Der Fluss War Einst Ein Mensch (2011) (The River Used To Be A Man)
Jan Zabeil’s bone-rattling debut film The River Used To Be A Man (2011) revolves around an unnamed German tourist (Alexander Fehling) who embarks on a trip in the marshlands of Botswana. Early on, we see him on a boat – lying face upward, soaking in the atmosphere and, so to speak, reliving an imperial past – as an older local guide (Sariqo Sakega) rows him through the shallow river. He is the quintessential master of the universe that we have come to know through the movies: a young white male who can negotiate the thickest of woods and tame the wildest of rivers, an Übermensch for whom the world is a puzzle to be cracked, a finite space to be conquered. It is this all-too-pervasive, Caucasian, colonial Weltanschauung internalized by most of the world today that the film systematically dismantles when the guide suddenly dies in the middle of the forest and literally becomes the white man’s burden. The man dumps the corpse in the river and somehow ends up in the nearest village, where he is told that the deceased would come back for revenge unless his body is found. With no choice, he goes back, in vain, to look for the body, while occasionally witnessing the spectre of the dead man. We notice that he has not only acceded to the laws and beliefs of this pre-modern community but assimilated, interiorized and ratified it. Zabeil’s wildly inventive film tackles nothing less than the Enlightenment project itself – its Cartesian and Albertian perspectives and its ultimately arrogant repositioning of Man as the centre of the universe – and upends Renaissance-inflected rationalist approaches to filmic narrative. The final shot, in which the man – defeated and disturbed – looks outside the windows of his flight – presumably back home – only to feel as if he still floating in the river, is perhaps the most philosophically upsetting ending in cinema since The Birds (1963).