Shiny Fakes of Dealer Violence

Film Drug dealers in recent German TV and film break taboos and expose clichés

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This article was published in German in der Freitag 35/2021

Swinging hammers and shovels, blazing machine guns and keyboards, drug dealers have recently stormed German storytelling with tales of operatic violence, plundering the literary canon and TV awards alike.

Among these is one true story of violence. While Germany’s most famous dealer, the Kinderzimmer-Dealer (Bedroom Dealer) Maximilian Schmidt, plays himself in an exact replica of his childhood bedroom, heavily armed men burst in. One smashes his face with a machine gun, though he is unarmed and cooperates, knocking him to the floor where he lays face-down and handcuffed. As men search the room, they trample over him. The scene reenacts his 2015 arrest in the new Netflix documentary Shiny_Flakes: Teenage Drug Lord.

Describing the assault, Schmidt sympathized with how police repeatedly stepped on him because there was little space, “but also because they enjoyed doing it.” Post-arrest images showed his bruised and scratched face. About the raid, Sachsen Police Commissioner Petric Kleine said, “An arrest is not done by saying ‘now, lay down here’ and ‘be nice and quiet’. Rather, you go in and seize the suspect.”

Maximilian Schmidt bought and sold 4,1 million euros in drugs in little over a year without violence. He also betrayed 14.000 customers by keeping their information and helping to prosecute dozens of them, including dealers. Yet neither he, nor the filmmakers who join him on a train trip to give testimony against a former customer, ever consider that he is in danger of reprisal. In real life Germany, the worst violation of criminal honor, turning rat and helping police on a massive scale, has no TV/Film-style consequences. It won’t even hurt one’s dealer-hero stardom.

Real-life dealers know that violence and conflict are bad for business. According to Hamburg University criminologist Dr. Bettina Paul, the illegal drug trade in Germany is like most legal business, except often more honest. But in recent fictions, only the two dealers in Thorsten Nagelschmidt’s 2020 big city novel Arbeit reflect this. No beatings, no murders.

An Über-Dealer needs no hammer

Truer to the dealer genre is the film adaptation of another big city novel, indeed Germany’s most famous, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burhan Qurbani sought the classic to portray Black African refugee dealers. In one scene, a White drug underboss sits naked in a jacuzzi with the Black refugee he is grooming to join his crew. He pleads to know “the worst” he has done? “Have you killed anyone?” The underboss, a psychopathic killer himself, seems to parody TV and film audiences avidity for dealer violence, for what separates the real from the would-be dealer: a capacity for murder and cruelty.

Later the refugee swings the current preferred German-TV dealer weapon, leading a hammer attack on “the Arabs” that earns his place in drug-gang leadership. In the Netflix production Skyline, a woman hammers a hand on cue, in the show’s first deliberate violence. And in the first episode of 4 Blocks, that ends with a drug underboss murdering a cop, the fatherly clan chief reveals his inner dealer, raising a hammer to break a man’s leg. (No real-life dealer has ever hunted a German officer.)

When the first real dealer appears in the Netflix series based on Kinderzimmer-Dealer story, How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast), “the Albanian”, played by Tatortreiniger (Crime-scene Cleaner) star Bjarne Mädel, he swats a pigeon from flight with a shovel and steps on it. Small bones crunch. He later smashes a hedgehog with his fist. (An Über-Dealer needs no hammer.) Real dealers in the series are cartoon killers, not the students who take up dealing yet repeatedly balk at killing. Dealer violence is a joke. But its menace drives the story.

What is real is the story’s portrayal of school girls as ardent and erudite drug users, never victims. Even if the hypocrisy of drug dealing itself as bad goes unquestioned, the series buries the legacy of Christiane F., where children, particularly teenage girls, were always helpless victims of dealers.

Not merely racist, but absurd too

Actual retail dealers scarcely appear in any of these stories. When they do, all work under violent bosses: in Skyline, on a few Frankfurt streets; in 4 Blocks, in Berlin parks Hasenheide and Görlitzer; and in Berlin Alexanderplatz where White gangsters takeover Hasenheide Park.

In reality, Berlin park dealers are not controlled by a clan or White gangsters. Scenes in 4 Blocks and Berlin Alexanderplatz depict obsequious Black men obeying orders from a skinny clan teenager and a White underboss, respectively, feeding the mainstream delusions, common on the well-meaning Left, that street dealers are victims, and among the law-and-order Right, that dealers are members of violent gangs. For anyone who knows men in the parks, these scenes are not merely racist insults. They are absurd.

In fact, the drug trade in Berlin’s best known “drug parks”, Hasenheide and Görlitzer, includes freelancers and groups, more or less affiliated by ethnicity, established in areas that have remained largely stable for a decade. Many are not refugees. Subsaharan Africans, on their own, have worked in drug retail, and even smuggling, since the 1980s. And while it is also true that Turkish, Arab and other groups are major importers, and that some supply drugs on credit that leads to violent debt collection, there are no exclusive suppliers.

Faux-realist entertainments like 4 Blocks, with tortured rival gang members tied to chairs, or Dogs of Berlin, with fantasy safe-room walls hung with gold-plated machine guns and loaded with bricks of cash and drugs, do not claim their stories are more than escapist fairy tales. Nor does the more sophisticated How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast). But the film Berlin Alexanderplatz does. Burhan Qurbani promised to use Alfred Döblin’s literary classic to make a film “about the community of dealers in Berlin’s Hasenheide Park” in order to help them. Stiftung Lesen co-produced a study guide, available to download, and offered private screenings for Gymnasium students.

And Qurbani’s film may do what he intended, despite its falsehoods. In the way Birth of a Nation has become a classic for understanding US White supremacy, Berlin Alexanderplatz could become a classic for understanding our eras’ delusion that Black park dealers are subservient members of violent gangs. A delusion that helps to justify the greatest single source of park drug violence. The daily menace, as for the Kinderzimmer-Dealer, is not from gangster bosses, but police. Even when doing their jobs correctly. In humiliating public spectacles, the society that increasingly tolerates private drug consumption, regularly sends armed officers to chase them, seize their property and money, imprisoning some.

Like a dealer whose profile I displayed in a 2017 exhibition who was condemned to three years prison for possession of cannabis with intent to sell, after his 2019 arrest in Görlitzer Park. He joined 6.796 drug war prisoners in Germany. (Park raids represent only a tiny fraction of the legal threat, or use, of police violence. In 2019 alone, the last count, police actions totaled 395.747 drug violations, one for every 122 Germans between 15 and 59 years old.)

More realistic dealers in fiction will not likely sway elected officials of Germany’s second largest opposition political party who have called for dealers execution. But they might help others graduate from their ignorant pity and fear, to some measure of informed solidarity.

Scott Holmquist’s work on park drug dealers includes the exhibitions Other Homelands: Origins and Migration Routes of Berlin Parks Drug Sellers (2017) and Dealer Poses (2019), and the protest art-intervention LAST HERO: 24-hour Park Drug Dealer Solidarity Sit-In (2019).

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