The weak white
Ross’s 1927 silent film Die erwachende Sphinx was shown in Austria as an “Urania-Film”, i.e. a product whose commercial rights were owned by the popular education institute Urania, which leaned rather heavily towards Red Vienna’s social democratic cultural policies. Urania’s film screenings were regularly accompanied by a lecture which, in this case, reflected the expectations of the ideologically informed audience with regard to the notion of race.
After its premiere in Linz the film was screened in Vienna with a lecture by Dr. Paul Schebesta, a missionary and explorer who had done research among Malaysian aborigines and, in 1929, would study the life and religion of Pygmies.1 The typescript, archived at Volkshochschularchiv Vienna, is most probably authorized by Ross. Besides toning down the colonial discourse, Ross seems to have emphasized the tension between races. Commenting on the sequences which depict mining in Southwestern Africa, he speaks of “two opposing worlds”, that of “the modest prehistoric man” and that of “the modern, greedy civilized man”. Here, black people have to “sweat blood” for the sake of white mine owners. However, it is exactly the “civilization of the West” that empowers the black population of Africa to protest against its enslavement and cry out “Africa to the Africans! Africa has awakened!” The threatening “clash of black and white”, as the lecture implies, might result in the defeat of white farmers and capitalists. “The black giant is stretching his limbs, he wants to live and wants to live his own life”.
By pleading for the autonomy of Africa’s indigenous population with its rich cultural traditions and its assimilatory capacities, Ross’s lecture locates the racial argument primarily in the field of economic exploitation and questions the whites’ hegemony.
Dr. Paul Schebesta. Die erwachende Sphinx [lang] . Österreichisches Volkshochschularchiv, Typoskript, B-VID Skio-Urania/Dok 219.
Case: Speaking engagements
1 Cf. Festschrift Paul Schebesta zum 75. Geburtstag. Gewidmet von Mitbrüdern, Freunden und Schülern. Wien-Mödling, St. Gabriel: Anthropos-Institut; 1963.