The following are propositions for debate:
When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent", he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Sir Philip Sidney in The Defense of Poesie wrote: "He (the poet) nothing affirms, and, therefore, never lieth." This is self-evidently true and can be demonstrated.
Dr. Martin Luther, professor of moral theology at Wittemberg University, composed 95 theses relating the sale of papal indulgences. According to pious Lutheran legend, these 95 theses were nailed to the door of the All Saints Church on October 31, 1517 – an event that triggered the Protestant Reformation. (In fact, the theses were printed in Nuremberg on a large sheet of paper and, then, mailed to his superior, the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenberg). Philip Melancthon claimed that the theses were posted at All Saints Church, possibly in mid-November, although this has been disputed.
The Catholic Church interpreted scripture as specifying that that the deeds of the martyrs created a so-called Treasury of Merit. This concept arises from an obscure passage in Colossians 1:24 - 25:
"Now I (the Apostle Paul) rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am filled up with what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church of which I became a minister for the stewardship from God that was given from me to you." Paul seems to be saying that he his own flesh supplements Christ’s afflictions as a means of salvation. (No one really knows what this ancient text really means.) If Paul’s flesh, as a suffering servant, also affords merit, then – so it was argued – any member of the communion of saints also acquired merit somehow stored in a mystical treasury. The church, as the body of Christ in union with all believers, accordingly, could access this Treasury of Merit to grant indulgences – sinners consigned to the cleansing flame of purgatory (Fegefeuer) could shorten their abode in that place if this Treasury extended, as it were, credit to them. Holy credits of this kind could be purchased through the acquisition of papal indulgences, a practice that Luther condemns in his 95 theses.
Luther claimed that his issuance of these debating points was intended to provoke purely scholastic debate. But he also seems to have felt that the theses were divinely inspired and prophetic. Luther’s family name was Luder, a vulgar term for a prostitute. Upon the issuance of the 95 theses, Dr. Martin Luder began to call himself Luther from the Greek word Eleutherus (or "freedom").
Luther’s distribution of the 95 theses, known today from a placard published in Zurich in November 1517 was the start of the reformation of the Catholic Church – a historical interpretation that I know to be true and that can be shown to be true.
I can recognize the specific pastoral intonation, the glib eloquence, the cautious use of the idiom with just enough informality to signal that the speaker is unassuming, pretentiously unpretentious, a regular guy. The man looks athletic, wearing cross-training shoes, with a nicely groomed beard. He is seated at the gate for the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Berlin. Saxony is crawling with Lutherans, bus-traveling between Eisenach and Erfurt, Wartburg and Wittemberg – this year will be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and I presume that this pastor, sipping his airport coffee and holding forth with great confidence, is here to shepherd a tour from his home parish, probably come a couple days early so that he can sample the night-life before the geriatric set from his Church makes their appearance.
Seated next to the Pastor at his little round table is his auditor, the congregation of one to whom he is speaking. This is a slender woman, probably attractive in an unostentatious way – she looks like an organist, 2004 graduate of Luther College in Decorah with a degree in liturgical music and, even, possibly an MFA in performance – she listens to the man politely, her head slightly cocked. He is making some point about the freedom of the Christian believer.
On the plane, I pass by the man who is seated with the woman near the front of economy class. Everyone else on the jet to Berlin seems to be German. The pastor tilts his head and concentration causes him to half-shut his small blue eyes, preserved like olives, behind his spectacles. I know what he is doing: he is trying to decipher the German conversations around him. I am working on this task as well. But the dialect is hard to grasp and the people speak too swiftly and so the task of understanding what the Germans are saying is impossible.
I can picture the pastor singing in his church choir. He has a proud, well-trained baritone. The slender woman with the degree from Luther college vigorously directs the choir, waving her hands and chopping at the air.
In his sermon, the Pastor will remind us that there is nothing we can do to earn merit with God. Our salvation is a matter of election by grace. This is true and can be proven to be true.
People are hurrying to Passport Control. The airport is very warm and sticky with humidity. The man ahead of me, passing through the back-scatter screening machine, is drenched – his shirt sticks to his spine between his shoulders and it is soaking wet.
The hotel in Berlin on Oslauer Strasse is not air-conditioned. The lobby has the characteristic smell of disinfectant, urine soaked into marble in a nearby WC, stale coffee, and body odor. It’s a big hotel in a repurposed munitions’ factory built during the Wilhelmine period – on the facade of the building that fronts the street, there are terra cotta medallions celebrating various types of tools: calipers and vises and gears.
City blocks in urban Germany are penetrated by tunnel entrances that lead from the street into a courtyard. In larger ensembles of buildings, there may be a second tunnel and second courtyard, a so-called Hinterhof behind the Hof. This is a rational way of organizing a city – the people living in the six or seven story building have access to light and their community by way of the courtyards to which their windows open. The courtyards are wells that are sunny, at least, part of the day and can be used for a variety of tasks. This urban arrangement is well-demonstrated in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons – in that film, the henpecked downwardly mobile hero sells vegetables from a handcart that pushes into the courtyards of the apartments that he services.
Our room is between floors in a "passageway". A Honeywell-model fan sits between the beds and the shape of the sleeping room and WC with shower is eccentric. After all, the structure manufactured bombs and bullets for World War One. It is sweltering.
Air-conditioning is essential to modern urban life. This can be readily argued and easily proven.
The museum of German history is located in a big palace near where the Spree divides to create Museum Island. The Spree is green and choppy with the wakes made by tourist boats cruising up and down the river.
One of Cranach’s famous paintings of Luther on his death-bed, a petulant bull-dog with a serene post-mortem smile wrapped in swaddling clothing, his face lead-grey but content, graces the museum’s exhibit on the Reformation. A few feet away there is a copy of the Basel imprint of the 95 Theses. Germans like to display documents. To them, nothing is real unless it has been the subject of an official report or administrative letter, a thesis, as it were, set down in writing so as to be properly subject to deliberation. Thus, their museums consist of a few lonely-looking artifacts isolated among acres of placards, bureaucratic documents, handwritten letters, legal decrees, and princely mandates. The painting of Luther is half-concealed by a forest of words.
In another room, we see several sets of so-called "Waterloo Teeth" – after the great battle, corpses were harvested for their teeth and all of Europe was awash in newly crafted and sparkling white dentures. A V-2 engine, like a great toothed gear, sits in the center of one hall – the engine seems designed to bore deep into the earth; it’s a thing of darkness, a mole-instrument for probing the planet’s guts. Nearby, there are lots of nasty Rasse-Schande placards – images of goblin-Jews with hook noses raping Aryan women: these things are surrounded by thousands of words of text, yellowing documents, official Akten. Speer’s model for the great Nazi basilica in Berlin, the Hall of People, occupies a case the size of the mobile home – it’s a huge white tumor in the gloomy corridor.
We should debate what went wrong so decisively in Germany. The country is wealthy and had great leaders, a powerful, ambitious and subtle culture, fertile lands populous with industrious folk. As far as I can see, German history is no more rotten with tyranny or violence than any other land – and it’s not marred with the crime of slavery that disfigures the United States. It’s wars were no better and no worse than other European pageants of battle and famine. But something sinister occurred around the time of World War One, some febrile, ungovernable passion entered the equation – there is hysteria implicit in most of the sober-looking exhibits from 1918 through the end of the Cold War. So what went wrong here?
Your debate on German history can enlivened by drinking mugs of Berliner Kindl ("Berlin Brat") beer. Berliner Kindl is sour and watery. The beer is brewed locally and its emblem is a foaming mug that half-hides a mischievous-looking boy with a cow-lick of unruly hair.
People in Berlin drink Berliner Kindl "mit Schuss" – that is, with a "shot". This means the beer is served "Diesel" with a shot of cola or "Radler" (shot of lemonade or Sprite). Berliner Kindl mit Schuss may also mean that the beer comes with a shot of cranberry or raspberry juice.
People dispute the merits of beer all the time. But I think serving beer with a sweet shot is a good idea and I am willing to prove this to you.
Oslauer Strasse is a Turkish neighborhood to the north and midway between Berlin’s two principle city centers. Old West Berlin has as its center the Kurfuerstindamm ("KuDamm") shopping district. The long-gone Berlin wall ran through the center of the city near Friedrichstrasse close to the Reichstag and the government buildings. Old East Berlin had its center at the Alexanderplatz where the famous television tower thrusts its nasty syringe up into the thunderclouds. The subway station at Oslauerstrasse is convenient because it boasts two U-Bahn lines – one running in about 9 stops to the KuDamm, the west foci to the city’s ellipse; the other tunneling southeast to the Alexanderplatz, six stops away. Thus, a traveler can readily access both of the city’s two centers.
Most of the signs in the blocks around the intersection between Pankstrasse and Oslauerstrasse are inscribed in Turkish. There are Bulgarian grocery stores. Doner-kebab places are ubiquitous and every bar has a sidewalk beer-garden where burly-looking thugs are seated around low tables inhaling smoke from big hookahs. The middle-eastern women, many of them very beautiful, all wear head-scarves. The young men have pointed wiry Ayatollah-beards. Next to the hotel, there’s a storefront called the Caribiki Grill, a restaurant featuring food from the Dominican Republic. Dominican dudes with shaven heads and lurid tattoos sit there all night long with their heavily tattooed girlfriends – the girls seem to be ethnic Germans. Everyone wears tee-shirts with incomprehensible slogans in American English.
It can be demonstrated that German anxiety over mongrelization of the so-called Aryan race originates in a deep desire for such mongrelization to occur. History shows that those most concerned with racial purity are those most prone to "midnight desegregation." This moral is exemplified by the American South and the states of the Old Confederacy. You might want to fight me for maintaining this to be true, but that doesn’t change the facts.
A few blocks from the hotel, a cement-walled groove, probably eight feet wide, runs in a tunnel of shaggy, disheveled trees – a canal filled with turbid, filthy-looking water. An iron bridge crosses the little channel and there is a gate way that drops down to a path running beside the water. For some reason, I never cross this canal except at night, at dusk, and I can look down at the dark water brimming in its tube-like channel and see, perhaps, a shadow of a drunk or junky sitting among the trees.
The canal fills me with anxiety. It’s a primordial landscape, a sliver of green in the city that seems to have very bad associations.
I know that they fished Rosa Luxemborg’s corpse out of the Landeswehr canal, a bigger waterway that intersects with the Spree. Berlin is crisscrossed with tiny, delinquent canals, bits of wilderness in the city, iron-fences cordoning off patches of trees lining these waterways. This is a wet place – it rains frequently and the city, like St. Petersburg, was built in a great, suppurating swamp.
Construction sites are everywhere and they are marked by complicated systems of blue pipeline, elevated to allow traffic to pass under them. The pipelines form flat, cubist arches over sidewalk and intersections.
The pipelines control groundwater. In Berlin, the swamp begins three meters below the surface and the water has to be pumped from excavations to keep them from flooding. Near Oslauerstrasse, four Turks are digging – the soil is heaped next to the trench and it is a pale, wet-looking sand.
This is no place to build a city. The soils are radically unstable. Any architect will agree with me with regard to this proposition.
Germans obey traffic lights. This includes pedestrian and bicycle-riding Germans. At entirely empty intersections, they wait obediently for the red cross sign showing in the pupil of the traffic semaphore to change to their much beloved Ampelmann. The Ampelmann ("traffic-light man") is a little green figure, the outline of a plump fellow in a flat, broad-brimmed hat confidently stepping forth from the curb. In recent years, the Ampelmann "go" signal has supplanted the Berlin bear as a symbol of the city and the image appears everywhere – on tee-shirts, storefronts, painted as graffiti on walls, as a bumper sticker. There are even Ampelmann souvenir shops that feature nothing but products emblazoned with the cheerful little figure’s silhouette.
It is characteristic of the Ordnung-loving Germans that they would adopt as the symbol of their city a traffic control device. Revolution, or its threat, is a constant theme in German history. But revolution is difficult for people who are inclined to slavishly obey traffic signs even when there is no traffic in sight. This thesis can be proven.
I walked my dog, Frieda, on the morning before I drove to Minneapolis for my flight to Germany. At one humid street corner, I saw an old wheelchair set on the curb for scavengers. The wheelchair looked frayed and there was rust on the inside of its wheels. A half-block away, I discovered a silver fork jammed into a crack in the sidewalk. It was entirely still and I wondered what these signs meant.
The world around us offers itself to the imagination as a great compendium of signs and wonders. This is the truth.
Nabokov writes: "We think not in words but the shadows of words."
True or false?
Germans are polite people and, of course, they don’t blame individual Americans for the cruelty and dense stupidity of President Trump. However, it is disconcerting to find German newspapers ringing with this quote from Anthony Scaramucci, a member of the Trump regime: Ich bin nicht Steve Bannon, ich versuche nicht meinen eignen Schwanz zu lutschen – I’m not Steven Bannon; I’m not trying to suck my own cock.
The East Side gallery is a three-quarter mile long stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved east of the Alexanderplatz in the Friedrichshain neighborhood. This part of the Wall remains because its north-facing surfaces have been converted into an open air art gallery, a series of brightly painted murals. All of Berlin is smeared with graffiti, letters like huge thorns or strings of barbed wire painted on the walls and street signs and the sides of tram and U-bahn cars. The East Side Gallery, although posted at 20 meter intervals with signs prohibiting graffiti as streng verboten, is no exception. Even the most elegant and beautifully designed murals have grown a dense fur of small, entangled graffiti. On one panel, someone has emblazoned the words "FUCK DONALD TRUMP" next to a smaller inscription: Mexico is the Bomb. The sidewalk in front of the East Side Gallery is crowded with sightseers, street musicians, bicyclists walking their bicycles through the mobs of pedestrians in their brightly colored summer clothes. People line up to be photographed with the anti-Trump insignia, posing next to the wall and giving a cheery "thumbs-up" to the words painted on the concrete behind them. Everyone seems happy, even elated and the slogan gives people a boost so that they are particularly ebullient on this stretch of pavement. The skies are clear and the sun is warm and the day is fine one.
Trump has made America the World’s laughing stock. Debate this proposition with me.
I am arguing the ethics of vacationing with my daughter, Angelica. We are standing in front of an art museum. Angelica says that it is pointless to waste a nice day looking at art objects because "all art museums are, more or less, the same – seen one, seen them all." I disagree: "an art museum contains a city’s unique treasures, things that can only be seen in that specific place. Therefore, all art museums are different." Angelica disagrees with this premise: "we should go somewhere and relax," she says. But we enter the museum. After a couple of galleries, she loses interest in the objects displayed and tells me that she will sit outside the gift shop to await my return. There’s a toilet near that place and she can survey the people as they come and go from the museum.
Of course, I am right in my contention that all art museums are inherently different.
The museum that Angelica finds dull is filled with Greek, Etruscan, and Roman works of art. A painting on a vase shows an Olympic athlete long-jumping with weights held in his hands. (The weights look like saucers strapped to the man’s hands.) In another room, there are panels from the so-called Fayum mummies, photographically realistic portraits of the dead. One older woman as shown in the portrait panel seems to have been ill for a long time. She has a fine aquiline nose and dark circles under her large eyes. Her face is long and intelligent. She seems sad to be dying before her hair is even grey.
Most of what we know about the past relates to the dead. A Kore figure stands apart in a room full of gravestones. The girl is dressed as a bride of Hades and each such figure was an incarnation of Persephone, the kidnaped wife of the God of the Dead. This Kore has the eyes of vast praying mantis, bulging and opaque.
A little room, discretely set aside, is filled with bronze penises. Some of them have wings. One particularly handsome fellow is a sausage-shaped penis with penis-shaped arms and legs. Between his legs this penis has a penis. He (I am assuming the creature is male) even has a little tail – guess what it is shaped like? What were these things for? If there are male phallus figures with a little penis between their thighs, then, we have no reason for thinking that there may not be female creatures of this sort as well.
Berlin’s Kulturforum is built on vacant prairie to the east of the old Potsdamer Platz, now a mirage-blue stand of new-growth skyscrapers, glass shards and crystal tomahawks poised over the navel of a train station. A stark-looking Evangelical church stands on the treeless knoll at the Forum and there are several museums that look like low-slung, nondescript corporate headquarters, terraced white and glass buildings crouching close to the ground.
In the Gemaeldegalerie: an abundance of treasures, in fact, too many paintings to really enjoy in spacious, cool, and empty exhibition rooms. Correggio’s Leda glories in her silvery ardent swan while a harem of naked girls observe, some of them scornful, others apparently making witty asides, and a couple openly envious peering into a tapestry of dark trees at a dim sky where other great swans oar their way through the heavens. A juggernaut of chariot seems sliding into a fissure of the earth in Rembrandt’s painting of Proserpina’s rape – it’s all shadowy with contorted faces like ripe, anguished fruit hanging in the gloom. Titian’s Venus sprawls on pillows like confectionary while a dark-clad nobleman with his back to us fingers the keys of an elaborate, if toy-sized, organ. Last judgements glower and the Virgin beams at us with heavily lidded, half-asleep eyes and in Fra Filippi Lippi’s painting of Mary and the infant Jesus, the figures beckon from within a very shadowy and ornate forest where an intricate tapestry of vines and flowers entwine with the stones of a rocky hillside, everything tinted green and grey and an unnatural burnished bronze.
There is no point in describing paintings: these are things that you can look up on the internet and enjoy in reproduction and so an exercise in ekphrasis, as it were, suffices for nothing... except, I suppose, to illumine my reaction to these painting and to load this particular vein of my essay with silver and gold and precious gems and, so, that is sufficient justification. Don’t you think so?
German masters of the 16th century are well-represented in the Gemaeldegalerie. Altdorfer’s great Fichte, his pinetree shaggy with vines and encrusted moss, like a columnar monument to the primeval northern woods, stands in the middle of what may be the first pure landscape (landscape for its own sake) in Western art. Hans Baldung Grien’s image of Pyramus and Thisbe belongs to the same genre – the picture is really a landscape image of a very dark forest where the pale bodies of the lovers flash for an instant like lightning against the gloom. Grien’s craftwork suggests the skill of an artist with inlaid woods, the textures of shadowy forest are comprised of a series of rose- and cherry-wood lacquered intaglio, as if, somehow, the paint were inset into its wooden panel. Cranach the Elder, here appears in a very different guise than the painter who was propagandist for the Lutheran reformation. In these cool, empty rooms, his work is erotic, slender, naked courtesans with tiny pointed breasts and soft bluish-grey potbellies apparently painted for the delectation of German princes. A tall, willowy Venus stands over a crying Eros – the little winged boy has dipped his hand into a comb of honey and is swarmed with bees like the amber gems in a necklace fallen apart in an amorous clutch and embrace.
