Exit Marrakech (2013) — Image via ascot-elite.ch

Exit Marrakech

Directed by Caroline Link (2013)

At least since Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), there have been many artistic depictions of Europeans traveling to Africa to lose themselves amongst the natives, search for said selves through a series of strange adventures, and, if they are among the lucky ones, find themselves once more, albeit in a wiser and purer form. As one can imagine, there exists a hefty body of scholarship critiquing the genre, the most compelling of which deals with the posing of Africa as a mere backdrop for the disintegration and reconstruction of the European ego. Oftentimes the outsider is, at best, bored and restless and, at worst, badly diseased before reaching the dark continent, but either way, when confronted with the supposed barbarity and backwardness of Africa, European visitors are often forced to recognize similar elements within their own psyches and their own societies. Africa serves, in other words, as little more than a catalyst for the recalibration of a life of privilege that was on its way to turning sour.

There are ways in which Caroline Link’s Exit Marrakech reproduces all that is unsavory about the European-in-Africa narrative and ways in which it clearly resists the well-worn conventions of discovery, exploration, and exploitation that tales like this tend to contain. For this reason, the film serves as a sort of updated version of the genre, one that points to new possibilities for cultural exchange and shared humanity, but one that also shows how difficult it is to cast off the effects of centuries’ worth of stories full of characters who function solely as either enticing savages or horrified representatives of the first world.

Exit Marrakech (2013) — Image via ascot-elite.chOne clear strength of Exit Marrakech is the characterization of Ben (Samuel Schneider), who is completely believable as a seventeen-year-old German boy who has grown up attending a nice boarding school and living with what seems to be a loving and attentive mother (Marie-Lou Sellem). When Ben spends the summer with his father (Ulrich Tukur), who is staging a play in Marrakech (his parents are divorced), his negative judgments of his father’s extravagant lifestyle, especially while surrounded by poverty, are both factually correct and, in that special way of teenagers, indignantly self righteous. Similarly, when Ben criticizes his father for staying ensconced in fancy hotels instead of seeing the “real,” by which he means poor, Morocco, one both wants to cheer him on and smack that insolent sneer off his face. Link’s perfectly balanced writing that depicts Ben as just innocent enough, just arrogant enough, and just vulnerable enough — along with Schneider’s ability to be both maddening and sympathetic — makes Ben  as complicated of a filmic teenager as I’ve seen in a good while.

It is largely Ben’s youth that makes his general paternalism toward many of the Moroccans he encounters understandable, if still a little irritating. It is particularly his interactions with Karima (Hafsia Herzi), a young prostitute he meets at a nightclub, that are telling of just how young and unaware of his own privilege he is. When Ben first meets Karima, he responds to her advances by asking her if she will take his money to “just go home and sleep,” and later, when the two are sitting in a restaurant, he feels the need to interrogate her choice of occupation, clearly taking for granted the notion that such choice exists for everyone. Given Ben’s clear need to act as a sort of unsolicited savior for Karima (he even suggests that they get married and move back to Germany), the film comes dangerously close to presenting Karima as the archetypal beautiful and mysterious brown woman who enters the narrative just long enough to teach the privileged white boy a series of valuable lessons that will allow him to live his “real” life more successfully. While certainly Ben seems to learn a great deal from Karima about the importance of love, family, hard work, and resilience in the face of oppression, the film, luckily, doesn’t posit Karima’s existence solely in terms of her helpfulness to Ben.

Exit Marrakech (2013) — Image via ascot-elite.chDespite Ben’s fantasies of lifting Karima out of her life of poverty, Karima certainly neither needs nor wants Ben to rescue her, a fact made evident by her many rebuffs of Ben’s attempts to “civilize” her. When Ben asks her why she works as a prostitute, for instance, Karima doesn’t even attempt to answer his question in a serious way, telling him that as a “rich boy” he need not try to comprehend the series of complicated circumstances that have led her down the path she is on. Similarly, Karima is visibly upset when, after ushering Ben from the nightclub, she sees that he is only carrying a small amount of money on him. Despite Ben’s romantic notions about her, Karima remains steadfast throughout most of the film about the exact nature of their relationship.

When Ben ends up traveling to Karima’s village, where she dons a headscarf, prays, cooks, and performs other types of “traditional” labor, the film once more comes dangerously close to using Woman as a universal symbol of Nation, purity, and custom — all things that Ben has no use for until Karima teaches him their value. The film, thankfully, once more avoids cultivating this dynamic through Karima’s dual resistance to Ben, who wants to save her from village life, and her resistance to her physically abusive brother. Indeed, we’re meant to think that fully aligning herself with either man would not provide Karima with the tools and support she needs to survive. Similarly, Karima refuses to “escape” into the desert with Ben, asking him what he thinks could possibly come from their relationship. “Are you going to take me to Germany?” she asks him. “My family needs the money I make.” In these simple words, Karima is able to convey the vast expanse that exists between them, circumstances that are insurmountable, while also exhibiting that her grasp on reality is much stronger than Ben’s, who continues to harbor romantic notions of himself as her rescuer throughout the duration of their relationship. While the film certainly foregrounds Ben’s delusions, recognizing his desires is not the same as validating them, and ultimately, Karima’s dictates are the ones that determine the course of events.

