How an 11-year-old Art documentary sparked controversy over Corona

Curator Thomas Koch concluded his introduction to an evening themed Arte in October eleven years ago, “If you’ve seen this movie, you might agree.” And specifically this: that health authorities around the world have “fallen into a crackdown by the pharmaceutical industry”. Koch explained that France alone has ordered about 100 million doses of the vaccine against the H1N1 virus, twice the dose of Germany. The pathogen of the so-called swine flu spread from Mexico in the spring of 2009 and caused the entire world to panic. But by the fall of the same year at the latest, when Artie made the first influenza pandemic of the twenty-first century the subject of a television evening, it had become clear that swine flu was more harmful than initially feared. Doubts about the usefulness of “large mass vaccination” (Kausch) now also fueled the documentary “Profiteure der Angst”, which, with 240,000 viewers in Germany and 537,000 in France, had an above-average response by Arte’s standards.

Neither the German-French culture channel nor the producing channel NDR, which was followed by radio in November 2009, have repeated the 50-minute film since. Fear patrons are not stored in public media libraries. However, thousands of people have watched, liked, and shared Juta Benzler and co-creator Stephanie Schwalenberg’s movie on YouTube since the coronavirus lockdown began. Epidemiologist Suchharet Bhakdi, whose reputation as a “corona trifle” is derived, also refers to this in his Spiegel bestselling book “Corona False Alarm?”. Different voices can be brought to the common formula: Corona is out of control as it was with swine flu. Everything is exaggerated. WHO and politicians are again attracted to the pharmaceutical lobby, which only serves to feed fear and hysteria in order to sell their products well. Or as cabaret artist Lisa Fitz puts it in her “Profiteure der Corona-Angst” in SWR spelling “Spätschicht” in Bavarian fashion: “We’ve left ourselves so messed up that it hangs. Do you think it’s anything different now?”

But is the mental transition from swine flu to the coronavirus pandemic, as practiced by Fitz & Co., really clear? Is the eleven-year-old documentary appropriate as evidence to criticize, and even spoil, the handling of SARS-CoV-2? Or is the material seriously researched here misunderstood, perhaps misused in a dubious argument? Which in this case leads to the following question: To what extent do broadcasters and film authors have control over the reception of the work?

As for the last: apparently not at all. Upon request, Arte and NDR explain how and from whom the film’s research is received years later, falls outside the influence of the broadcaster. Juta Benzler sees her position as having no effect.

A documentary from 2009 as evidence of the failures in 2020?


© Sagamedia
Gotta Benzler

The writer and producer in Cologne is surprised that her film is back online. Together with Iris Bettray, Pinzler founded sagamedia in 2005, whose bread and butter business includes docu soaps such as “Teenie-Mutter – Wenn Kinder Kinderkriegen” (RTLzwei) or “Wir wird Camper” (WDR), but not only. Pinzler’s specialty is the big world arte evenings. And for that in 2009, it focused on the corrupt and fraud-prone healthcare structures that emerged during the swine flu pandemic. Benzler stresses that the fact that influenza is more harmless than initially feared was not only due to the work of her research team, but was also implied in many other media outlets at the time. In this context, “Fear Beneficiaries” were created.

When YouTube views soared this spring and inquiries from private and professional circles surged, Jutta Pinzler had to look at her work again to remember what she had been looking for eleven years ago. From her point of view, it is clear that the documentary is seen as a “contemporary historical document”: the “benefactors of fear” have nothing to do with Corona, which did not exist at the time.

And I can’t take responsibility for the conclusions people draw from the film.
Sagamedia MD Gotta Benzler

The fact that “fairly classic documentation” is still seen by many shows her “there is a great need for information”. In general, documentary public service films will be very popular. If they push the discussions, as the “fear takers” have done, Benzler finds them “very satisfying at first”. Every film author can only wish for a “living culture of discussion”. In her view, if the debate is going “in the wrong direction”, she cannot influence it: “I cannot take responsibility for the conclusions people draw from the film. Everyone is free to quote from it as long as the facts are not twisted.”

