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Country X Doesn't Care What You Think About its Laws

When I hear that Obama has denounced anti-gay legislation in Uganda and Russia, I always wonder at the futility of this sort of thing. In fact, it's probably counterproductive. Majorities of Ugandans and Russians disapprove of homosexuality, and they want their laws to reflect that fact. Criticism from foreign countries triggers a natural reaction to dig in even deeper.

And who should know that better than the United States? Decades of criticism of capital punishment from the EU, the Pope, Latin American nations have had no impact. To the extent Americans are even aware of the EU's disapproval of the death penalty, they scoff at it. 'We have our own country,' they think, 'our own history, our own traditions, and our own reasons for having the laws we do.' You might think policy X has become a fundamental human-rights norm which all civilized nations must respect, but we disagree.

Germany is pretty much the same. The U.S. has repeatedly accused Germany of violating the human rights of Scientologists, and Germany reacts with a loud 'mind your own f**king business'. Something similar can be said for the German coalition's new plans for Turkish-German dual citizenship, which the Turkish foreign minister has denounced as a 'human rights violation'. German and especially British courts are notorious for responding rather touchily (g) to criticism from the European Court of Human Rights.

Foreign criticism of executive decisions and policies seems to have some impact, but criticism of a country's laws -- especially when passed by democratically-elected legislatures -- rarely accomplishes anything.


Our Mothers, Our Fathers as an Anti-War Film

I watched Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ('Our Mothers, Our Fathers'), the three-part German miniseries that has recently been released to decidedly mixed reviews in the USA under the title 'Generation War'. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it

an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans — “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” in the original title — were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.'

...There is good and bad on all sides, a dash of mercy mixed into the endless violence. But the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film’s disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did. We see massacres of Jews by local militias in Ukraine under the supervision of the SS, but “Generation War,” for all its geographical range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps.

This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes — that they were as much Hitler’s victims as his accomplices and did not know what he was doing. They also suffered, after all, but there is something troubling about how the filmmakers apportion this suffering.

Virtually all the reviews name-check the various controversies the film provoked -- Poles were especially frustrated by the depiction of Polish anti-Semitism among partisans.

I rather liked the movie. One thing that American reviewers may not appreciate is its simple technical proficiency. Americans are spoiled -- standards of dialogue, narrative pacing and production design are now so uniformly high in American television series that Americans take it for granted that backgrounds and sets will appear extremely plausible and detailed down to the last cigarette butt or car model, and that dialogue will sound as if it were actually being produced by people in the periods and professions the actors portray. This doesn't mean that show is worth watching or the plot is plausible, but the technical stuff will seem right.

In German shows, alas, this basic level of proficiency can't be taken for granted. Generation War looks authentic, although I'm sure there are minor flaws here and there. The combat scenes are chaotic and gritty, basically copies of Steven Spielberg. Which is fine by me -- nobody does combat scenes in middlebrow war movies better than Spielberg, and there's not much room for individual experimentation, so why not copy the master? The director, Philipp Kadelbach, has worked hard at creating a bloody, gritty, nasty, violent combat background, and deserves kudos for pulling that off.

It's also refreshing to see a German movie that other nations are interested in seeing. German cinema is in at least the third decade of doldrums, producing far too many portentous didactic pieces about parochial social issues or navel-gazing rides on the hobbyhorses of the urban bourgeoisie. Germans are well aware of this problem, which is the subject anguished hand-wringing every year as the German Film Prize goes to yet another group of movies that few have seen and which sink rapidly into oblivion.

One of the culprits is the script review process, necessary to get the public funds with which these movies are made. Any juice these movies might have had is patiently extracted during this process, in which squeamish, picky film bureaucrats carefully remove most traces of originality, political incorrectness, or excessive action. I myself have seen a film script with the review marks of numerous of these prigs, whose favorite means of removing interesting scenes from movies is the phrase 'zu Hollywood' (too Hollywood). Generation War is hardly profound auteur cinema, but it's a gripping, well-made middlebrow drama with well-defined characters (the cast, as is usually the case in German movies, is outstanding) and which doesn't shy away from controversy.