Exit Marrakech (2013) — Image via ascot-elite.chOther than Ben’s brief relationship with Karima, the main relationship that structures the film is the one between Ben and his father, Heinrich. Before we fully understand all the ways Ben and his father are estranged, we see Ben giving himself insulin injections for his diabetes. Ben has problems with his blood, it seems, in more ways than one. This connection between bodily illness and familial ties becomes further pronounced when Ben fights off a diabetic coma in order to rescue his father from an overturned car, and the link is sustained when, after the accident, Ben’s father helps Ben recover from the effects of said coma, finally serving as the caretaker we are meant to think he was never able to be during Ben’s youth.

As has been pointed out by other reviewers of the film, the father/son road trip is a common element of both the coming-of-age story and the narrative of familial reconnection. When Ben and Heinrich embark on their journey to a town where Heinrich’s play is being staged, it initially seems likely that, once more, the film will dive into the tired territory of Africa serving solely as a restorative backdrop for the reconciliation of father and son. However, Link again avoids this dynamic from surfacing completely in two ways.

First off, although Ben chastises his father at the beginning of the film for not appreciating the “real” Morocco, we are not meant to think that Heinrich’s trek across rural Morocco suddenly instills him with an “authentic” understanding of the place and its people, nor of his own son, for that matter. He still remains very much a tourist: He stays in nice hotels, drinks amongst non-drinkers, gently mocks the fact that every meal is chicken, and interacts with the locals only when he is reliant upon them to save his and Ben’s lives. In fact, Heinrich’s inability to fully acclimate himself to the place or the people who surround him, not to mention his lack of desire to do so, is further emphasized when, at the end of the trip, he gives Ben a postcard of a heavily veiled woman as a keepsake. The postcard shows that, for Heinrich, Morocco is still an exotic, mysterious, and sexually charged place, and, what’s more, that he doesn’t need or want it to be anything other than that. He’s clearly shortsighted in a way that’s different from Ben’s desire to “go native,” and the film isn’t particularly heavy-handed in asserting which ideology is better.

Exit Marrakech (2013) — Image via ascot-elite.chA second way Link avoids the standard conventions of the road trip narrative is by not really having the trip fix anything. Sure, Ben and Heinrich bond over Ben’s first driving lesson, smoke weed together, and care for each other after their accident, but this doesn’t mean that, by trip’s end, Heinrich isn’t still an ethnocentric womanizing alcoholic who probably never should have fathered children in the first place. Similarly, we’re not really supposed to think that Ben has found a new male role model in Heinrich or developed a nuanced understanding of himself in relation to Moroccan culture. The failure of both characters to significantly transform shows that Morocco is not imbued with mystical healing powers or the ability to confer instant wisdom; it’s just a place like any other, and, while certainly beautiful, the time that Heinrich and Ben spend there does not cure all that was wrong with their relationship.

In a film where Heinrich’s production serves as the event responsible for both his and Ben’s presence in Morocco, the question is repeatedly raised of how one can truly distinguish between performance and reality. While Heinrich’s play is the most overt example of performance in the film, we also see Karima perform her role as prostitute as adeptly and she performs her role as dutiful daughter and sister when she returns to her village. Likewise, when Ben decides to travel into the desert he walks past several merchants hawking an “authentic” desert experience, suggesting all the ways that the traditions of disappearing cultures get co-opted and exoticized in the process of becoming tourist lures. In a similar vein, Ben befriends two Moroccan men who are working on a film about a gay couple living in Marrakech. Given that we are meant to think that the two men are lovers, we are once more given a clear example of the ways performance and reality bleed into one another, and how “authenticity” is an elusive thing, despite Ben’s determination to go and find it.

Even though it has largely only been shown on festival circuits, Exit Marrakech is a film with something to offer a variety of audiences. The film is worth seeing for anyone who is interested in nuanced character studies, particularly of a bright teenager attempting to make sense of the life he has been handed. The film will also appeal to aesthetes, as Bella Halben’s cinematography is truly masterful. At once intimate and expansive, the film plays as a series of images that are each more breathtaking than the last. Lastly, Exit Marrakech is a worthwhile film for those interested in seeing a thoughtful revision of the European-in-Africa tale, as it both knowingly incorporates and reenvisions the dynamics of exoticism, sexual exploration, spiritual renewal, and the confrontation of multiple cultures. The film’s refusal to tie up ends neatly, its insistence on leaving questions unanswered, points to Link’s understanding that, despite living in an increasingly globalized world, there are still plenty of remnants of colonialism that simply aren’t going to disappear in a hurry.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.