyond.
The political thriller “Je suis Karl” aims to warn about the so-called New Right in Germany and Europe. However, the movie misses the opportunity to convey a realistic portrayal of processes of (online) radicalization, does not foster a deep understanding of the contemporary far right’s strategies and must be criticized for presenting white Germans as the most prominent victims of far-right violence. This points towards the more general question of how fictional stories can do justice to the rise of the far right, its societal impact and (deadly) consequences beyond the TV or cinema screen.
The German-Czech co-production directed by Christian Schwochow premiered during the 2021 Berlinale and is available on Netflix as well as having been shown in German cinemas since September 2021. The movie tells the story of young female protagonist Maxi, who loses her mother and two twin brothers in a bombing attack on her house. At first, the bombing seems to be an act of Islamist terrorism but, as the viewer gets to know half an hour into the movie, was actually perpetrated and purposefully staged by Karl, the young male leader of the far-right youth movement Re/Generation Europe, with the intention of stirring up anti-Muslim sentiments.
Grieving her mother and siblings and unable to find comfort in the company of her father, Maxi runs into Karl near the ruins of her parents’ house, which leads to her attending a pan-European meeting of Re/Generation Europe in Prague. She finally joins the movement and publicly endorses it in her capacity as a surviving victim of a (supposedly) Islamist terror attack, partly motivated by her romantic involvement with Karl. Her public endorsement during the rally of a far-right french politician, as well as the carefully planned staging of Karl’s suicide as an assassination by Re/Generation’s political enemies, finally lead to an escalation of societal tension into violent riots and civil-war-like scenarios all over Europe.
A scholarly critique
The movie has received mixed reviews and been particularly criticized for muddling plausibility and structure in its storyline and a “more eye-rolling than spine-chilling” last act. However, it should also be critiqued from a scholarly point of view.
To begin with, the portrayal of Re/Generation Europe, clearly modelled on the pan-European Movement Generation Identity shows that the director has done his homework when it comes to the branding and aesthetic strategies (1) the contemporary New Right has adopted from liberal-left and progressive movements and campaigns. Re/Generation is portrayed as a youthful community of intelligent millennials, united in their wish to resist the alleged “Great Replacement” of white Europeans by non-European immigrants. At times the movie risks uncritically adopting the image that Generation Identity paints of itself. Nevertheless, it gives an impression of how the New Right does not rely on established fascist vocabulary and symbolism but promotes a new kind of white supremacist lifestyle. Namely, one which is heavily social-mediatized and reproduced through modern visual communication, ‘hip’ political merchandise, (at times hyper-referential) irony and humor, hip-hop lyrics and the staged activist identities and (pseudo-) intellectuality of its leaders. Similarly, some scenes show that Re/Generation strategically uses true or made-up stories about crimes (supposedly) committed by immigrants to portray white Europeans as victims, and racialized others as the perpetrators. This can make the viewer aware of how the real New Right actively perpetuates myths of white (European) victimhood (2) to frame ethnic or religious minorities as an urgent threat to German and European lives.
Fictional stories should offer a realistic portrayal of radicalisation processes
However, the movie has major weaknesses that limit its potential to sensitize the viewer to the dangers of the New Right. Firstly, the fictional story presented in “Je suis Karl” not only lacks plausibility but also does not revolve around an authentic process of (online) radicalization. Surely, Re/Generation leader Karl finding protagonist Maxi in an extremely vulnerable position and manipulating her into joining his movement can be read as a metaphor for how the far-right aims to address individuals that feel lost and lonely and provide them with a sense of purpose and community. However, rather than in offline, face-to-face encounters, it is often on the internet that teenagers and young adults are exposed to an aesthetically appealing, intellectualized, often humorous right-wing extremist counterculture, communicated through memes and other entertaining and potentially viral online formats such as TikTok videos (3).
As Simon Strick points out in his recent book Rechte Gefühle (‘Far-right feelings’) (4), (digital) fascism today is not lingering on the dark fringes of society but is just a few clicks away and available to everyone with a smartphone and access to the internet, anywhere, anytime. Young adults do not need to have lost their house and half of their family in a bomb attack to be exposed or become susceptible to the far right. Naturally, simplifications and condensations of complex radicalization processes and dynamics are necessary when creating a movie for younger, non-expert audiences, as Schwochow aimed to do. Nevertheless, a story set in the exact place where many young adults are – namely on the internet – rather than one focusing on the toxic relationship between manipulative Karl and victimized Maxi would have had more potential to sensitize youngsters, parents, teachers and other (non-expert) audiences for processes of far-right (online) radicalization happening around the globe all the time.
Entertainment should not distort the educational mission
Related to this, the movie fails to sufficiently illustrate how the New Right strives for cultural dominance and political power, not primarily through spectacular and violent street battles but by attempting to infiltrate, influence and ultimately control every sphere of society. While the movie includes a scene where Karl states that all-encompassing cultural and intellectual hegemony is the ultimate goal, the movie misses the opportunity to educate the viewer on how this aim is reached. It falls short of illuminating how the New Right not only profits from, but strategically drives the radicalization of everyday public discourses and practices. This aims not only to make racist statements ‘sayable’ in public but to establish white supremacism, antisemitism, (anti-Muslim) racism, misogyny and anti-LGBTQI+ attitudes as legitimate and valid opinions in public discourse.
