Premiering at Telluride, “Merkel,” Eva Weber’s documentary on former Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, seems like a star-studded fête featuring many world leaders and dignitaries, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Notably missing, though, is the guest of honor, Merkel herself, who appears only via archival footage. What we have is a montage of interviews and speeches punctuated by punditry, and most commentators aren’t even from Merkel’s inner circle and thus can’t impart any intimate knowledge.
The film opens with Merkel’s 2019 Harvard commencement speech, which is a choice in and of itself, and juxtaposes that with former President Donald Trump disparaging her at a rally. The contrast is clear: She implored students to tear down walls, while he promised voters he’d build the wall. Weber will eventually circle back to drive this point home, but first we get some enthusiastic endorsements from Blair and Clinton.
Then the timeline jumps back to 1991 when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany appointed then 37-year-old Merkel to be the minister of women and youth. Interviewees casually acknowledge that she was an affirmative-action case, as Kohl needed women and East German representation in a cabinet that was filled with West German men.
During a TV appearance, we see an interviewer repeatedly interrupt and talk over Merkel. It was an egregious display of rudeness, but it’s unclear if Weber is consciously making a point of this. Men who are interviewed regularly will hardly notice this affront since the film isn’t explicitly spelling it out as one. Same with politicians commenting on Merkel’s physical appearance, makeup and wardrobe, and TV hosts asking her patronizing questions like her astrological sign. It’s all there, but Weber’s point won’t jump out at people who don’t find these sorts of micro-aggressions triggering.
Then again, Weber herself is at times taking this same fashion-magazine profile approach, making a big deal out of trivia like Merkel’s favorite films and the pop ditties that played over her farewell ceremony in 2021.
It’s not until this point that the documentary finally begins to touch on Merkel’s biographical background and upbringing in East Germany. She worked at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences in her previous life, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reunification of Germany was obviously a huge turning point that prompted her to enter politics. But Weber extrapolates an overwhelming amount of contextual stuff, to the point that Merkel’s own life story often seems anecdotal.
Per the film, the most defining moments of Merkel’s political career were Kohl’s downfall in 1999, her dealings with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and opening the border to Syrian refugees in 2015. When Kohl was embroiled in an illegal-donation scandal, Merkel wrote a scathing newspaper editorial that some perceived as backstabbing the man known as her political foster father. Even Clinton of all people characterizes this move as opportunistic.
Despite being fluent in Russian, Merkel had a fraught relationship with Putin. The commentators note that Germany unwittingly enabled Russia because of its dependence on inexpensive Russian energy supplies. Finally, Merkel’s open-border policy drew Germany’s xenophobes out of the woodwork.
It’s kind of myopic to view Merkel’s legacy exclusively through the lens of diplomacy. After this entire documentary, we still have no clue how she moved the political needle domestically. We have no idea whether her politics were generally on the liberal or conservative end of the spectrum, the platform she ran on, or what her signature policies were beyond the immigration initiative. We don’t get a sense of what the average German thought of her, aside from the fact that they resented all the refugees she admitted into Germany.
Although Weber is a German filmmaker based in London, she seems to target Americans as the film’s audience. She devotes a huge chunk to Merkel’s relationships with Trump and former President Barack Obama. That, along with the aforementioned Harvard commencement speech, imbues the film with an American gaze. Of course, there’s much more to Merkel’s legacy that does not concern Americans, such as the Greek bailout deal, and the film doesn’t deem any of that worthy of discussion.
We don’t really get much of a sense of who Merkel is or what makes her tick, either. A chorus of interviewees praises her scientific mind and approach, and that’s really about it. The most telling insights actually come from a TV interview with her mother, Herlind Kasner, but inexplicably the film buries most of it in the credit sequence.
It’s also quite a choice for Weber not to present Merkel’s timeline chronologically — and the film is poorly structured on top of that. You don’t get any kind of rising action, climax or falling action. Weber could have easily averted this by allowing Merkel’s own career trajectory to be the story arc. Aside from how the fall of the Berlin Wall shaped her view on refugees, the film really doesn’t have much else to say.
While it’s not unusual to build an entire documentary around an uncooperative subject, it’s generally a last resort reserved for when a subject is disgraced or dead. “Merkel” is at best fodder for an hour-long TV news special. It’s woefully insufficient as a documentary feature.
“Merkel” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.