The impending shadow on the wall
The excerpted scenes from Die erwachende Sphinx, categorized as a “lecture film”, turned out to be crucial for the varying interpretations in Germany and in Austria. While in Germany colonial and racial arguments prevailed, in Austrian reviews the economic and social injustice towards the black population was dominant.
As the intertitles of the sequences showing a South African goldmine 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 thanks to their education, however, cannot be channeled into special fields of work, as the “color barrier” does not allow them to occupy appropriate positions. “Is there an impending shadow on the wall?” The social democratically-inspired interpretations in Austria, but also in Germany, considered the projected emancipation of these groups as an opportunity to attain equal rights (see The African “Wacht am Rhein” and The social democratic interpretation of racial tensions). The subtitle of the Urania typescript by Paul Schebesta Afrikas Völker im Widerstand gegen die Kolonisation durch Europäer (The peoples of Africa resist the colonization by Europeans) highlights the hopes of this development (see The weak white).
However, the subsequent scenes at the opening of act two show a cotton plantation managed by a German farmer; it is an obvious contrast to what has been depicted previously. The farmer, who heads a well-organized agricultural community and instructs his workers in how to operate a tractor, embodies a clear solution to the 'cliffhanger' on which the previous act ended. By inducting the workers into the modern technology that would bring them profits (embodied in the portions of grain they are given), the potential of the colonizers’ know-how are defined in an unambiguous way. The prerequisite of this economic and social model is, certainly, the conservation of the existing or projected (colonial) structure of power. Further evidence for this subordinate argument is Ross’s comment on the act of filming: in a caption to a photo he describes the depicted Kikuyu women dressed for a circumcision ritual “cheap extras”.1
Moreover, this second narrative in the film particularly served the purposes of a racial discourse: as there are almost no intertitles, live comments could steer the reception of the images in any desirable way. All the more so, as a number of scenes in the film offer an extremely ironic image of the black population: a worker who doesn’t know how to climb a ladder and has to be instructed in its use, or mineworkers who need to be shown how to push a coal minecart, as they try to move it from both sides. Such scenes easily underlined the perceived necessity of ‘civilizing’ the black population.
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