Vom Glück und Unglück der Kunst in Deutschland nach dem Letzten Kriege
Patterns of Childhood
The Quest for Christa T.
No Place on Earth
Was bleibt (extracts entitled “What Remains” were published in English translation in Granta 33)
Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays
The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.