In Cranach’s Jugend Brunnen (Fountain of Youth), rickety-looking wagons full of matrons are escorted by elegantly dressed courtiers to a rectangular swimming pool. Some of the matrons are pious and they arrive at the fountain in wheelbarrows, hands clasped in prayer. What is about to occur is indecent, an upheaval in the natural order. The swimming pool is full of naked women. On the left side, their breasts are fallen and their hair hangs grey and straight around their brows and they are stooped and crooked standing in the rejuvenating water. On the right side of the pool, beyond several spouting fountains, young girls are splashing one another and dancing in the cream-colored water. More courtiers, dressed in flounce and elaborately split (zerschlitzt) vests and trousers, escort the naked girls out of the water and toward a flame-colored tent pitched in the middle of a flowering meadow. The old women have come from a stormy landscape of cliffs and narrow ravines but the pastures to the right are sun-dappled and, above the tent, a sort of banquet or feast is underway, a drinking party in which each young girl sits with a male partner at a broad table groaning with delicacies.
This picture exerts a weird fascination. It embodies something forbidden, not so the much the actual image of the women’s old, ravaged bodies become young and firm and plump again, but, rather, the temptation to wish for such things, the temptation to hope for that which is impossible, the reversal of time, a second chance, renewed youth. To contemplate such hopes too intensely is to fatally lose touch with reality.
It’s my contention that Cranach’s picture of the "Fountain of Youth" represents a deadly temptation, a revery that is destructive to human happiness and, therefore, should be repressed.
German art museums, particularly those built after the War, are profligate with space. They seem to vie with London’s Tate Modern for grandiose vastness. The Leipzig Museen fuer Bildende Kunst has towering atriums and enormous galleries: enormous stone steps rise like geological formations from the ground upward to the enormous exhibition halls – it is a considerable hike to surmount those steps in their canyons of polished stone. The Hamburg Museum for Kunst der Gegenwart (Contemporary Art) occupies a remodeled train station. Beyond it’s reception desk, several acres of vaulted train station extends into the blurred distance. Two wings flanking the central train terminal possess huge stone stairways leading into large rooms with forty foot plaster ceilings. A repurposed subway tunnel opens into a building comprised of iron rooms, each large enough to house a locomotive – the corridor connecting those rooms is the length of more than three football fields, a passageway that extends from the narrow entry to a vanishing point more than a thousand feet away. The hallway is so long and severe, with iron walls and an austere polished concrete floor and a single grimly utilitarian vein of florescent light overhead as to seem metaphysical, an image for a passage from one state of being to another.
In the Kulturforum Gemaeldegalerie, a huge enclosed terrace extends from the entrance into the museum, itself a massive structure of interlocked square rooms, toward an administrative wing. Stranded in this steppe-like foyer, the museum’s book shop floats like an island on the surface of this polished stone prairie.
I recall this bookstore from a previous visit to Berlin twenty years ago. (For some reason, I never forget a bookstore). At that place, I bought several volumes in the Kunststuecke ("Artwork") series – these were well-illustrated volumes, each about 100 pages, interpreting and providing context for an individual art work. The art work at issue was nicely illustrated by a gate-fold picture that could be folded out from the back of the book and kept open on a table while the reader perused the book. I liked these books and their neatly efficient format and collected them – I think I have about eleven or so. Of course, I was hoping to buy several more for my collection at this bookstore but learned, to my dismay, that the series is no longer in print.
It was at this museum years ago that I bought a book called Arbeiterklasse und Intelligenz, a study of a large mural painted by the East German artist, Werner Tuebke. This painter worked within the figurative tradition of Socialist Realism and, viewed in some lights, was a noxious propagandist for the repressive Communist regime. (Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, his paintings have engendered substantial controversy, including calls for them to be systematically removed from the public spaces where many are located.) Tuebke was a mystic, I think, and crypto-surrealist and his work is immensely more complex than its rather banal and vulgar occasion – that is, big commissions to celebrate the vicious and paranoid regime holding power in the DDR. Indeed, on the evidence of this book, I think it can be argued that Tuebke is one of the most interesting artists working in the latter third of the 20th century – far from being immune to the main currents of art in that period, his paintings reflect important trends in German 20th century art, albeit through the warped prism of the the DDR’s savage ideology. Tuebke is the test case of whether an artist harnessed to the service of a noxious regime can, nonetheless, be a great painter – and, I think, that the answer is "yes" with respect to his work.
The tendency toward Gigantism is German contemporary art museums (and also in other cultural institutions such as the cavernous Tate Modern) suggests that intimacy is lacking from the art made in the last half-century. The demise of intimacy as an element of modern art in favor of the colossal and monumental is a trend to be decried. I am willing to argue this thesis with you.
Over at the Sony Centre, in Potsdamer Platz, one of gleaming glass splinters contains a cinema museum. It’s the opposite of the cavernous art museums mentioned earlier, a small intimate place, paneled with mirrors on walls, floor, and ceiling to expand the small lightless chambers into something that seems to be larger and more glamorous. There are some old public domain silent films flickering on monitors in corners – Nosferatu, a gritty-looking Kammerspiel, Metropolis, The Last Laugh with the hotel doorman’s resplendent uniform from that film like a velvet barrel, big and broad to contain Emil Jannings, standing next to the sultry walkway. Somehow the humid, warm air from outside has infiltrated this skyscraper core and its very warm, so hot, in fact, that the trays of make-up donated to the exhibition by Marlene Dietrich’s estate seem about to liquefy.
Indeed, the majority of the displays involve Marlene Dietrich, a daughter of Berlin who is, in fact, buried in one of the suburbs. A number of her gowns are on exhibit with personal memorabilia and her husky voice resounds in the mirror-lined corridors. On one wall, there’s a black and white photograph of Ernest Hemingway grinning and looking as pretty as a debutante starlet in a fifties’ Hollywood production. The framed picture is autographed: To my favorite Kraut...
A glittering suspended bridge crosses over a mirrored cavity full of miniature skyscrapers from Metropolis – odd, it seems, that the people who built the ruined wasteland around Potsdamer Platz into these lances of girder and glass didn’t draw on some of the visionary designs from Fritz Lang’s movie for their resurrection of the old city center, previously bisected by the Wall. Below the bridge, next to a blazing hot elevator shaft, there’s an exhibit to Robbie Mueller, Wim Wenders’ great director of photography, a dark room with lots of pillows with samples of Mueller’s work projected on the walls. In the hall of great German directors, I see that there is no place reserved for, perhaps, the greatest of them all – Hans-Juergen Syberberg, the filmmaker who produced the 7 and a half hour extravaganza Hitler, A Film From Germany.
But Syberberg’s legacy is problematic and the old man has been perceived as a nationalist, even a crypto-Nazi. Although I think he is ultimately Germany’s most ambitious filmmaker, the point, of course, is debatable, a thesis to be explored by discussion. And is it clear that the most ambitious film maker is the best? – sometimes, ambition is an obstacle itself that must be overcome. Please discuss this with me.
I began reading Christian Kracht’s novel Die Toten (The Dead) in Berlin. At 95, in my translation:
"In this land (Japan), you used these words to describe movie theaters: ‘they are gardens of electric shadows," was that not really wonderful? Where unfortunately Sous les toits de Paris was playing just about everywhere (this sound picture by Rene Clair, very successful at that moment in Tokyo’s theaters) and Amakasu noticed just how extraordinarily charismatic and intelligent Chaplin seemed to be and how dangerous he would be as an enemy and how much power this culture was capable of exercising and, most of all, how closely related a movie camera was to a machine gun (vor allem wie eng verwandt Kamera und Maschinengewehr waren").
Some of the glitter has eroded away from the Kurfurstendamm, the prestigious shopping district that once stood toe-to-toe against the Communists. Thirty years ago, the glamorous department stores on the Ku’Damm, particularly West Berlin’s version of Niemann-Marcus, the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus der Welt – Department Store of the World), overlooked the decimated blocks and bombed-out vacant lots in East Berlin – here’s where the ideologies clashed in their most dramatic forms. But, now, the center of gravity has shifted, eastward into the old Potsdamer Platz and toward Friedrichstrasse and the Museen Inseln (the Museum Island) and their adjacent pleasure districts full of people dining on the sidewalk and drinking and carousing in the old Haekescher Markt and, although, Ku’Damm is not deserted or even really shabby, it’s patina of spectacular glamor now looks a little shopworn.
The Kaiser Wilhelmsgedaechtnis Kirche stands as a reproach to the consumerism encircling it on the Ku’Damm – it’s war memorial, a sooty tower that looks like a burnt-out torch. As you stand beneath the wrecked steeple, the whole thing seems heavy and, even, indomitable until you see that you are looking through a kind of lunar void, an empty vault behind which the high blue sky sails by. Fingers of fire have groped the vault and it seems to drip ash and pebbles.
Inside the portico, resplendent mosaics show Kaiser Wilhelm and his namesake son, with their brides, standing before the altar. The mosaic have the quality of permanence, even eternity and they glisten on the walls and under the squat Romanesque vaults of the smashed church. People are milling about – they have come here, but there is really nothing to see: the mosaics on the walls are exuberant, a paradise of gold, but this doesn’t make sense. It’s like the glittering department stores nearby, a display of extravagance that can’t be assimilated. A huddle of little Christmas-ornament huts and food kiosk, all done-up in Schwartzwald timbers surrounds the sore thumb of the ruined church. The big modern bell-tower is concealed in scaffolding. I think there was a terror attack here a year ago, a car or van that plowed through Christmas crowds in this market.
Impressed by the mosaics, Angelica buys a couple postcards and tells the lady at the counter that "you have a beautiful church." This is a mistake and Germans will not condone mistakes even minor ones and, so, the woman says reproachfully: "This is not a church. This is a war monument. The church is next door." And, indeed, a blue glass box sits below the charred portico, the actual home for the congregation ousted by bombs from their sanctuary.
Don’t confuse a war memorial with a church. The distinction is important and Germans will debate it with you.
A small crowd is gathered near the sloping concrete ramp that leads down into the blue twilight of the Evangelical church at the Kaiser Wilhelm’s Gedaechtniskirche. A couple of shabby-looking Slavs wearing jeans and Australian bushranger hats are dickering with people over tickets. A hollow-eyed girl who looks like a junkie hands me a flier. It advertises a concert for tonight: Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart – all the big names in classical music. I look at the brochure and see that the performance will be in the church that I am about to enter and that the "Berlin Orchestra" will play for about 70 minutes. The "Berlin Orchestra"? – isn’t this the greatest ensemble in the world? The musicians who performed under the baton of Wilhelm Fuertwangler and, then, Herbert von Karajan and, now, Simon Rattle. This is exciting. The tickets are expensive: 49 euros for a good seat, but this is a once in lifetime opportunity to see a fabled orchestra in performance. I’m surprised that the other tourists are haggling about the price – don’t they realize that this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy world-class music in a famous venue redolent with all the terrible history of the 20th century?
When it’s my turn to negotiate with the ticket vendor, I say that I will buy two of the most expensive tickets. The guy looks at me blearily – he seems a little hung-over and has a five-o’clock shadow already at 1400 hours. He points to a seat: Row 1, Seat 1 – the seating chart shows that the seat is 12 feet from the orchestra. "Best in the house," he says. The guy’s sidekick is buttonholing other tourists. They look vaguely like underdressed and underperforming pimps. "Two," I say. The ticket seller blinks at me and, then, casts an owl-eye on Angelica: "Student right?" Angelica pauses. I don’t think she understands that the man wants to discount her ticket. "Not really," she says. "Student of life," he says. "Tell me you are a student of life." Angelica responds: "I’m not really interested. I’ll stay back at the hotel."
The ticket vendor says: "Just one?" I nod. "Okay," he says. I give him a 50 euro note. He hands me back five euros.
"It’s 49 euros," I says.
"Dude," he says, "45 for you."
People should pay full price for what they purchase. This is true and the basis for all commerce. Of course, ascertaining what "full price" means is sometimes difficult.
It’s dark and I am walking back on Oslauerstrasse from the subway and a concert that I attended at the Kaiser Wilhelm’s Gedaechtniskirche. I am carrying my green CLE briefcase jauntily slung over my shoulder with the strap pressing comfortably against my clavicle. The shisha joints are in full spate – Turkish guys are sitting in foursomes under the beer garden tents puffing on their hookahs. I cross the noisome little canal and, then, notice a curious sign across the street and, beyond the tram-line: Berlin gegen Nazis (Berlin against Nazis). As I step toward the curb, I hear a shriek and, then, a curse receding in the darkness as something sweeps by me, within an inch of knee and nose – it’s a bicyclist pedaling hellbound through the darkness. But he’s in the duly marked bicycle lane and, if I were to be hit by him, this would undoubtedly be my fault and my fault alone.
The bike could have caught my shoulder strap on his handlebars and, then, — I am trembling at the enormity of the catastrophe that has just now been averted, but only averted by the narrowest of all margins, by a (to euphemize a proverbial expression) female pubic hair so to speak. If the bike had hit me or the briefcase strap caught in its spokes or handle-bar someone, or some several, would have been severely injured and this mishap would have been my fault alone for stepping without warning off the sidewalk into a clearly marked (for Berlin pedestrians) bicycle lane.
Travel is also a knife-edge. You are always in the midst of complete catastrophe when you travel. Only a fool would debate this proposition with me.
In a hurry to reach my concert, I depart from the hotel and walk briskly up Oslauerstrasse to the subway, a diamond-shaped underground station where the two U-Bahn lines intersect, escalators whirring as they carry people through the fog of condensed sweat down to the platforms. One line goes straight to Ku’Damm and I reach the church in a half-hour. In my haste, I have left the hotel without my validated subway ticket, something that occurs to me only when I have reached Ku’Damm and am sauntering down the street to the ruins of the Gedaechtnisskirche.
This worries me. A few hours earlier, during the morning, I was accosted by a homeless man on the subway. The man smelled of sour booze and seemed, to use the German verb, alkoholiziert. His shoes were scuffed brown cross-training tennies and he was wearing grimy sweat pants and a tee-shirt with some vaguely obscene slogan written in pig-English: Wanna do it? or something on that order. The man stooped over me and said: "Fahrschein, bitte?" I thought he was begging and so I turned away from him with icy composure. He repeated himself and, then, I recognized that he was an undercover subway cop and that his words meant "Please show me your ticket." I nodded to Angelica who was carrying our tickets in her purse and she displayed them. The bum pulled from his commodious sweat pants’ pocket a kind of laser-pointer in a leather jacket and aimed it at the bar code on the tickets. We were fine to travel, the subway tickets proper for the zone and day and, also, appropriately validated. "Danke," the bum said, turning to the other riders in the car, each of whom obediently presented an image on their cell-phones for his laser probe. At the head of the car, there was another subway cop dressed as a bum – he was wearing a baseball cap with its brim over his neck – checking tickets.
So here I was on the Ku’Damm after a long subway ride without a valid ticket. I found a drug store and bought a one-ride pass for the U-Bahn (2.90 eu). Outside the church people were queuing up for the performance. The sky was violet with streaks of purplish red. It was still hot and humid and the air smelled vaguely of curry-wurst – there was a kiosk across the street selling the stuff.
It doesn’t seem reasonable to me to conceal the identity of subway cops as bums, beggars, and homeless men. This is a new innovation. When I was in Berlin 20 years ago, the subway cops wore full regalia – alarming uniforms with many buttoned pockets and medals on their breasts. This new approach seems to encourage people to scoff at the law and offend and this is not a good thing. Better to deter offense before it occurs than to encourage and entrap offenders. This principle of law may be debated.
In the blue prism of the church, the crowd sweats and fans themselves with their programs and a horse-headed Jesus stretched out as if on a cross, but without a cross, levitates over the bare altar in the front of the big room. I look more carefully at the program and see that the concert is a production of Prague Enterprises, Ltd. It seems highly unlikely to me that the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic would be represented by Prague Enterprises, Ltd. And, then, it occurs to me that the famous orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan, the Mercedes-Benz driving maestro and former Nazi, and, now, by a peer of the realm, Sir Simon Rattle is called the Berlin Philharmonic and not the Berlin Orchestra. Prague Enterprises, Ltd is undoubtedly the same operation that puts people out on the street corners in Wenceslaus Square in Prague and near the Castle on the hill, little Czechs wearing powdered wigs and dressed in rococo livery, offering to sell you tickets to an all-Mozart concert "in a beautiful room" in one of the local Habsberg palaces. These shills will hound you on the street in Prague, will hustle after you if you refuse to buy a ticket, and, in the end, will extract twenty or thirty euros from you for a show that, despite everything won’t be too bad and, indeed, will be performed, as advertised in a "beautiful room" in a porcelain palace with putti and naked Greek gods disporting themselves above the gilt frames of the hall’s thousand looking glasses.
The Berlin Philharmonic struts onto the platform in front of the altar – nine performers, all of them in black tuxedos or evening gowns, all playing some kind of string instrument. A third of the performers are teenaged Chinese girls; there is a dissolute-looking Russian fiddler and several pale women with high Slavic cheekbones. The ensemble plays a movement from Handel’s Water Music and, then, "Spring" from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and, despite my reservations, I am enthralled to see the violins passing around the chirping bird theme, mimicked bird song kicked from instrument to instrument as if it were a soccer ball. A Chinese soprano comes out and sings "Ombra mai fu" from Handel’s Xerxes. I am only a few feet from the performers sitting in an aisle that is empty except for a few baffled-looking Japanese tourists. The lady violin virtuoso snorts like a horse as she saws away at her fiddle – she is an Estonian, I suppose, or Lithuanian, awarded medals at competitions in Kiev and Hanover. A organ virtuoso makes the mighty instrument up in the choir loft roar with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, mad scientist music that rumbles and thunders overhead, an evil genius insistently dramatizing the power of the immense and terrible engine that he has constructed. And there’s more – a divertimento by Mozart, the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ingeniously transcribed for strings, and, then, the Chinese soprano again with her pale skin and flat chest and enormous voice singing quite effortlessly Schubert’s Ave Maria. For an encore, the organist plays the famous toccata from Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony and, in its high register, the instrument cries out like a cornet, trumpets sounding as if in an opera by Wagner.
