115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Racialized Regime of Representation: Tropes of Problematic Identification and Trivialization in Asian German Film

Zachary Fitzpatrick, University of Illinois at Chicago

Three German films demonstrate a range of styles, formats, and release contexts, but offer numerous continuities of Asian German representational content. In all three, intolerant German main characters mistreat Asian side characters. Yet, each film simultaneously trivializes the suffering of Asian characters, while inviting stronger identification with the reprehensible German characters.

Proposal: 

With this historical context, I turn to three films representing patterns of Asian German racism, utilizing a lens of cultural studies, as well as postcolonial and post-structuralist theory. Invoking cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s writings on representation, I will focus on the signification of “difference,” as expressed through the Asian bodies in three films: North Sea is Death Sea (Nordsee ist Mordsee, 1976), Sweet and Sour Neighbors (Nachbarn süß-sauer, 2014), and Wir are Young. We are Strong. (Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark., 2015). In all three, intolerant German main characters mistreat Asian side characters. Yet, each film simultaneously trivializes the suffering of Asian characters, while inviting stronger identification with the reprehensible German characters. Each film relies on stereotyping, one of the key ways of engendering difference. In the Western context, Orientalism serves as a specific discursive strategy for binarizing the Eastern, and in this case, Asian, Other. The portrayals of difference in these three films divide into roughly five general categories: racial slurs, the mocking of speech and accents, physical altercations, the burden of representation, and stereotypical markers of “Asianness,” whether internationally, in the Western world, or unique references within Germany. By transcending factors such as time, genre, and style, continuities of representation for Asian characters in German film emerge. Hall argues that “images do not carry meaning or ‘signify’ on their own. They accumulate meanings...across a variety of texts and media.” The "accumulation" in these films points to what he would refer to as a “racialized regime of representation” for Asian Germans.

Next, I turn to the role of spectatorial identification in the viewing of film to discern how the apparatus of cinema affects the racialized experiences depicted in each film. Finally, I will consult critical reception of each film, in order to determine the trends in each film’s reception, an important way to see how audiences actually negotiate meaning with seemingly “problematic” or “racist” films.