Filling the gap
These scenes from the “lecture film” Die erwachende Sphinx cover the central, albeit disputable and disputed, claim of the film with regard to colonialism.
After building up a tension between the suppressed black workers and the emerging educated black class (contrasted by their marching bands, too) in South Africa, Ross introduces the harmonious working conditions on a farm of a German émigré. As the intertitles in a mining sequence put it, “all hard and dirty work is done by the blacks (...), who dig out this wealth from the soil” while forced to live “in compounds behind barbed wire”. The advances they make because of their education, however, cannot be channeled into more specialized work, as the “color barrier” does not allow them to take up positions appropriate to their new skills. The act ends on the question, “Is there an impending shadow on the wall?”
The subsequent scenes, obviously meant to contrast with the previous sequence, show a cotton plantation managed by a German farmer. The farmer manages a well-organized agricultural community and teaches his workers how to operate a tractor—a clear answer to the question asked at the end of the previous act. By introducing black workers to modern technology that will bring them profits (measured by the portions of grain they receive), the potential of the colonizers’ know-how is defined unambiguously. Surely, the prerequisite for this economic and social model is the preservation of the (colonial) power structure’s status quo.
Because of the lack of intertitles in the film’s second part live comments could steer the reception of the images in any way desired. At the Leipzig premiere, for example, Ross’s lecture filled this gap by propagating Germany’s new colonial activity (see Serving colonial revisionism). Thus he modified the somewhat nostalgic intertitles at the beginning of the film with regard to the loss of Germany’s colonies.1
Colin Ross. Die erwachende Sphinx. Mit Colin Ross vom Kap nach Kairo. Germany: Ufa; 1927.
35mm | b&w | silent | 2224m (documented length of the premiere version: 2792m [6 acts])
Archive: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, signature 23821
Case: Speaking engagements
The impending shadow on the wall
1 For a thorough interpretation of the film see Tobias Nagl. Die Welt im Bild: Hans Cürlis, Colin Ross und die Weimarer Geopolitik. In: Die unheimliche Maschine. München: edition text + kritik; 2009; 341-369 (Forschungen zur Film- und Medienwissenschaft).