The fading light pierces the deep blue stained glass-windows and the floor of the church is patterned with red and green and yellow circles inscribed in the rough concrete aggregate to imitate flowers, I suppose, and, in the shadows of the sanctuary, there is the raw cross forged from nails extracted from the ruins of the bombed-out church at Coventry, England – in that place, there is a cross made from debris from the smashed Kaiserwilhelmsgedaechtniss Kirche, a reciprocal peace offering. The concert is inspiring, not so bad after all, and the audience applauds enthusiastically. The girl cellist from Finland, I think, drops her music and, then, gets it entangled in her long black gown and, after stooping to retrieve the fallen sheets, hurries from the well of the church sanctuary toward the side-exits. But she has left one sheet on the pavement. "Noch einmal," a German man says. He has already helped her pick up the sheet music fallen from her stand, but she has left a leaf heavily inscribed with notes and this must be corrected and so "Noch einmal" ("once more") the German says as he hands her the sheet now pierced, I think, by her spike high heels.
Music is always a blessing. This is indisputably true.
Outside the church, I see some people standing in the shadows under the ruined steeple. Candles are flickering at their feet. I approach and see a poster that says Warum? ("Why?). It’s an impromptu memorial for 11 people killed next to the church on December 19, 2016 when a van was driven into a crowd of shoppers at the adjacent Christmas market – this is known as the Breitscheidplatz massacre.
A large weatherbeaten poster lists the names of the people killed in the attack and there are some pictures of the victims taped to the cardboard placard. The big, scarred wall of the church sweeps upward to the burnt steeple and the cement has been cratered by the Soviet bombardment of the city in 1945. Some flowers are wilting among the small candles flickering in their pear-shaped glass jars.
Anis Amri was a Tunisian national, a petty criminal radicalized in Italian jails. On the 19th of December, he highjacked a Polish utility van somewhere near Berlin, apparently, killing the driver when he returned to his vehicle from a Donar Kebab stop outside the city. (The corpse of the Polish driver was found in the van after the attack.) Amri drove the van to the city-center and, then, launched it into the crowd of shoppers at the Christmas market next to the war memorial. He fled on foot from the scene of the slaughter and was filmed by video taking a subway from the Zoological Garden station, a dozen blocks away. (This is the same subway that I had taken from Oslauerstrasse to the Ku’Damm.) Chaos ensued; the wrong people were arrested and the police misbehaved predictably enough while Amri escaped Germany and reached Milan. There he acted erratically while walking to a train station, was approached by the cops, and, in the shootout that followed, was killed – this was four days later.
The poster says "THEY WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN," an inscription in German and English, but I can’t help but notice that not all of the names of the victims were known to the person who made the placard. Some of those killed already have been consigned to oblivion. People shuffle back and forth peering down at the small flames flickering in the darkness, imperilled it seems by each breeze in the humid night air, each cough, each rustle of clothing as one person pushes past another to depart in the night. A single drunk pissing against this war-battered wall would be enough to put out all the flames.
Across a vacant lot, a huge image of an ape glares down at us, and ad for the movie Battle for the Planet of the Apes unfurled across the facade of a big multiplex movie theater. An austere grid work of construction cranes intervenes between the little memorial to the victims of Islamic terrorism and the huge image of the glowering ape dressed in a general’s uniform.
Our planet of the apes is always besieged, beset with cruelty and violence – it’s in our chimpanzee-nature. Debate this with me if you dare.
Berlin is full of public monuments, big structures that are supposed to embody the Zeitgeist. These structures all have names, but the people living in the city have also supplied nicknames. These nicknames were proudly listed by the tour guide on the Stadtrundumfahrt that Angelica and I took, a bus loop beginning at the Alexanderplatz and ending there two-and-a-half hours later.
The huge television tower with its column of suspended restaurant looming over East Berlin is dubbed the Zahnspargel ("Toothpick"). Near the Ku’Damm there is a round sphere set in a pool; water fountains through slots in the big globe – this object, the so-called Humanity Fountain, is known in the demotic as the "Meatball." A little to the west, among the embassies in the Tiergarten district, a large white auditorium, finned and bulging with a kind of sail is called "the House of all Cultures" – the venue was a gift from the United States to the people of West Berlin and the locals call it "the pregnant oyster." At the center of a traffic circle, a great, ornamented tower rises to the gilded figure of a woman – this is Victory, winged and bearing a crown. The people of Berlin call this monument, the Siegessaeule, by the name die goldene Ilse ("golden Ilse") – the sculptor’s daughter posed for the allegorical Victory atop the column and her name was Ilse. Near the Hauptbahnhof and the Reichstag, acres of clinically white government buildings rise from the shallow Spree river bank. The headquarters of the CDU party is an ostentatious slab of white with curious arches on its roof – it’s called the "Buegel" or "clothing iron." Many of the structures associated with government have acquired a gendered identity in light of Angela Merkel’s long tenure as chancellor. The Chancellory building, in fact, is named "The Washing Machine" because of the immense circular window on its facade – it’s like the port in big washer in a commercial laundromat where you can watch your clothes merrily spinning.
The Hauptbahnhof’s gleaming terraces rise above the turbid-looking Spree and it’s not easy to reach the various escalators and ramps and massive stairways leading into the huge structure because of labyrinth of adjacent construction. It’s mostly hotels, all of them slated to tower over the Hauptbahnhof, itself a big building somewhat like a mall built around a great atrium that drops vertiginously down to train tracks and huge piers extending into the underground, the platforms from which the sleek trains come and go. The tour guide says that this is busiest train station in the world, a place through which 350,000 people arrive and depart each day. She notes that, when the hotels are complete, they will form a wall around the train station: "it’s a pity," she says, "then, we will no longer be able to see our beloved Hauptbahnhof."
It is worth reflecting for a moment on what makes a building "beloved." Voyages, trips – these are landmarks in people’s lives, a child going to college or returning for the holidays, a spouse coming home from a war, a visit to a half-forgotten hometown for a funeral or to attend at someone’s death bed, an auspicious move to a new home or a honeymoon trip or a job interview in some exotic and distant place: triumphs and defeats. I suppose the train station, bland as a shopping mall in actual point of fact, represents all of these things. It is associations that make a building significant – do you think otherwise?
The Quadriga, a bronze goddess driving a chariot drawn by four horses, atop the Brandenburg Tor epitomizes a problem with many of the older structures in Berlin. Simply put, most of these buildings have sprouted neo-classical sculptures that don’t exactly match the style of the architecture or its scale. This failing is obvious at many of the museums on the island in old East Berlin, at the Berlin cathedral, and the Reichstag as well. All of the ledges and platform on these structures is occupied by a blackened husk of bronze, a shadowy god or goddess or an allegorical naked woman or an armored man bearing weapons. The sculptures are like toadstools growing in every nook and cranny of the big austere buildings; they seem to be dark tumors, excrescences alien to the structure’s function or meaning, and it would not be vandalism to simply cut them away with some kind of huge paring knife.
With age and soot and bombardment, most of the statues have become Ethiopian black, Sudan-black, an army of blackamoors huddling on the corners of the buildings, so midnight dark that you can’t make out any of their details – these are simply crow-black shadows rooted in the cornices and roofs and gesturing obscurely from elevated niches or from atop the pediments of high porticos supported by austere Doric columns. The figures look dirty as if they require a good scrubbing, but, in fact, the grime is so deeply imbued that if you were to remove it, the bronzes would lose their skins and much of their flesh as well and would end up as attenuated as sculptures by Giacometti, slivers of bronze in elongated and only vaguely human shape. Thus, there is no way to clean the figures and so they huddle there in the sky, burnt black and obscure – whatever meaning they once had is now illegible since they can’t really clearly be seen. For some reason, they are just blots and your eye can’t focus upon them.
And, then, there is the matter of scale. The armies of bronze men and women standing sentinel on the rooftop edges of these buildings are too small – they don’t read as noble guardians but rather as skin-tags or warts or the eyes of a potato that need to be gouged out before the vegetable is baked. If your eye adjusts to the scale of the buildings as majestic and vast, then, the sculptures tacked onto the structure seem to be an afterthought, pimples on the surface of a temple. And, since the huge public and government buildings are constructed in an austere style to resemble the Parthenon in Athens, great waves of rectilinear steps rising to enormous and abstract peristyle halls, vast columns scarcely ornamented at all, severe Prussian pillars bearing up the weight of huge triangular pediments, the blackened bronze figures are a distraction – this clear and geometric architecture, much of it rigorously unadorned, is completely incongruent with the platoons of life-size shadow-men and women raising trite-looking swords and shields over the dizzying precipice-edges of the buildings. The tension between the Doric columns and bare stone walls and the blurred mobs of pygmy gods and goddesses is an irritant – in some buildings, for instance, the haggard and grim Reichstag and the Berlin Cathedral, the clash between the sooty ornamental figures and the huge and grandiose architecture is almost too great to be borne.
In Minnesota, of course, we have a golden Quadriga properly deployed above the pillars and pediment of our capitol building. The Quadriga, generally conceived as a symbol of peace and prosperity, is backed-up against the big dome of the capitol building and faces outward, commanding the mall that descends toward the river. The architect, Cass Gilbert, has solved the problem with the Berlin quadriga in his deployment of this sculptural form on the Minnesota capitol – the sculptural group looks good from only one angle, that is, facing outward with the horses surging toward the viewer. From other angles, you have nothing more than a congeries of horse’s asses, or a confused silhouette. The problem with the quadriga on the Brandenburg Tor is that it is meant to be seen from all angles when, in fact, only one vantage provides any reasonable view of the thing. Seen in the round, the sculpture is pretty much illegible except from a frontal angle. And, this raises the question of whether the winged goddess and her chariot are coming or going – on the Brandenburg Tor, the chariot rushes into the city, presumably to deposit her cargo of intangible peace somewhere among the buildings lining the processional roadway, Unter der Linden. But this means that a person approaching the gate from the outside is confronted with the rude spectacle of the back of the chariot and the goddess’ shoulders and the rear ends of her horses. If you look closely, the goddess of peace herself looks a little baffled by the whole display; her face is lunar, a bland, impenetrable mask. She is long-suffering – when the French occupied Berlin in 1812, the quadriga was unscrewed from the square top of the gate and sent to Paris. After the Battle of the Five Nations, the so-called Voelkerschlacht ("Slaughter of the People") in Leipzig in which Napoleon was defeated, the statue was brought home and re-installed atop the gate, the goddess now equipped with a staff bearing a Prussian eagle and a golden crown of victory. The Russians used the quadriga for target practice in 1945, didn’t succeed in knocking it off the big, blocky gate and, then, draped their hammer-and-sickle flag over the goddess. In 1953, she looked down bemused, I suppose, or appalled, as Communist security forces massacred protesting workers marching under gate – twenty-five people were shot down and killed. Today, I presume, that she is equally bemused by the souvenir shops occupying the stone watch-houses on both sides of the gate, the festive crowds of tourists, the gelato stands and the bratwurst push-carts, a franchise of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum two blocks away, and, of course, a McDonald’s hamburger place within a hundred yards to feed the hungry people milling around under the big square openings slotted in the towering square gate.
Somehow, the Brandenburg Tor always seems to be a circle inserted into a square box or, conversely, a vast square lintel that is somehow supported by circular columns. But, then, all Western architecture is fundamentally based on circles within squares or squares within circles. This is how people in Europe have built since the era of the Greeks. It’s an oversimplification but one worth preserving as a heuristic. If you disagree, email me your arguments.
The Holocaust Denkmal is a little outside of the Brandenberg Gate within hailing distance of the Reichstag building. Peter Eisenman perpetrated this project and it has been highly controversial from the outset.
The memorial consists of 2700 oblong slabs of black stone, arranged in closely spaced rows. The slabs of stone are mostly three to six feet tall and about eight to ten feet long. Around the edges of field of rectangular stones, the array seems a little discontinuous and the shapes of the box-shaped rocks differ from one another. Within the array, however, the stone markers, called stelae, form a featureless mosaic, paving the flat field out to vanishing points where any separation between the slabs is invisible. Eisenman calls the oblong slabs stelae and they have something of the dimensions and texture of the monolith in the movie 2001 but, in my estimation, the term is a misnomer: actual stelae of the kind found in Mayan cities, for instance, are taller than they wide, stand upright, and are loquacious – that is, marked with inscriptions and carvings. These casket-shaped stones are squat and horizontal and completely uncommunicative. Various metaphors occur to the observer: the site looks as if several thousand shipping containers were inexplicably off-loaded from some rail-head or sea-going vessel and left in rows stretching across a field. In the alternative, the slabs look like discarded luggage or a field covered with coffins. Impenetrable and set apart from one another, the slabs also suggest Leibnitz’s monads, the discrete cells of individual personality and perspective that remain perpetually alien to one another.
Everything in Berlin is decorated with graffiti and so the stone slabs had to be coated with a special paint-repellant chemical. A contractor named Degussi compounded the graffiti-repellant, a source of embarrassment when it was found that Degussi was related as a subsidiary to one of the company’s that produced Zyklon B, the lethal component in the gas used in the concentration camps. Many of the slabs were also not properly manufactured and immediately began to erode – apparently, 1200 of the stelae have failed in some respect and been replaced or shored-up. (If the site were allowed to erode and natural vegetation were to re-establish itself, I think the monument might, in fact, become genuinely moving; now it is merely pretentious and irritating.) People were playing at the edges of the huge quarry of stones, but the interior of the Denkmal is too remote and intimidating for anyone to reach. It’s like a field of growing corn, stalks standing eight feet tall – you might enter the acreage to the extent of a couple of rows around the edge but no one could stand to venture into the heart of the field.
Since the turn of the 20th century, public monuments to war and tragedy have lost their authority. With the exception of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, the last effective and emotionally moving war monuments were made shortly after World War One – for instance, Sir Edwin Luytens’ monuments to the soldiers lost in the battle of the Somme at Thiepval. The spirit animating the icily abstract Berlin Holocaust Denkmal erected over the site where Nazi administrative buildings, many of them designed by Speer, issued orders and specifications for the atrocities, is that of the Shoah – that is, the monument is designed to commemorate an annihilating hurricane of nothingness blowing from nowhere to erase whole populations. This is an inhuman concept, just as the execution of the genocide was inhuman, and can’t really be convincingly represented.
The fact that no one understands how to publicly commemorate great and terrible historical events is related to the truth that our architectural language for such things is shop-worn, cliched, banal in most respects, and obviously inadequate for the purpose of inspiring thoughtful mourning. It’s this paucity of building vocabulary that has led to the systemic degradation and discrediting of historical monuments in our public life. In part, this trend has led to the willful destruction of Confederate war memorials in the south and the call to generally load equestrian monuments to Robert E. Lee and other rebel generals onto flatbeds and dump them on garbage heaps. There is a pleasure, of course, in seeing other people’s heroes relegated to the "ash-bin of history" but this Schadenfreude is aggravated by the fact that no one knows how to make an effective public monument any longer – the entire concept seems to be one that is obsolescent and, even, faintly (or not so faintly) coercive. This is part of a larger debate and something we should carefully consider.
Crowd control mandates a line, a humid foyer where harried clerks are selling admission tickets, and, then, a surreptitious entry into the Berlin Cathedral, a side passage that brings you into the vast building like a scurrying rat or cockroach underfoot. The cupola towers overhead white as the frosting on a wedding cake and the pulpit is three stories tall, a tree-house of polished oak, and, although this place is nominally Lutheran, it’s a pageant in terra-cotta and mosaic and stained glass that is an affront to every humble church where I have ever worshiped – this is the St. Peter’s of the north, its immense weight improbably borne-up by a concrete terrace overlooking the murky Spree River.
In the corner of the sanctuary, two huge sarcophagi sit behind an iron gate, Death as an outcast in the bright white festival of the church. The sarcophagi harbor the bodies Friedrich I and his wife, Charlotte and they are shaped like boots, gargantuan iron shoes cast off by some monstrous giant in a niche apart from the great dome. The boot-shaped caskets are made of bronze and cast-iron and mourning figures made from white marble loll all over them, somehow screwed into the sarcophagi. Skeletal hands raise cartouches over the noble dead and, at the foot of the Hohenzollern empress’s sarcophagus, old Mortality sits himself, clad in the cowl of a monk, hooded and holding in his bony hands a quill so that he can inscribe names in a big metal book that he is perusing. Like crocodiles, his bony feet still knit together by rotting sinew and tendon extrude from under Death’s cloak. Those bony feet are similar in shape to the big sarcophagi themselves, ornate with corpulent putti and protected from touch behind a spiky wrought-iron fence: lions, it seems, or some other fierce animal that must be caged.
Downstairs, the crypt is luminous with pale, almost quartzite marble, and the rest of the Hohenzollern monarchs (or, at least, most of them) are located there, some in simple lead boxes, others occupying great chariot-shaped caskets, death-carriages animate with a bronze embroidery of skeletons and other memento mori. The first great King of Prussia and Brandenberg, Frederick I is upstairs with his Queen. The other Hohenzollerns are in the cool crypt. But where is Frederick William, the Soldier King, and his son, der alte Fritz, Frederick the Great?
Prussian virtue: Tapferkeit ohne Wehleidigkeit: Lerne zum Leiden ohne zu Klagen. (Fortitude without complaining: Learn to suffer without complaint.)
To what extent does this remain a useful virtue?
The S-Bahn to Potsdam runs in cool forests. Sometimes, there are clearings where the train stops at antiquated-looking stations. One of them is Wannsee, the gateway to a precinct of parks and villas and pine-edged lakes. In one of those villas, the Nazi high command formulated the Finalloesung – that is, the "Final Solution" to the Jewish question.
Every other train stop is marked with good Weimar Republic Bauhaus type-font, big clear letters on the signs. Wannsee is labeled with black-letter Gothic, the hooked and barbed typography that the Nazis endorsed. Why is this?
It seems a provocation in light of the place’s history. But to what end?
