Disability in German Cinema

Amidst terrible encounters with tragedies like disability, war and climate change in Pakistan, I decided to look for alternative life style which would be more peaceful, humane and secure. Having my bachelor in Political science with European history as my minor, I started romanticizing western ideals of democracy. The ideas of Liberté, égalité, and fraternité from French revolution besides various other art tools like literature and films etc., played a bigger role in this image of western world in my mind. It is, however, after three years of my experiences in Germany that I decided to undress some of the cultural realities that shattered my dreams of equality and fraternity.


My arrival in Germany was not less than a tragedy. Being alone with disability and traumatized by war, it was not easy to surmount the integration challenge in a big city like Berlin. In such struggle for stability and integration, it happens most often that one gets disappointed and lands in the house of loneliness and sadness. As I said that I came to Germany with a bleeding soul, my colleagues and people around me, unfortunately, associated different stigmas and stereotypes with my sadness and loneliness. Most of them even distanced themselves in a strange way and never tried to interact again. I was, however, well-aware that all my sadness is because of the cultural difference and misunderstanding of my colleagues. The most difficult part of this experience was that powerful gaze of the people which made me suspicious about myself at first and then completely demotivated me from all engagements in political activities. In short, all these experiences forced me to look into cultural, political, and social standing of people with disability in Germany. In order to understand the status of people with disabilities in Germany, I decided to look into the films which play a bigger role in image construction.

This is my first article about cinema and disability and I would try to explain my experiences in Germany from the roles of various disabled characters in the films in different epochs of German history. I selected films because of many reasons. One reason is that art, in many cases, is considered to be innocent. It is, however, not true. Art is not just immoral sometimes but also dangerous. Another reason of selecting film is that this visual tool plays an important role in exploring and explaining the small details of any culture. Lastly, explaining my personal story through film character is to avoid emotional reasons and to look at disability from a more rational perspective in German culture. As this journey of exploring disability in German cinema is a long and gigantic task , I will divide it into various small articles in order to explain small things in a more detailed way.

Human deformity, be it physical or mental, has proved to be a source of repulsion or abjection. Most of us, when confronted by an entity that does not conform to the prescribed notion of normalcy, react with fear and prejudices. Well-known writer Longmoore is of the view that all the things that we reject and fear , "we often stigmatize and shun and sometimes seek to destroy". Famous circus "Freak" shows, for instance, are quintessential where deformed people exploit their outwardly appearance of "otherness" in the name of shock entertainment for the uniform masses.

Kaoro Yamamato is of the view that "difference is not inherent in any particular pattern of behavior or physical attribute. Society determines whether some individuals should be regarded as different by selecting certain facets of their being and then attaching to these facets degrading labels and interpretations".

This exploitation of deformity is one of the powerful tool found in the realm of visual media and cinema. The film industry, since its beginning, has initiated a number of stereotypes, which most of the time goes unnoticed or undetected by the mainstream audiences. For instance the first storytelling film with disability theme was Thomas Edison's "Fake Beggar" which made disability as a source of humor. These stereotyped images, after constant repetitions, eventually becomes a truth in the society and the same audience treat people with disabilities with fear and prejudices in real life. The problem with this kind of treatment is the isolation of people with disabilities from different flow of events like gatherings, social interactions and relationships besides the broader cultural and historical process.

Leonard Kriegel further explains that the image that dominated American narrative writing during the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century was the individual male, healthy in mind and body, who carves a sense of self out of a chaotic environment. A pure spirit and a strong body were such requisite traits that they became inseparable. Kriegel further explained that, " Physical health and moral virtue were virtually synonymous during the nineteenth century in American writing". In such an environment, people with disabilities were assigned immoral, weak or comic roles according to their physique while strong, muscular, men are assigned heroic roles.

German cinema has various ups and downs throughout its history. One thing that remain common, however, is the role of people with disabilities and the images and stereotypes associated with them. Starting in 1895 at Berlin Wintergreen, the German cinema went through various stages like Expressionism in Weimar Republic to the Hitler Euthanasia, followed by post WWII to modern ideas of acceptance where disability is still considered as a laughing matter in cinema.

Similarly, the ideas of identity by psychologists and social theorists of that time such as Sigmund Freud and George Simmel, some film makers also develop the ideas of "otherness" and "strangeness" through deformity or disability. Based on this historical understanding of cinema, we can assume that German society has still a long road to travel in the direction of inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities.

Before going deeper into specific films on critical level, one thing to know about German cinema is the intelligent set design and creative use of light and shadow in expressionist era which inspired the future generations of fantastic film (Horror movies) directors. The problem with this kind of movies is the depiction of physically or mentally disabled characters as either "monsters" or "people with supernatural powers". These fantastic movies not only play a bigger role in stigmatizing people with disabilities but also showing them as dangerous and threatening to the society.

This type of visual image production can play a havoc in times like corona when people rarely get a chance to interact in real life. I believe that we need to rethink about our ways of interacting with people and come out of these stereotyped images of different minority groups. Also, physical appearance has nothing to do with one's way of thinking. The next parts of this essay will go deeper into the various styles, set designs and attributes of disabled characters in different movies in different political systems starting from 1919 till now.