Tuesday, Sep. 29 was marked by the first event in a series on Black art and activism in Germany. On this Zoom livestream, sponsored by numerous departments on campus and in collaboration with the German department at Davidson College, students were joined by Nigerian-German director, screenwriter and actor Sheri Hagen. Prior to the question and answer session, attendees were asked to watch Hagen’s 2012 movie, “Auf Den Zweiten Blick” or “At Second Glance.” It was her first feature-length film.
The film follows three couples with visual impairments as they grapple with feelings of loneliness and disconnection in the heart of Berlin. The film is stark, relying on sensory experiences to play a large part in the plot. Through shifts in subjectivity, blurred images and lighting changes, Hagen seeks to highlight what visual impairment means and feels like. Her more intimate scenes utilize handheld cameras that shoot so tight of a frame that the audience is allowed to feel and “even smell” the characters, she said. Hagen goes as far as to characterize the camera as a partner. This “circle game,” as she calls the film, is cut into episodes, connecting the characters to each other and to the audience.
The setting of Berlin in the winter becomes central to the effect that the movie has on the audience. Hagen even explicitly cited the city as being a seventh character because she believed a story like this could only happen in Berlin, where the people react towards each other in a distinctly different way from other cities. The history of division and brokenness that Berlin has experienced lends to the theme of isolation that the characters also experience, especially in the winter when the bitterness of cold can make it more difficult to connect to others. Reggie Moore, an American jazz pianist living in Berlin, created the soundtrack that meanders its way through the movie. Hagen worked closely with him throughout the filmmaking process to create atmospheres that would act as tools to bring people together. “It’s a film about humanity,” Hagen says.
In conversation with Hagen, Emily Frazier-Rath, Visiting Assistant Professor of German Studies from Davidson College, moderated the panel and questioned Hagen on her process creating the film. Hagen explained that her priority in creating this movie was to give a voice to a diverse group of people. She hardly saw Black people on screen in Germany, so she knew how it felt to feel out of place. Her desire for representation grew out of that distinct experience. It is also important to her that when she writes something specific, like blindness, into a character, she does a lot of research to make sure that they are portrayed accurately and truthfully. “I want them to feel I take them seriously,” she explained.
What resulted was a film where the title implies much of the theme — “At Second Glance” balances the hypervisibility and invisibility of minorities in Germany. It synthesizes her experience as well as what she has learned about the visually impaired community. She spoke thoughtfully about dealing with pain and the way that people can learn from one another to form communities, saying, “We want to be able to take care of each other.” The conversations she has and the way she approaches filmmaking make that apparent. Hagen’s production company and more information about her work can be found at equalityfilm.com.