American Writer’s Nazi Epic Enchants France

Signandsight features an English translation of a piece in a German newspaper about Jonathan Littell, a 38-year-old American writer whose 900-page novel "The Well-Meaning Ones", written in French, is reputed to be a favorite for the Prix Goncourt. According to this piece in the Independent,

Les Bienveillantes (The Well-Meaning Ones)…is the first-person story of an SS mass murderer who recalls, without emotion, his activities in Nazi execution squads and death camps. The novel, written in a four-month frenzy after five years of research, has been compared by French critics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Stendhal.

Littell himself has an intercontinental past; he "lives in Barcelona with his Belgian wife and two children" and "is Jewish-American but he was brought up and educated partly in France. His father, Robert Littell, is an espionage writer and former journalist who exiled himself in France in the 1970s." According to this article in 20Minutes (F), Littell worked through most of the 1990s for humanitarian organizations in war zones such as Bosnia and Chechnya.

He applied twice for French citizenship, because his American passport limited his effectiveness as a relief worker, his citizenship rendered things — to quote the article directly: "’touchy’ (délicat)." He was turned down for French citizenship because he had not spent sufficient time in France. He says he sketched the outline of the novel in English because he could do so more "rapidly and precisely," but wrote the novel in French, because his own literary tradition is "more French than Anglo-Saxon."

Here, the complete review, a literary blog, handicaps the fast-approaching French literary prize season. Littell’s novel currently tops the French best-seller list and is a contender for the Prix Goncourt. (If you’d like to bet on who will win the Nobel Prize in literature, you can do so here). His response to the French prize season: "That just brings stress. What I ask is simply that people leave me alone."

P.S. The writer for The Independent couldn’t resist a dig at contempoary French novels: "Most contemporary French novels are thin volumes of 300 pages or fewer. They are often taken up with the author’s childhood, literary struggles or random musings."

Bring me the Heads of Jesus, Poseidon, Mohammed, and Buddha

Defending the German city of Bielefeld from charges of stuffiness, Max Goldt once remarked: "You can buy T-shirts there with the slogan gloriously disrespectful on them everywhere, and somewhere in the back there’s also an outrageous city theater, where masturbating and defecating actors throw warm intestines onto burning American flags; that’s what I call an exciting intellectual atmosphere!"

Lest anyone think this is merely a satirical aside, I give you this news story (G) from the FAZ (my translation):

The suspension of performances of the Mozart Opera "Idomeneo" in Berlin out of concern over possible Islamic protests is meeting with criticism, especially from [conservative] CDU politicians. Interior Minister [Wolfgang] Schäuble described this step as "ludicrous and inacceptable."

[Stage Director] Hans Neuenfels, who is known for his tendency to provocation, calls for King Idomeneo to present the hacked-off heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed to the audience. This scene also triggered strong protests from the audience during the the staging’s premiere in December 2003.

One Muslim leader in Germany praised the suspension of performances, but Kenan Kolat, Federal President of the Turkish Community of Germany, defended the performance: "Art must be free."

I confess I’ve never understood the German tendency to stuff perfectly ordinary Mozart operas full of hacked-off Mohammed heads, bodily fluids, or elderly female dwarves making the Hitler salute. It’s gone far beyond self-parody here — I doubt there is any variation on shit, sex, and swastikas that hasn’t yet been tried.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as open as anyone to innovative stagings and have no problem with nudity. But where does the specifically German obsession with bodily fluids on stage come from? If it’s necessary to shock the bourgeois audience, well, you can ruin their evening, but do you seriously think you’ll change their mind? Has a Siemens executive ever retired and joined Attac after seeing a Verdi staging in which a well-dressed German businessman urinates on naked, writhing slaves while negotiating a merger on an expensive cellphone?

Also, I’ve always wondered about the practical aspect. Do actors learn how to regulate their fluid intake before the play, in order to have enough urine to extinguish the burning American flag? Don’t the cleaning staff ever protest at having to mop up after the performances? When the directors instruct the actors on the sequence in which they’re supposed to masturbate or copulate, don’t the actors ever raise their hand and say, "Geez, I don’t mean to sound like a philistine here, but what does me screwing Ted in front of 2500 strangers have to do with the plot of Lohengrin?"

