Germany's Heart: The Modern Taboo
Hans Jürgen Syberberg - Filmmaker, dramatist, essayist and consumate cultural critic. Hans Jürgen Syberberg is the man German intellectuals and politicians love to hate. His works include Hitler: A Film from Germany and Parsifal.
NPQ Senior Editor Marilyn Berlin Snell met with Syberberg on a rainy Munich afternoon to discuss his views on the German essence that the current social and political crisis there.
NPQ: Much of your work has been devoted to celebrating German culture and reclaiming its lost purity - an essence that was coopted and soiled not only by Hitler, but according to your views, by the entire Enlightenment project and by the seductions of a soulless material culture. As a longtime interpreter of the German zeitgeist, how do you explain the dark renaissance of anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner violence in Germany today?
HANS JÜRGEN SYBERBERG: First, I have to tell you that no German would ever ask me this question. I hold a very special position here. For 25 years now, German intellectuals have treated me as if I were an enemy. They do not want to hear about what I believe lies at the heart of German identity. This is a real problem, and not just for me. It is emblematic of a general tendency for Germans, especially German intellectuals, to repress important aspects of our history - political, artistic and cultural - which has only succeeded in nurturing the growth of an ugly, right-wing street underground.
NPQ: What is it exactly, to your mind, has been repressed?
SYBERBERG: After the war intellectuals stood on the tradition of the Enlightenment and a hegemonic rationalism that focused on the head at the expense of the heart. But the heart of Germany, like that of Russia, for example, is very special, very different. Culture is built from the light on the trees, the way the heavens look at night from a particular plot of land. The light and the heavens are different here than elsewhere. Our perspective, our feelings, therefore, are different.
Yet we have felt compelled in postwar Germany to repress this uniqueness. We feel safe excelling in mathematics, physics, business. Our people, dominated by facts and figures, are satisfied to dance around the golden calf of materialism. We are very efficient and methodical. But where is the heart?
This has been my artistic project: to focus on the heart, the modern German taboo. And I see that the repression of this aspect of the German identity has cultivated a very negative reaction.
I have warned in the past of the dangers of "repressed irrationalism." Right-wing extremism in Germany today is indeed the result of repression but I would now revise my terminology. Today, though I use the word "rationalism" to characterize the postwar intellectual tradition. I do not mean that the contrary is necessarily "irrationalism." The distinction between the "head" and the "heart" does not translate to "rationalism" versus "irrationalism." The artistic and intellectual form this took in Germany in the past was idealism, as opposed to the later materialism of the 19th century.
As to the question of the right-wing uprising on the streets, I see it resulting from a kind of postwar democratic repression. These youths represent the German wound. They are very vulgar, ugly and sometimes just banal. But in the end they are merely a function of our postwar democracy. In history, haunting Erinyes are never nice or beloved.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by "democratic repression." Recently, after a right-wing leader appeared on a late-night television show, the entry country went into an uproar over the fact that this man was given a platform to air his views.
Every newspaper, large and small, editorialized about how right-wing views should not be allowed, with the argument that he spoke too cleverly. And now, popular opinion - or should I say official media opinion - has it that this man and his viewpoint should be silence. Yet we cannot eradicated our little Hitlers by refusing to give them the microphone. If people want a Hitler one cannot prevent them from having him. And, in fact, the repression of those views may only increase their seductiveness among those who feel left out of society already.
In a historical sense, Hitler interests me because he came out of the heart of the German people. A man without a heart, this was the tragedy for them. But this awareness doe snot help me without current crisis in the streets. The man I just mentioned, the right-wing extremist who will no longer allowed to speak his views publicly, does not spring from the heart of the people. Rather he is the product of democratic repression. The threat he poses, however, is no less great for this fact.
This is a new era for Germany, with new dangers. Certainly we must be concerned about the extremists that burn down the houses of foreigners; and we must be concerned with a justice system that reacts too slowly and too late. But we must also go beyond these symptoms of the postwar German wound and get to its cause.
