“Cannibalistic instincts”

The wording of this enthusiastic review by Hans Wollenberg, a liberal film critic, is a telling example of how decisive racial stereotypes were in the late 1920s and, apparently, what bias Ross’s accompanying lectures generated.

In general the reviews of the Berlin premiere of Die erwachende Sphinx, which followed the screenings in Hamburg and Leipzig, show a variety of political, ideological, and cultural assessments, but colonial and racial perspectives dominated. Even though the narrative of the film, in Wollenberg’s view, lent itself to a genuine Kulturfilm that synthesized and objectified the perspective of the explorer, the journalist, and the filmmaker, he nevertheless reiterates unassailable, racial clichés ingrained at least since the 18th century and reinforced in a colonial context.1 For Wollenberg, the “negro’s [...] cannibalistic instincts” are awakened by an elephant’s carcass and his “wild primitiveness” reveals itself in dancing rituals “of an elementary compulsivity”.

The reviewer’s interpretation follows a middle-of-the-road argument: neither the social and/or intellectual emancipation of the black population (threatening the hegemony of the white people) nor revisionist German colonial politics figure as extreme positions in his approach (see the contrasting views in The social democratic interpretation of racial tensions and Racial tensions as an argument for new global politics). Consequently, atavistic, racial attributes seem natural and socially acceptable, even if Wollenberg, in describing Ross’s images, does mention the technologically educated, “civilized high-value [black] worker”, too. That the reviewer seems to want to have it both ways reveals the disorientation that characterized a number of leftist accounts on racial and colonial issues.

Katalin Teller

H. W-g. [Hans Wollenberg]. Die erwachende Sphinx. Lichtbild-Bühne: 1927 Nov 24; 20 (281); 2.

Topic: Race
Case: Speaking engagements


1 Ulrike Hamann. Prekäre koloniale Ordnung: rassistische Konjunkturen im Widerspruch. Deutsches Kolonialregime 1884-1914. Bielefeld: transcript; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter; 2016.

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