Any thoughts?

German Joys Trivia Contest II

A few months ago, we had the first installment of the German Joys Obscure Cultural Trivia Contest. Somebody won the contest, which I wasn’t expecting. They received the prize, which was musical in nature. A success for all concerned, except for me, who had to prepare and mail off the bloody prize. Next time, I resolved, I’m going to make this more obscure.

Like all German Joys features, this one happens intermittently; whenever I feel like it, or get inspired. Inspiration struck me recently. In a book, I read the following description of a play:

[T]hree persons, dressed in red, enter and bow. We do not know to whom. One of them recites a poem (which should make the impression of something necessary exactly at that moment). A gentle old man enters with a cat he leads on a string. Until now, everything has been going on against the background of a black curtain. The curtain is drawn apart and an Italian landscape appears. Organ music is heard. The old man talks to the three persons. He says something which corresponds to the created mood. A glass falls from the table. All of them, suddenly on their knees, are weeping. The old man changes into a furious brute and murders a little girl who just crawled out from the left side. At this, a handsome young man runs in and thanks the old man for that murder, while the persons in red sing and dance. The young man then weeps over the corpse of the little girl saying extremely funny things, and the old man changes again into a tender-hearted character chuckling on the sidelines. The sentences he pronounces are sublime and lofty.

Tell me who originally wrote this description of a play, and you win the prize, which is lots of beautiful music. Good luck!

German Joys Review: Forklift Driver Klaus

It’s time for a subject that doesn’t get enough attention on German Joys: industrial safety.

Yesterday I watched Staplerfahrer Klaus: Der Erste Arbeitstag (‘Forklift Driver Klaus – The First Day on the Job’), a 10-minute long industrial-safety film directed by Jörg Wagner and Stefan Prehn. Forklift Driver Klaus opens in an office of a warehouse complex in some industrial suburb of a German city. All the forklift driver trainees are assembled; they’ve all passed their test, and all receive a badge signifying that yes, they too may join "the 37,000 specially-trained people in Germany who can rightly call themselves forklift drivers."

Klaus_the_happy_welladjusted_forklift_drThe camera focusses on Klaus, a cheerful, innocent-looking blond-haired young man, beaming with pride as the firm’s president pins his forklift-driver badge onto the lapel of his blue work overalls. Accompanied by peppy, burbling industrial-training-film music, Klaus walks confidently to his designated forklift and puts it through an initial safety inspection. Everything works. Klaus is about to start his new career as a forklift driver!

A near-accident at the warehouse entrance isn’t Klaus’ fault, it’s the fault of the foolish pedestrian who ignored the sign clearly marking separate paths for motorized and pedestrian traffic. Unfortunately, Klaus cannot so easily be absolved of blame for the series of "cruel but informative accidents" (to quote the film’s English-language website) that happen next.

As a favor to another worker, Klaus hoists him up on his forklift. He ignores his industrial-safety conscience (embodied by the voice-over actor Egon Hoegen), which tells him this is a bad idea. Sure enough, the poor guy loses his footing, and falls to his death. Then Klaus fails to notice a knife perched insecurely on the edge of a box, which plummets into the brain of another worker. Fortunately, this fellow’s quite resilient — he just breaks off the projecting portion of the knife and staggers off to lunch.

You’d think Klaus would have learned his lesson by now, but sadly, he hasn’t. Again violating clear safety instructions, Klaus lets a colleague — not "a factory-qualified mechanic" — repair the engine of his forklift. As soon as Klaus turns to key to check whether the repair works, we hear the sickening crunch that can mean only one thing: hands being hacked off and ground into meat by a forklift engine. "No Hands Günther," (Till Huster), stares uncomprehendingly at his stumps, before they begin spurting blood everywhere. An even worse fate awaits "Bisected Herbert" (Dieter Dost), when Klaus forgets to securely fasten a razor-sharp metal sheet to the front of his forklift.