Frederick the Great built Sans Souci, his summer palace, on the crest of a hill in Potsdam cultivated with vineyards. The facade of the palace curves gracefully outward under a small bronze dome. At the end of the east and west wings, but apart from the building, there are metal gazebos made from intricate arabesques of wrought iron, each flanking structure bearing a gold outline of the imperial crown. Atop the vineyard hill, among cool groves of trees, the palace has a discrete, almost modest, and sepulchral aura – the facade is mustard-yellow and, on the elevation overlooking the vineyards, columns embedded in the walls are crowned by carytid-figures, Dionysian maenads with snaky curls in their hair transformed into curled tendrils of ivy. Some of the figures are satyrs with faces much disfigured by drunkenness, leering and ugly with beards that also trail off into bronze grape vines. Greek gods and goddesses stand remote from all the debauchery on the walls, placid as chess-pieces poised along the palace roof. The Bacchae have the grimacing visages of Frans Hals’ red-faced topers and they seem to counsel the gods and goddesses to wild frivolity and even self-destruction – jump! the satyrs and maenads cry, but the Olympians are motionless, arthritic even, their limbs fused and immobile.
Within the palace, there are several fine paintings by Watteau (Frederick the Great’s taste was impeccable), images of fetes galante in which elegant men and women, graceful as ballet dancers, promenade along meadows in an enchanted forest that is just wild enough to supply lovers with rustic and out-of-the-way bowers for their trysts. In the Konzertzimmer, gilt-framed mirrors reflect more plump gods and goddesses, ripe as summer fruit – this is the room shown in Menzel’s famous painting of Frederick the Great playing his transverse flute as Bach accompanies him on the harpsichord.
Ultimately, an air of melancholy pervades Sans Souci. A belvedere on the side of the palace facing away from the vineyard looks over a linear clearing in the woods, perhaps, four-hundred yards long, a carefully designed vista that leads to a small artificial ruin on the hillside, a broken tower and some vaulted arches – it’s a memento mori: one day this fine palace will also lie in ruins. Frederick’s study in the palace has big windows that afford a view of the crypt that he built for himself. "Bury me as a philosopher," he proclaimed. "Don’t open my body or embalm me. Just put me in the crypt next to the graves of my beloved greyhounds."
Sans souci refers to the grave. When I am buried, Frederick wrote, I will have no more cares: quand je serni la, jo serai sans souci.
It’s debatable, even ambiguous, what the French means: "when I am there, I will be without cares." But what does "there" mean in this phrase. Sans souci is inscribed in large letters on the curving facade of the palace and, perhaps, it simply means – "at my palace". The exact construction of the phrase is worth arguing.
The tour-guide at Sans Souci speaks swift and efficient German to the German-speaking guests in his group. What he tells the rest of us in English is only a much abbreviated version of his longer, and much funnier, Spiel in German.
Discussing Sans Souci, the guide says in German that Frederick meant the palace to be a refuge away from women. Women bring worry, he says, and the company of men is best.
Frederick was almost certainly homosexual. His father, the Warrior King, beat him publicly with a cane and humiliated him as a "sissy" in front of his court. Frederick retaliated by planning an escape to England with a courtier, Hans Hermann von Katte, with whom he was probably in love. The plan went awry and both von Katte and Frederick were thrown in the dungeon. The old King suffered from porphyritic gout, was constantly in agony, and, as a consequence, easily irritated and temperamental. At first, both young men (Frederick was 18) were sentenced to death. Frederick William pardoned his son but ordered him to stand at attention to watch the execution of von Katte. At the last moment, von Katte cried out in French to Frederick that he shouldn’t blame himself for what was happening. Frederick responded with endearments in French. As the sword fell on von Katte, Frederick passed out, dropping to the ground in a dead faint, more proof to his father that the young man was a worthless and effeminate coward.
Frederick spent the rest of his life proving his father wrong. He lived austerely, suffered alongside his troops in many arduous campaigns and led his Prussian armies in a hundred desperate battles, enlarging and consolidating his country until it was a major power in central Europe. But he also flirted with Voltaire, with whom he had a tempestuous relationship, surrounded himself with handsome young men, and made certain that his body guard were all "tall fellows", good-looking lads more than six feet tall. His arranged marriage was a calamity and he had no children. After losing a battle, Frederick wrote: "Fortune has it in for me. She is a woman and I am not that way inclined."
Frederick the Great was an enlightened despot, an autocrat of the most rigid type, but, also, a great ruler. He seems to have seen himself in the light of one of Plato’s "guardians", as a philosopher-king like Marcus Aurelius.
What do you think of the idea of the philosopher-king? Is there any way we can recuperate this concept for the modern world? Should we recuperate the idea?
Notwithstanding his express testament, Frederick the Great was buried in the so-called Garrison Church (Garnison Kirche) in Potsdam. Even worse, he was put in the crypt next to his father whom he hated.
In January 1945, Hitler sent secret orders that the corpses of the two Fredericks, father and son, be extracted from the Garnison Kirche and, with the body of Paul Hindenberg, be hidden in a salt mine in Saxony. The caskets were removed just in the nick of time. Allied bombers destroyed the Garnison Kirche a couple months later. (Until 1968, the steeple of the Garnison Kirche, half-melted like a candlestick, stood next to some smashed vaulted arches alongside Breitstrasse in the Communist part of Potsdam. In that year, the Communists embarked on a program of dynamiting the ruins of Christian churches, part of their policy of aggressive atheism and the famous Garnison Kirche, a place of pilgrimage for the Wehrmacht was destroyed. A "computing center" was built on the site.)
In 1946, the US Army moved the two Fredericks to Marburg and, then, Burg Hohenzollern, an ancient fortress and the ancestral home of the Hohenzollern royalty near the French border in Schwabia. After Germany was reunited, Frederick the Great was brought to Sans Souci by the Bundeswehr. His body lay in state under the cupola of Sans Souci for a day and, then, at night, in accord with Frederick’s wishes, he was interred in the crypt cut into terrace of his vineyard next to the graves of his ten Italian greyhounds.
When I was at Sans Souci, rain clouds lowered over the gardens. The imperial forests were very green and dark and seemed almost sub-aquatic, sea-weed becalmed at the bottom of deep still pool. Along the neatly paved paths, flowers blossomed and the fountains raised white puffs of water into the air and held them there, bouquets of spray pale against the deep shadow of the woods. Along a zigzagging trail, in just such a bower as one of Watteau’s fetes galante might occur, a solitary nymph modestly cupping a hand over her breasts, stood pale and remote, a white apparition against the profundity of green shadow.
Frederick the Great’s gave is marked by a stone slab set in the gravel on which the King’s first name and title der Grosse is inscribed in a curiously feminine hand. A scatter of potatoes decorated the grave – no flowers, but instead the little brown and greyish legumes. In Germany, Frederick is sometimes called the Kartoffelkoenig ("the potato King") – a dedicated botanist, Frederick was one of the first men in Europe to grasp the potential importance of the potato as a foodstuff. He tirelessly promoted potatoes and saw to it that they were grown throughout Prussia.
The King’s slab is no larger and no smaller than that of each of the ten slabs marking the burial place for his hounds. A long row of slabs inset in the gravel accompanies the King’s marker. The stones are greatly eroded and it is hard to read the names of the dogs inscribed on them. One can see that the stones have been carved with letters but the words spelled by those letters are illegible.
About the death of his greyhound, Biche, Frederick wrote: "I believe anyone capable of indifference toward a faithful animal is unable to be grateful towards an equal and that, if one must choose, it is best to be too sensitive than too hard." Someone once asked Frederick why he didn’t wear spurs when he went riding -- "Stab a fork into your stomach and see how much you like that," he responded.
As a philosopher-king, Frederick wanted the graves of his dogs to be equal in dignity and importance to his own sepulcher. In the grand scheme of things, a faithful dog, he thought, is the moral equal of the King of Prussia.
Do we want to believe this? Are we willing to accept this concept?
Prussian virtues: Haerte ("Toughness") – Gegen sich mehr noch als gegen andere ("Be harder on yourself than on others").
There’s a curious footnote to the story of Frederick the Great. According to legend, Frederick the Great sent a sword to George Washington as a gift. The sword was accompanied by a letter that commended Washington for his courage and victories: "From the World’s Oldest General to its Greatest General", Frederick is supposed to have written.
The sword was passed down by members of the Washington family to Colonel Lewis Washington, a man living a few miles from Harpers Ferry. A day before his October 1869 raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown’s men kidnaped Lewis Washington and forced him to surrender the famous sword to them. When he attacked the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, John Brown wore the sword under his belly, clasped in place by his belt. As you may recall from history or the movies (Sante Fe Trail with Erroll Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Raymond Massey), Robert E. Lee led the Federal troops who stormed the armory and captured the abolitionist terrorist, John Brown. In the course of the fighting, a revolver was fired point-blank at John Brown, but deflected by the handle of the sword that Frederick the Great had given to George Washington. Brown’s life was spared for the famous trial and, then, hanging that so great an impact on causing the Civil War.
Historians doubt the truth of the story, although there’s no question that people believed Frederick the Great had bestowed a sword as a gift on George Washington – this is probably untrue as well. The sword was melted down in a fire that occurred in 1911 and so there is no forensic evidence to test.
We should be skeptical of legends of this kind but respectful of the emotional truth that they may contain.
After he returned to Berlin in 1953, Bertolt Brecht was quartered in a pleasant ground floor apartment at 125 Chausseestrasse. The street is now the venue for two competing Vietnamese restaurants and a couple of Italian eating places as well. At the intersection with Invalidenstrasse, the tram makes a sharp turn, grinding and creaking against its rails as it moves in the direction of the Hauptbahnhof.
Brecht’s common-law wife, Helene Wiegel, noteworthy for her work with the Berliner Ensemble, lived in the second-floor apartment above the playwright’s flat. A sheltered walkway runs along one side of the apartment building and five or six of Brecht’s shorter poems are displayed on mural-sized placards posted along the arcade. Brecht is one of the greatest of German lyric poets, almost the equal of Heine and Goethe, and his poems are powerfully memorable.
In the Brecht house, some Berlin intelligentsia are head-to-head in an earnest discussion. The doors are locked but I can see the intense little colloquium through a window. On the weekend, the place will host a discussion of the novelist Alfred Doeblin’s politics. We stand outside the Brecht Gedenkstaette and I loiter reading the poems and, then, from a side-door a dozen feet beyond the shelter, in a tiny courtyard with flower boxes, really not more than an airshaft, a woman emerges from the building. She has black straight hair, seems to be about forty, and she contemplatively smokes a cigarette, leaning against the stucco wall of the Hof. The woman’s eyes are dark and she looks like the sort of "tough cookie," independent politically active women, that Brecht celebrates in his works.
A sort of bower opens from the Hof into a cemetery. Brecht and Weigel both, are supposed to be buried in that place.
The woman smoking her cigarette and lounging against the wall looks like a big, satisfied cat.
The defining characteristic of most historical sites, particularly those celebrating a famous writer, is absence – what makes the place significant is an activity that was once done in this place that has now ceased. Brecht is gone. Helene Weigel is gone. Her famous silent scream in Mutter Courage in which played the title character has been mostly forgotten – the people who saw those performances are probably now almost entirely dead themselves. Frau Weigel was also famous for a gesture she invented, a bit of business to embellish Brecht’s translation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – at one point, she showed her grief by kneeling and smashing her forehead into the floorboards onto the stage. This made an audible thump that alarmed audiences but those who witnessed this coup de theatre are also now all dead or dying. (Indeed, Brecht and Weigel’s two children are also now dead.) And so what made this quiet street once important has ceased to exist. We are left holding an empty bag.
You can see Weigel on You-tube speaking a big hesitantly in English. She says that "people are smart, audiences are smart...they know that its not destiny or kings or princes that are in control...maybe, they leave the theater and have learned a little bit."
The interview was recorded in 1971, the year that she died, and Weigel looks like one of Kaethe Kollwitz’ anguished mothers. Her lips are thin and her face is set in an expression of grim determination.
The cemetery or Freidhof on Dorotheastrasse occupies a small tract of land between residential buildings. If you enter from Dorotheastrasse, the layout of the place is relatively clear – there are three gravel-strewn reddish clay paths that lead between graves and small mausoleums like upright stone armoires. But if you come into the cemetery from the passageway next to Brecht’s house, you will be confused. This graveyard, although it is exactly adjacent to the Dorotheastrasse Friedhof, and, indeed, shares a common hedge-line with that place is different – it’s an old French Huguenot cemetery. This place hosted a couple of groups searching for Brecht’s grave and the graves of Hegel and the great architect Schinkel. The Huguenot cemetery is pretty, with trees laying wreathes of vine on tombs and flowering shrubs and neatly groomed topiary, but neither Hegel nor Brecht nor Schinkel may be found in that place. Instead, you must go outside the Huguenot cemetery, walk a little deeper into the Hinterhof in the apartment block and, then, slip inside second cemetery through a small gate in the wrought-iron fence.
Brecht’s grave is against the wall and shrubbery barrier dividing the Huguenot cemetery from the Dorotheastrasse Friedhof – it’s easy to see: a couple of big reddish boulders with stark-looking bronze plaques spiked to them: BRECHT and WEIGEL. A little plantation of ball-point pens has been stabbed into the flower-bed in front of the big rocks.
It’s much harder to find Hegel’s grave. We make common cause with the other groups of tourists and share guidebooks, turning maps of the cemetery this way and that to align them with the world. Hegel’s grave is marked by a raw-looking pillar of grey stone. Fichte is buried next to him. You can stand between Hegel and Fichte and put a companionable arm on each of the cold, breast-high, stones. Schinkel’s monument bears an idealized portrait of the architect emblazoned on a medallion on the upright stela.
After our group has consolidated its search to find these graves, we shake hands and separate. The other searchers were a father and son from Hungary and a very young-looking couple from France.
Ultimately, visiting graves is pointless I think. What do you think?
Germans like to eat food that is in season. This is commendable.
Every restaurant with any pretense toward being upscale features Pfifferlinge or champignon mushrooms on the menu. These are very delicately flavored small, slippery mushrooms. They are generally sauteed in butter and, then, served in a very rich and salty cream sauce. This is a fantastically tasty dish, but, also, because of its heavy cream base, a bit problematic digestively.
When I was in Germany years before it was during Lent – I attended an Easter buffet and ate hare in Dresden. All menus featured Spargel, that is, asparagus at that time of the year.
In an essay on Picasso’s painting Guernica, T. J. Clark writes: "Modernity is an incessant system of Opsit."
Opsit is the Greek word for the faculty of sight. Clark’s meaning is that modernity is defined by the incessant creation of images for the eye. The modern world presents itself as a spectacle.
The world of the eye, its kingdom, is represented by gaze of Queen Nefertiti, as depicted in her famous bust in the Neues Museen. One-eyed like Wotan, she peers through time, searching out its secrets.
Don’t refute the precept. Instead, refute, if you can, the usefulness of Clark’s slogan.
In the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, the Indians left a circle of stone spokes and cairns on the highest point of an 11,000 foot ridge. The ridge forms the western escarpment of the mountains and a visitor to that place looks down across an immense basin that extends toward other snow-capped ranges on the horizon. From that summit, the viewer feels that he or she can see the whole world and all the things within it – the deserts are visible and a great lake impounded behind a dam and, then, a small village and several highways ruled straight across the wilderness and the cultivated agricultural land where there is water – in fact, melt-water from the snow on the Big Horn peaks – and green crops growing in neatly configured fields. You have the sense that this is like the peak where Satan tempted Jesus – all the world and its nations are visible.
It seems to me that I am always searching for a painting, or group of paintings, that equate to the vantage from that mountain. I am looking for an image that somehow contains all the world, all its ideas, and every species of things within the world. This drive leads me from one gallery to the next: I am searching for the mandala, the image that contains the cosmos.
This is a statement of my own motives and it calls for neither admission nor denial.
Berlin museums are open until 8:00 pm (2000 hours) on Thursday and, so, I paid a visit to the National Gallery in the early evening. Storm clouds had gathered, apparently heavy with rain vaporized off the North Sea and the sky to the north and east was turbulent. It is said that, on a clear day, a visitor to the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz can see the mica-grey shimmering terraces of the North Sea from the tower’s observation deck.
Rain boiled in the gutters at the S-Bahn stop at Haeckescher Markt. People huddled under umbrellas and awnings at sidewalk cafes or in the entry-way of the train station. Lightning flashed somewhere invisible except for the flare that it made on the glass in the storefronts. Window of blue showed in the western sky and the rain turned to a drizzle. I dashed along the wet sidewalks, through the arcades to the island where the bridges spanned the Spree – the river looked green and violent under the chaotic skies.
Karl-Friedrich Schinkel designed the National Gallery and the building is very tall for its time, mounted upon an acropolis-like podium. Inside, the stairs connecting the three levels are arduous. Ascent is complicated because statues are mounted on the terraces midway between floors and immense, striking murals decorate the walls and you are easily distracted on the way up or down. Over your shoulder, you can see through the tall square openings between the building’s fluted Doric columns – a bronze horseman turns his rear to you and the sculpted tail is like a huge windshield wiper becalmed in the drizzle: beyond, the dome of the Berlin cathedral broods in a greenish mist.
It’s a fabulous museum. The first floor is occupied by realist painting made in the Wilhelmine period – these are the immense canvases by Adolph Menzel and landscapes dense with shadowy woods that resemble Courbet. An early Max Beckmann in one of the first galleries – the museum is arranged from most modern to older works as one progresses inward through the galleries – reveals the Leipzig-born artist to be in the thrall of Edvard Munch: the painting is called "Conversation" and shows a dispute between some gaunt-looking bourgeois in what seems to be the ante-room to a chamber in which a death vigil is underway. Beckmann is always excessive and here he is more intense than Munch almost to the point of parody: it’s like one of the most fraught moments in an Ibsen tragedy wrenched into life – zombies belaboring other zombies. A small canvas by Wilhelm Busch shows that the satiric artist, at least with respect to dark shadows and frenzied application of paint, is not inferior to Goya. The name of the picture is Der Widerspenstige (The Stubborn Child) showing a squalling, squat, ugly child, all open-mouthed fury – the image reminds me of William Carlos Williams’ great story "The Use of Force" in which a doctor pits himself against a sick child in order to ram a pill down the toddler’s mouth.