The critics who carp that the movie doesn't do precely-calibrated justice to all who suffered under German rule (no death camps? Polish anti-Semites?) are missing the point. The typical German film would have tried to placate every constituency, and would for just that reason have been a pedagogic exercise. The movie focusses on the five main characters, showing 'their' wars. We see German soldiers committing plenty of atrocities, and witness ordinary Germans gleefully parroting militaristic and anti-Semitic propaganda, denouncing one another, and ruthlessly executing women and children. Not all of the five main characters survive, and the ones who do are all morally compromised. The fact that they also display some sympathetic qualities such as loyalty to friends hardly counts as whitewashing.

American critics seem blind to the fact that Generation War is an anti-war film. Americans and Britons approach a German movie about World War II with an iron framework of anticipations and preconceptions that focus narrowly on one question: Are the Germans somehow trying to whitewash their unspeakable past? Once you put aside this tired framing, you see that Generation War is about the human stupidity, groupthink, and cowardice that lead to war. The non-Jewish German characters start out swallowing Hitler's propaganda about a quick war and the international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy (while excepting their Jewish friend Viktor Goldstein under the motto of Karl Lueger, former mayor of Vienna: 'Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich' (g) -- 'I decide who's a Jew'). The rest of the movie grinds each of the four non-Jewish characters through a relentless nightmare of betrayal, hypocrisy, moral corruption, and violence that kills a few of them and leaves the rest permanently scarred and profoundly cynical. The viewer is meant to experience this as just retribution for their gullibility and gradually-expanding complicity in evil.

Generation War is a German movie that shows the horror and futility of any war anywhere. It's a straightforward, not-particularly-subtle morality tale about the dangers of nationalism and militarism. American critics might have given that aspect of the movie some thought, considering that just 11 years ago, Americans were -- with truly embarrassing ease -- suckered into supporting a pointless, brutal occupation that has now left over a million injured, 270,000 of whom have brain injuries (counting Afghanistan), not to mention the countless millions of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured. Whether the echo was intentional or not, it's telling that one of the German characters, fighting partisans and the Red Army on the front lines in Russia, muses bitterly that just three years ago, the German army was 'greeted as liberators' from Bolshevism.


Zedler's Recipe for Spiced Beer Against Melancholy

800px-Adriaen_Brouwer_010

A couple of German libraries, assisted by the German Research Council, have scanned all 63,000 pages (g) of 'Johann Heinrich Zedler's Great Complete Universal Encyclopedia of All the Sciences and Arts', published in 1732. It's even searchable. And it's fantastic.

I searched for melancolia in various spellings and came across this recipe for 'Spiced Beer Against Melancholey'. The antiquated spelling and Fraktur script make it a bit hard to read, but the recipe seems to have at least 15 or so ingredients, including young beer, 'hermo-dates(?)', carrot seeds, radishes, white wine, coriander seeds, juniper berries, St. John's Wort tips, and much more:

Krauter beer melancholey

There's got to be some philologist out there who can interpret the weights, measures, and cooking instructions. We can only hope all the spices are still available.

Let's all get together and whip up a giant cauldron of this stuff and get rid of our Melancholey once and for all! Who's with me?


The German Burnout 'Epidemic'

 Index

Anna Katharina Schaffner reviews several recent books on the phenomenon of burnout in Germany in the Times Literary Supplement:

Articles on burnout in the German supplements in recent years have been legion – in fact, so many have appeared that some observers are already complaining about “burnout burnout”. Academic publications, too, have mushroomed: in addition to the two books reviewed here, there is Stephan Grünewald’s Die erschöpfte Gesellschaft (2013), Patrick Kury’s Der überforderte Mensch (2012) and Byung-Chul Han’s Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (2010; and already in its eighth printing). All this clearly attests to a wider preoccupation with the relationship between individual energy levels and the organization of work in the age of techno-capitalism. Yet many of the strategies used to explain what is represented as an unprecedented epidemic of burnout are in fact very similar to those that were used in pre- and early modern accounts of melancholia and acedia, as well as in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of nervous weakness and neurasthenia.

