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."

Pandora Internet Radio

A friend (hat-tip J.C.) recently twigged me to Pandora Internet Radio, and I’m glad about that.

You type in a song or performer, and this online web service, part of the Music Genome Project, consults its database of artists and puts together a virtual radio station of similar songs, based on your song’s musical structure, genre, tonality, and the performer’s reputation. The music plays automatically from your web browser.

It’s Googleliciously to use, it’s free, and it doesn’t spam you when you register. My “They Might be Giants” channel is full of surprises, my "Slowdive" channel induces a comfy trance, and my "Sun Ra" channel sets me down gently on another planet.

So far they don’t have much non-English-language music available, but you can apply for a job helping them find and classify French and German pop.

German Joys in Welt Kompakt

Article_in_welt_kompaktA while ago, the lovely and talented Katrin S., who writes for the Welt Kompakt newspaper, interviewed me. A short piece resulting from that interview was published today on Page 28 of that paper. I think this is the NRW-teil, which means you can only read it if you buy the Welt Kompakt in the German state of Northern Rhine/Westphalia.

NRW, as the state is fondly called, is the most populous state in Germany, jam-packed with 18, 058,150 fresh, juicy human beings. As this link shows you, every one of us NRWler, as we’re called, has an amount of space availabe to us that is the equivalent of one-quarter the size of a football field.

In the article, Katrin says lots of nice things about me, and, what’s more important, quotes me saying lots of nice things about me. I won’t translate it, because translating stuff about me creeps me out, just like hearing my own voice. But if you happen to be visiting German Joys because of the article, welcome aboard. Bernet_touching_sculpture

On the same page is another piece (which can’t be linked, unfortunately), that nicely ties up a few themes of German life. We meet Remy-Pascal Bernet, a 19-year old German who designed an audioguide for the (splendid) Stiftung Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum (G) in Duisburg, a museum dedicated to modern scultpture and focussing on the Expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck.

The audioguide is special because it’s designed for the blind. Blind visitors are allowed to touch the sculptures while listening to the descriptions. They have to be accompanied throughout the museum by a guide, because some of the sculptures consist of stuff scattered on the floor, and blind visitors might accidentally "destroy" the sculpture with their canes.

Remy-Pascal Bernet get this prized internship by not training to fight for his country. Germany still has a draft, which means, at least theoretically, that all young German men must report for military service. For the many young Germans who would find this boring or inconvenient (and some who are convinced pacifists) there’s a way out: you need only convince the military draft board that you have a conscientious objection to training for military service. During the Cold War, when Germany theoretically needed soldiers, you had to prove you were sincere. Now, I hear, the process is not much more complicated than checking off a box on a postcard.

That’s what Mr. Bernet did. Instead of military service he signed up for program called the Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr (‘Volunteer Social Year’) in which the conscientious objector work in some non-profit institution, such as a retirement home or museum. Thus, the state subsidized a pacifist to help blind people appreciate art. Could there be anything more European?

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!

“The Perfume”: A Review

I saw the movie The Perfume: The Story of a Murderer last night, an international production which will be released in the UK and the US in December. The movie’s based on the much-translated 1985 novel by German writer Patrick Süskind (G), another notorious recluse who rejects prizes (here, literary ones). One of the most expensive European movies ever made, The Perfume stars Dustin Hoffman and a host of lesser-known (and less excitable) actors, including the extraordinary Ben Whishaw.

Whishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille ("frog" in French), who squirts out from between the legs of a filthy fishmonger in the "foulest-smelling place in Paris" in the early 18th century. Grenouille’s mother abandons him and is hanged for doing so, and the lad is sent to an orphanage. Early on during the brutal struggle that is life in a Paris orphanage, Grenouille discovers that his sense of smell is extraordinary, he can distinguish thousands of different scents and can even smell his way "through" objects to their interiors. Eventually sold to a tannery, Grenouille sees the golden, shimmering windows of perfume shop during a delivery run, and becomes obsessed with the idea of capturing scents forever.

