IDFA 2021 review: The Voice of the People (Andreas Wilcke)

“In the end, the biggest question resulting from The Voice of the People is: what are these people actually doing, and how are they representing the voice of their voters indeed?”

Politics is theatre.

The phrase, not entirely original but not necessarily incorrect, is introduced by Norbert Kleinwächter, a parliamentarian for the German right-wing party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland; Alternative for Germany) during a training session he holds for lower-ranked regional party members on how they should engage their political opponents. Andreas Wilcke’s documentary The Voice of the People, which follows Kleinwächter and a number of his fellow top-dogs in the AfD in fly-on-the-wall style after the successful 2017 federal elections, shows that these politicians are indeed mostly in performance mode, as they are busy creating the perfect image for either social or more traditional media. Party videos are endlessly discussed and reshot, speeches are tinkered to death when it comes to word choice, and very rarely are actual policy proposals or ideas discussed.

Wilcke presents these politicians as pompous and overly concerned with image, though it’s perhaps exactly this sort of naked demagoguery which attracts their voters. It is unlikely that the party had final say on the film, although for the most part the men portrayed are shown as vain and petty but not really the evil extremists they are generally painted as in mainstream media. They’re relatively normal people who come across at times as bumbling, self-obsessed idiots, but they only occasionally let their disdain for anyone that is not white and German show through. Aside from a reference to ‘blackies’ here, a bit of laughing along as somebody hurls racial slurs at national football team member Jérôme Boateng there, in general they try to uphold the image of regular politicians that have no ties to more unsavoury thoughts in Germany’s past.

Until Wilcke’s closing act, that is, as speeches are shown from various campaign rallies throughout the country and the AfD’s true colors start to show through. Kleinwächter in particular comes off as a psychopathic creep, a weak man whose way with words and unwavering fanaticism have found him a place to shine, and shine he shall. It is a good reminder that indeed politics is theatre, and that the politically correct image (as far as possible with their viewpoints) the AfD wants to uphold is just a thin layer of socially acceptable veneer over a set of ideas more befitting Germany just before the midpoint of the last century.

Documentary is politics.

Whether or not the viewpoint of a documentary filmmaker should be part of the film they are creating is a discussion that has been held for as long as people have made documentaries. Certainly with political subject matter like that of The Voice of the People, filmmakers often feel the need to ‘expose’ their subjects when they disagree on politics. Wilcke is not immune to that, and it is fair game, but it does lend The Voice of the People a certain disingenuity and a sense of scoring easy points. If one were to make a documentary in this vein about any other political party, chances are their members would turn out to be just as preoccupied with the image they project. Politics is theatre after all. A show like Veep is probably closer to the truth than many people would like to believe. Even the subtitles are turned into a political act when the German word ‘gegner’ is translated into ‘enemy’ where ‘opponent’ would be more accurate, thereby changing the context of the uttered statement (later in the film, in a context where it is less of an issue, it is properly translated). This lays bare the intention of Wilcke when making the film, and viewers should realize it is not an unbiased portrayal.

The Voice of the People is, however, an interesting look at the inner workings of a political party in all its echelons, from regional meetings and conversations with voters to discussions between the party’s top cadre. It successfully lifts the veil of respectability that hangs over national politics and decision makers, although the pandemic has certainly gnawed at that image as well. In the end, the biggest question resulting from The Voice of the People is: what are these people actually doing, and how are they representing the voice of their voters indeed?