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There’s No Place Like Heimat

Vom Glück und Unglück der Kunst in Deutschland nach dem Letzten Kriege

by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
Matthes & Seitz, 199 pp., DM 29.80

Patterns of Childhood

by Christa Wolf, translated by Ursule Molinaro, by Hedwig Rappolt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 407 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Quest for Christa T.

by Christa Wolf, translated by Christopher Middleton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 185 pp., $9.95 (paper)

No Place on Earth

by Christa Wolf, translated by Jan van Heurck
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 119 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Was bleibt (extracts entitled “What Remains” were published in English translation in Granta 33)

by Christa Wolf
Luchterhand, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1991, 108 pp., DM 24

Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays

by Christa Wolf, translated by Jan van Heurck
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 305 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf

translated by Hilary Pilkington, Introduction by Karin McPherson
Verso, 137 pp., $14.95 (paper)

1.

East Berlin, October 1990: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, the grand master of cinematic kitsch, walked into the old conference room where the German Communists founded their state. He had just seen part of his film Hitler—a Film from Germany for the first time in years. “My God,” he said to a gathering of people that included Susan Sontag, the actress Edith Clever, and various East German cultural worthies who smiled a lot and drank vodka. “My god, I was really provocative! If only my enemies had realized…. I am surprised I’m still alive!” Whereupon the artist stroked his beautiful tie, smoothed his superbly coiffed head, and looked around the table like the cat who had just eaten the canary.

Two days later, we met once again in the former government building, now the Academy of Arts, to hear Syberberg, Sontag, Clever, and other members of a distinguished panel discuss his works, in particular the Hitler film and his recently published book of essays, which has caused a big fuss in German literary circles. Syberberg began the proceedings by saying that only here, in the former Communist capital, could he openly express his views, unlike in West Berlin, where the Academy was controlled by his left-wing enemies.

Syberberg’s delivery was remarkable: an almost silky tone of voice alternating with what can only be described as a theatrical tirade; a tirade against the filth, the shamelessness, the soulless greed, and vacuous idiocy of contemporary (West) German culture, corrupted by America, by rootless “Jewish leftists,” by democracy. Syberberg also believes that the pernicious legacy of Auschwitz has crippled the German identity that was rooted in the German soil, in Wagner’s music, in the poetry of Hölderlin and the literature of Kleist, in the folk songs of Thuringia and the noble history of Prussian kings—a Kultur, in short, transmitted from generation to generation, through the unbroken bloodlines of the German people, so cruelly divided for forty years as punishment for the Holocaust.

Well, said some of Syberberg’s champions on the panel, shifting uneasily in their seats, these opinions may be absurd, even offensive, but he’s still a great artist. Then an elderly man got up in the audience. He had seen the Hitler film, he said, his voice trembling with quiet rage, and he thought it was dreadful. He was left with the impression that Syberberg actually liked Hitler. And although he was a Polish Jew who had lost most of his family in the death camps, he could almost be tempted to become a Nazi himself after seeing that film: “All those speeches, all that beautiful music….”

Then followed a remark that stayed in my mind, as I tried to make sense of Syberberg, and of the literary debates raging in Germany this year, in the wake of November 1989: “Why is it,” the Polish Jew said, “that when a forest burns, German intellectuals spend all their time discussing the deeper meaning of fire, instead of helping to put the damned thing out?”

I thought of Günter Grass, who, with the lugubrious look of a wounded walrus, complained night after night on television that nobody would listen to him anymore. His constant invocation of “Auschwitz” as a kind of talisman to ward off a reunited Germany had the air of desperation, the desperation of a man who had lost his vision of Eden. His Eden was not the former GDR, to be sure, but at least the GDR carried, for Grass, the promise of a better Germany, a truly socialist Germany, a Germany without greed, Hollywood, and ever-lurking fascism.

I thought of Syberberg, who gloomily predicted that the awesome spectacle of a newly unified German Volk, his vision of Eden, would soon be replaced by the rancid democracy of party politics. And I thought of Christa Wolf, who made a speech in East Berlin exactly a year ago. The revolution, she said, had also liberated language. One of the liberated words is “dream”: “Let us dream that this is socialism, and let us stay where we are.”

Syberberg, Grass, and Wolf: they would seem to have little in common, apart from being earnest German intellectuals who loathe “Hollywood.” But they all bring to mind something the wise old utopian, Ernst Bloch, once wrote:

If an object [of political belief] appears as an ideal one, then salvation from its demanding and sometimes demandingly enchanted spell is only possible through a catastrophe, but even that does not always come true. I dolatry of love is a misfortune that continues to cast a spell on us even when the object is understood. Sometimes even illusionary political ideals continue to have an effect after an empirical catastrophe, as if they were—genuine.1

2.

In her famous essay on Syberberg’s film Hitler—a Film from Germany, Susan Sontag makes much of the multiplicity of voices and views expressed in his work: “One can find almost anything in Syberberg’s passionately voluble film (short of a Marxist analysis or a shred of feminist awareness).”2 It is not that she ignores those aspects of Syberberg that upset many German critics—the Wagnerian intoxication with deep Germanness, for example—but she sees them as single strands in a rich combination of ideas, images, and reflections. They are not to be dismissed, she thinks, but they also should not be allowed to obscure the genius of his work, which cannot be reduced to certain vulgar opinions, to the quirks one almost expects of a great and eccentric artist.