He convinces an Italian perfumer Baldini (Hoffman) to take him on as an apprentice. Baldini soon discovers that Grenouille, although ignorant of the scientific principles of perfume-making, can mix perfumes with the best of them. In return for reviving Baldini’s declining business, Grenouille demands to be told the secret of distilling scents. Grenouille, you see (cue the ominous bass-line) has developed an obsession with the odor of beautiful young women, and is driven to distill this essence and take it with him everywhere. Doing so, however, requires cutting their hair off and covering their flesh with animal fat to absorb their scent. They are, understandably, not eager to cooperate. Hence, the killing. Grenouille does not abuse the women or or mutilate their bodies; he is interested only in preserving their scent forever.

The Perfume was directed by Tom Tyker, best known for Run Lola Run. I think of Tykwer as a sort of German Stanley Kubrick — idiosyncratic, gifted with a fecund visual imagination, a great friend of symbolism, and technically obsessive. In fact, Kubrick himself once passed on the right to direct Süskind’s book; a novel which revolved so obsessively around the sense of smell could not be filmed. Tykwer took on the challenge, and has produced a lusciously overripe, hugely entertaining European art-house drama.

Tykwer, ordinarily a rather unsmiling figure, seems to be having fun with the more bodice-rippy passages of the movie, such as a fiery sermon, an encounter with a prostitute (and her dog), and the preposterously licentious and over-the-top ending, which will surprise those who have not read the book. To put the viewer inside Grenouille’s world, in which smells are as vivid as loud noises, Tykwer exhausts every visual analogue to smell: the humans are visibly grimy and unwashed and drip sweat, the fields sway with flowers which spray seeds and chaff into the heavy air, Paris is a grimy, misty, smoky dungeon spattered with sewage and trash, illuminated only by fires and torches belching greasy smoke. Aristocrats are immediately visible as shining (and, presumably pleasant-smelling) figures of light amid the stench and muck. As an series of inventive images, shots, and textures, The Perfume is a masterpiece, and will surely be discussed in film schools for decades.

Tykwer, unfortunately, shares Kubrick’s chief weakness: creating sympathetic characters. Granted, he’s much better at this than Kubrick was, and in Heaven he directed a genuinely warm movie. But much of the dialogue in The Perfume is rather insipid (as when an aristocrat tells his daughter, whom he fears may be the killer’s next victim, "you’re all I have in the world"), the pace sometimes goes slack, and none of the characters develops a hold on you except for the feral, desperate Grenouille, played with wit and vulnerability by Whishaw. Even though he says little during the movie and kills rather a lot of unfortunate young women, he keeps the viewer’s sympathy. We see that he is a slave to unmasterable drives, and emerges, at the end, as perhaps the most innocent serial-murdering pervert ever to slink across the silver screen. The Perfume has its weaknesses, but is sumptuous and surprising enough to be worth a look.

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!

The “Making Sense” Filter

Apropos the contrast between how European foreign-policy experts and the Bush Administration view the world, Billmon highlights one of the more grimly amusing sections of a report by retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner.

After collecting data, opinions, and evidence from his wide network of contacts in and outside the U.S. government on the subject of the possible (inevitable?) U.S. military strike on Iran, Gardiner notes:

When I discuss the possibility of an American military strike on Iran with my European friends, they invariably point out that an armed confrontation does not make sense — that it would be unlikely to yield any of the results that American policymakers do want, and that it would be highly likely to yield results that they do not. I tell them they cannot understand U.S. policy if they insist on passing options through that filter. The "making sense" filter was not applied over the past four years for Iraq, and it is unlikely to be applied in evaluating whether to attack Iran.

Later in the same report, Gardiner emphasizes:

One thing is clear: a major source of the pressure for a military strike emanates from the very man whi will ultimately make the decision over whether to authorize such a strike — the president. And these various accounts of his motivations and rationales have in common that the president will not allow does-not-make-sense arguments to stand in the way of a good idea.

