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Til Schweiger accusations: Is Germany’s cultural world finally getting its #MeToo reckoning?

Til Schweiger accusations: Is Germany’s cultural world finally getting its #MeToo reckoning?

“The creative and cultural industry is clearly susceptible to power abuse, sexualised assaults as well as the contravention of labour protection laws.”

These words featured in a statement released by Claudia Roth, German Minister of State for Culture, who has demanded a code of conduct for the culture and media industry be put in place. Roth has threatened to cut off state subsidies to film productions which fail to follow this code and the rules of worker protection.

“I say quite clearly that even artistic geniuses or supposed artistic geniuses are not above the law,” she added. “The times when patriarchal blokes abused their power positions in the worst sort of way should really be over. Even if it’s obvious that not everyone has understood this.”

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Germany’s culture minister Claudia Roth at the Berlin Film Festival - Berlinale

While Roth did not name names when referring to “patriarchal blokes”, her statement to the press last week came three days after an article published by German news outlet Der Spiegel reported that award-winning German actor-director Til Schweiger had been abusive on filmsets.

Indeed, several employees have reported alleged harassment on the set of the film Manta Manta - Zwoter Teil, after Schweiger apparently arrived on set (in July 2022) in an inebriated state and punched an employee of the production company Constantin Film in the face, all because said employee had pointed out to him that he was not in a fit state to work.

Schweiger, 59, who is best known on an international stage for his roles in films like King Arthur, Atomic Blonde and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, starred in but also directed Manta Manta - Zwoter Teil, which has been a box office hit since its release in March. The previous instalment, Manta Manta, received more than €2.1m in state subsidies.

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Actor and alleged abuser Til Schweiger - Berlinale

While many were shocked by the actor-director’s behaviour, few were surprised, as there had been repeated insults and harassment on set.

According to accounts by more than fifty people, many were brought to “psychological and physical breaking point” by their experience of working with Schweiger, who “constantly blew his top”. One young extra in Manta Manta even reported being forced to remove her bra for a scene without any prior warning. Some have also alleged that the incidents are not isolated ones, and that Schweiger’s toxic behaviour on filmsets has been an industry secret for years.

Schweiger's lawyer told Der Spiegel that he denied the allegations. Some of the “issues” raised were “unknown” to her client, and others “insinuate issues that did not happen”. The lawyer went on to accuse Der Spiegel of repeating rumours, erroneously presenting them as fact.

Regardless, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Martin Moszkowicz, head of Constantin Film, responded by announcing an internal investigation into the allegations. He stated: “I take the accusations very seriously and we have started an intensive clarification.”

Constantin Film also has a "moral code" for framework conditions for filming. "But it is important that this applies industry-wide," said Moszkowicz. “It seems inevitable to me that we address the issue of abuse of power in the cultural industry openly and together.”

Echoing this sentiment was Roth’s statement, which said it was finally time for Germany’s cultural world to have its moment of reckoning, five years after the start of the #MeToo movement.

The beginning of an overdue reckoning?

Francois Mori/AP
MeToo protests in France - 2020. - Francois Mori/AP

The #MeToo movement, which began in October 2017, has not had quite the same impact in Germany as it has had in other European countries, and action feels long overdue.

Compared to #BalanceTonPorc in France or #YoTambien in Spain, there has not been a proper reckoning with toxic culture in the creative industries - despite some reported cases in Germany.

The most recent example occurred last year, when high-profile Berlin gallerist Johann König was accused of sexual misconduct by 10 women - behaviour dating back as far as 2017. The accusations centre around reports of improper touching, kissing without consent, unsolicited sexual comments and inappropriate attitudes towards female employees of other galleries.

König denied all accusations made against him, and once again, accused the press as a line of defence. “The Zeit report is false and misleading.” he said in a statement.

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TV and stage director Dieter Wedel - Getty

Another major case took place in 2018, when testimonies from German actresses accused television and stage director Dieter Wedel.

In an article in Zeit magazine, three actresses described how Wedel had convinced them to audition in private hotel suites, then forced himself on them while reminding them of his power to make or break acting careers.

Yet many women continued to remain silent about harassment in the cinema and TV industry, with one possible reason for a lack of outcry being that the film industry in Germany is smaller in size compared to that of France’s, for instance, and very centralised in Berlin. This can mean that networking is doubly important and that the slightest complaint risks performers branded as “being difficult”.

Germany did take steps to install certain safeguards, especially with the creation of Themis in 2018, an independent counselling centre financed by the German government, the German Federal Film Board and broadcaster ARD. Its goal is to provide advice to people in creative industries who have experienced sexual abuse. However, it has no legal power to act on allegations.

Another factor in explaining Germany’s relative silence compared to its European neighbours is the absence of outspoken supportive men in the film industry.

For instance, Til Schweiger responded to the Wedel allegations by claiming in 2018: “A figure like Harvey Weinstein simply doesn’t exist in Germany.”

Little did Schweiger know at the time he could be the linchpin.

Themis’ director, Eva Hubert, told the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk Kultur that recent allegations against Schweiger have triggered an overdue discussion about the need to improve work conditions on film sets in Germany.

“It has made it clear, as we have long said, that the film industry is a long way from being free of sexual harassment and violence. This has made the topic prominent.”

While the question remains as to how the new code of conduct will be enforced and who will check compliance, Claudia Roth’s recent statement and the Schweiger allegations indicate that Germany may have finally set the stage for more victims to speak out against their abusers. And hopefully, for a zero policy on toxic behaviour on filmsets.