Long-time readers of this site will know that I have a particular fascination for the strange, the unknown and the never explored aspects of the black image on film; but this one was totally unknown to me, until I read this London Guardian article a few years ago about Mohamed Husen.
But before I get into his very unlikely tale, let me first tell you another story that’s related to this.
A few years ago, I saw the 1943 German film version of “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen,” made over 40 years before Terry Gilliam’s better known 1988 film of the same fantasy character. Halfway into the film, there is an extended sequence that takes place in some Sultan’s palace in Turkey, and there are several black extras playing slaves or harem guards.
Of course, considering the time and place the film was made (we are talking about Nazi Germany during the middle of World War II), you would think that the roles of the slaves would be played by white German actors in blackface. But instead, they are actually played by black men, which made me immediately wonder where the Nazi producers of the film found black men in Nazi Germany in 1943, to play those extras.
My only thought was that, they were concentration camp prisoners, or captured enemy soldiers in POW camps in Germany, enlisted to play those roles; most likely, captured British or Free French Army soldiers, since (a little known fact) the overwhelming majority of the French soldiers were black and Arab men from the then French colonies in West and North Africa, as well as the Middle East.
I bring this up to put the unusual story of Mohamed Husen, whose real name was Majubbin Adam Mohamed Hussein, into context. His story is rather amazing and, of course, ultimately tragic. But it does tell a story of black people and people of color in Germany during that period; that is, those who were lucky enough to survive, at least for a while.
Husen was born in 1905 in what is now Tanzania, during a time when the entire continent of Africa was carved up into colonies by European powers, such as the British, French, Germans, Belgians, the Dutch, and Portuguese. At the young age of 9, during World War I, Husen became a child soldier in the “Askari” – local soldiers serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa; in Husen’s specific case, a member of an elite native troop who helped Germany keep a tight grip on its dominions.
After the war, Husen became a ship’s steward, eventually making his way to Germany – first to Hamburg, and then to Berlin, where he petitioned the government to get his still unpaid back wages for himself and his father (who was killed in action), from the German Army.
Needless to say, they laughed in his face and ordered him out of the country. But due to some bureaucratic error, he wound up staying in Germany, in effect without papers, and went on to work in a circus – a western cowboy themed bar – and even taught Swahili to government civil servants and diplomats, who were assigned to work in the then German colonies in Africa.
He also found time to marry a white German actress and had two children with her – a son and a daughter, both of whom died young before the age of 5. But he also fathered a son with a mistress (that story itself would make a pretty interesting film, don’t you think?).
However, by the 1930’s, he started appearing in German films, and became a regular face, after roles in some 11 films, from 1934 to 1941, always as either an extra, or sometimes as a bit player, with a few lines of dialogue.
Needless to say, many of the films made during that period extolled Hitler’s Nazi virtues of Aryan racial purity and white superiority, and one must wonder what Husen himself was thinking, or going through, at the time, while working on these films.
But he went even further. As the Guardian article states: “… By the mid-1930s, [Husen] was dressing up in military gear and appearing at rallies in front of banners bearing the slogan “Germany needs colonies.” What internal conflicts must he have been battling while doing this? Was it a case of survival, being a stranger in a strange land, believing that working on these films and participating in pro-Nazi rallies was better than being sent to a concentration camp?
However, Husen’s seemingly bold acts did eventually ruin Husen. On the 1941 film “Carl Peters,” about a real life German colonist, in which Husen had the supporting role of Peters’ servant, it was discovered that he was having an affair with a white actress on the film, was arrested by the Gestapo, and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he died 3 years later, in 1944.
Unfortunately, not much more is known about Husen. There are no diaries, no correspondence and very few photographs exist. Even worse, his son by his mistress died at the age of 12, during the British and U.S. allied bombings of Berlin in 1945; and it’s believed that his wife was also killed during the bombings.
But thanfully, there is a new documentary about Husen, by German filmmaker Eva Knopf, titled “Majub’s Reise” (“Majub’s Journey”), which brings attention to the actor, giving him an identity, as it pieces together what is known about him to present as complete a picture of the man as is possible. So far the film has never made it to U.S. except for, maybe, some special screenings here and there. But it would be nice if it were more widely available.
All this speaks to what I always like to say: that there is nowhere in the world, during any period in history, in which we – us, black people – weren’t present.
Watch a brief trailer for “Majub’s Reise” below: