Romuald Karmakar's Film "Hamburg Lectures"

It's the Little Things That Always Get in the Way

In his film Hamburg Lectures, director Romuald Karmakar turns the limelight on two sermons by Mohammed Fazazi, the Imam of the Hamburg Al-Quds mosque, which was regularly attended by some of the terrorists responsible for 9/11. Amin Farzanefar has seen the film

German director Romuald Karmakar (left) and Manfred Zapatka (photo: &copy Pantera film GmbH)
Karmakar strives to approach the state of mind of a "preacher of hate" not through popular clichés, but rather through the techniques of reductionism, alienation, and slow pacing

​​A man speaks about committing atrocities in a calm, expressionless voice, occasionally revealing an amused look on his face. He refers to the deserved destruction of the West and how its citizens are guilty of involvement in imperialist machinations.

The words are those of Mohammed Fazazi, the Imam of the Hamburg Al-Quds mosque, which had some of the 9/11 terrorists among its congregation. The man speaking the words, however, is an actor. Except for him, the viewers of Romuald Karmakar's "Hamburg Lectures" see and hear nothing else.

Reductionism, alienation, and slow pacing

Karmakar refers to the method used to stage Fazazi's two sermons from the year 2000 as "reconcretization." He strives to approach the state of mind of a "preacher of hate" not through popular clichés, but rather through the techniques of reductionism, alienation, and slow pacing.

The actor, Manfred Zapatka, sits in front of a white background and recites his text. Occasionally, he drinks from a glass of water. And not much more goes on. The audience reaction to the sermons is displayed in sub-titles (i.e. childish laughter), as are explanatory terms and the contents of notes that Fazazi responded to in the subsequent question-and-answer session.

A tempered pace, patience, and dialectical skills in guiding a discussion – these attributes don't correspond to what the media commonly portrays as the predispositions of preachers of hate, demagogues, and terrorists from the Middle East, namely the lack of any emotional constraint.

Instead, the tone here is rarely threatening nor is there much to be felt in the form of hate. In fact, it all seems strikingly unspectacular.

Holier than the Pope

Above all, Fazazi pursues an odd and extravagant exegesis of rules found in the Koran, at times taking into consideration the comprehensive commentary apparatus and sayings of the Prophet transmitted in the Hadiths.

A member of the audience asks if it is considered proper to allow a woman to travel alone in an airplane, even if they were accompanied to and picked up from the airport. No, came Fazazi's ruling, as the airplane might be forced to make an emergency landing and then the honor of the woman would be in jeopardy in the presence of strange men.

There is method in the Moroccan (who has since been sentenced to decades of imprisonment) assuming a role more holy than the Pope. It has to do with the Salafism movement, which holds that the standard for all aspects of modern life is to be found back in the 7th century – the time of Mohammed. Here, the film touches on a not insignificant connection underlying the events of 9/11:

Those sitting in the Hamburg auditorium are young men, migrants, who despite their extremist sense of mission are still also influenced by the life in Germany around them, particularly the emotional attachment to their neighbors, classmates, and friends.

Rigorous moralism

Yet, where everyday life threatens to undermined "higher morals," Fazazi shifts the perspective back to divine laws. With a few rhetorical slights of hand, he concludes that in times of war, even those who are only indirectly opposed to the victory of Islam can be considered its targets.

Whoever votes for a government that suppresses "Islam" is guilty – in other words, an enemy. Fazazi condemns men, women, and children to death merely on the grounds that they live in a democratic state. The consequences are well known; it is suffocating, however, to observe the original argumentation.

Currently, a debate has been sparked by the European screenings of the Hamburg Lectures. How can these sermons be rejected, while at the same time protecting society against a misappropriation of their content?

The film was prevented from being shown in Germany for a year-and-a-half despite – or on account of – its topicality. After the uproar over cartoon depictions, the debate about new mosques, and the arrest of terrorist suspects in Sauerland, there is a fear of flaring up prejudices and no desire to increase anxiety towards basement mosques and a parallel society.

In search of the internal logic of ideological madness

Karmakar has a different goal. He wants to strip the language of all external and incidental details in order to lay bare the internal logic of a destructive ideology.

This reduction could lead to an enlightening moment, creating both time and space for a sorely lacking closer analysis of the readiness to violence within Islam. And it may also indicate to a Western public that dialectic, rhetoric, and the skills of moderating a discussion enjoy a long, deeply-rooted tradition in Islam.

To discover this fact now on the basis of this most somber example surely says something about the current state of intercultural dialogue.

Karmakar should not be held responsible for this, yet his approach loses a decisive element – the "external logic" of flesh, skin, and bones, body and charisma – everything that the filmmaker wants to exclude and banish as "demonic." Yet, this is exactly what endows such various figures as demagogues, prophets, and saints with the power of impact.

Demagogues, prophets, and saints

Gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and mentality – all of these hold no interest for Karmakar, who chooses instead to grasp solely onto the pure word. It almost seems as if he aims to climb into Fazazi's head and somewhere in there find the unrelenting ticking gears producing the pure, concentrated message. It doesn't work like that, though.

Nonetheless, the Hamburg Lectures remains a fascinating experiment. The movie theater, the only suitable location for this more that two hours in length video, is transformed into a unique sphere of experience.

Whoever can bear the lack of movement and Karmakar's reductive approach, as well as those who can follow the meandering arguments put forward by Fazazi, will discover the starting point from which our world has been drastically altered over the last six years.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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