When people support neo-Nazi leaders today, they are not necessarily supporting the message. These people are wounded, and they see that their pain and their fear are better represented by extremist leaders than by German politicians and intellectuals. But frankly, I don't think these young men are really interested in following anybody. They have no ideology, neo-Nazi or otherwise. They only make fire. Violence is their form of anarchic expression. We should ask ourselves what they are expressing. What went wrong?
Our political leaders can try to extinguish these flames with laws and decrees. They may succeed in putting out a few small fires, but we know from personal and historical experience that it is very unwise to stifle expressions of discontent. Psychoanalysis and Weimar should be our guides here.
Every society constructs its antithesis and in certain revolutionary moments it bursts upon the scene. In our society today, where money is so central, where the minister of finance holds a position of importance the defense minister held in times past - in a time where money has such incredible power - we would be well-advised to pay attention to what springs up where there is no money or business interests.
What today is finding success with the young generation has nothing at all to do with money. The make music, called "Oi," whose sales are prohibited in stores; they have concerts that can't be advertised. They don't make money; they don't spend money. They just gather, and the gatherings are getting larger. They are part of a real underground, like the early Christians in the catacombs in Rome.
And the German media are going crazy. They are saying that this trend is worse than Hitler and Himmler combined! But the German press just wants to please people abroad with this kind of coverage?
NPQ: Isn't it disturbing to you, as well?
SYBERBERG: It's a wound. And because it has been covered up, suppressed all this time, it has now become infected and is oozing its infection out into society. But this is a reaction to something else; it is not springing fully formed from the heart of the German people.
NPQ: But you are describing the phenomenon of racist extremism as though it were somehow healthy for Germany - a healthy reaction to the soulless market culture that now prevails there.
SYBERBERG: No. This extremism frightens me, too. These youths are bloodthirsty, aggressive. When one see clips of them on television, their face are contorted like wild animals. But there they are: the new German underground. It's really like the first Christians, in the belly of the golden calf.
Moreover, my role as an artist is not to judge but to discover how and why it is happening. There is something wrong with my country. Maybe these youths don't understand who Hitler was. Maybe they don't know history; they only use Hitler for shock effect. I want to know what is in the air that nourishes this behavior. It's not just because these young men are poor and without work. And it's not just a violent protests against their fathers, against capitalism or democracy. There is something more.
What permeates the air in Germany also exists in Poland, Italy, Hungary, France, Scandinavia and elsewhere. It has the odor of anti-Semitism, in part. After Auschwitz, the Jewish position was a moral one, which developed over time into a kind of moral hegemony: it eventually engenders resentment on the part of the weaker player. People don't like to be told over and over that they are morally inferior. They bear it for a certain time, but then there comes a point when the children refuse to continue paying their fathers' debts. European culture has reached this breaking point. Not the intellectuals, of course. They are professionals at maintaining their equanimity. But that is not the case in the streets.
The rebellion does not come from the head, but from the gut, and in all countries of Europe. It is a rebellion of the Erinyes - ugly, brutal. The Greeks depicted them in mythical images as something barbaric.
But this said, there is also another picture of Germany: thousands taking to the streets - the majority; one sees them on television, in the newspapers. They are shocked. Never before have so many in Germany declared their support for foreigners, and so selflessly. They show their solidarity for the foreigners in Germany, just as they did last winter for Russia or for Yugoslavia - in numbers greater than in any other country in the world. Those who lay the fires are a fringe group of a special kind.
NPQ: Your analysis has the effect of transforming victims into antagonists - culprits in their own victimization.
SYBERBERG: People are always very quick to make that argument. But in this historical moment the Jews are not victims; they are victors, morally speaking. This has been the case since the end of the war. And not only in Jerusalem or in Germany but worldwide. But we cannot freeze historical moments. History moves. Fifty years after Hitler, a whole new generation has taken the stage. They behave differently than their guilt-ridden parents. They don't see the young Jew as a victim. They seem in him someone like themselves.
What one is concerned with now is finding a new definition: The cards of world history have been reshuffled since the fall of the Wall; with the ending of the East-West conflict. People are looking in history, in the future and in art for new identities. This is the case for people in other parts of Europe, in the U.S. and in Germany - and, one hopes, this is also the case for the Jews.
