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Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

W.G. Sebald – Luftkrieg und Literatur (1)

sebald.jpg When the Apocalypse caused by Germany came back to engulf it in its fire and destruction, there must have been immeasurable suffering and trauma, yet, as Sebald points out, almost none of it made it into the story of life as set down by the writers. Sebalds exploration of the reasons for this omission, are both deeply touching for his compassion even with those who caused the very desasters that struck them, and illuminating for their original and provocative view on the narrative of Germany.

Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

Miroslav Sasek – München / Munich (2)

munich.jpg This book evokes memories of the seventies, when I was a little boy in school, and many textbooks had illustrations in a style similar to Sasek’s. These are lovely and slightly odd renderings of everyday life in Munich several decades ago, and the slight mismatch between the english and german versions of the text, and the terseness in general, only add to this piece of nostalgia. And I don’t even like Munich all that much.

peterlicht.jpg I am not sure how this album will go over for somebody who does not understand the lyrics, as to me much of the appeal of Licht’s music rests in the relationship between the clash of childish naivete and intellectualism in his words and the innocent music he chooses to sing them to. I am also not sure how the lyrics would work on their own, I suspect they’d be shallow novelty poetry, but the combination is just delicious. If you know German, or intend to learn it, give this a spin.

kollektive_unschuld.jpg For years I had suspected that the historic truth is being stretched and bended, possibly even mutilated, in order to make Dresden into the innocent symbol of allied war atrocities dominating the German discourse of the bombings. Now, having read Schubert’s book on the subject, I am better equipped to dispel the myths, and predictably find my inferences confirmed. No liquid phosphor rained down, the city was not full of fugitives or innocents any more than any of the other cities inhabited by Nazis was, and the local industry was neither insignificant nor unimportant for the war. Dresden has turned into a monumental tool for relativists, for whom the outcome – the destruction of human life and property – is the only determinant of the morality of an action, and for whom dead Nazis and their dead victims form one soppy canvas to paint a kitschy portrait of their nationalism disguised as benevolent peacefulness upon.
It’s a sad state of affairs that books like this are so few and far between.

Monday, June 26th, 2006

Peter Singer – Hegel (1)

hegelpastmasters.jpg I came across this book on one of the shelving carts in the main UC Berkeley library while searching for a completely different one that had gone missing (and sadly hasn’t been located since). Its author, briefness and subject matter immediately commanded my attention, and after having read it, I’m happy I stumbled upon it. This brief treatment of Hegel’s work is a small miracle, capturing his theory of history, dialectics and the master/slave dichotomy rising from his theory of Selbstbewusstsein, and in turn giving rise later to Marx’ alienated labor. A wonderful introduction, and a solid argument for libraries where books are accessible rather than being ordered from closed stacks through a catalogue.

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

James Moll – The Last Days (1)

last days.jpg Watching movies about the holocaust, even – or especially – ones that are as well made as this one, is exhausting and disturbing, and I’m not entirely sure why I keep doing it again and again. Partly it’s the general feeling that an evil forgotten is one likely to be repeated, but there also is the irrational, yet very compelling obligation to understand the monstrosity which seems to stem from my being a member of the culture that committed this singular crime. These matters aside, this particular documentary, drawn from material collected for Spielberg’s Visual History Foundation, is masterfully composed and edited, and should be seen by many, including you.

armsstrangers.jpg If anyone were following the reviews on this blog, a pattern of Nazi movie obsession in recent weeks would become apparent. This is partly due to an unchecked adding frenzy to our Netflix queue quite a while ago, and I’m growing a bit tired of it. So this probably explains in part why this documentary of the Kindertransporte, humanitarian efforts in the late 1930s saving tens of thousands of German Jewish children from certain death by sending them to host families in England, didn’t quite manage to grip my attention. It’s a heartwarming story, even if the host families were often struggling with the stressed out children they were receiving, but somehow the movie doesn’t manage to make it stick together. Maybe its the lack of historical commentary and an overarching message of the movie, maybe its just uninspired editing, and dragging interviews. Or maybe it’s just me – the Oscar this movie won in 2001 would suggest that, if I believed awards like the Oscars to be a genuine mark of quality.