The highlights of the museum are on the third floor, reached via an ascent past a gigantic mural by Schinkel himself, a sort of Georgic, or pastoral idyll – cows and shepherds among pastures with Greek ruins as outcrops. Schinkel’s big and pompous Blick in Griechenland’s Bluete (A Glance at the Glory of Greece), a painting that I have known ever since I found a Kunststuck monograph on the canvas, occupies one wall – the picture shows workmen on a scaffolding carving a bas-relief on a temple that looks like the Parthenon poised high above a pastoral landscape. Schinkel’s architectural concerns are pre-eminent: he is much interested in the techniques of the ancient builders, their elaborate scaffolding and pulley-system by which great carved stones are raised to make a frieze on the metope above the sculpted columns. Much of the picture seems like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. A more modest image of two bathing children has a hypnotic effect – it is the start, or end, perhaps, of a Grimm’s fairy tale: a shimmer of water, dark woods inhabited by shadowy gnome-like figures, a strangely menacing tree looming over the lost siblings.
Another room, deep within the cella at the heart of Schinkel’s temple, is the sancta sanctorum, the hushed holy of holies. Here the gallery’s collection of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich are housed and there are, at least, a half-dozen masterpieces on the walls. It’s so silent in the room that the only thing that you can hear is the very faint respiration of the building – it’s climate control systems breathing in and out and, then, the almost inaudible beehive buzz of your own blood and, perhaps, the faint drumming of your heart. I take a couple of pictures with my phone and discover that really the best way to show the works displayed here is to covertly snap photographs of the people entering the room – everyone seems to walk delicately, as if on eggshells. I have admired these paintings all my life and it’s a pleasure to see them and, indeed, in person, the canvases reach out into the space around them and silence all chatter – they impose a crystalline stillness on the room, an absolute and eerie repose. In "The Monk by the Sea", recently restored by the museum’s conservators, the faint, almost invisible phosphorescence in the waves of the sea and the white wings of remote seagulls offer the only light in the great void faced by the eccentric-looking figure of the monk. Kleist, I think, said that looking at the painting was like having your eyelids removed – this was shortly before he killed himself, with his girlfriend, in a park among the lakes south of Berlin. Two men who look at the dark sea also peer into a faintly luminous void – a pale line of surf no wider than a strand of spiders web marks a distant disturbance in the mirror of dark water. A woman stands beneath the cross-shaped mullions of a half-open window – on a canal in sunlight, a sail boat with a neatly rigged mast is passing. A big tree stands in a meadow where some cattle are grazing – the tree is unearthly, too big for the landscape that it occupies: a tumble of dark mountains walls off the twilight. In darkness that rises inexorably from the snowy earth, a group of monks march through a colonnade of barren trees to the stony arch of a ruined abbey. The high Alpine landscape of the Wachtmann is faceted like an elaborate rose-quartz crystal, pathless and inhuman.
In another room, a version of Arnold Boecklin’s "Isle of the Dead" engages the viewer. The funereal gondola hovers on the dark waves: the shrouded upright figure neither leans forward nor away from the sepulchral destination ahead. The island is shaped like a stone box, a sort of columbarium or niche-tomb set astride the foamy sea. Within the box of cliffs, cypresses half-conceal some white tombs. Red hematite, iron oxidized by the sea-spray, bleeds down the side of the cliff on the right and the eroded shape of the precipice, a blade of upright rock mirrors the shape of the mournful trees. What kind of pathway leads from the rock-girt harbor inward to the sarcophagi only faintly visible among the shadows? Above the diorama-like enclosure of the cliffs and the sepulchers, the sky is a dark void, closely similar to the empty expanse of space threatening, or, perhaps, inspiring the monk on the seashore.
The Danish artist Wilhelm Hammershoi is represented by a little picture identified as a "Sunny Room". It is a spooky canvas, as empty in its own way as the voids at the center of Friedrich’s great paintings – a piece of dark mahogany furniture makes an upholstered enclosure in the quiet corner of a room and a tiny bit of light, a passing gleam, as it were, is visiting that settee, maybe, even resting there on its seat for an instant before moving on.
Louder, perhaps, with a military fanfare and the low rumble of drums, Menzel’s big paintings both attract, I think, and repel. Although Menzel would like to paint history, bombastic wall-sized canvases after the manner of the French Academy, there is a counterforce in his sensibility, something else that is yielding, improvised, and stealthily disorderly in his work. His imagination is photographic, something that we know from the fact that he spent his life incessantly sketching – Menzel’s objective was to show things exactly as they were and not as we might imagine them to be.
In a documentary about R. Crumb, we see the great draftsman constantly making quick sketches in his notebook. When the pages of the notebook are shown, we discover that the artist hasn’t been drawing faces or bodies in agitated motion or, even, landscapes – Crumb says that he knows how to portray those things and can draw them, as it were, with his eyes shut, from his imagination. Rather, Crumb has been drawing hardware, fittings on lightposts, plumbing assemblies, electrical switches and junction boxes, tools, bits of ironmongery and construction debris – this is the raw stuff in the real world that you can’t imagine because it doesn’t follow any canons of beauty: it’s configurations of stuff that you have to commit to paper in order to recall because it’s all capricious, patched-together, desperately contingent. And this seems to be Menzel’s sensibility as well – in the corners of a big historical painting, we will see some weird assembly of lathe and wire, a hutch for animals or a privy or some kind ramshackle structure. Menzel is a creature of the camera – he stages even his big historical paintings like a series of flashes from Degas. Menzel’s kings and princesses and noblemen have the look of deer caught in the headlights, or more accurately deer shown in the sudden flash of a camera. The curious fact is that Menzel wants to paint like David but can’t manage it – his world is not neo-classical and its too disorderly for the obvious symmetries and geometric effects that the great French painter employs. Menzel’s always distracting by a barking dog or a woman’s wrinkled dress or an exchange of glances that might mean something or might be totally meaningless. He feeds his imagination by making elaborate paintings of "nothing" – a big canvas shows an urban back yard, a vista such as William Carlos Williams or Whitman might describe in one of their poems, a line on which clothing is drying, battered, much repaired fences, buckets, an old privy with its door awry.
One of the greatest pictures in the world is Menzel’s window-sized canvas called "Palais-garten der Prinz Albrecht" ("Garden of Prince Albert’s Palace"). The picture’s subject is uncertain: we see a clearing when some laborers have been digging in Berlin’s characteristically sandy and wet clay. The men have excavated a pile of muddy-looking sand on which they have left some tools, shovels are stabbed into the clay and there is a dirty wheelbarrow in the foreground. The men themselves, three or four of them, are sprawled on a little patch of sunny lawn, seemingly taking a mid-day siesta. Although there’s nothing sinister about this, the man are not reposing in any way that seems restful – rather, they lie in contorted postures or seem to be dead, flat on their backs in the bright sun. The close association of the resting workers and the tools and heap of dirt suggest the digging of graves or the making of entrenchments and, although the painting was made in 1847, it is hard not to see something military in this part of the image, a portrait of the Western Front perhaps in Menzel’s eerie prophecy.
The day as shown in the canvas is warm and enchanted. It is midday – the time when Pan is abroad and all reality shivers with the great god’s presence. Some cypresses make a dark wall through which a pale path leads. Beyond the wall of cypresses, we can see the distant rococo facade of the palace itself, stucco sunning itself like a reptile in the hot light. Everything is breathless, hushed. Here is an entire world: the proletarian workers in their muddy clothes, their tools and signs of their work digging in the wet earth, then, nature as marked by the enclosure of shadowy trees, the dense shade cast by the cypresses and their unearthly mournful shapes and, at last, man’s works, the palace with its ornaments shimmering in the noon-time sun. The canvas is one of those Pisgah-paintings, a perspective from which it seems that we can see the whole earth: there is order and disorder, light and shadow, nature and the works of man, a path inward and a wall of all-encompassing shadow.
At the time I was entranced by the painting, I was unaware that the palace shown in the painting was built in the late 18th century in a village suburb to central Berlin, Friedrichsberg (now where Friedrichstrasse is located.) It was a marshy suburb once with wetlands and waterfowl. The precursor to the palace that Menzel has painted was erected in the 1720's as a haven for investors in the failed Mississippi Company, a French limited liability firm that sold shares in the hinterland of America, a hundred years too early, however, and that collapsed among scandal, litigation, and recriminations. Later, Prince Albert, a grandson of Frederick the Great, renovated the palace and made it his home. In the 1930's, this was an administrative center for the Nazi terror. The palace was transformed into SS headquarters and Reinhold Heydrich had his offices there. People were tortured to death in the cellars of the palace reposing in the sunlight in Menzel’s canvas. The building was bombed into the ground in late 1944. When I first came to Berlin in the last years of the 20th century, the address was an empty lot, a vacant place in the city where paved trenches showed the locations of the corners of the palace, the so-called Topography of Terror exhibition. You walked on the sidewalks a little below grade and there were some walls, still standing, a few bricks top bricks – maybe, three feet tall, a pour of concrete slab, a watery pit, billboards showing where people were beaten to death or had their heads cut off or were strangled with piano wire. This sorrowful hole in the ground was all that remained of Prince Albert’s palace that Menzel painted in 1847, it ornate yellow facade a little mournful even then, bathed in bright sunlight.
Is there a language barrier? Of course not. Every morning at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, a bright-eyed neatly uniformed German girl comes to the table where I am sitting. Courteously, she nods and asks me if I am a "red-assed baboon" – she uses, I think, the word "Affe" or "ape". It seems odd but she is polite enough and so I don’t take offense – "Nein, danke," I say to which she sweetly responds with the meaningless phrase Bitte schon! and moves to the next table.
One morning I am a little distracted. I am looking at a German newspaper about some poisoned eggs shipped into Germany by the Dutch – a cartoon shows a large weeping chicken. The girl courteously asks me if I am a "red-assed Baboon." I don’t respond swiftly enough and so she reaches forward and pours hot coffee ("caffe") into my cup. "Danke," I say. "Bitte schon," she replies.
I’ve been studying German since I was a Junior in High School. I have read Musil and Heidegger in the original. But (dispute this if you like) there is more to learning a language than simply studying it.
Also at Fruehstueck, across the room where the breakfast buffet is underway – a beautiful head, a face wreathed in white beard like a prophet from the Gruenderzeit.
Who can this be? Is it Ibsen escaped into this essay from my text last year written about Norway?
The "Northern Europe" transformer that Angelica purchased before our trip at Radio Shack doesn’t fit the DC plugs at any of the German hotels where we stay. At the Berlin City Mitte, the clerk is accommodating and supplies Angelica with a transformer so that we can charge our phones and so that she can use her laptop computer – it’s obviously something that a customer left plugged into a socket, but it works and doesn’t cost anything. At the Hotel Merkur, a place about a kilometer from the Hauptbahnhof, the socket will not accept Angelica’s transformer. She goes to the front desk and asks for a transformer. "We don’t supply those," the clerk says. "Can you sell me one?" she asks. "I think so," the man says. But she doesn’t have any money. I go down to the lobby and ask to buy a DC to AC transformer: "We just sold the last one," the man says. "To my daughter?" I ask, "that’s me." "No," the German clerk says, "we sold it one minute ago." "So what do I do?" I ask. "Go down to the Hauptbahnhof and buy one," the man says.
Angelica and I hike down to the train station. It is a crystal palace, shimmering with glass walls and terraces. On one high terrace, a huge sculpture of a horse laboring to buck up and down, moves, a sort of colossus. "What does it mean?" Angelica asks. "Horse-power," I say, "a reference to the locomotives." The horse has a body made of yellow platinum, a huge staring eye contained within a savage-looking toothed gear, and a flowing tail of stainless steel.
We buy a transformer at a noxious little store called Relay. It costs 12 euros.
Travel is a hassle. Maybe, it’s not worth the difficulty.
I want to use the toilet at the Hauptbahnhof. Other toilets that I have seen in various subways and S-Bahn stations require a 50 cent coin for access. I search my coins and find a yellow fifty cent piece.
The toilet entrance is a scene from Dante’s Inferno. A disorderly mob of people is trying to form a line but it is too complex. Mothers are herding their crying children toward the turnstile and there are backpackers tangled up with straps and leather handles wrapped around the stile apparatus (what kind of moron could manage this?) and no one seems to have the right change, everyone is fumbling in their pockets or studying the coins in their coin purses and, while this is happening, and the line is delayed behind the women with their broods of children and backpackers tangled up in the turnstiles and the people with luggage that is just too large to pass through the gate, some handicapped people in wheelchairs appear and they also have to be shepherded through the narrow entry and, now, it seems that people are dropping wallets on the filthy floor and passports and train tickets and have to stoop and bend and the press of the line rams up against their bent bodies, their thighs and buttocks, and shoves them forward – all of this happening, as you can imagine, under a certain pressure – and, now, it’s my turn and I can’t find anything but a one euro coin so I thrust that into the machine and it tells me that there is no change and spits the coin out so that I can’t pass through the turnstile which jams hard and stiff against my belly and groin and so I am diverted aside. The air stinks of excrement and ammonia and, inside the toilet, I can see further lines backed up around the WC’s. A couple of Rhine Maidens with blonde hair stand nearby, waving at people and making change. (I suppose that when the Rhine Maidens go home each night, their hair smells of raw sewage.) The Rhine Maiden reaches out, scratches around in the coins in my hand, pulls out a one euro coin, and, then, hands me a small coupon marked DB – I have no idea what this coupon means. A pile of luggage collapses. Now, not only the children but the mothers are crying. Someone has fallen in urine spilled in the narrow corridor between the toilets and hand-washing sinks.
The DB coupon is for some kind of amenities on the Deutsche Bahn railroad. I give it to Angelica. "You can buy something with this," I say to her.
She goes to a souvenir shop nearby to purchase some post-cards.
The clerk won’t take the DB coupon. Why would she? It’s a piss-coupon or, even, worse a shit-coupon.
Traveling is a constant humiliation.
The DC-AC converter doesn’t work. It can’t even be fit into the hotel’s electrical sockets.
We hike back to the train station. On the third level, there’s a store that sells nothing but electronic gadgets. The clerk selects a transformer for us: it costs another 9 euros.
Instead of going straight back to the hotel, we stop at the Hamburg Museum of Contemporary Art, die Kunst der Gegenwart. This is an enormous railroad station now repurposed for the installation of large art works, it’s grand concourses and administrative wings designed according to the canons of Beaux Artes architecture. The floor-plan for the place is eccentric and my ticket doesn’t afford me access to all spaces – I have, apparently, acquired some sort of partial access admission and, so, I can see the permanent collection and some of the environmental installations here, but not all of it. This is frustrating, not so much because I am necessarily desirous of seeing everything – it would likely take you weeks – but because it’s irritating to be advised, after climbing yet another colossal set of stairs, that the rooms ahead of you are under a prohibition. There’s a Kafkaesque-element to this denial of access – you can merrily saunter across one room in which enigmatic junk is strewn and, then, be courteously, but firmly, expelled from another exactly identical room.
The contemplation of art requires a certain equanimity and this is not available when you are acting under obscure, and, seemingly, arbitrary prohibitions.
So far as I can see, the Hamburg Museum consists of three areas that I can access. There are towering stark white galleries that angle away from the old station’s main concourse. These rooms contain a permanent collection of paintings: forty-feet of Warhol’s Mao in day-glow colors , some undistinguished if elaborate Rauschenberg "combines", and several wall-sized Twombly paintings. Twombly has always been a "bridge too far" for me with respect to modern art and, generally, his pretentiously labeled paintings that are mostly unpainted, just random spills of paint, shaky, misspelled inscriptions in bad handwriting, and specks and flecks of color, just annoy me. But, for some reason, I find the Twombly paintings in this museum oddly companionable – I’m not writhing in indignation but rather looking closely at them. One, I suppose, is a kind of pastoral idyll: handwriting says "I am Thyrsis of Erna with a tuneful voice." Like all of his pictures, this is not a picture – it’s mostly stretched bare canvas. However, a yard or so below the inscription which is apparently made in dull #2 lead pencil, two puddles of dense green paint adher to the canvas – they look like something vomited forth by a creature that has devoured a green field of grass and a ferny bit of landscape, an algific talus slope, above, perhaps, a dark, bubbling spring. The landscape didn’t sit well in the belly of the creature that ate it – and, now, the puked-out results are on the painting. Instead of "tuneful voice" coming from someone’s mouth, we have this mess. But it’s oddly endearing, a weird sort of involuted, half-digested landscape that responds, at least in my imagination, to the melting, half-dissolved landscapes of late Impressionism, Monet’s water-lilies decomposing in gastric juices. Some of my favorite pastoral images, for instance, by George Inness or Corot seem under assault by the very eyes that are gazing at them – it’s as if our looking is acid that is eroding the paintings even as we gaze on them.
The main concourse is occupied by a single art work, some sort of game that involves three girls sitting at intervals of 100 feet at secretarial desks. Above the girls are partitions that reach to the glass and girder vaulted ceiling, towering half-walls on which enigmatic English phrases are written. You are supposed to go to the girls, read a lengthy sign posted nearby, and, then, interact with them according to the rules on display. Most of the visitors to the museum are too shy to play the game. The list of rules seems too daunting and contradictory, although, perhaps, my German-under-stress is not good enough to make sense of the prescriptions on the sign. As is always the case, only extroverts with booming voices and no interest at all in the arts (art being an introverted activity) are playing the game, teasing the girls or flirting with them. The real students of the art, like Thrysis with the tuneful voice, stand apart appalled.
