Nico Mesterharm, founder of the Meta House in Phnom Penh, has been living in Cambodia for years. Married to a Cambodian wife and having two children here, his life is settled far away from his home country, Germany.
But being born in the late 60s and having lived in Berlin, Mesterharm still remembers the long wall dividing not only one country but the whole world into two blocs fighting a cold war.
“I grew up in West Berlin, which was an island, and although we didn’t really talk about this kind of weird situation every day, it was always part of us,” he said.
“As kids we regularly went to the Wall and climbed on one of these platforms and looked over it and pitied the people on the other side not being able to travel,” Mesterharm said. “And we never thought that this would change.”
But when the wall came down in 1989, Mesterharm, studying in Heidelberg, decided to return to Berlin to witness this special time. According to Mesterharm, the first five years until 1994, “before the headaches started and German and Berlin society started to complain,” witnessing two countries growing together and overcoming obstacles was a very interesting time for him.
“I must say that for sure this reunification meant a lot for us, meant a lot for me personally. This is also why this day is very memorable,” Mesterharm said.
Nico Mesterharm was born in Hamburg in 1967 and moved to Berlin in 1968. He studied German language, Musical Sciences and Economy in Heidelberg and Berlin. After setting up a record label with friends he decided to go back into writing. “I am a journalist, I come from a family of journalists,” he said.
Mesterharm started a publishing company in Berlin and worked as a freelancer for the press. He also started to develop scripts for documentaries and met people from TV stations. That’s when he decided to not only write the script, but also direct the film.
“And I became a filmmaker,” he said, producing his first film in 1997.
Shooting a documentary in Thailand, Mesterharm decided to visit a friend in Cambodia in 2000 who ran a hotel here.
“I was so impressed by the city and by the country at this time that I thought of producing short TV features here,” Mesterharm said.
He returned with a team of German friends from a TV station two months after his first visit, shooting short stories, features and meeting Cambodian colleagues. Together they decided to produce a longer documentary for the German-French TV station ARTE.
“And they actually bought that,” Mesterharm remembers. “And that’s how the story goes and then, this was so successful that with the same people we actually pitched another documentary and slowly I established myself here which then let to the foundation of a media company.”
Today, Mesterharm runs the Meta House, contributing to the capital’s cultural scene and providing an alternative to the many bars and restaurants in town.
He said being in Cambodia as a German, far from where he comes from, made him feel more German than he ever felt in actual Germany.
“Growing up in Berlin, I have always seen myself more or less as a European, not so much as a German,” he said. “I was never really so fond of being a German until I came here.”
He said the same goes for German food. While they serve German food at Meta House, he rarely ate German food back in Berlin.
“We probably went to Italian, French or Chinese restaurants,” Mesterharm said.
Something he misses is the cultural scene he was used to back in Berlin, he said. According to Mesterharm, especially Berlin, but also other European and American cities have many cultural offerings to choose from, most of it being high quality as well, such as opera or ballet.
He said while the cultural scene in Phnom Penh is certainly picking up speed and a few galleries have been established, it has still not reached the same level as Berlin.
“Also, Berlin in the summertime is really nice, that’s what I miss,” he said.
Nevertheless Mesterharm said he enjoys living in Phnom Penh, also within the German community. Compared to the French community, “we are kind of small, it’s somehow nice because we tend to know each other,” he said. “So it has kind of a provincial charm to it.”
Mesterharm said in the last years, there has been a growing interest of young Cambodians in German culture and German language, adding that the language department at the Meta House is full of young Cambodians wanting to study German.
“If nowadays young Cambodians ask me ‘do you think I should study in Germany; do you think I should explore Germany?’, I am happy to send them there,” he said.
“For sure, it’s very different from here, but I hope that they find Germany as interesting as I find their country.”
Together with his wife, also a filmmaker, Mesterharm has settled here and does not plan to go back to Germany in the near future.
“At the moment, or for the next decade, I will stay here.”