At 6:14am on 8 August 1989, a black man sits in the carriage of a Stuttgart city train as inspectors pass through and examine passengers’ tickets. Having a pass valid for one zone only a white inspector tells the black man that he must depart at the next stop. The man, confused, explains that his ticket is good for travel, but the inspector insists that he must leave upon arrival at the next stop. As it becomes clear that the black man is not going to leave his seat the ticket white inspector grows more aggressive. The two men tussle and the white ticket inspector is left with a bloody nose as the black man flees the train.
A little less than three hours later, at 9:08am, two German police officers are stabbed upon a Stuttgart bridge and lay dying alongside three of their injured colleagues. Amongst the blood on Gaisburger Bridge is the perpetrator, a black man, shot dead by the police.
The black man was a Cameroonian immigrant named Frederic Otomo and the two events of that day are real.
What happened in the intervening hours between 6:14am and 9:08am on that August day in 1989 is unknown, and the inspiration for Frieder Schlaich’s film, Otomo. Using the two incontestable facts of that day as bookends, Schlaich seeks to dramatize the hours leading up to that final deadly encounter on Gaisburger Bridge. Otomo is an intense fictional meditation on the issues of intolerance, race, immigration, violence, altruism, and humanity in Western society.
We meet Frederic Otomo (Isaach de Bankolé) in the pre-dawn hours of 8 August as he prepares himself for a day’s work. The somber dedication with which he performs his daily tasks portends of a later trouble, one that even Otomo himself is unable to articulate or foresee. Rising early, Otomo is hopeful that this day he will be successful in finding a stable, well-paying job and finally have the means to leave the seedy charity hotel where he has been living.
With only a temporary passport for identification Otomo is brusquely and derisively turned away from the employment agency. Clearly frustrated and dejected, Otomo boards the city’s subway where he is soon confronted by the aggressive ticket inspector and sets in motion the fateful events of that day. The police become involved and soon a manhunt is underway. The scale of the police search seems wholly disproportional to the severity of his crime, but the xenophobic undercurrent clearly illustrates a larger truth about the unrelenting pursuit (of some) to rid the world of any and all ‘Otherness’.
Having lost his bag and identification in the altercation with the ticket inspector, Otomo is now even more marginalized than before. Wandering around Stuttgart, he is made to quickly consider his actions and the course of his future, while being constantly reminded of his outsider status. In verbal bursts of hostile abuse and tacit displays of fear and suspicion, the racism Otomo encounters is real, unwavering, and crushing. (Unfortunately, the dramatization of this theme is stretched into disbelief as the filmmakers make Otomo the only black man in all of Stuttgart.)
At a truck depot Otomo meets a driver who is willing to smuggle him into Holland for a fee. Otomo, fearful yet quietly hopeful, goes out searching for ways to quickly acquire some cash and leave Stuttgart behind. Along the banks of a cluttered and dank water canal he meets a young girl and her grandmother and, unsuccessfully, tries to rob them. The young grandmother, Gisela (Eva Mattes), intrigued and unafraid, engages Otomo in conversation and soon learns the difficult details of his situation.
Gisela, wanting to help, brings Otomo back to her daughter’s flat and eventually gives him the money he needs to pay the truck driver. Having secured the money needed, Otomo makes his way back to find the truck driver, but the unfortunate series of events continue as he arrives at the truck depot only to realize the driver has already left without him. Shortly after leaving the truck station Otomo is spotted walking on Gaisburger Bridge and confronted by several police officers. Like an animal hunted and encircled by a cruel master, Otomo is finally cornered and cannot escape. As more police officers are called to the scene a frustrated, desperate, and enraged Otomo lashes out and stabs the officers before he is finally shot dead himself.
As played here (in a taut and forceful performance by De Bankolé) Otomo is an austere, puzzling, and thoroughly complicated man. By virtue of his physical presence a constant dichotomous mix of fear, sympathy, hatred, and kindness seems to meet him wherever he goes. Rightly, this film does not absolve Frederic Otomo of his crimes nor, however, does it condone the insidious racism and poisonous fear that fueled the circumstances of that day.
It cannot be denied that the overall aim of Otomo is noble but, unfortunately, the movie trips over its own ambition and earnestness. At too many points in the film the methodical (and highly effective) pacing of the action is betrayed by overly contrived storylines that stretch the narrative into disbelief. One glaring example of this is the main subplot involving the pursuing police officers. Heinz and Rolf (Hanno Friedrich and Barnaby Metschurat), as the quotidian yet menacing cops, exist only as archetypes and remain completely one-dimensional. Their motives and character traits are written too broad to accomplish the meditative tone Schlaich strives for.
Frederic Otomo was but one face in the endless shadow army of immigrant labor that exists in every sizeable city throughout the world. His story and life as a known, but never acknowledged, ghost working amongst the (“legitimate”) people deals with many topical themes and is worthy of more examination. While certain specifics of this tragedy may speak with a greater relevancy to German audiences, Otomo is a film whose ruminative scrutiny on race relations is pertinent to all. (It would have been beneficial to non-German audiences if the DVD had included some supplemental news stories or television clips detailing the real-life events of that day. But, unfortunately, the disc extras are limited to a short film and the movie’s trailer).
Otomo is a stark and compelling piece of cinema that just narrowly fails to succeed.