In the third part of the museum, actually distributed between several halls around the concourse, there are big environmental installations. These vary in theme and dimension – some are merely whimsical, others seem post-apocalyptic, and a few are frightening. Beuys has a couple of vast installations – his work has always left me cold. I’m not inclined to take time to unravel the slogans and diagrams that he wrote on blackboards, temporary ravings that are now permanently on show, defeating, it seems, the original ephemeral aspect of these lectures that the shamanistic artist delivered here. Whatever Beuys is doing, it’s so close to the German language and so intrinsic to German education and history, that an outsider can’t really understand it. Beuys, who had been a Wehrmacht pilot during World War II, always claimed that he had been shot down somewhere in Siberia – it’s not clear to me why he was on a mission over Siberia, but that was his story. Nomads rescued him from his burning Heinkel, so he claimed, dressed his wounds in suet and grease, and wrapped him up in felt so that he would not freeze to death. From this fiction, Beuys constructs an entire mythos, a highly specific, quasi-Marxist universe comprised of four-hour long lectures, animal furs, heaps of felt as well as his trademark, Buster Keaton felt hat, and, of course, animal fats. One room devoted to his work contains huge wedges of tallow. The wedges are all similarly shaped, as if some giant used a spatula to cut out slices from a tallow pie the size of a used car lot. A lengthy placard legend– this kind of art requires a thousand words of explanation – advises that Beuys made a form mimicking a space under an exit ramp from a freeway. The space, the placard says, was an example of the desolate terrain that modern architecture produces, corners and pits good only for collecting debris. Beuys boiled animal fat, mostly grease from slaughtered horses and beef stock, until it was molten and poured the tallow into the big plywood forms. It took the grease about three months to congeal into dirty-looking yellowish blocks, fragments of a cheese-cake from hell. The caption describing the tallow-pour says that these limousine slabs of congealed fat represent the largest tallow-pour ever accomplished and posed very serious engineering challenges. But the result is underwhelming. The huge wedges of fat, the texture it seems of a badly wrought candle, are strewn throughout the big room, but to what end?
Yesterday, I was walking my dog and, near the High School, encountered two enormous yellow dumpsters, each sixty feet long and filled with excreta from a demolition projection apparently underway inside the building. The dumpsters were savagely battered and looked like old ring-worn boxers – someone had punched holes in their thick metal skins so that you could peek inside and see the debris lying there. Beyond the dumpsters, some big sheets of plywood shielded the High School lawn from being scuffed or trenched by a big box, also constructed of plywood, open at one end and taller than my height – on the side of the box, an enigmatic red iron hook with a ratchet mechanism and chain was bolted to the plywood; above, a spring was affixed between the sides of the box. Neither of these pieces of hardware screwed into the thick plywood walls made any functional sense to me – but they were like the enigmatic assemblies of stuff at the edges of a painting by Menzel, clearly designed for something, although I couldn’t be sure what. The entire environment – the huge yellow dumpsters with their battered iron skin, the plywood resting on the grass to keep it from being furrowed and ripped, the man-sized plywood box turned on its side and adorned with enigmatic hardware, all of these things seemed intensely poetic to me, beautiful even under the rainy sky and the Victorian ramparts of the old High School.
But was it art? Of course not. So was it art? Not intentionally as least. Art? Maybe. Art? Yes.
The Rieckhallen at the Hamburg is an example of a space with eerie metaphysical implications, a specimen of what Thomas Pynchon called in Gravity’s Rainbow, "German expressionist corridor metaphysics". It’s an endless succession of rooms with metal walls and bare concrete floors ranged along a 1500 foot corridor. The corridor seems to be far underground, an endless hallway lit from overhead by a florescent tube that directs your eye to a featureless vanishing point. This corridor is reached through a slot in the side of the big concourse marked "Zum U-Bahn" – "to the subway" – and the visitor walks through a hundred yard passageway that is an exact duplicate of a Berlin subway corridor: there are ads on the walls and the floors are dirty and the tiles next to the walkway have been smeared with aggressive, illiterate graffiti. There are handrails on the ramps that look greasy from the touch of innumerable human hands and, then, you reach the Rieckhallen with its dismal vantage through the center of the earth to a darkness so far way it seems that you could not reach it in a week of walking.
Various installations occupy the rooms adjacent to the endless corridor. Most of the environments are ugly and tendentious. A few are very beautiful. In one underground space, a phantom girl, perhaps, a hologram, plays on a grand piano while fake snow gently sifts down from overhead. Many of the rooms have sound systems that howl accusations at you as you enter. This is art at its most conceptual and, dare I say, Teutonic: art as travail, art as irritant, art as suffering, art as a general pain-in-the-ass.
Art as a pain-in-the-ass is best exemplified by Bruce Nauman’s installation called "Room with my soul left out / Room that does not care." This object rests like a fragment of a prison dropped by a crane in the very last room in the Rieckhallen. This is space that seems to have once been an industrial shed, made with iron walls and it is lightless and the August sun outdoors has heated the metal ceiling and the surface of the metal facades so that the darkness is very hot. Naumann’s "room" in the shed’s center is a cross-shaped assembly of Corten iron walls crudely welded together with similar Corten panels bearing down on the structure from above. The inside of the cross-shaped structure is very dark, lit by a couple of small florescent tubes inconspicuously mounted in the corners of the boxes welded together to make the assembly. The structure is big enough to drive a car through and, where the square boxes intersect, in the center of the metal shed, the floor is no longer concrete but covered with a stiff wire grating. This grating covers a pit that is fifteen feet deep, also lit so that you can look down into it – it’s like a grease-pit in an old service station although deeper and more sinister. The heavy metal panels forming the ceiling of the cross-shaped structure open up above the intersection where the two wings of the metal cross come together. If you look upward, you see the inverse of the space below the wire grid-work on the floor, an empty void capped with more metal with another little florescent bulb illumining very faintly the cheerless height. The most striking aspect of this structure is that when you step onto the metal grating covering the pit below you, the steel panels rub against one another and they creak loudly and the grate seems to yield and, for more than a moment, you have the sense that you are about to fall through the steel grate into the pit. The grate protests underfoot – it squeaks and wobbles and your first impulse to jump to the side, back onto the concrete floor. But if you persist, you will determine that the grating is solid and will not fail and it doesn’t make any sound unless you shift your weight or move and, then, you can look upward and see the turret of the thing, another cheerless Corten steel void lit so faintly as to not be lit at all, lit, in fact, merely to establish that you are looking upward into a lightless void. Throughout the entirety of the big metal room and the smaller cross-shaped Corten structure that Naumann has built, it’s too dark to read, too dark to really see any details, too dark to exactly comprehend the space that you are occupying or the dimensions of Naumann’s nasty steel chambers. It’s undeniably effective, a memorable experience, but not pleasant in any way – a characteristic of Nauman’s art in general.
As Arthur Danto has observed, we are at the end of the history of art. Art history ended when art took as its subject art itself. There is nothing extrinsic to Nauman’s room – the room is about art that has ceased to access the outside world, art as a sinister and hopeless cul-de-sac, art as endless contemplation of its own inadequacies. The soul-less room makes art of the fact that it is not art.
Is this a valid esthetic strategy?
Daniel Libeskind’s Juedische Museen is a few blocks from the congestion around Checkpoint Charlie. The wall is gone but its traces remain as a white sentry box in the median on Friedrichstrasse, a block from the intersection with Kochstrasse. A forlorn section of the wall runs parallel to Friedrichstrasse and it has secreted two blocks of souvenir shops with the carnival atmosphere of a congested State Fair. The museum called Haus at Checkpoint Charlie remains feverish with tourists. Everyone wants to come inside because the place is historic and its raining on the hot streets outside. This place is always elbow-to-elbow with people who quickly discover that the German notion of a museum is to paper the walls with official documents, photocopies of decrees, and fading newspaper articles. There are several claustrophobia-inducing exhibits – tiny Trabants or Volkswagens that were hollowed out to smuggle people through the border checkpoint: limp, pretzel-shaped mannequins are concealed in doors and behind engines, in secret compartments under the hood or in the chassis. People tried to escape East Berlin in all sorts of ways: they hid themselves in suitcases or mailed themselves to Zurich or built artificial wings with tar and feathers to soar over the wall. People made gliders and dug tunnels and built cars equipped with battering rams to simply smash down barriers and most of these things are on display in the museum in the hot, densely crowded rooms and the rain falls and mournfully streaks the windows of the Haus. Germans are as starstruck as anyone else: there’s a big photo of a very young Sylvester Stallone touring the museum, on the look-out for film scenario ideas and a couple of big budget films were even produced about the exploits of those seeking to flee over the wall from East Berlin – there are the inevitable pictures comparing the real-life heroes, dumpy with bad hair cuts and beer bellies, to the film stars who played them in the movies. The whole place makes you sad and, then, if you want to be sadder yet, you can hike four or five blocks to the jutting and belligerent escarpment of Libeskind’s museum.
Once seen, this part of Berlin – it’s between Kreuzberg and Mitte – should be avoided forever after. This is where Prince Albert’s palace as painted by Menzel once stood, but that site is now the permanent atrocity exhibition, the Topography of Terror, a state of affairs that epitomizes the situation. The ghosts would like to return to these blocks, but they are too filled with souvenir shops and befuddled tourists waddling from one place to another to provide the melancholy solitude that spirits require. So the ghosts have gone to the suburbs or lurk in the Tiergarten around the Soviet Army cemetery and the stark colonnade on which a forty-foot tall Russian soldier stands cocooned in his bronze great coat – the tomb of the Unknown Rapist as the locals call it. Ghosts are a distinct minority in all cities, but like every other minority they have their rights, one of which is to be allowed to persist unmolested and Checkpoint Charlie and the blocks intervening between that place and the Jewish Museum have been gentrified to the point that apparitions and spooks and revenants are no longer welcome. This is a shame. At least, this is my opinion, although others might dispute it.
The Jewish Museum is a self-aggrandizing expansion of a smaller institution occupying an extravagant mansion with a mansard-roof and yellow stucco walls. The museum, as expanded by Libeskind, has a Jekyll and Hyde aspect – the old palace is kindly looking, demure, and gentlemanly; Libeskind’s addition, which is said to be a deconstructed and barb-wire jagged Star of David is brutalist, a pretentious, if effective, variant on the Berlin Wall itself, a great barrier that zigzags haphazardly across one of Berlin’s ghoulish vacant lots.
You pay your entrance admission at a desk in the mansion and, then, are scooted down steeply sloping ramp-walkways into the underground. Libeskind invokes Pynchon’s "corridor metaphysics" once you are below the surface of the earth, forced into a one-way queue that drives visitors into three intersecting hallways. These hallways are long and grim with echoing concrete floors and strands of florescent light overhead, terminating it seems in panic-inducing and dark dead ends.
The first corridor is the so-called Axis of Holocaust. This hallway is lined with dark glass niches in which relics of the Shoah have been placed. The objects are not really historical and there is no attempt to summarize the events that lead to the extermination of the European Jews or the procedures used in that atrocity. Instead, the things on display are intensely personal – the sewing machine that someone’s grandma used to attach yellow stars to children’s garments before they could go to school, a post-card from a concentration camp, a letter that was begun but not completed from Auschwitz or Treblinka, someone’s shoes, a last family portrait showing scowling people in the dark, fading shadows of the past, an image made a day before all of these men and women and children were deported to their deaths. In one, niche, displayed like the shroud of Turin, there is a towel that a boy’s mother folded and put in his suitcase before the two were separated – the boy was sent to England and survived; his mother was murdered and, so, in remembrance of her, he kept the towel exactly as he hands had neatly folded it, preserving those creases until he himself died and the fabric could be put, still as she folded it, in a box deep underground in this corridor. Libeskind and the curators know that to show actual images of the dying Jews or their corpses would be to turn them into monsters – the undead or zombies or mere things, cadavers piled up like firewood. And so, the museum eschews that kind of horror for a much subtler, low-key approach – fifteen artifacts, perhaps, no more: a few polaroid pictures, a dead woman’s necklace, a child’s stuffed toy, a yellow strip of paper with German words that mean "Don’t forget us."
The axis of the Holocaust ends, or climaxes, depending upon your perspective, at a heavy iron door that you can push open to enter a nasty concrete tower. The tower is very dark, lit by a sliver of natural light seeping through a crack overhead, and it feels like a room from which your soul has been carefully excluded. The walls of the tower ascend 60 feet to a coffin-like capstone. Your voice doesn’t so much echo in the place as seem to sound within your head. At one side, a ladder rises upward bolted into the remorseless raw concrete. The ladder starts 15 feet above your head and so you can’t reach it to escape – in any event, the ladder is a cruel joke: it goes nowhere.
The next corridor underground, reached at various intersections with the holocaust hallway is called the axis of exile. The same display strategy is used in this corridor. Dark niches lensed with glass show small quotidian artifacts, a diary, plane tickets or a steamship manifest – these are relics relating to the diaspora of the European Jews, evidence of their flight away from Germany to South America and New York. This hallway ends in the Garden of Exile, a collection of big canted columns packed with soil on which stunted olive trees are growing about twenty feet above a maze of concrete and deep arid moats where visitors find themselves outside, warm drizzle falling from cheerless skies.
At the opposite extremity of the holocaust tower, there’s a sort of architectural appendix, a curious side passage where you hear chains clanking – it’s as if the spirits of the dead, wrapped in loops of iron, are clanking their fetters. If you take this path, you end in a long concrete room, one of Libeskind’s voids where ten-thousand vaguely face-shaped pieces of iron have been dumped in a low trough twenty-feet wide and forty feet long. This place is also dimly lit. Nothing prevents you from walking into the trough filled with horseshoe-sized metal masks and they shift underfoot and clank against one another and this accounts for the noise echoing in the adjacent hallway. It’s a self-indulgent stunt and I don’t know the exact significance of Libeskind inviting us to walk on the eyes and mouths and metal brows of what must be construed to be Holocaust victims – but it’s grimly effective and thought-provoking and, once you see that stepping into that bin of metal faces is authorized, you will set your reservations aside and try it yourself and the metal skulls will shift underfoot and announce your presence in a loud way that echoes throughout the building.
The third subterrranean axis is called the "axis of continuity" and it leads you to a daunting stairway. The stairs are concrete and fairly narrow and they climb out of the darkness and up a huge Treppenhaus (stairwell), an intentionally arduous ascent that passes under big Expressionist buttresses, black as midnight that jut out of the walls and crisscross overhead. At the top of the stairs, you are panting and bathed in sweat and you see that the steps continue to rise, another ten feet up to a diagonal ceiling – another stairway that goes nowhere and that ends no place.
Beyond this terrifying stairwell, the path that the museum takes is mostly avuncular, although very coercive – there is no wandering here: you follow the way that Libeskind has prescribed for you. This is a standard museum with diachronic displays: the history of the Jews from Old Testament times to the construction of the Neue Synagogue on Oranienberger Strasse, first erected in 1865 but rebuilt, after its 1933 destruction by the Nazis, in 1995. Family-friendly interactive exhibits abound – you can exchange currency at a Jewish money-table, dress dolls in Jewish fashions, use computer screens to engage in commerce in furs and feathers – other computer displays let you unfurl gilded Torah scrolls or try your luck at solving koans and riddles posed by the rabbis in the Talmud; you can ride in a Jewish carriage or recline on big bean-bag chairs to listen as an actor intones Heine’s Lorelei through headphones on your ears. It’s pretty standard stuff, although comprehensive, and, as always, densely interpreted by paragraph-long labels in English and German on the walls. There are even a few grim cubicles in which you can see the standard images of emaciated and dying Jews, trains chugging toward grim-looking camps, corpses caught in webs of electrified fence, and bodies stacked like cordwood. In the end, you see a few pictures of modern Jews at worship in Berlin at the so-called New Synagogue and, then, you are deposited on the moist street under the ramparts of the zig-zag museum that’s as tall as a cruise ship moored in a wet and rainy harbor.
The museum leaves you sadder but no wiser. Is this a good thing?
We take a high-speed train to Leipzig. The trip is about an hour, from one massive train shed to another. Boarding the crowded train in Berlin without seat reservations is a harrowing experience. But I won’t bore you with that account here.
Leipzig was Germany’s publishing center, the location of many of its most prestigious imprints. The city center is small enough to walk across in 20 minutes. Many of the commercial blocks are pierced by "Passages" – these are openings in the buildings that lead between expensive shops into a courtyard, also adorned with art galleries or high fashion boutiques. The Passages are the German equivalent of the Arcades that Walter Benjamin studied in his endless and never-completed book about Paris as the capital of the 19th century.
Leipzig’s promenades are blessed by many street musicians. The pedestrian walkways are bright and broad and downtown it always seems like an endless Sunday afternoon, a blithe consumer paradise where people stroll until their feet hurt and, then, sit at ice-cream shops enjoying elaborately designed architectural fantasies of ice-cream and Schlagsahne.
Turks aren’t much in evidence and, for some reason, the place has an aura of profound peace. This is curious because the history of Leipzig is stormy. I suppose that places where there has been much controversy and, even, violence are entitled to an old age of peace and contentment. But there is a sense that the city is in repose, that it is reclining for a long, much-deserved nap.
The most exciting places aren’t always the best.
My preliminary plans for Germany included a trip to see Werner Tuebke’s immense panorama, the largest oil painting in the world mounted on the interior of a huge round tower overlooking the spa town of Bad Frankenhausen. Tuebke worked on the mural for 15 years and, finally, completed it in the late summer of 1989. The mural was dedicated by Communist party functionaries in October 1989 – this was about one month before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, presaged by dramatic events in Leipzig, the so-called Wende ("turning") that brought the regime to an end. The DDR, former East Germany, produced two great monuments – one was the Berlin Wall, no longer extant except in pathetic fragments, foreboding truncated sections surviving the way an endangered species survives in a cage in a dirty urban zoo. The other great monument is Tuebke’s painting, Frueh Buergerlich Revolution in Deutschland ("Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany").
Tuebke is a fascinating figure in many respects and his art is far greater and more interesting than the dogmatic Marxist propositions that it purports to illustrate and, then, subverts with just about every paint stroke. Unfortunately, it is next to impossible to use public transportation to reach Bad Frankenhausen where the gleaming cyclorama tower rides the crest of the Kyfferhauser mountains. To reach the small city (it has 9,000 residents) from Berlin, you must take an express train to Leipzig, transfer to another intercity express to Erfurt, then, disembark and take a smaller regional train to a tiny place called Heldenringen. This village is 12 kilometers from Bad Frankenhausen. From Heldenringen, you must use a taxi cab to reach Bad Frankenhausen. I corresponded with the Better Business Bureau in Bad Frankenhausen and asked them how best to reach their town from Berlin – the city businessmen never responded. I sent emails to the so-called "Panorama Museum" – the place that houses Tuebke’s painting. A certain Frau Schmitz wrote to me and bluntly said that there was really no good way to reach the town – "buses run from Heldenringen" she wrote to me, "but their schedules are inexact and sometimes they don’t come at all."
