Stuttgart, 1989: an African asylum seeker, Frederic Otomo, resisting arrest, stabs two police officers to death. Three others who are attacked survive – Otomo is shot dead. A week later, at the funeral of the officers, the people of Stuttgart line the streets in homage. Only two people attend Otomo’s funeral and little is known about him. *Otomo*, Schlaich’s engrossing second feature, offers a possible explanation of the killings, dramatizing unsentimentally and with terrible inevitability the events of that fatal morning.

Throughout Otomo’s 20 years in Germany the Government’s asylum rules have barred any employment. His life has little purpose. For the film’s opening ten minutes, as we track Otomo across the city, he speaks to no-one – until a transport official harasses and tries to arrest him. Otomo headbutts him, escapes – and is a wanted man, facing prison and deportation.

Isaach de Bankolé plays Otomo with great dignity and stoicism, close to the limits of his endurance. It’s a bitter irony that only desperation breaks through his separation and brings him into contact with local people. People show him small kindnesses, even compassion. A café proprietor lies to the police. A woman he asks for money – played by Eva Mattes, veteran of many Fassbinder films – takes him to her mother’s flat. It’s the only time, he says, that he’s been inside a German home. Even the police patrol officer leading the search is a very decent, humane man. Face to face Otomo is, for the most part, treated as a human being. It’s the system that denies him – as a black African refugee.

*Otomo* is a subtle, haunting film. It may leave you with an abiding sadness but it shows clearly how politics can impact – tragically – on everyday life.

New Internationalist issue 334 magazine cover This article is from the May 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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