The reason I defend my position in Germany so vehemently may, I believe be found in the fact that my enemies today would in many cases have been my enemies in the Nazi era, too. Just as they are yes-men today, so they would have been collaborators under Hitler. I am, therefore, doing battle for their souls, and I do so with a certain sadness. I see the way they behave, so loud and righteously as democrats, and yet I recognize them in them anti-democrats possessing the same characteristics I knew during my school days in eastern Germany under Stalin. My work, then, is a labor of mourning, and is aimed at present-day symptoms of the "ugly German," as Hölderlin once described him, or Thomas Bernhard from Austria.
So, one should not be so quick with judgements. It would be more productive just to look at and attempt to understand what is happening.
My personal concern is where art moves now. For too long, art has been regressing, stuck repeating an old postwar aesthetic.
NPQ: So much of your theater and film work has been discussed in terms of its fragmented presentation; its commands of a "post-histoire" aesthetic of pastiche; its ability to refer to the past without being a literal representation. How have you managed to refer to history without becoming mixed in it?
SYBERBERG: It's been 14 years since I did Hitler: A Film From Germany. Since then I have worked mostly on films and theater projects with very small budgets and only one actor. Edith Clever. I have been searching all this time for a new aesthetic.
After the Hitler film, I focused my attention on the heart of things German, and especially things Prussian - with the works of Kleist at the center, whose interpretation, for me, has become much clearer since the war. I have wanted to use him to find a way back to our spiritual home. But the road is strewn with a lot of pain, ugliness and contaminated imagery - thanks in no small part to Hitler.
Through this effort, an oeuvre of stage works, films and writing was created. In its early stages it was dedicated to the redemption of the guilt of the nation through art. Subsequently, it attempted to realize what had again become possible as a result of this act of self-liberation, on the basis of both old and newly acquired opportunities and virtues in the arts. Constantly warded off or shunned by my fellow countrymen, in accordance with the rules of censorship in times past - and with less acclaim from the public at large than is to Riefenstahl when she is shown in art film theaters - it was only possible to realize these works with financial support from abroad. And it has been with this financial support that I have been able to investigate just what art is capable of today, particularly when one has purged one's guilt and made room for old and new strengths - and when one wishes to gain new experiences that are not related purely to politics and the economy.
I have felt in this project like Antigone, who invited death upon herself by defying an edict that consigned her brother's body to the ravages of dogs and vultures.
Germany has been left in the postwar world to be picked at by vultures - both internally and abroad. I again use the example of Kleist, whose plays have been consistently misinterpreted in postwar Germany. For instance, in one of his plays the actor can say either "dirt" or "pain," at a very important moment in the piece. Today, the writing is always interpreted as "the dirt of my heart" rather than "the pain of my heart." It is instances such as this that underscore Germany's postwar aesthetics of polemics, self-flagellation and ugliness.
Ugliness exists and that fact should not be avoided in art. But my solution has been to place the ugliness in a larger universe, so that it doesn't consume the moment. Indeed, the most noble goal elevation of reality as an achievement of precisely this art.
I find that my colleagues in stage or film too often roll themselves in ugliness, but in doing so they betray the function of art, which is to move through the facts of the world to another point - to travel through. And in Germany, the artists are guilty of something else as well. There has been a certain demonization of the purely aesthetic as something tainted by fascism. This, of course, is part of Hitler's legacy. His aesthetic, which was a reaction against the German expressionist art of the prewar period, celebrated German myth and glorified rural life as the embodiment of German blood and soil. In effect, Hitler coopted the beauty of German myth and history. Part of Hitler's blood and soil aesthetic is also his curse of scorched earth, which he wanted to leave behind. And that has been tragically accomplished in the burned out hearts of my generation.
NPQ: Is it possible to retrieve what has been despoiled by Hitler's legacy?
SYBERBERG: Yes. But it is very difficult, not least because of the way Germans use democracy to stifle discussion of these issues - both in politics and in art.
My strength, if I have one, is that I understand that the truth lies on the other side of the past. I want my art to pass through it, to overcome the ugliness that so much of postmodern society and art dwells upon. I think that's what art should do.
