An excellent first draft. Set during the early days of the Great War, The German King tells the story of King Douala Manga Bell of Cameroon and his battle against the German occupation. The film traces his metamorphosis from European collaborator to earnest rebel, to martyr of the Cameroon people. It is a fascinating forgotten tale from history that does need further exploring.
This is a well-shot and acted film. The German King tries to make up for its shortfalls of the script, scope, and budget with solid acting and camera work. In particular, it’s lead. Writer/ producer/ director/ star Adetokumboh McCormack is that rarest of creatures—an indie director who is a good enough actor to carry a scene. He delivers a Shakespearean performance laden with gravitas and internal conflict.
The rest of the cast of The German King doesn’t quite keep up.
The framing sequence of Douala’s letter to his son is a particularly powerful touch. Making the story personal and putting you in the shoes of the reader. Allowing Manga Bell to tell his own story adds a layer of emotional weight to the whole affair, but it also highlights some of the problems with the short.
“…the story of King Douala Manga Bell of Cameroon and his battle against the German occupation……”
The primary problem is that the filmmaker’s ambitions are bigger than his ability to carry them out. Like an earnestly written letter, the entire story is told second and third hand. The entire movie is people talking to each other in ornate or at least well-dressed sets. The German King doesn’t show the violence that drove Douala Manga Bell to revolt. We don’t see the suffering of his people, we only hear about it in gilded chambers told to him by representatives in fine silks and linens. We also don’t see what drove his friend Sultan Ibrahim to betray him to his colonial masters, or any hint of conflict from Kaiser Wilhelm at pushing his expansionist agenda. I’m not saying they weren’t villains. I’m just saying without some justification they come off as cartoonish and two dimensional. Mustache twirling villains ready to tie a damsel to the train tracks. Without added context, we get a simple morality play that no amount of great acting can add depth to.
And there is a problem with The German King from a story perspective. Douala Manga Bell never got past the planning stage of his revolution. All he managed to accomplish was letters suggesting a course of action. And that is the crime that Sultan Ibrahim got him arrested for. That act of defiance isn’t very cinematic. To McCormack’s credit, he did focus on the interrogation of Manga Bell, which did play beautifully. But it is difficult to imagine a scene with him sitting at a desk composing various letters and getting them ready to post as being at all interesting.
Filmed on a shoestring budget from a crowdsourcing campaign, The German King is an excellent first draft for what I hope will be a more expansive and comprehensive feature-length film. Producer/ writer/ director/ star Adetokumboh McCormack has the acting and directing chops to helm this project. What remains to be seen is if he has the vision and the financial backing to pull it off.