Among the more than two dozen chief speakers that Benzler collected in “Takes of Fear” was not only a young virologist named Christian Drosten, but also pulmonologist Wolfgang Woodarge, who was a member of the Bundestag Health Committee for the SPD at the time. And about the H1N1 virus, he said: “These viruses are now no more dangerous than they were last year. The World Health Organization is manipulating the numbers and causing needless panic. The epidemic decision was illogical.” In principle, Woodward repeated this argument at the beginning of the Corona epidemic: the SARS-CoV-2 virus is no more dangerous than the coronavirus pathogens of flu waves before it – and thus discredited in public discourse, where eleven years ago it was a popular speaker. The fact that this expert from the ‘educational video on arti’ is no longer heard gives Corona critics additional material for their distrust of the ‘mainstream media’.

The beneficiaries of fear
© screenshot
Christian Drosten in the 2009 documentary, Benefiting from Fear.

Juta Benzler has not spoken to Wolfgang and Darg since filming. She cannot judge whether he is right or wrong in his theses about Corona. For her, the truth is that Covid-19 is dangerous in the sense that “more people have died than swine flu”. However, Benzler believes that “in a democratic, pluralistic society, it should be possible to tolerate and discuss opposing opinions”. Especially when it comes to Corona. “If you always put the so-called Corona critics in the same line as Ken Gipsons in this world and leave them to them, I find that devastating. There is no danger to our society if you take scientific, perhaps unsustainable positions. Seriously.”

The antiviral arms race for the first and, at best, the best vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the hundreds of millions of euros the federal government alone is currently pumping into corona research and vaccine development – they’re creating a new diapause between Pinzler-vu movie-viewers: we get it From before. Are you, the film’s author, also aware of the similarities? She couldn’t say anything about it, “I will first have to research this aspect thoroughly and sustainably.” To what extent drug companies control what happens in the Corona pandemic, and who and whether anyone benefits at all, will “certainly be worthwhile material” for another movie in their view. “But it’s still too early for that. More distance is needed for serious press analysis.”

If you always put the so-called Corona critics on the side with Ken Gipsons of this world and leave them to them, I find that devastating.
Sagamedia MD Gotta Benzler

However, enough time has passed to examine the extent to which global coronavirus measures can harm our democracies and restrict basic rights. Arte, along with NDR, commissioned the film for this film. At the end of August, Hamburg (together with the World Development Report) has already presented the documentary “Pandemic Train – Corona Virus Changes the World”. Jutta Penzler and co-author Stephanie Schwalenberg also take a similar approach, Comparing Countries. They want to find out in Sweden, France and Germany what has worked, where and how to overcome the crisis, and who is left behind economically. In April they started. In the style of “fear recipients” they are also looking for a group of interlocutors. Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has already made his final commitment to an interview. And instead of Christian Drosten, who canceled despite numerous requests and initially showed interest, Hendrik Streeck, a virologist in Bonn, who started the first study on Corona in Germany, intervened. What matters to the filmmakers is that they “don’t want the drama in their film, they just want to brazenly analyze”.

Work on a documentary film about Corona in progress

“Corona and Democracy – A Comparison of France, Germany and Sweden” (working title) is expected to air at the beginning of December, which is why filming is currently in full swing. “The movie should actually air this year, because right now you have the feeling that if there’s only a week in between, everything is completely out of date,” says Penzler. Or the topic literally disappeared. In May, for example, Corona swept a documentary about the aircraft industry from the time period — in lockdown, nothing was too far off from the idea of ​​flying.

Another challenge, according to Benzler, is quarantine regulations, which have made shootings across the border more difficult. The employee in charge of the French part had to be tested after each return from the danger zone in Paris and isolated for five days before being allowed to return to the Cologne office. “It really is a production nightmare.” The Cologne producer does not want to imagine a case that Arte and NDR could sell their Corona film, as SWR did with the Beetz brothers’ “Wuhan – Chronicle of an Outbreak” documentary as a result of the pre-critical report by the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. The critique of criticism was that the production company used footage from the state-controlled Chinese film production company China Intercontinental Communication Center.

Without knowing the background more precisely, Jota Benzler “suffered” with another production company. She could not imagine that “they knowingly and deliberately misrepresented anything.” For her, I made the following warning about this situation: “You have to check exactly what sources you use with each film. Using archive material does not protect you from errors. You need proper editors and legal advisors as censors look a film very carefully.” What the audience takes From him in the end is out of their control.

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