According to Gardiner, preparations for a strike against Iran have been underway for several years, and American diplomacy is a fig-leaf: "[T]he administration is not making good-faith efforts to avert a war so much as going through the motions, eliminating other possible strategies of engagement, until the only option left on the table is the military one."

The attack will consist of an aerial-bombardment campaign lasting up to five days; but there will be no ground invasion of Iran. Bush Administration officials hope that the bombing campaign will trigger regime change in Iran seriously, but no independent expert thinks so. If Iran chooses to retaliate for the strike, it could do everything from spurring a bloody campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq to disrupting oil supplies, depending on how forceful a response it felt was in order. One likely consequence: a "global, synchronized recession." The main point of Gardiner’s report is that the Bush Administration knows this will happen, but thinks the strike is the right thing to do anyway.

Of course, I’ve no idea whether this is strategic leaking designed to convey the impression that the U.S. is serious, or whether it’s strategic leaking which proves the U.S. is serious, but Gardiner seems to believe the latter. And former Bush aide Robert Blackwill, after a recent question-and-answer session with Mahmoud Ahmadenijad at the Council on Foreign Relations, said: "If this man represents the prevailing government opinion in Tehran, we are heading for a massive confrontation with Iran." Fasten your seat belts.

A Nation Run by Grown-Ups

When Americans pay attention to Germany at all, which is rare, they often display no curiosity about the German political landscape, except perhaps for its fringes. Many journalists also seem to follow an unwritten rule that the only things that qualify as ‘news’ from Germany are neo-Nazi hi-jinks and tales of economic woe.

An American named Kali, who lives in Berlin and runs an interesting blog, argues that if Americans looked harder, they could learn something from Germany:

Yes, there is a racist, fascist element in Germany, and I believe that it’s good that it’s public enough to expose its ass in front of a generally disapproving nation. But the percentage of Germans who support those right-wingers is demonstrably tinier than the percentage of U.S. citizens who support repressive racial and social policy. Germany has no Guantanamos, after all, and no recent history of wars of aggression, and no Christian fundamentalist power bloc capable of preventing the teaching of science, rationalism, and critical thinking in its school systems. It isn’t proposing legislation to legalize torture and secret military tribunals. This is because Germans are not in danger of being led into political action by blind patriotism; they have been burned by that before.

Finally, there is a huge difference between maintaining a complex and realistic view of life under communism and being an apologist for it. The truth is that there were both good and bad things about living in the ex-Soviet bloc, and it’s pretty natural for progressive Germans to want to keep or re-establish the good things (universal access to education and health care, a working welfare system, full employment, legal sanctions against discriminatory behavior towards individuals based on their race) while wanting very much to ensure that the violations of human rights, legal rights, and the abridgment of political rights under those regimes is never repeated. It’s hard for many Americans to understand such a nuanced approach to the world of politics and social culture and, in that area, I think the Germans are far more sophisticated and reasonable than we are. I, for one, am happy to learn from them in this regard, without giving up my right to critique them when I think they are wrong.

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.)

The World Cup is Over

…so put those flags away and wipe the smile off your face: Pessimistic Germans Losing Faith in Democracy, Study Shows. Meanwhile, across the pond:

Americans will go to almost any lengths to avoid sounding negative, pessimistic, or defeatist, even if it means being somewhat less than honest or candid.  They try to stay away from topics they refer to as “downers” and to stay out of conversations that “bring you down,” as in down from the giddy heights of optimism and happiness.  These topics include anything to do with evil or the dark side of human nature, which Americans either ignore or try to explain away, anything that suggests failure, defeat, or any kind of setback – especially with death, the ultimate setback – or anything to do with limits or limitations, such as reasons why something cannot be done, should not be tried, or is impossible.

[from Craig Storti, Americans at Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People, p. 118]