The New Right’s major battleground is thus the pre-political arena where they aim to (re-)define what is considered ‘normal’ in (German/European) society and recruit mercenaries of all ages and professions to join their army of (online) dissidents, fighting against the alleged dominance of ‘woke mobs’ and the ‘leftist-green’ mainstream on social media, in commentary sections and in the established media. Indeed, the success of the New Right needs no imagination or fiction but manifests itself, among others, in how far-right frames and talking points drive the topic selection of political debates on (public service) TV or when established political personas like the former head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and member of the Christian Democratic party (CDU) Hans-Georg Maaßen spread far-right conspiracy narratives and agitation.
Naturally, emphasizing the discursive strategies of the New Right does not mean that fictional stories should de-emphasize that the New Right is actively encouraging and inciting (deadly) violence as the ‘hunting down’ of ethnic minorities by right-wing extremists in the city of Chemnitz, references to the ‘Great Replacement narrative in the propaganda material produced by the Hanau and Halle terrorists as well as connections between the Christchurch attacker and Generation Identity illustrate. Moreover, militant right-wing extremists do indeed fantasize about a revolutionary ‘Day X’ when they will seize power in a civil-war like scenario and deport, imprison or execute racialized and religious minorities and political enemies. But rather than illustrating what such a day could look like with sensationalist explosions, gunshots and special effects, a movie that aims to raise viewers’ awareness of the deadly potential of far-right agitation should focus on what would (and already has) made such an escalation possible. Here, elements in the storyline that direct attention to the (real) existence of military trained, right-wing extremist groups within the police and the German army or to the the amount of firearms in the possession of extremist groups and individuals would certainly leave the viewer unsettled, however also provide them with a realistic idea about the state of far-right radicalization.
Fictional stories should not marginalize the actual victims of far-right violence
Finally, probably the biggest shortcoming of “Je suis Karl” is that the story evolves solely around the white German protagonist Maxi, while making invisible people with migrant backgrounds as the primary targets of far-right violence. The fact that Maxi appears as a victim not only of Karl’s manipulations, but also of a seemingly random terrorist attack distorts the fact that far-right terror in most cases is not randomly directed towards a white (German) majority, but purposefully targets ethnic and religious minorities. The latter however only appear in marginalized roles throughout the movie: As refugee Yusuf, a side character with no backstory or discernible character traits, who helps Maxi’s father to find his daughter and comforts both of them during the far-right street riots; as three teenage boys harassing Maxi on the street in the beginning of the movie and, finally, as a nameless man and woman, chased and shot by far-right militias at the end of the movie. “Je Suis Karl” thus fails to empathize with the victims of far-right violence. Indeed, even when the violence escalates into street riots and the execution of ethnic minorities, the focus stays on Maxi and her suffering. Meanwhile the actual victims remain strangers throughout the movie, nameless and blurry figures on the margins, without a story, without attributes, without feelings, without families and friends who love and care for them. They thus do not emerge in their capacity as human beings whose lives matter and with whom the viewer can empathize, but as supporting acts for the main plot centered around the white protagonist. Here, especially the brutal execution of two Black characters does not direct the viewer’s attention to their fear and pain or how their murder devastates their friends and families lives, but purely serves as an illustration of how badly far-right violence has escalated. Given the fact that far-right terror and violence in Germany has claimed at least 208 lives since 1990, a movie that wants to warn viewers about the dangers of the contemporary far-right should do a better job in making visible what it means for those who are its primary targets.
The need for uncomfortable fiction
This critique leads to the broader question of how fictionalized stories can foster public awareness of the rising far-right threat in Germany and Europe. While the portrayal of the New Right’s aesthetic and communicative strategies in “Je suis Karl” testify to the director’s familiarity and insight when it comes to the contemporary far-right, the movie primarily aims to entertain a (white majority) German audience. It therefore delivers an action-packed story with a shocking escalation and marginalizes ethnic and religious minorities’ perspectives, rather than using fiction to deliver fact-based insights into far-right radicalization and foster empathy with the victims of extremist violence. Future storytelling should learn from these shortcomings and profit from exchanges between the creative industry, scholars and experts on the (global) far-right as well as NGOs or associations that represent marginalized and victimized communities in order to ensure an appropriate portrayal of the far-right perpetrators while not neglecting the victims’ perspective. Moreover, future fiction productions on the contemporary far-right must dare to be uncomfortable, rather than primarily entertaining: They should not leave the viewer shocked by an (implausible) fictional doomsday scenario but unsettled in face of the real-life success and deadly consequences far-right violence has (had) in Germany and beyond.
- Hornuff, Daniel, “Die Neue Rechte und ihr Design”, transcript, 2019
- Schmalenberger, Sophie “Victimhood Visualized: The German New Right, Social-Mediatized Commemoration and the Orchestration of Far-Right Affects”, Conference Paper for the ECPR, 2020
- Weimann, Gabriel and Masri, Natalie,“Research Note: Spreading Hate on TikTok”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2020
- Strick, Simon, “Rechte Gefühle”, transcript, 2021