Forklift Driver Klaus reaches its gory denouement when Klaus ventures — where else? — into the chainsaw section of the warehouse. After many further horrifying accidents, divine justice finally reaches Klaus himself: one of the two screaming, gesticulating, men impaled on the front of Klaus’ forklift — the worker with the chainsaw — inadvertently causes Klaus to be decapitated. The film ends with the screaming men being driven by Klaus’ headless, blood-spurting corpse into a glorious sunset.

Forklift Driver Klaus is an important movie, but, as you might guess, not one for the whole family.* The film remains impeccably loyal to the safety-film genre: the grainy, late-70s visual texture; the chirpy music; the gravelly-voiced, cautionary voice-over; and the animated interludes displaying proper forklift-handling technique. There’s an English version of the website, but I can’t tell whether there’s an English version of the movie. If not, I hereby volunteer my services as a translator.

If it saves just one forklift-operator’s life, it’ll be worth it.

* The DVD contains plenty of bonus material, including an interview with the two young directors. The highlight of the interview is the story of how the directors found their filming location. Of course, they told the warehouse owners they approached that they were making an, er, "industrial safety film." One owner finally agreed, and shooting was scheduled for Easter, when the directors assumed they would have the warehouse to themselves. However, the boss had put signs up all over the warehouse inviting workers to come watch the making of the "industrial safety film." The son of the warehouse owner showed up just as the two screaming, impaled men were being driven out of the warehouse. Fortunately, he understood the importance of the project, and became so involved that he ended up playing Klaus’ headless, blood-spurting body!

Adolf and the Leasing Contract

Something for the German-understanders out there.

Some lovable misfits took an audiotape of a comedian’s routine (don’t know which comedian) about an utterly banal legal dispute with a car dealership relating to a "Leasing-Vertrag" (leasing contract). They then synchronized it seamlessly to a videotape of a speech being given by a controversial German Austrian statesman in a large assembly hall filled with torches and flags.

I laughed until I cried, and then was filled with shame. Then I forgave myself, and watched the video again. (Hat-tip Ed P.)

Snail-Friendly Formerly Socialist Indian Chiefs

First there was Karl May, the odd 19th-century German novelist who brought ‘the Western’ to Germany. Even though he’d never been to the United States, May’s amazingly vivid descriptions of the rugged landscape of the West, and the ruggeder men who tamed it, were popular with German children. All Germans, and I mean all, can recite volumes about the loyal Indian scout "Winnetou", and the various palefaces who explored the West with him, including "Old Surehand" and "Old Shatterhand." The books remain in print to this day. In fact, Karl May has sold more books than any other German-language author.

Then there were American Westerns. Then came West German Westerns, which were successful. Then came Westerns…from the East! East Germany, that is. East Germany’s historical role was the Potemkin country, the dolled-up store-display Communist dictatorship that showed the rest of the world that aThe_peaceful_serbianindian_warriornything the West could do, the Soviet bloc could do just as well. (At least one Soviet-bloc country that is, which was relatively highly-developed and helped by massive infusions of Soviet economic aid). There were East German car brands, medical congresses, detective shows, management consultants, and even dance crazes (the Lipsi: "a dance invented by a committee, a bizarre hipless camel of a thing").

So there had to be socialist Westerns, and there were. In these Westerns, the Indians were wise, peaceable beings who didn’t even have a word for "property," and the cowboys, except for a few noble exceptions, were sadistic liars or unwitting tools of the capitalist robber barons. The Indian chief was usually played by the muscular Gojko Mitic (l), the son of a Serbian peasant family who became a (socialist) world-wide star in such movies as Chingachgook the Great Snake and The Son of the Great Bear.* Although Mitic could speak fluent German, his dialogue was always dubbed, in order "not to discriminate against the Indians." (G).