I wasn’t about to get myself stranded in rural Germany and so I cancelled the trip to Bad Frankenhausen.
This was a mistake and showed a want of resolve on my part. Travel requires determination, courage, and resolve. I have none of those qualities and there’s no debate on that subject.
A few things frightened me about Bad Frankenhausen. First, the place was notorious during the Hitlerzeit for operating an extermination facility for the mentally handicapped. These sorts of things trouble me and I wondered what kind of people might live in a place with a history of this sort.
Many of the business addresses in the town are identified Blutrinne 3 or Blutrinne 47 – for instance, there is a friendly looking insurance agent who has his offices at Blutrinne 22. Blutrinne means "Blood Gutter" and it’s a term you might expect to be used in a slaughterhouse.
The origin of the term is the battle of White Mountain that occurred on a bald ridge above the town, the place where an army of rebel peasants led by Thomas Muentzer was massacred. Thomas Muentzer was a theology student in Wittenberg when Luther posted his 95 theses and debated those propositions with the great Reformer and his friend, Philip Melancthon. Later, Muentzer was present at the disputation in Leipzig (1520) where Luther publicly argued for the reformation. Muentzer was impressed, traveled about Germany for several months as an itinerant Protestant pastor, and, then, issued a manifesto in Prague in late 1521. Muentzer proclaimed that he worshiped a living God and not the mute divinity that the Catholics (and Lutheran Protestants) served. He argued that God revealed himself in dreams and visions and that Luther’s revolt against the Papacy was the beginning of apocalyptic end-times. Some of his followers burned down several small churches, asserting that God could be worshiped anywhere and that the sacraments were fraudulent. Muentzer decried scriptural authority and said that God is not found in books, even the Bible – God reveals himself by continuous revelation to the faithful.
Muentzer was charismatic. He gathered around him a small force of disenfranchised peasants. Surrounded by these peasants, Muentzer embarked on a sort of crusade. By 1525, both Catholic and Lutheran authorities were hunting him. Muentzer had become more radical and he announced that God required the peasants to rise and smite the Obrigkeit – that is, the feudal lords and nobles ruling them. By this time, Luther had accommodated his reformation to many of the princes in central Europe and he wasn’t about to alienate his wealthy and influential patrons by supporting a ragtag mob of peasants led by the erratic Thomas Muentzer. Luther issued a vehement screed demanding that all true Christians take up the sword and hack to death the rebellious peasants, a horde that he described as traitors to his cause and rabid dogs.
By this time, Muentzer had fortified some small towns in Thuringia and had a kind of army around him. The peasants traveled beside the preacher under a great snow-white banner that read The Word of God will Endure Forever, referring not to the doctrines of the church or holy scripture but to his own increasingly eccentric visions and revelations. By this time, Muentzer had inspired a full-fledged peasant revolt and farmers armed with hatchets and scythes ranged through the country threatening the clergy and destroying churches and monasteries. Muentzer announced that the Kingdom of God was come to earth and abolished all private property. For this reason, Marx and Engels regarded Muentzer’s rebellion as an early – too early -- manifestation of the class struggle that would later cleave apart bourgeois society.
Heavily armed knights were dispatched to scourge the peasantry. They rode the farmers down wherever they encountered them and cut them to pieces. It’s estimated that as many as 75,000 to a 100,000 peasants were slaughtered and their fields and farms burnt. In this dark hour, Luther failed himself and his reformation, aligning himself entirely with his patron princes and noblemen.
Muentzer’s forces gathered on White Mountain above Bad Frankenhausen – there are pale salt deposits and salt springs on the slopes of the big ridge. The rebels formed a fort of wagons and farm equipment. An army of armed knights smashed through the fortifications and killed all of the peasants – probably about 6000 men. So much blood was spilled that it ran down the sides of the mountain in gory rivulets, tainting the streams and springs – hence, the name Blutrinne used for a main thoroughfare in Bad Frankenhausen.
On the internet, I found a video showing present-day Bad Frankenhausen with the Panorama Museum like the Parthenon on its acropolis high above the village, a place otherwise best known for it salt-spring spas and a crooked, leaning church tower. (The City Fathers proudly proclaim that their canted tower is more crooked than Pisa’s leaning tower.) The video showed soldiers killing peasants and fields of roaring flame superimposed on the town. The sides of the circular panorama museum are fluted, and have columnar elements. Viewed on its height across the valley, the museum looks like a monopteros – that is, a round temple with a circular peristyle of columns set atop a stony acropolis.
I imagined myself on foot trudging up the mountain from the village to the museum. It is hot and the day is sticky and there are many aggressive green and black flies oppressing me. An internet posting tells how to hike from the village center up to the monument – it takes you 20 minutes supposedly, although the informant said that he had been lost and walked for a while through people’s backyards and, then, in a steep, rocky woods. Many images were posted of the Blutrinne in the woods – it’s a linear swale tending upward in an absolutely straight path through the hillside forest. The depression or trench seems to be about three feet wide and 18 inches deep and, in the pictures that I saw, it is always late October and the brown leaves have fallen and cover the channel. The pictures seem a vortex, a circular writhing mass of fallen leaves and bare branches twisted around this long, narrow indentation running up the side of the mountain. Apparently, the lower extremity of this channel in the town bears the street name Blutrinne but the pathway leads up, away from the medieval buildings into a deep forest. The Panorama Museum is supposedly built on the site of the wagon fortress where Muentzer’s rebels made their last stand and, so, I suppose you hike up to the museum using the Blutrinne, through that melancholy autumnal forest to reach Tuebke’s painting on the heights.
So here I am trudging upward alone, because Angelica has opted to remain in the hotel, or is, even, having a swim and massage at the spa, and the flies, who are the souls of dead peasants besiege me and I am alone in this narrow gully with trees stooping and bending over me, the branches cutting at my eyes, and, then, in the midday sun, which is very hot and that brings hallucinations, I hear the sound of screams and smell roasting flesh and there is a crackling in the underbrush as if some great, monstrous beast is climbing through the thickets and thorns beside me. This is Pan’s time, the moment of midday panic, the instant when the fear grips you so that you run and run and run without knowing where to go. The flies dive-bomb my lips and nose and I am afraid that they will come inside my body. The trees are all whispering. It is a huge mistake to have come alone up this hill on this sinister, solitary pathway. The ravine now is wet. At first, I think it’s just mud and clay, but there’s something red glinting under the leaf litter, a serpentine stream of gore.
The sound in the bushes beside me is a wild boar. I see the beast for only an instant, tusks with little furious eyes gleaming behind them.
Don’t let your imagination run away with you. It’s unproductive.
"I’m not going to Bad Frankenhausen," I told Julie after several admonitory nightmares about the village. "Cancel my reservations there. I will go to Leipzig instead."
So now I’m in the attic of the Red Rathaus, the medieval townhall for Leipzig. A metal platform hangs like a basket suspended among the great charred rafters. Incendiary bombs pierced this roof in 1944 and a bank of TV monitors plays footage of the air assault on the city. Sirens wail and bombs thud and boom, body-blows struck against our poor mother earth, and dark clouds of smoke are rising from ruined buildings.
For a moment, the TVs all shut off and the bombing ceases and it is very still. Then, you can hear two things performed contrapuntally: a street musician in the square playing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and a string quartet under a tent in the beer garden playing Con ti partiro, apparently the most popular song in the world.
There is no place in Germany where you can walk for more than two blocks without hearing Andre Bocelli singing Con ti partiro or some other version, perhaps, violins and cellos, or a ragamuffin girl playing the tune on her flute in the park, or, maybe, an accordion version or the song adapted for brass band and male choir. Of course, the song is ubiquitous – it’s the most beautiful song in the world, except, perhaps, for the international anthem of South America, "Don’t cry for me, Argentina".
The three most performed and, therefore, greatest songs in the world: (1) Con ti partiro, (2) Don’t cry for me Argentina", and (3) Hallelujah.
Such assertions are designed to provoke and persuade. Then, the TVs on their loop fire again and the endless televised bombing of Leipzig continues.
A few levels below in the Rathaus’ great hall, I see legal documents, photocopies it seems but posted in a thicket of other writings describing a celebrated criminal case, the murder charges lodged against one Johann Christian Woyzeck (1780 - 1824). Woyzeck, a master wigmaker had been a soldier between 1806 and 1818. (I wonder about the viability of his profession in the early 1820's; was Woyzeck like a travel agent in the age of the internet?) In a fit of jealousy, Woyzeck killed his common law wife, Johanna Christine Woost. Three years of legal proceedings ensued in which many learned doctors and alienists argued over the accused man’s sanity. Ultimately, Woyzeck was convicted and, then, beheaded with a big sword displayed in the case next to the legal documents. The sword is half as high as a man is tall, a heavy industrial tool with a gleaming edge. On the weapon’s heft, these words appear Soli Deo Gloria. The beheading sword was, apparently, used in 200 executions.
Of course, Georg Buechner, perhaps the greatest prodigy in literary history, wrote his incomplete play, Woyzeck about this case. Later, Buechner’s play was adapted as an opera by Alban Berg that is performed regularly even today. A man named Alexander Carl Hartmann Braun, a law student at Leipzig University observed the execution, the first in 24 years in the city and, therefore, quite a sensation. Cavalry kept order and an area in the public square was designated for the university students, many of whom came to the party drunk and disorderly. Braun said that the sword cut through Woyzeck’s neck quite handily and the head landed quite a few feet from the thrashing body. The head and corpse were gathered up and hustled to a nearby anatomy theater for dissection and, possibly, reanimation through galvanic current. Dr. Clarius, the physician presiding over the execution, prevented the electrodes from being applied to nerves in the cadaver stating that the body had been much damaged by madness and that the outcome of the galvanic experiment could not be predicted. Who knew? Perhaps, the headless body would writhe and, then, stand upright and run amuck among the inebriated students. Braun watched as Woyzeck’s corpse was disassembled. In a letter to his friend he noted that "all parts of body seemed to (him) to be completely sound."
The better angels of our nature have spoken: we no longer would tolerate such a barbaric spectacle. At least, so I proclaim.
Leipzig’s St. Thomas Kirche where Johann Sebastian Bach was cantor and director of the boy’s school and choir isn’t much to write home about. It’s a big austere Lutheran church without much distinction. When I walked through the church, someone was noodling around in the choir loft, practicing without much luck an organ transcription of the famous aria from Bach’s Cantata 208, Sheep May Safely Graze. Some bad notes sound above and the musician stops, repeats a phrase, and, then, continues tentatively. The errors are strangely moving in this context.
Bach has been inserted into the church’s floor, although not without some wrong notes in that respect as well. When the musician died, he was buried in another church yard, St. John’s, in an unmarked grave. The burial was one so-called "extra-mural" – that is, outside of the walls of the church. This was a Lutheran innovation, a theologically-based attempt to keep the congregation the living apart from the community of the dead saints. Since wealthy people could pay to be buried within a church’s walls in the Catholic tradition, the Lutherans, of course, rejected this practice, insisting upon the equality of all dead in the eyes of God. Bach didn’t have high social status – he was basically regarded as a servant – and, so, he was buried without any pomp and circumstance. Tradition had it that he was under the ground six paces from the threshold of St. John’s Kirche – indeed, this folk-tradition was so strong that each year, the choir boys of St. Thomas Kirche performed a short concert on the anniversary of Bach’s 1750 death singing from that location.
By 1898, Bach had become so culturally important that it was decided to exhume him. A pit was dug six paces from the St. John’s Kirche threshold and, indeed, three rotten caskets were found in that location. Two skeletons were identified as male. The third skeleton was thought to be Bach’s last wife Anna Magdalena. (She died penniless as a beggar on the streets of Leipzig in 1760). Forensic specialists were recruited to study the male skeletons to determine which was the famous musician. Clay was slathered onto the skulls in an attempt to recreate the facial figures of the two dead men and, not surprisingly (confirmation bias being what it is), one of the clay masks looked very much like existing paintings of Bach. (These pictures are a bit questionable as well since there is only one portrait of the musician that was actually painted from life – the rest are all copies of that picture.) Studies of the skeleton’s forearms showed a form of osteoarthritis thought to be characteristic of organists. On this basis, the forensic scientists asserted that they had successfully located the skeletal remains of the great man. Anna Magdalena was even observed to have a ring on her hand, thought to be her wedding ring given her by J. S. Bach himself.
Husband and wife were re-interred in zinc caskets and put inside a crypt in St. John’s Church. In 1944, the church was smashed to the ground by bombs and the crypt containing Bach’s bones was ripped open. For several months bitter fighting raged around Leipzig and the skeletons remained in the wrecked church exposed to the elements. Dead bodies lay on the streets and were buried in the rubble of recently burned homes and there were incinerated school children and women to bury and so no one paid much attention to the yellowing, rain-soaked bones of a Baroque composer. (No one that is except for a thief who snatched the ring off the bony ring-finger of Anna Magdalena’s skeleton – perhaps, that ring is presently in the dowry of some Russian girl, inherited from her mother, and planning a wedding this very June.)
In 1946, the janitor of the St. Thomas Kirche heard about the situation and deemed it unacceptable. He hiked over to the broken and charred ruins of St. John’s, gathered up the bones inside the broken zinc caskets and wrapped them in sheets. Then, he put the bones in his wheelbarrow and pushed them across town to the St. Thomas Kirche.
According to the story, the janitor is supposed to have greeted the church superintendent with these words: "Tak, Herr’n Superintendent, ich bring’ Bach’." This can be translated: "G’day, Mr. Superintendant, I’m bringing you Bach."
Of course, the skeletal remains in the Thomas Kirche crypt are probably not Bach. But if we say they are, does it make a difference? How would you argue this.
With too much scruple, the Bach Museum adjacent to the Thomas Kirche debunks its own collection. Several musical instruments on display are said to have been actually used by Bach. But these are only legends the ubiquitous labels advise us – the design of the instrument or its mechanical characteristics are either too early or too late to have been actually played by the great musician. The real treasures are kept in a carpeted and dimly lit sanctuary. These are autograph copies of manuscripts actually written by Bach, sheaves of paper densely inscribed with musical notes, corrections, additions and erasures. One case contains a five-pointed quill for drawing musical staves – Bach used this to prepare paper for his compositions. A single painting made during Bach’s lifetime is illumined by a track lighting inconspicuously concealed in the ceiling. Bach is burly with little glittering eyes and he seems to have small pudgy hands with short fingers – is this possible for a great organist? He has a fleshy nose that I imagine as red from drinking an excess of beer, although I don’t know that there is any evidence of this. Like Beethoven and, presumably, Mozart, he was not a handsome man – indeed, he was portly and a little porcine, a most "unsightly man" on the evidence of the portrait. Later pictures ennoble him slightly, but there’s not much you can do with the man’s fundamental design.
Museums about music are difficult to manage because the subject matter is invisible – people sit in alcoves with their eyes shut and headphones over their ears. You might as well be doing this at home, except, I suppose, here you can open your eyes and gaze across the courtyard and see red brick towers of the Thomas Kirche.
Zum Runde Ecke ("The Round Corner") is a Baroque building only a few hundred feet from the Thomas Kirche. The structure fronts the "Ring" – that is, the traffic circle around central Leipzig built where the city walls were once located. Because the building is set on premises that face outward toward a curving roadway, the facade of the building is similarly arc-shaped, hence the name of the structure. (East Germany kept its street car trams; a good indication in modern Berlin of whether you are in the former East or West Berlin is street cars – if you see a street car, you are in a precinct of the city that was earlier East Berlin. Similarly, in Leipzig, the loop of the Ringstrasse is inset with iron tracks where street cars surge back and forth.) The Round Corner has an ornate portico fifteen feet above the sidewalk, grimacing carytids holding up the pediment over the building’s pretentious-looking entrance. It would seem to be an honor to enter this building and that is the effect for which the carytids are shouldering the weight of the porch – in fact, Zum Runde Ecke was occupied by the Staatssicherheitdienst, that is, the infamous Stasi or East German secret police. Their former headquarters is now a startling and, even, grotesque museum.
Unprepossessing in the extreme, the museum is comprised of a single administrative hallway, a drab space that leads to a flight of stairs to which entry is forbidden. When I began the practice of law, courthouses in rural counties would always have a corridor like the one in Zum Runde Ecke. The local government had expanded to the extent that its offices were too large for the stately and ornate hallways in the domed courthouses built in the last century. And, so, some of the services and offices, financial workers for welfare or probation officers or drug- and alcohol-abuse evaluators had to be located in an annex or basement and, there, you would find a lightless hallway under a ceiling carrying pipes and electrical apparatus extending toward a shadowy stairway. A dull tile floor caught the gleam of the 60 watt bulbs overhead but was too dirty to reflect that light and small rooms, most of them for endlessly protracted waiting, opened doors onto the corridor – you looked in the rooms and saw a desk covered with files, yellowing paper in sheaves on filing cabinets, some metal chairs, an antiquated xerox machine that huffed and puffed when it was operated, even the drum of a mimeograph – public safety posters were pinned to cork board panels on the walls. The air smelled of stale, cold coffee and the asbestos fiber scaling off heating pipes mummified in the stuff and it was always too hot or too cold. This is what the Stasi headquarters looked like – a dull, utilitarian corridor between offices equipped with steel desks and steel chairs, the walls painted a drab khaki-color, open radiators wheezing in the corners of poorly ventilated rooms, a small cell with yellow concrete block walls and a drain in the floor, filing cabinets walling off parts of the shabby rooms. Most of the place seems designed for waiting, an endless afternoon during which you shift and twist on uncomfortable chairs in a room that seems under a permanent shadow even though it is, in fact, well lit, an old octopus of a switchboard down the hallway that is ringing on intervals of every thirty or forty seconds, the operator whispering into a microphone, gusts of hot wet air like flashes of fever coming from the rooms where agents are steaming open envelopes to scrutinize the contents within. The Stasi HQ is mostly lobby, a place where people nervously await interrogation, the purgatory between the revolution during the dictatorship of the proletariat and the necessary terror, a long, long interval where you spend your time agonizing on cold metal chairs, waiting for a utopia that never seems to come.
This sort of place is the hell that even good government creates. But the government in East Germany was not good and so you can imagine the distressing appearance of this terrible place.