...

It is tempting to speculate on why exhaustion has become such a popular topic in Germany at present, and not, for instance, in the UK. Germany’s economy is currently the strongest in Europe, and the country’s income levels and general quality of life are also higher than those of most of its neighbours. According to the statistics, Germans do not work longer hours than the British, or indeed many other nations – a recent OECD survey showed that only the Dutch work fewer hours than the Germans. Why, then, do the Germans feel so exhausted? Might there be some truth to the old cliché of the specifically German Arbeitsethos (work ethic) after all? Do they perhaps invest more (emotionally, physically, existentially) in their work, and are they therefore more prone to burnout? Max Weber certainly thought so. In his theorization of the Protestant work ethic, he presented a range of theological and historical reasons to explain the Berufspflicht that led to the exhaustion of one’s energies in work. Yet Germany is, of course, not the only predominantly Protestant nation in Europe. Moreover, as Martynkewicz and others have shown, Weber’s theses were not only in tune with the exhausted zeitgeist of his age, but might also at least partly have been motivated by personal experience.

Being burned out is a socially “respectable” condition, implying, as it does, that one has simply worked too hard. It carries less stigma than depression. It is a disease of those who have overtaxed themselves in the name of work, and it might therefore be worn almost as a badge of honour. Wolfgang Martynkewicz convincingly demonstrates that a not inconsiderable degree of pride and self-moulding was often involved in the accounts of neurasthenics in the late nineteenth century: neurasthenia signified refinement, sensibility and an artistic streak. Burnout, in contrast, signifies a work ethic carried to the extreme. Seen from that perspective, one can begin to imagine how, paradoxically, it might serve as a means not only to deplore modernity but also to praise it.


Germany Unguarded

Guard Labor in Germany and the US

As I mentioned recently, German convenience kiosks don't have bulletproof glass, because there's almost no stranger-on-stranger violent crime in Germany.

Meanwhile America, according to a recent study, is the most heavily-guarded nation on earth right now, with more private security guards than schoolteachers. The authors say income inequality is one reason for this:

Note that, in 1979 (shown by the pink dot), the United States was less unequal and employed less guard labor. In the graph, inequality in income takes account of payment of taxes and receipt of government transfers such as Social Security. (We measure inequality by the Gini index, a measure that varies from 0 for complete equality — that is, if all families have the same income — to a value of 1 if a single person has all of the income.) The data shown are the most recent for all nations on which comparable measures of inequality and guard labor are available.

For the same countries, guard labor is also more common where those starting out in life face a sharply tilted playing field, such as America, Britain and Italy. These are countries in which the income of a father is a good predictor of the income of his adult son. The countries with the least guard labor are those in which there is greater equality of economic opportunity by this measure: These are Denmark and Sweden, countries in which knowing the father’s income does not enable a very accurate guess of the son’s income when he grows up.

...[T]he correlation evident in the graph could be evidence that economic disparities push nations to devote more of their productive capacity to guarding people and property. Fear and distrust of one’s neighbors and fellow citizens fuel the demand for guard labor. Economic disparities can contribute to both. Among the countries shown, a common measure of distrust of strangers is strongly correlated with both the guard-labor fraction and inequality.

Social spending, also, is strongly and inversely correlated with guard labor across the nations shown in the graph. There is a simple economic lesson here: A nation whose policies result in substantial inequalities may end up spending more on guns and getting less butter as a result.


