Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Sam—a Saxon, on Hulu

The racism Sam Meffire faced in his own native country was so bad, he joined the riot police, for the protection conferred by their reputation. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Yes, he was an East German, but he wasn’t always treated like one. Things were even more complicated after Reunification. Meffire’s story is told, with a don’t-take-it-as-gospel disclaimer in creators Jorg Winger, Christoph Silber, and Tyron Ricketts’ seven-part Sam—a Saxon, which premieres today on Hulu.

For Meffire (the son of a Marxist Cameroonian exchange student, who died under mysterious circumstances), the GDR could be a pretty racist place. His wife Antje and her democracy activist friends understood that, but their first priorities were democratic reforms, like free speech. Consequently, they are shocked when Meffire enrolls in the riot police’s exam, having been inspired by a chance encounter with Major Shreier. As an athlete, Meffire easily passes the physical requirements and Shreier is honest enough to recognize his qualifications.

Of course, the Wall will soon fall, which will force Meffire to start over, but without his estranged wife and their young son. He gets another shot at a law enforcement career with the Dresden police, but it all seems futile when his corrupt superiors keep him sidelined with clerical tasks. However, everything changes with the rise of racist extremism in the former GDR. First, Meffire achieves some personal notoriety as the literal face of an ad campaign for racial tolerance in Saxony. Then he is tapped by the state’s justice minister to put together a task-force targeting the growing National Socialist revival.

Based (somewhat loosely, according to the opening credits) on Meffire’s memoir,
Sam, a Saxon tells a tragic rise-and-fall story. Technically, Meffire is usually right on the issues, but his intransigence and his temper inevitably cause his downfall. In fact, he becomes a violent outlaw, not unlike the criminals he was trying to arrest. Yet, Winger, Silnber, and Ricketts never fully delve into the he-who-fights-monsters-becomes-a-monster irony of his story. Not surprisingly, identity (of the racial, national, East vs. West regional, and social-tribal varieties) overshadows everything.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of historical ironies in
Sam, a Saxon, as when Meffire gets jumped by Nazi-identified thugs in the Workers’ Paradise or when former riot police recruits convert to far-right enforcers. This is an epic story, but the flow is a little clunky. The start of each episode tends to skip ahead a few months (or years), with little transitionary exposition, to explain how Meffire got there. It also shows him making the same mistakes over and over. Every episode we see Meffire alienate someone important in his life, because he is so consumed with his work. That might be true to how people are in real life, but the repetitiveness is a problem on-screen.

Regardless, Malick Bauer is terrific as Meffire. He nearly spontaneously combusts from his nuclear brooding, while his charisma truly pops out of the screen. It is easy to understand why he was chosen to be the face of the “I am a Saxon” campaign.

Co-creator-co-writer Ricketts is equally intense as Alex, Meffire’s wiser, more cynical friend and associate in various endeavors somewhat beyond, but not too far outside, proper German society. There are a lot of supporting players in
Saxon, all of whom look seamlessly appropriate to this specific time and place, but very few memorably standout, with the exceptions of Bauer, Ricketts, and maybe Michael Klammer, who is spectacularly sleazy as Ralf Schafer, a mobbed-up businessman Meffire should obviously not get involved with, but we can easily guess he will anyway.

There are plenty of cons to the GDR depicted in
Saxon, as well as a bit of wistful nostalgia for its idealism. However, the immediate post-Unification period is made to look like a period of utter anarchy, like Yeltsin’s Russia crossed with the Balkan wars. It is not a full perspective on Germany at that time, but it is an interesting one to consider. The execution could have been smoother, but the drama of Meffire’s story and Bauer’s forceful performance power through rough patches. Recommended as an ironic cop story rather than a historical document, Sam—A Saxoon starts streaming today (4/26) on Hulu.