The unbelievable true story of Rudolf Manga Bell, an African king who leads a rebellion against Kaiser Wilhelm II's oppressive colonial rule at the start of World War I.
With this real-life tale of a nation’s struggle against colonialism, told across decades and set in two continents, writer, producer and director Adetokumboh M’Cormack makes a statement of intent to take the biggest swings possible in order to tell the stories of forgotten African heroes. These stories carry additional weight at a time when former colonial powers are being forced to re-examine their roles in historical injustices. Similarly, the African diaspora especially in the west is becoming more and more aware of inspirational figures who fought for freedom and independence, often against insurmountable odds.
To this end, M’Cormack commits fully to this little-known tale of Paramount King Rudolf Manga Bell of Cameroon, reigning under German rule. Where many productions would set the bar at cultural costumes and ‘African’ accents, this film remains true to not just the period but to the specific languages that would have been spoken, from the native Bantu language of the Douala to English to German. M’Cormack refuses to dilute the depiction of an African nation, instead exposing the audience to long-obscured facets of African culture and history, even in the yolk of colonisation.
M’Cormack commits further still by taking on the lead role of King Rudolf, impressively displaying humility and gravitas and carrying a quiet pride that slowly gives way to inner turmoil and finally outright defiance. The grounded nature of M’Cormack’s performance lends an authenticity to the film that is crucial to buying into its premise. When he holds court among the other Paramount chiefs, you believe that you are in the presence of a king. When Rudolph, in a key moment issues the command “Do not touch your king!” the audience is in no doubt that a king has spoken.
Credit must also be given to the performances of Constance Ejuma and Scottie Thompson as Queen Emily of Cameroon and Empress Augusta Victoria of Germany respectively. Both prove equal to the task of embodying the tone of their respective environments and acting as the moral compasses to their husbands/kings as the stakes of the story become clear. Over and above being mouthpieces for plot or theme, both actors use their limited screen time to imbue their characters with real human motives over and above the story’s abstract themes of freedom or power. Ejuma and Thompson’s efforts to make their characters tangible people rather than just characters, makes the world in which they exist that much more real for the audience.
There is more than a touch of Moses and Ramses in this struggle for freedom that puts two men raised as brothers in direct conflict with one another. Rudolph as the brother forced to protect his people with little more than faith against the awesome imperial might wielded by Kaizer Wilhelm II (Raphael Corkhill leaning into the dichotomy of Wilhelm's by turns composed and vengeful persona). As a result, there is a risk of the film overextending itself with such weighty material. Fortunately, the screenplay is very narratively economical and targeted in its depictions, ensuring that the film does not become bloated or unwieldy and keeping it to a very reasonable 20 minutes. In some ways this both hurts and helps the film as relationships and events are alluded to that the film does not have the capacity to fully explore. Conversely the editorial prioritising keeps the story on track, even allowing for a subplot that reconnects to the main narrative at its climax.
There is no skimping on craft as the film is brilliantly lensed and beautifully lit. Pivotal moments of drama show key characters illuminated only by firelight giving them an almost otherworldly aura. The scenes set in Cameroon frame the characters using deep colour and shadow. In contrast, the scenes featuring Wilhelm set in Berlin are lit and coloured in such a way as to create the sense of an opulent yet sterile environment, giving the impression of an empire with power but no soul. The kind of care taken in crafting this film is evident in almost every area, particularly costume and production design, making it that much easier for the audience to lose itself in King Rudolph’s journey and crucially, see the historical events depicted through his eyes rather than the colonial powers who have long framed (or erased) these stories.
The German King is a cinematic manifestation of ambition and commitment. M’Cormack succeeds in leading a team determined to show that epic storytelling is not beyond the capacity of short film. In doing so he shines a light on the rich well of history and culture within the African continent and its potential to translate not just to powerful short film but to powerful cinema.
Studio: Kinopicz American/Loma Manza Productions | Year: 2019 | Genre: Historical Drama/Biopic | Duration: 20 Mins | Suitability: Mature
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