NPQ: Ralf Dahrendorf has made the argument that liberal democracy is government by conflict. In the US, though many may not like it, the Ku Klux Klan has a right to march in the street and proselytize its racist philosophy. Germany, on the other hand, legislates against discord in politics and from what you have been saying, strongly discourages it in art. Why do you think this is the case? Are Germans somehow uniquely unqualified to maneuver in the chaotic, uncomfortable and often uncontrollable structures of liberal democracy?
SYBERBERG: The problem is that Germans are too well organized for the messiness of liberal democracy. We attempt to organize democratic opinion, to keep the system running smoothly and efficiently. When something disrupts the system, or doesn't fit where it's supposed to, there are problems.
The concentration camps also belong to this chapter of German thoroughness, of starting from basics, thinking radically, totally, absolutely, getting to the very root of things. Expressed in vulgar terms, this means German orderliness, or security, or cleanliness and industry, is capable of transforming itself in everyday life into something bureaucratic, ideological, racial; or it finds itself realize in the concrete form of a perverted political "work of art" (Plato) matching Kafka's vision.
Other peoples in Europe are also familiar with these tendencies toward obliteration in pogroms; but it was allotted to Germany to carry it out with thoroughness.
NPQ: The philosopher Ivan Illich spoke about the earthy virtue of soil - his form of heimat perhaps - of tradition and community and memory...
SYBERBERG: ... Hitler talked about soil too - blood and soil...
NPQ: That's the point: Is it possible to have a notion of regionalism - the kind that heimat celebrates - without it devolving nationalism and anti-modernism in Germany?
SYBERBERG: First, why is heimat experiencing such a renaissance in contemporary Germany? Heimat was one of the aesthetic subjects that was forbidden territory after the war. But 15 million people came out of the Eastern provinces that now no longer exist and they have a strong feeling of heimat because they have lost their homeland. People need food and shelter, but they also need love, community, a home. This is part of the natural function of being human.
Instead of being worried about making the neighbors nervous, we should rather be taking a look at ourselves. We behave like postmodern animals in a cave of our own denaturalized creation. We are afraid to sing our grandfather's songs; we are afraid to appreciate Wagner, even to mourn the theft of our myths and fairy tales by history. We live in cities with fouled air, water and soil - completely detached from ourselves and our cultural heritage - and become these neurotic beings.
Contrary to popular opinion, I think that the urge to retrieve what is we have lost - water we can drink, fresh corn out of own garden plots, our songs, our Teutonic fantasies - is healthy. This longing for heimat is not a longing for Hitler. Germany is capable of benign nostalgia. But we must be allowed to long.
These are the wounds of Germany. When you look into the face of the 19-year-old who threw the firebomb in Moelln you see that he's not working for himself, nor for a political part, but something else. He's really the victim of a certain situation.
NPQ: But what about individual responsibility? Maybe that young man is a victim of something but he killed three people.
SYBERBERG: Yes, of course. But my point is that we should not be focusing on what propelled the firebomb but what propelled the man. He is not yet part of that group that cannot be changed. This is not 1933, but the post-1945! Then, popular discontent went like the ghost of the world into the grave of our culture, but I don't see it like that.
Flaubert said of his time that "the thought of the future torments us and the past holds us back. And that is why the present is slipping from our grasp." This seems to be the curse of German - in art as well in politics and morality. Part of the problem is that Germany cannot free itself from the dialects of guilt, atonement and resentment, while the Jews cannot escape the backlash that arises from their moral hegemony. We are fixed to each other like two sides of the same coin.
Germany became the nostalgic venue of the culture of the emigrants and their children, as Jerusalem was once for German Christians. The only question is: which Germany? I believe that if those who go to see my films or stage projects or who read my writing were to perceive the reality of Germany today they would be extremely disappointed.
In the end, however, Germany's self-flagellation just becomes a sordid form of big business. The German artist who touches Auschwitz or Hitler the appropriately chaste way immediately finds open doors worldwide. There is something sickening about this.
But I can only see this changing through some sort of catastrophe. What we see in the streets now are just little catastrophes, which only ties us more tightly to the past.
I think art could play an important role in untangling the death grip of the German and the Jew. But today, unfortunately, all real art is demonized, while this subject in particular remains taboo.