It is a respectable view, which is, however, not shared by the artist himself. As he made clear in his essays, as well as on stage at the East Berlin Academy of Arts, Syberberg does not separate his political, social, and aesthetic opinions from his art. Indeed, they are at the core of his creative work.

His ideas, expressed in films, theater, and essays, are certainly consistent. In the collage of images and sounds that make up his Hitler film, which, as Susan Sontag rightly observes, is a kind of theater of the mind, there is never any doubt in whose mind the action takes place. It is not Hitler’s mind, even though Syberberg salutes the dictator as a demonic colleague, a man who saw his destruction of Europe as an endless, epic newsreel. Hitler, in Syberberg’s opinion, was “a genius, who acted as the medium of the Weltgeist.” But it is Syberberg’s mind, not to mention his Geist, that has shaped everything in the spectacle; and the fascinating thing is that Syberberg’s philosophy, if that is what it is, is articulated most clearly by a ventriloquist’s dummy in the shape of Hitler.

This monologue, in which Hitler, as a melancholy puppet, talks about his legacy to the world, comes at the end of the third part of the four-part film:

Friends, let us praise. Praise the progress of the world from the other world of death. Praise from Adolf Hitler on this world after me…. No one before me has changed the West as thoroughly as we have. We have brought the Russians all the way to the Elbe and we got the Jews their state. And, after a fashion, a new colony for the USA—just ask Hollywood about its export markets. I know the tricks better than any of you, I know what to say and do for the masses. I am the school of the successful democrat. Just look around, they are in a fair way to take over our legacy….

People like me want to change the world. And the Germany of the Third Reich was merely the Faustian prelude in the theater. You are the heirs. Worldwide.

On November 10, 1975, the United Nations resolved by a two-thirds majority, quite openly, that Zionism is a form of racism….

And in the United States? Nothing about gas at Auschwitz on American TV. It would damage the American oil industry and everything having to do with oil. You see, we did win, in bizarre ways. In America….

Long live mediocrity, freedom, and equality for the international average. Among third-class people interested only in the annual profit increase or a higher salary, destroying themselves, relentlessly, ruthlessly, moving toward their end and what an end.”3

It is disturbing to hear condemnations of Zionism, let alone sneers about “third-class people,” through the mouth of Hitler, even if he is just an effigy, a dummy transmitting Syberberg’s voice. But the message is not new. The rantings about America being the heir to Hitler’s projects would hardly surprise if they came from the pen of, say, Allen Ginsberg in full flight (Christa Wolf I shall leave until later). And the offensive trick of defusing German guilt by equating Hitler with Zionism also has a familiar ring. As for blaming democracy, Hitler’s first victim, for its own demise (as Syberberg puts it in one of his essays: “Electoral democracy logically leads to Hitler”), that is a favorite ploy of antidemocrats everywhere. But Syberberg’s disgust with the third-class postwar world goes further than that; it has turned his misty mind toward a dark and exalted vision of the German Kultur, which makes many of his countrymen squirm.

Syberberg believes in Germany as a Naturgemeinschaft, an organic community whose art grows from the native soil. Art, he writes, was once “the balsam on the wounds of the ‘I,’ which was identical with the native land,” whereas now art has lost its meaning, for the postwar Germans have lost their identity as Germans, have severed their umbilical cord with the soil that nurtured them. Postwar German art is “filthy and sick.” It is “in praise of cowardice and treason, of criminals, whores, of hate, ugliness, of lies and crimes and all that is unnatural.”4 It is, in other words, rootless and degenerate. German art can only be elevated from this stinking swamp by dedicating itself once again to beauty, the beauty of nature and the Volk. Like many attempts to make a cult of beauty, Syberberg’s art often plummets from its exalted heights into kitsch: Wagner booming away on the soundtrack as a tearful Viennese aesthete reads Syberberg’s poetic vision of impending doom.

A German journalist once did the obvious thing: he showed Syberberg a tract written in the 1930s by Alfred Rosenberg on degenerate art and compared it to Syberberg’s words. Syberberg admitted there were similarities, but argued that just because Rosenberg said the same thing, this didn’t mean it was wrong. Thank God, he said, he hadn’t thought of Rosenberg, for then he might not have stated his honest opinion, for such is the terrible taboo left by the Nazi past on German aesthetic traditions.

But who has imposed this taboo? And why has German art and society “degenerated” to such a low point? In Syberberg’s new book of essays we get to the nub of the matter:

  1. 1

    From Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, translated by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (MIT Press, 1989), p. 128.

  2. 2

    Susan Sontag, “Syberberg’s Hitler,” first published in The New York Review (February 21, 1980), reprinted in Under the Sign of Saturn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980).

  3. 3

    The full script was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1982, entitled Hitler: A Film from Germany, translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

  4. 4

    These quotations are from Syberberg’s book of essays, Vom Glück und Unglück der Kunst in Deutschland nach dem Letzten Kriege.

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