In 1990, Communism was called home by the Great Spirit. Mitic’s career, after an initial dry spell, resumed. In 1992, he took over the role of the Indian Scout Winnetou in the Karl May Festival, a seasonal amusement park featuring open-air re-enactments of scenes from Karl May novels.

On the occasion of his recent retirement from this role, the taz newspaper recently interviewed (G) Mitic for the September 9/10 issue. Here an excerpt, in my translation:

The reunification in 1990 probably wasn’t so easy for you, since you were a huge East German movie star typecast as an Indian. Doesn’t that mean: no more roles?

No, [the reunification of Germany] didn’t bother me at all. The best thing, I found, was that the stupid Wall was gone. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t have traveled before — after all, I still had my Yugoslavian passport, and you could go everywhere without a visa when you had one of those. But the division of Germany disturbed all of us. All of us. [After the reunification] I thought: you’ve got two hands and a healthy body — you can do everything. I could always have become a truck driver. I have all the right licenses for that: I could have driven tomatoes from Bulgaria to Germany. But, in any event, the first offer of a film role came soon: "The Movie-Teller." Of course, these were smaller roles than before…

But when the offer to play Winnetou in the Karl May Festival came, did you immediately say yes?

No. First, I talked to [predecessor] Pierre Brice, whom I knew from before; we had worked on films together. He advised me to take the part. So I came here and took a look around. I stood up there on the rocky outcropping [at the festival site] and then looked down into the arena — and decided to take the role.

You played your part up there on the rocks?

Yes; I had to rappel down from up there. That’s no longer possible. We’re not allowed to go up on the rocks anymore, since it’s now under environmental protection. Some kind of endangered snail lives there.

The snail would be threatened?

Yes, you might accidentally step on one.

An of course, Winnetou would never do that.

No, Winnetou would never do that.

* These eminently-watchable movies, most of which were filmed in the Socialist brotherland of Yugoslavia, were products of the East German film company DEFA. The University of Massachusetts has bought the rights to most DEFA films; visit their DEFA Film Library to find out more.

Umlaut Envy Redux

Except among the pretentious twits at the New Yorker, who insist on "coöperation" and "naïve," English has no umlauts, cross-hatches, cedilles, or other diacriticals. That means one thing: umlaut envy. The authors of the German group blog Riesenmaschine (‘Giant Machine’) has noticed, and are amüsed.

Take it away, Machinists (my translation):

Good night, Ümlaut

SuendeIt’s come this far: The North American enthusiasm for umlauts in bar-names yesterday finally broke all bonds. It began, I’d say, about two weeks ago, when the first German words popped up; suddenly bars were named “Überfall” and “Blüte”, which is pretty harmless, as far as it goes. But then people began to discover the exotic strangeness of the two little flying dots and went batshit. At first, people hovered in a transition phase that lasted only a couple of hours, in which they resorted to ordinary umlauted words (Pangäa). But then they moved to just declaring any foreign word they saw fair game, and slapping a couple of superfluous umlauts onto it.  Then people began to think, and realized that English words also look nicely odd, when you throw a couple umlauts onto them (Blür). Like a plague of rabbits, the umlaut conquered every continent, destroyed the native letters, and left a language desert in its wake. That was long ago. Since yesterday, though, since there is a restaurant in Bloor West Village in Toronto called “Blüme,” the well-traveled umlaut has arrived back in its homeland. Helpless and confused, the poor guy sits around in the pedestriän area, begs for spare chänge, and doesn’t even understand his own language anymore.

This post is a continuation of: Änd Tomörrow, the Whöle Wörld… (G)

German Word of the Week: Schamgegend

No more meandering essays for the moment. (They’ll be back, though, and that’s both a promise and a threat). It’s time for a new German Word of the Week™*, this blog’s most popular feature.

Schamgegend: literally translated, "shame-area". Is this the run-down part of a city, which locals never show to tourists? Is it the part of your cheeks that turn red when you blush? The part of the brain that regulates embarrassment? Nope.