I am still concerned with the question of how Auschwitz could happen in a society like Germany. My answer is that it could only have happened with cultural effort. Hitler never saw the final solution as the pure project of politics. It was a cultural project. And he was proud of it. My comrades in the art would forget how much "cultural activities" factored in Hitler's plan.
The things Hitler did in fighting a campaign on behalf of good against evil - as presented and interpreted by him with the mechanical facilities of radical racial ideology, right down to the absoluteness of final solutions of German thoroughness - were intricately bound up with the history and nature of Germany's past, to which was added the assignment of a zeitgeist that was supranational. And that is what makes it all so painful to us today.
In such a situation only the strong side of the legacy helps - and that means the good elements, the most noble and exalted parts, not the weakness and ugliness or the garbage of history that occupies so much cultural space today. If politicians today give so much money to the arts, in order that these cultural activities may exculpate politics - like a medieval transaction in which absolution from sin could be purchased through indulgences, before the intervention of Protestantism - we must guard against becoming collaborators in this spiritual bribery. We are aware of the onerous nature of responsibility, of now-degraded culture: German correctness and thoroughness. What was once a rich asset has now become a burden. The painstaking accuracy of Durer's and Lucas Cranach's pictures and faces becomes distorted against the deadly machinery of a final solution.
So, too, Germany's absence from the process of finding international solutions to conflicts- as, for example, in ex-Yugoslavia - eliminates a potentially honest judge and helper from a situation in which others evade responsibility where moral issues are concerned; where courage is called for, not business acumen, in the face of those violated women; where a man like Hans Dietrich Genscher, whose reputation is beyond reproach, was acclaimed as a true servant of freedom by those affected.
We know why Germany may not intervene, may not proceed any further. But as long as Germany is not in a position to do these things, something will not be in order in Europe - at its heart.
If, in the past under Hitler, all those horrors were perpetrated in the name of some higher ideal, today anything that is strictly committed to higher values and quality in the purity of a work of art is regarded with suspicion. In this way, our very culture becomes a victim of Hitler; and the loss of purity means the victory of ugliness - not merely before our eyes, but within us. This is something we have all had enough of; yet it is also something that always gains a response if it rewarded or paid for from outside.
NPQ: How do you think integration will affect the artistic project in Europe? Will it allow for autonomous local expressions of art or will it lead to the homogenization of culture?
SYBERBERG: I hope the future of art in Europe is not an international film in English with actors from every country speaking lines they can't understand. That is not a good film and not a good Europe.
I would hope that the integrated Europe of tomorrow is just like the Europe in they year immediately following 1989/90. The future was open then; European politicians came together in Paris and really worked at creating new, viable political structures.
Unfortunately, I don't see today's EC technocrats as being capable of the same sort of project. I don't think Maastricht is the right way to go.
The future will not lie in capitalism or communism, both of which formed the basis of a materialistic interpretation of the world dating from the 19th century. But we are still waiting, in Germany at least, to see whether the relevant impulses for a new beginning will be generated - as after the Seven Years' War, under Frederick the Great, when he brought foreign colonists from France, Holland and Austria into the country and created special regulations and conditions for them; or after Napoleon, when the reforms implemented under Stein-Hardenberg in the political field, or under Humboldt in the universities, or under Clauswitz in the realm of warfare, were of great importance. Or we are waiting for new impulses, as after 1945 in Germany.
My other fear for Europe is that it will become like American films, which use American actors who are then dubbed with German voices. If this becomes the case, we cannot speak of a flourishing economy here, because everyone will simply be employed as a well-paid puppet or well-behaved slave in the service of foreign inventions, alien spirits. Under such conditions, where would Kleist fit in?
Certainly there should be dialogue between cultures; but not as part of some multicultural ensemble where everyone speaks a different language and where no one understands each other - except the foreign director, who gains personal advantage from this story that is no longer our own.
German artists must put their thoughts toward investigating the German identity. The more blood that has flowed, the more art will be necessary: as catharsis, for atonement. And what the contemporary practitioners fail to achieve, the children will have to continue: for the sake of purification, as a ritual.
This is a goal that cannot be set too highly. And only those artists and artworks will survive in history that are capable of achieving this goal.