Pussy Riot's Dadaist Pregnancy Porn

One of the many things people don't seem to understand about Pussy Riot, the Russian 'punk band', is that they can't play instruments and were never a band. The members are part of something extremely Eastern European -- a surrealist-dadaist protest group named Voina which stages bizarre pranks intended not just to parody state power, but to cause observers to question the nature of reality itself, so to speak. Kind of like Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered teacup:

File:Méret Oppenheim Object.jpg

What western reporters don't get, being the literal-minded types they are, is that the members of Voina/Pussy Riot are pranksters, not activists. All of their actions are illegal and absurd, and only some of them have any political meaning at all. This is the point Pussy Riot keeps making in this interview, to the confusion of the drab, plodding journalists in the audience. To imagine them as earnest left-wing 'punk band' members makes about as much sense as thinking of Laibach's industrial-metal 'Let it Be' album from 1998, which desecrates every single song on the Beatles original, is a loving homage:

Laibach, not coincidentally, come from Slovenia, are conceptual artists, take their name from the German word for the capital of Slovenia (highly controversial, since the Germans brutally occupied the city of Ljubljana during World War II), and have engaged in actions such as going shopping in Dortmund, Germany in full SS regalia (if memory serves).

To demonstrate how committed the Voina collective is, let us take a Pussy Riot 'member', Nadezhda Tolokonnikova:

 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, left, and Maria Alekhina

Did you happen to know that there is a video of her, taken with her full knowledge and consent, naked, with her knickers around her knees, having sex doggy-style, in public, while 9 months pregnant? Take it away, Wikipedia:

In February 2008, (Voina) were involved in the "Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear!" performance in which couples were filmed engaging in sexual acts in the Timiryazev State Biology Museum in Moscow.[9][10][11] The performance was apparently intended as a kind of satire of then President Dmitry Medvedev's call for increased reproduction. She was in the late stages of pregnancy at the time.[12] 

And yes, for those of you who are so inclined (you know who you are), there's a video of this performance here. I won't embed it since this is at least nominally a family-friendly blog. She gave birth 4 days after the video was made.

So, Pussy Riot isn't a 'punk band', they're something much stranger and more interesting -- and much more Eastern European.


German Word of the Week: Lebenswallen

Reading Hans Joachim Moser's 1958 book Musikgeschichte in 100 Lebensbildern (Music history in 100 Biographical Sketches). Moser (g) was a famous German musicologist and prolific author of books about Western music for a high-middlebrow audience. Moser's biographical sketches are lively, readable, but also sophisticated -- he gently dismantles myths such as Palestrina 'saving' Catholic religious music, and isn't afraid to point out works and composers he thinks are under- or over-rated. Moser was also a Nazi, joining the party in 1936 and becoming a senior musical functionary. Among other dubious deeds, he oversaw the 'Aryanization' of Händel's oratorios in the early 1940s.

The book isn't ideologically inflected, though. Granted, lesser-known German composers (Schein, Schütz, Scheidt, Biber even Oswald von Wolkenstein) get more attention than they might in a book by a Frenchman, but this is to be expected. Moser is by no means parochial, and if you ask me, many of these German masters are a bit underappreciated outside of Germany.

At once point, Moser refers to the Lebenswallen of the well-traveled Orlandus de Lassus, which caused me to sit up and say: 'What the fuck ist ein Lebenswallen'? Leben is life, and forms the root of many German compounds: Lebenslust, Lebensauffassung (idea of what life is for), lebenslang (lifelong), even the useful Lebensmüde (tired of life, used of someone who's either suicidal or about to do something extremely stupid and dangerous, as in 'You're really going to drink that piss-colored Sochi tapwater? What are you, Lebensmüde?).

Wallen is a verb meaning, variously, to seethe, bubble or flow. So apparently a Lebenswallen is a seething, bubbling, foaming flow of life. I could find only very few uses of the word in German. One of these is typical, from an 1821 book entitled 'Investigation of Life-Magnetism (Lebensmagnetismus) and Clairvoyancy' by one Johann Karl Passavant:

Screenshot 2014-02-07 14.04.28

The middle paragraph reads: 'From the unsearchable depths of Being, universal Father of things, emerges the God-revealing life-source of all existence, the eternal word of creation (the Logos), and the worlds are created and disappear through the flow of life (Lebenswallen), the breath (spirit) of God, who, all-inspiring, fills the universe.'

Lebenswallen, like Afterkind seems to have fallen into disuse. Together, we can and will usher this fine word back into everyday use.