swabianneighbors.jpg There is mythological evidence from the middle ages, suggesting the Swabians were a jolly, lively people then, full of vigour and joy. You wouldn’t think it today, and the introductory section of this book, meant to show Swabians in the best possible light and endowed with a preface by Cleverle Späth, is a case in point. The most salient features of the Swabian mind, his thriftyness, his shrewdness, his xenophobia, take some stretching to be made into qualities, and with some, most notably the Kehrwoche, even Larson’s well meaning prose fails to create any appeal or sense. The anecdote of Larson interacting with Willy Reichert, Arnulf Klett and the likes are positively painful, but admittedly that might be just to me, and just because they hit too close to home.
Much more interesting and entertaining are his broad sweeps through Swabian history, overloaded in places with genealogical details of the Dukes, or obscure military history of possible interest to his American military audience, but quite boring to me. The book is valuable for its benevolent outsider’s view on my home, that contrasts interestingly with my malevolent insider’s perspective.
Most interesting, however, was this response to the infamous Lied der Schwaben, which, though reviled by true Swabians for its unflattering depiction of local customs, I remember being hung on a plate in our home when I was a kid. I never thought the Lied der Schwaben problematic, in fact considered it quite accurate and liked it for its candidness, if not literary quality. The response, on the other hand, in its attempt to restore Swabian honor is quite utterly horrible. So here you go:

Das “Lied der Schwaben”? –
Der dies ausgebrütet,
aus welchem and`ren deutschen Stamm er sei.
Wo Roheit in der Gossensprache wütet,
sind Art und Herkunft weltweit einerlei!

Humor? –
Der Schwabe liebt ihn tiefer, leiser;
als Geistesfunke stillvergnügter Welt.
Die Leute leben hierzulande weiser
als grobe Torheit grölend dargestellt.

Das Lied der Schwaben:
Uhland hat`s gesungen!
Es schwingt im Fleiß, in Daseinsheiterkeit!
In Schiller, Mörike ist`s aufgeklungen –
und in Motoren dröhnt es erdenweit!

Das Kraftzitat des Götz von Berlichingen
ist menschheitsalter Allgemeinbesitz, –
drum hört man`s auch im Schwabenland erklingen:
zum Beispiel für “Poeten” ohne Witz!

ComedianHarmonists.jpg With a subject as intriguing as the history of the beloved vocalist combo, and their struggle with the rising Third Reich, and a freebie soundtrack treasurechest, it is hard to see how a movie could fail even as much as this one does. A stale and wooden script, endless repetitions of one single song (Veronica, der Lenz ist da) instead of a representative collection of the Harmonists’ work, and a simplistic notion both of human character and historic processes make this a less than splendid experience – especially when compared to Aimee and Jaguar, which is a entirely different league on a fairly similar subject.

leni_riefenstahl_lrg.jpg It is a disturbing fact of post-war German history that plenty of active National Socialists continued on to positions of power and influence in the Bundesrepublik, partly because of a lack of skilled leadership personnel not involved with the regime, but also because the anti-communist notions of the old criminals fit well into the new political struggle emerging in Europe. Against this historical background, Riefenstahls particular story becomes all the more fascinating. Her unsettlingly effective propaganda documentaries, Triumph des Willes and Fest der Völker, on the 1935 Nuremberg rally and the 1936 Olympic Games, created a fame for her that was probably the reason for her fall after the war. She wasn’t able to make any more movies, and all her other creative efforts – most notably her photography of the people – got subjected to close scrutiny and harsh criticisms for suspicions of a fascist esthetic, and were always contextualized with her past. This movie portrays her both as the victim of scapegoating and a stubborn denier of aspects of her life, but most of all it paints the fascinating picture of a multifaceted woman, who had the misfortune to live in evil times. You might not like her after this documentary, but you won’t regret having seen it.