Thompson: On the road in a divided Europe

14 Jun

Any violence in Europe right now, especially between these nations, is impacted by how fierce the nationalism is becoming. The anger feels old in some circles about people in places like Molenbeek. A week ago, while reporting around Europe, talking about the current state of politics, I ended up in one conversation that made me suspicious of anything I think I know. This is a complicated place, as my interview with a film director on a big lot of soundstages in Hamburg reminded me. David Wnendt made one of the most popular movies in Germany last year, called “Look Who’s Back.” By its third week, it overtook Pixar’s “Inside Out” for the top spot.

It’s a comedy about Hitler.

Based on a best-selling book, the premise is that Adolf Hitler awakens in modern Germany on the spot of his former bunker. In the novel, the jokes are about Hitler interacting with modern society, like trying to sign up for email and finding that is already taken. But Wnendt wanted to do something different — possibly insane and career-killing if it hadn’t worked — which was to test the central hypothesis of the book. So he dressed up an actor like Hitler, in full military uniform. They got a small crew together — with the make-up team following in a car to affix the moustache each morning — and traveled all around Germany for 14 days.

He didn’t know what to expect.

Germany prides itself on its civil rights, accepting of many kinds of people, deeply ashamed of its Nazi past. Would people attack the film crew?

Would somebody break the actor’s nose?

To even obtain Hitler’s Nazi uniform, Wnendt needed a letter from the producers promising it was for legitimate purposes. Some events they pre-arranged but others they just did on the fly: What would happen if we, say, took Hitler into this bar?

Most laughed. Only once, in Munich, did people react angrily to the actor. Wnendt would call the film’s producers and tell them what was happening: people posing for selfies with Hitler, many in on the joke, but always a few who told him that Germany needed a strong leader and to do something about immigrants. “No matter where we’d go,” Wnendt says, “we’d immediately find somebody who wanted to rant about immigrants or Islam. It really did change my view of Germany. It opened my eyes to what kind of crisis we’re in, not only in Germany but all over Europe.”

The producers didn’t really believe Wnendt. Not until they saw the footage he brought back, which he used alongside the regular fictional movie scenes. “They live in Munich and they drive their big cars,” he says, “but if you really go on a tour of the country, you get a very different view. The angriest were white men over 50. They were living good lives and had no contact with any Muslims or refugees, but if you talked to them about this subject, they would talk with such rage and anger about it. They have the feeling the world is getting more and more complex and they are losing their Germany.”

By the end of the movie, it’s not a comedy. Hitler has somehow become popular again, the final scene giving voice to Wnendt’s fear about this strange time in Europe. “It’s not clear which way it will go, but definitely we are on a turning point,” he says. “It can go either way. It’s a good time to be more active, to be political, to definitely go vote. In Austria, you can see every vote counts. No matter where it goes, it’s not gonna go away. It’s something that is going to influence all of our lives.”

A TAXI DROPPED us off in one of Molenbeek’s big squares.

We watched the organizers set up. A man carried trays of food inside.

The event was to raise awareness and money to build soccer fields here. At a nearby pitch, a local team would play against teams representing Germany, France and the Netherlands. It took place within eyeshot of the former apartment of one of the Paris attackers; the mayor can see it out her window. Many of the visiting players were escorted to the party by a police officer, walking through the neighborhood, and once safely inside, seven cops and two huge dogs stood in the town hall vestibule, while two soldiers carrying assault rifles waited a block away outside the metro stop.

However bad the optics, the need for security made some sense. Molenbeek is a complicated place; a decade ago, a journalist went undercover here. She found imams luring people to violence and spoke to a leader who sent young men to a military training camp in southern Belgium. That leader is now fighting in Syria. So there’s a reason to have some muscle on display, but the whole thing seemed less like a coming together and more like a metaphor for the divide. Or a recruiting video for the radical preachers who prey on people’s sense of otherness and disenfranchisement. At least two cops wore Velcro patches on the back of their body armor, asking for protection from St. Michael, the patron saint of warriors, which again made total sense and is their absolute right, but you can just see how that detail would get wound into a sermon denouncing the west.

Local women walked past pushing strollers or holding hands of children. Some people slowed to look but almost everyone kept going. Inside, during this month of Ramadan, when Muslims don’t eat during the day, a large spread of food dotted tables. A bar served wine and champagne to go with the ham and salami sandwiches (obvious hospitality to most but more fodder for the recruiters: alcohol and pork!). A little drizzle fell outside, to go with slate gray skies. A kid walked past with her mom and grinned and said, “Look at the dogs!” Her mom kept her moving. A brass quintet set up near the outdoor stage for a press event, complete with podium and national flags. The men played Bach. Thirteen people gave speeches to a crowd of foreign players, print and television journalists, and a handful of curious locals. More people gave speeches than residents of Molenbeek came out to listen.

Near the end, a European parliament member and dairy farmer helped present four yellow milk cans, designed to be used to raise funds for the football fields of Molenbeek, while the two trumpeters played regal flurries. From the stage, the mayor defended her city, which she says has been reduced to a cliché in the news accounts. “We’ve been hurt by the coverage,” the mayor said, “and we’ve been hurt to learn that some people from Molenbeek were part of the attacks in Paris and Brussels.”

She isn’t wrong about much of the coverage, because nothing is as simple as a daily story or television report renders it, and 100,000 people live in Molenbeek, nearly all of them peacefully. These dispatches are moments in time from imperfect observers, parachuted in to capture something we can never fully understand. But perhaps the one benefit of dropping in is that you notice things that perhaps don’t get noticed from inside something, like how ridiculous it is to serve pork and alcohol at a heavily guarded bridge-building event in a neighborhood plagued by jihadist recruiters. You notice simple things, such as the world just out of frame.

Two or three blocks away, in another large square similar to the empty one surrounding the press event, kids of all ages played and ran around and laughed. One rode a hoverboard. Another circled on roller-blades. Two boys shadow boxed. Kids made fun of their friend riding his bike, calling him “fatty.” And sitting on the stoop of an old church, built long before the neighborhood changed, a group of boys leaned over their two books of the famous Panini stickers, the rest of the world’s version of baseball cards, where kids (and more than a few adults) collect stickers of players, trading duplicates, searching for the ones that are difficult to find. One of the boys grinned, holding up his 2014 World Cup book proudly and saying, “I have all of them.” It all felt like one more missed chance, these two groups of earnest people who love soccer just blocks from each other, getting further apart every day.


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