Need some clues? Think about these two other perfectly respectable German words: Schamhaar (‘shame-hair’) and, er, Schamlippen (‘shame-lips’). If you’ve got a reasonably filthy mind, you’ve alread figured out what a Schamgegend is. Yep, it’s the good old pubic region; that is, where the human naughty bits are located.** I’ll let you figure out Schamlippen for yourselves.

* – I haven’t really trademarked German Word of the Week yet, but that shouldn’t stop you paying me large licensing fees if you wish to refer to it.

** – No, there is no Schamstange (‘shame-rod’). Yet.

Water-Mills and Boring Jobs

I subscribe to a German-language mailing list for the humanities called H-Soz-U-Kult. It sounds ugly but is harmless. It delivers to my inbox conference reports, calls for papers, book reviews, and announcements of upcoming conferences. That’s how I became aware of this upcoming important conference (G): "Symposium on Water-Power Use in the Cologne/Bonn Region." Among the presentations: "Historical Development of So-called Industrial Mills"; "Mills and Hammers as Formative Elements of the Cultural Landscape."

However, I’m sure the presentation that will provoke the most controversy — even more controversy than the explanation of why "Industrial Mills" should really be thought of as "So-called Industrial Mills" — will occur at 3:20, when the Director of the Rhine-Erft Mill Society presents her "Conceptual Outline for a Documentation Center Concerning Rhenish Mill Culture."

What kind of person would even try to capture the juicy majesty of watermills in a dry, bloodless "outline"? I’m tempted to engage in the favorite pastime of a many marginally-employed Germans. That is, travel to a conference, sit impatiently in the audience until questions are allowed, run up to the microphone, and deliver a 5-minute long, rambling, question-free tirade in which I accuse the speaker of unconscionably ignoring the ‘philosophical aspects’ or ‘social consequences’ of the question under discussion.

I admit it, I’m making fun of this conference, just as I previously made fun of a treatise on hail insurance. I know it’s rude, but it’s irresistible. I can’t help myself. But now I’d like to get all serious, and praise boredom.

Germany is packed with people who do boring jobs. (Yes, many of these people are also boring, but not all.) But it’s important to realize that Germany is as safe, pleasant, clean, and prosperous as it is because it has so many people who (1) are content to spend their entire lives doing boring jobs; and (2) take these jobs very, very seriously. In many areas of Germany and especially Austria, men had their job title engraved on their tombstone: "Here Lies Karl-Friedrich Hitzlgraber; Assistant to the Traveling Secretary in the Currency Transfer Department of the Royal and Imperial Customs Service of the Kingdom of Austria and Hungary. Sept. 4, 1865 — Jan. 22, 1928." 

Very few German civil servants still engrave their jobs on their tombstones, but working for the civil service is still prestigious. A person I know just became the supervisor of the legal department of a small airport near where I live. Actually, not the whole legal department — only the employees of the customs service who work at the airport. This job is well-paid and very hard to get — you had to have multiple university degrees and pass an Orwellian series of psychological tests to even be considered for it. You think Italy, Botswana, or Bhutan can afford to detail a state-paid lawyer to oversee the operation of customs at every single chickenshit airport in every single province of their respective countries?

"Actually," you may be saying to yourself, "I bet there are lots of government jobs like that in these countries." True enough, but in Germany, the head of the customs department legal service at the small regional airport is (1) not chosen on the basis of his family connection to the Transport Minister; (2) has recognizable tasks to perform; and (3) actually shows up to work every day and performs them. Except during his 28 days of paid vacation per year. Same thing with park wardens, street cleaners, insurance employees, and the countless other jobs that keep Germany functioning so smoothly.

So, to bring this post back to the original departure point, I may gently mock the Rhenish Mill Society, but I am also glad they exist. I take leisurely bicycle tours through the nearby countryside, and I see these mills. They’re charming and well-preserved. Thanks to a complex network of government subsidies, you can actually still buy the bread they produce, and it tastes delicious. All this historical preservation doesn’t just happen, it’s expensive and complex and requires the input of dozens of experts, who occasionally get together and share their ideas. I hope the conference is a smashing success.