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Good cop, bad cop

East Germany’s first black policeman started the 1990s as a media phenomenon, but ended it in jail. A new series tells his story

Malick Bauer as East German police officer Samuel Meffire in fact-based Disney+ drama Sam – A Saxon. Photo: Disney Plus

When we first meet Samuel Meffire in the new Disney+ series Sam – A Saxon, he is doing something rare for a black man living in Dresden in 1989 – impressing a major in the Deutsche Volkspolizei (German People’s Police). He has two things to thank for this: his speed and Kierkegaard.

On a gloomy evening, Meffire’s girlfriend has gone into labour. The ambulance workers won’t let him ride with them, so he opts to run after the vehicle as it heads to hospital.

When he runs past a police car, the bemused officers sound their siren and Meffire comes to a cautious, frustrated stop. He explains his situation and, rambling in panic, quotes the Danish philosopher’s remark that someone who hears the cry of a woman in labour at the hour of giving birth “knows the real meaning of life”. Taken aback, the major has only one response: Ever think of joining the police?

Like the man who inspired it, Sam – A Saxon is one of a kind. The story of East Germany’s first black policeman is also the first German-language original series from Disney+. Yet while Meffire might be an underdog who rises against the odds, what happens next does not follow Disney’s traditional feelgood path. Played by Malick Bauer, Meffire begins the 1990s as a symbol of acceptance and multiculturalism, and ends the decade behind bars as an internationally wanted criminal. It’s a life fuelled by trauma, both personal and political; prejudice; and, above all, a battle of identity.

Meffire comes with a lot of demons. His father, who was born in Cameroon and came to East Germany as a student, died in mysterious circumstances on the day of his son’s birth (during his time as a cop, Meffire even attempts to solve the suspicious events of his father’s untimely death). Raised in a single-parent household, his mother abused him physically and psychologically in a childhood that Meffire describes in his autobiography, I, a Saxon, as “hell, in mini-format”. That memoir was written together with the German historian and playwright Lothar Kittstein and recently published in English under the one-word title Sam, translated by Priscilla Dionne Layne, associate professor of Germanic and Slavic language and literature at the University of North Carolina.

“I honestly found this translation more difficult than a literary translation,” admits Layne. She explains that, usually, translating fiction offers the translator room for interpretation, but in this case, Meffire was trying to convey something very specific. His writing was devoid of metaphors, writing with a simplicity that he never experienced in the complex final days of the East German state and the chaos that followed.

When Meffire followed the major’s advice and started his training, the Berlin Wall had just fallen, but German reunification was yet to be achieved. This left a power vacuum, which criminal gangs and far right thugs were eager to fill. Neo-Nazis, as depicted in a graphic scene in Sam – A Saxon, stomped the streets of Dresden, needing no excuse to chase down and attack any black person they spotted in their path, and the country’s future once again hung in the balance.

In 1992, Meffire – not just the first black officer, but also one of the last to qualify under the old East German systems – posed for photos as part of an anti-racism campaign. Soon his face, accompanied by the words Ein Sasche (A Saxon), was plastered across billboards all over the city. At first, it appeared to be working. News cycles were full of right wing-led attacks on asylum seekers and immigrants in East Germany, and the sentiment behind Meffire’s poster presented a different, progressive narrative, one postwar Germany could display on the global stage. A media star was born. He toured the country imploring watchers to understand his exasperation and anger at the violence on the streets of Saxony.

In his autobiography, Meffire describes the media circus around the campaign as “cocaine for the soul”. He has since spoken about how he believes it was the right initiative, just one led by the wrong man. Meffire was too plagued with his own problems to take on the country’s political ones as well.

In 1994, blaming his frustrations on a lack of progress and succumbing to the ghosts of his past, Meffire left law enforcement and state politics. He started his own security firm in an attempt to defend the city’s minorities, hoping to step up where he felt the state was stepping back. Meffire’s time as Saxony’s answer to Robin Hood was cut short, however, when he got involved with one of Dresden’s most notorious gangsters. It was a partnership that was the beginning of the end for Meffire. Caught on a job, the disgraced ex-cop was arrested and ultimately sentenced to more than nine years in prison for robbery. He served seven years, with time off for good behaviour.

Between the violence and the politics is a story of identity. “Meffire’s story very much aligns with my research,” says Layne. “Children deal with their parents’ expectations, regardless of their background. But I do think, if you’re a child of immigrants, it’s even more intense. You have a kind of chip on your shoulder; constantly wanting to prove that you’re good enough. Prove to society that you belong, while also proving to the ‘old country’ that you understand its traditions.” Meffire is constantly told that he makes the “wrong decisions” and Layne feels this can be traced back to these feelings of belonging – or rather a lack of it.

Today, Meffire lives in Bonn with his wife and two children, working as a writer and a coach for workers in the public sector. Since the show has aired, he now jokes about how he has finally been able to pay off his decade-long debts.

With that, a chapter for Meffire is closed; a life lived on both sides of the law and, now, a debt repaid.

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