The level of frantic paranoia exhibited in the Stasi museum is so extreme that the place would be funny if it were not so tragic. The rooms are small and airless and, of course, every available inch of wall is covered with documentation. Ziel der Stasi war die Schaffung des glaserne Burgers – "The goal of the Stasi was the creation of the glass citizen’-- a person wholly transparent to State scrutiny. To achieve this objective, the government created a system of total surveillance – everything everyone did was subject to continuous paranoid observation. Several rooms contain steaming device for opening and, then, resealing personal letters. There is equipment for cutting open boxes and parcels, huge stacks of 70's era cassettes confiscated by the security forces – exactly why the Stasi wanted to seize easy-listening jazz albums and recordings like an Engelbert Humperdinck Weihnachten are unclear to me, inexplicable, I suppose, because Stasi authority didn’t have to be explained. (The frugal administrators of this State apparatus kept the cassettes so that they could be repurposed for recording interrogations.) The variety of surveillance devices is extraordinary – there are mirrored periscopes for peeping in windows, toilet-cams, briefcases full of cameras and vests wired for sound-recording. Just about every kind of gadget could be modified to contain a tiny camera and these could be used to infiltrate kitchens and parlors, churches and factories so that suspicious activity could photographed and documented. Hausbuecher were logs in which people entered the names of visitors and guests in apartment buildings – if someone came to spend the night in your apartment, you could rest assured that several of your neighbors were assiduously documenting that visit in their Hausbuch. During interrogations, suspects sat in their underpants on towels. The smell of their fear was collected in the sweat soaking the towel and, then, these towels were stored in yellow jars – you can see shelves stacked with round jugs full of decaying towels. Dogs were trained to study these scents and if a subversive brochure were found in a public place, an alert German shepherd Hund could be used to identify the criminal whose odor was on the offending printed material. There were even weird mnemonic systems for remembering the shapes of heads, the disposition of eyes and nose, the curve of lips – a peculiar notation that agents could make when documenting the composition of a demonstrating crowd.
One room contains suitcases full of false noses, beards, moustaches together with adhesive to affix these disguises to your face. Agents were supposed to conceal their identity when they infiltrated rallies and demonstrations – photographs show greasy looking spies with elaborate moustaches and suspicious-looking goatees dressed in garish leisure suits. Apparently, subversives were wild and crazy, discotheque habitues, enemies of the State who all looked vaguely like Disco Stu on The Simpsons. These being Germans, and, indeed, East Germans (the most German of all Germans), one imagines that there were elaborate titles for offices held by minor officials in this building: Staatssicherheit Oberortsgruppenleiter fuer falschen Nasen (Stasi Upper Station Group Leader for False Noses) or Staatssicherheit Kreisleiter und Hauptinspeckteur fuer fragwuerdige Gerueche (Stasi Division Leader and Main Inspector for Questionable Odors).
It’s funny enough except that all of this crazy Boy-Scout G-man apparatus had real implications in people’s lives. An essay written by an eighth grader in 1988 is marked by his teacher as containing subversive material, flagged for his permanent file, with comments that this child should be carefully watched and, if necessary, denied access to any employment beyond menial labor. Everyone was an informer or would-be informer – there are complex handbooks relating to formal and informal Mitarbeiter, that is, collaborators, an intricate hierarchy of deception and betrayal. Inoffiziel Mitarbeiter ("Unofficial collaborators") were managed by official collaborators and official collaborators were handled by actual Stasi officers. Stasi officers, who knew what was happening, often used their privileges to defect to the West – hence, there were whispering galleries within whispering galleries, spies spying upon spies. And people were tortured and died – execution was by Fallbeil (guillotine) at the detention center on Beethovenstrasse; after 1968, prisoners died by Nickgeschuss, a clean shot through the back of the neck as you were being authorized a stroll in the prison courtyard. The museum displays an article in which a Stasi functionary demonstrates with precise gestures how this was accomplished.
The Stasi knew that the system was ultimately a house of cards and that the regime couldn’t deliver toilet paper or butter reliably, let alone a utopian classless society. Accordingly, the Stasi began to fortify – they built underground bunkers with air-scrubbing devices in their ventilation systems so that they couldn’t be smoked-out. They stocked the bunkers with all sorts of delicacies and prepared for the inevitable day when the whole thing would collapse and they would have to take to their spider-holes to save their lives from the ravening mobs. It didn’t happen that way, of course, but the Stasi were preparing for an apocalypse.
Beyond the stairway to which entrance is forbidden on this Sunday afternoon, there is the real nerve center of this system of terror and repression – the file rooms. During working hours, you may climb those steps, show identification if you are a former citizen of the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik and, then, be granted access to your complete and unredacted Stasi file. Some people steel themselves and look at their files. Others prefer not to see those documents. Here is the risk: if you look at your file, you will inevitably discover that someone who you liked and trusted, a co-worker or a friend, was spying on you. Worse, you will probably discover that someone in your family, someone with whom you were intimate, also informed authorities about what you were doing. Is this the sort of thing you really want to know?
What would you do? Please discuss.
It didn’t have to be this way. In the first couple months, American forces occupied Leipzig. An order from the commanding officer, Robert Pharr, Lieutenant Colonel, dated March 15, 1945 is posted near the beginning of exhibition. Pharr commands:
"DO NOT abuse your authority. We are NOT Nazis. Be firm and fair, befitting the dignity of the United States Government."
The division of Europe at Potsdam put Leipzig in the hands of the Russians. Their tanks were substituted for the American forces. Swiftly the Russian issued propaganda that the American occupying forces had behaved with barbaric cruelty.
Another alcove cites Marx on terror: "The forces of reaction will be powerful and will fight murderously to restore the bourgeois regime and, therefore, the State must be prepared to institute terror to defend the revolution."
Is brutal repression a necessary aspect of Marxist regimes?
The Nikolai Kirche is handsome inside. The big cream-colored columns rise to ornate green capitals supporting the vaulted celing. The tops of the columns are shaped like palm leaves, the symbol martyrdom.
This is a liberal church and one that doesn’t stand on ceremony and so a sign actually invites visitors to enter the altar area behind the pulpit, to walk up to the crosses displayed at the front of the church, to explore the choir stalls there and, then, enter the hushed sacristy where there is an exhibit about the resistance to the East German government that began and was nurtured in this church. This sacristy with its TV screens showing marches and people being beaten by police, its walls covered with labels and manifestos, is Leipzig’s real holy place, the city’s spiritual center.
The nadir of the Communist regime occurred in 1968 when the government dynamited the ancient Paulus Kircher only a couple hundred yards from here. The Communists expanded the University of Leipzig over the footprint of the vanished church, retrieving some of the Paulus Kirche’s more distinguished sepulcher sculptures to be displayed in the college’s public spaces. A vaguely ecclesiastical facade with a Gothic glass window was built to face the square where the church had once been – this was the University’s administrative building. On a tower nearby, the regime inscribed the words Omnia vincet Labor ("Labor conquers all things").
Around 1973, the United States threatened to deploy missile systems in Germany. This led to protests in both parts of the divided country. The DDR, of course, strenuously opposed these weapon systems and encouraged university students to protest the deployment of these missiles. A group of Evangelical Lutheran students initiated a protest, using the Nikolai Kirche as a venue for their organization. Pastors spoke from the pulpit about the US warmongers and this was condoned, even, encouraged by the regime.
Of course, the furies of public protest, once unleashed are not readily suppressed. The scope of the political demonstrations changed over the next decade – from anti-American anti-war demonstrations, the theme shifted to environmental degradation and there were pro-Green rallies. Since the DDR government was complicit in the destruction of the environment (Leipzig was famously polluted), demonstrators began to cautiously criticize the regime. Ultimately, the pro-ecology demonstrations sponsored by the Nikolai Kirche morphed into political protests against the government. From a core of 12 or 15 people, the size of groups willing to openly demonstrate grew. Members of the movement recall that, after each meeting in the church, dissidents leaving the place feared that this would be their last conclave, that the Stasi would crack-down and slaughter the protesters on the Nikolai Kirche steps. But, although people were badly beaten, interrogated, and otherwise harassed the government didn’t use military force to shut down the protests.
Larger and larger demonstrations occupied the streets. Police attacked the protesters on several occasions and many people were badly injured. This didn’t deter the peaceful protest, however, which grew larger and larger. Because Leipzig is home to many publishing houses, the City hosts annual international book fairs. The protesters at the Nicolai Kirche timed their largest demonstrations to coincide with these international fairs and there was substantial coverage of the civil unrest in West Germany. TV images of the protests leaked into other parts of East Germany via the western media and people began to test the security of the borders – more and more East Germans flooded into adjacent countries, congregating in Prague and Vienna.
By mid-summer 1989, protests in Leipzig were occurring daily. Leipzig had been neglected by the Communist regime and the many parts of the city were still badly ravaged with war damage. Images of large crowds of people marching through ruined neighborhoods galvanized the rest of Germany and triggered protests in other cities. Curiously, one of the leaders of the movement in Leipzig, Wolfgang Schur was actually a Stasi double-agent, code-named "Torsten", actually a so-called "IM" or "Inoffiziel Mitarbeiter". There are many murky details surrounding the so-called "Peaceful Revolution" or Wende, as it is sometimes called, and Schur’s involvement is highly ambiguous. Acting as a provocateur, he seems to have been a little too successful.
On Monday, October 9, 1989, 70,000 demonstrators gathered at the Nikolai Kirche – there is a large plaza next to the church and the university buildings. After an open-air sermon, the crowd marched to the Stasi building, Zum Runden Ecke where they were met by 5000 security forces in combat gear. (Erich Honecker, the president of the DDR, as commander-in-chief, dispatched an elite force of paratroopers to Leipzig and, apparently, plotted a blood-bath. But the leaders of the local Communist party vetoed the use of the troops at the demonstration.) The people in the crowd were singing and carrying candles. The troops in riot gear at the Stasi Headquarters were surrounded by sea of flickering candles.
The order for an all-out assault on the protesters was not given. After a few hours, the crowd melted away into the night. A few days later, protesters stormed the undefended Stasi HQ. When they burst into the building, they found a protest group called Neues Forum was already in command of the place. Everyone waited to see if Gorbachev would send in tanks and Russian soldiers. He did not. (The whole crisis had arisen, at least, in part from a speech Gorbachev gave earlier in 1989 in which he ambiguously stated that the "peoples of Eastern Europe should be free to decide their own destiny."
The Lord Mayor of East Berlin declared Leipzig, Heldenstadt der DDR – that is, "Hero-City of the DDR. For a couple months, highway signs showing the way to Leipzig were emblazoned with this motto. But the DDR was not to survive for much longer. The Wall came down on November 12, 1989. Helmut Kohl announced that Germany should be one nation again on December 19, 1989.
Stasi head Mielke, years later, observed: "We were prepared for everything but not candles and prayers."
Erich Honecker’s favorite couplet was by August Bebel: Den Sozialismus in seinem Lauf / Haelt weder Ochs noch Esel auf. (I won’t preserve the rhyme: Socialism’s progress / isn’t stopped by ox or ass" or, perhaps, "Socialism’s progressive ways / aren’t stopped by ox’s bellow or and ass’s brays.")
I was 35 when the Berlin Wall collapsed thronged with joyous demonstrators. The Berlin Philharmonic performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony under the broken ramparts on which thousands of people were now perched.
I was beginning a new life at that time. It was a fresh start for me. The world seemed dewy, fresh, and full of promise. Peace was expanding and people were free. It was a wonderful time to be alive, a sort of idyll of peace and optimism. The Cold War was over. Our side had won. Things would be better in the future. War had become obsolescent.
I held a party to celebrate the reunification of Germany. Someone brought me a refrigerator magnet that showed our blue planet in the darkness of space. Alle eine Welt was a slogan printed on the magnet : All One World.
Political revolutions creates winners and losers. Werner Tuebke was a loser in Leipzig’s "Peaceful Revolution." He was denounced as a servant of the discredited regime. The huge wall-painting that he had made for the Leipzig University, once the pride of the institution, was removed. Tuebke was hired in design opera sets and, later, ended his career painting church altars. This latter work was not far removed from the apocalyptic spectacle of the giant mural in Bad Frankenhausen. The imagery in that painting reveals Tuebke as a crypto-Christian.
Two paintings, both self-portraits, displayed in Tuebke’s former residence, now the Werner Tuebke Stiftung at 5 Springerstrasse in Leipzig epitomize the situation. (The Villa Tuebke is about 12 blocks north of the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof near the city zoo. It’s a tall grey house with a distinctive Jugendstil facade capped with ornate finials and one corner adorned with a small round tower. The museum opened in 2006, three years after Tuebke’s death, the point in time at which the politically discredited artist was beginning to be reevaluated esthetically.)
The first self-portrait was made in 1988. Tuebke had finished most of the work on the Panorama Museum painting in 1987 – the building, however, was not yet finished and the work was not on display. Tuebke’s Selbst-Bildniss shows him gazing sidewards with a haughty, even arrogant, expression on his face. His lips are pursed flamboyantly and he wears a scarlet cap flaring over his head. Critics have pointed out that the cap is closely similar to a hat worn by Ludovico Gonzaga, the Italian prince and art patron, as portrayed in Andrea Mantegna’s mural at the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal palace at Mantua. After the DDR collapsed, Tuebke claimed in 1995 that he had solved the problem of painting Christian subject-matter covertly – he asserted that the Panorama mural concealed a Christian message. Tuebke also claimed, probably accurately, that the more than 10 years work that he had done on the painting was a continuous struggle against regime censorship over which he had emerged triumphant. In effect, Tuebke later asserted that he was himself a proto-revolutionary anti-communist. (This seems questionable to me.) The self-assurance shown in the 1987 painting demonstrates his pride – Tuebke portrays himself as a powerful man, someone whose will has prevailed over petty bureaucrats and officials. He is a prince and there is no mistaking his citation of another famous and brilliant mural, Mantegna’s work at Mantua’s ducal palace, as a bid to establish himself in the Pantheon of great public artists.
The mood is entirely different in painting finished in November 1989 and labeled with that date. This is another self-portrait: here Tuebke’s face looks grey and haggard, his eyes are shadowed and his cheeks seem hollow. Tuebke’s face is shown at close-range – this is the way a man sees himself in the mirror shaving and his neck seems scrawny. He wears an open workshirt and a black felt cap like a dark halo over his head. The artist is literally under a shadow and the black felt hap reminds us inevitably of Joseph Beuys, the darling of the art elite in Hamburg and Frankfurt and West Berlin – now, it seems, that the beleagured Tuebke hopes to assume the mantle (or, at least, the characteristic garb) of the avant-garde artist.
The Panorama museum was opened amid great fanfare on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Muentzer on September 14, 1989. Tuebke was feted as the greatest artist in the Republic. The President of East Germany, Erich Honecker, shook his hand. But that was now irrevocably in the past. Honecker was under house arrest. The Panorama museum was shut down as an embarrassment. Tuebke went abroad. Honecker took refuge in Berlin with a Lutheran pastor, living there until April 1990 when he fled to Santiago, Chili. He was under indictment at that time for crimes against humanity, alleged to be complicit with East German border guards who had gunned down 68 people trying to cross over the Berlin Wall. Honecker died in Santiago while the trial was underway. Tuebke’s immense mural at the Leipzig University Arbeiterklasse und Intelligenz was taken down.
But Tuebke’s talent earned him a fresh start: he was invited to Bonn to design opera sets for a new production of Carl von Weber’s Der Freischuetz. The artist was nothing if not resourceful, reinvented himself as a painter of church altars, and lived until May 2004. A retrospective of his art was mounted at the reopened Panorama Museum in 1999 and a dozen of his works grace the Leipzig Museum of Art.
All artists are opportunists of a sort. I think this can be demonstrated.
In 1953, Willem de Kooning gave Robert Rauschenberg a very densely worked and detailed sketch. Rauschenberg erased the sketch and, then, put the sheet of blank, scuffed and abraded paper in a gilded frame. It took Rauschenberg two months to completely efface all of de Kooning’s marks on the paper. After 1963, Rauschenberg exhibited the painting as "Erased de Kooning drawing." (The non-picture is is owned by the San Francisco Museum of Art.)
Tuebke undoubtedly was aware of this art work. (As the foremost artist of the Socialist regime, he was granted great liberty to travel and study art in places other than East Germany.) Tuebke attempted something similar to Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning in 1977. During a trip to Bulgaria, Tuebke acquired a 14th century icon – the artist had won yet another medal in a Socialist art competition with prize money and used a part of that fund to buy the icon, a stern image of Christ as Pantocrator, ruler of the universe. Tuebke erased the head of the Christ figure and replaced it with his own self-portrait. The rest of the icon is intact including Christ’s hand (now Tuebke’s) raised in benediction and an open volume of scripture that the figure displays to the viewer. Tuebke had just accepted the commission to paint the mural commemorating Muentzer’s catastrophic defeat at White Mountain above Bad Frankenhausen. He knew that work on the painting would occupy the next ten years and had purchased a house in Bad Frankenhausen where he moved with his family. The panorama on White Mountain was to occupy 1850 square meters and was designed with 2500 figures, most of them larger than life.
In the erased icon, Tuebke shows himself as the divine artist, a creator capable of creating and ordering an entire world. He wears a big floppy black hat and his eyes look huge – his eyebrows are arched. Tuebke proclaims that he is the salvation of the world and that he is willing to suffer and even die for his creation.
Rousseau tells this parable about the origins of language:
"A primitive man, on encountering other people, will have had as his first experience fear. That fear will have made him see those others as larger and stronger than himself; he will have given them the name "giants" – or, better, "giant monsters." ...Only later will he discover that these giant monsters are neither stronger, nor larger than himself and that their stature did not match the idea he had first attached to their name. So he will invent another name common to both them and himself; such as for example the word "man" and will keep the term "giant monsters" for the false object that struck him in his first delusion."
This seems an odd approach to the much-vexed problem of the origin of language and I would argue that it tells us more about Rousseau than about language.
But this curious fable may have some application to the Voelkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig, the largest war memorial in Europe commemorating the enormous Battle of Four Nations fought in 1813 around that city’s outskirts. There are giants or giant monsters at that place.
After his armies were defeated at Leipzig, Napoleon retreated to Paris. Describing the enormous battle in Germany, Napoleon said: "Once all Europe marched with me; now all Europe marches against me."
The so-called Battle of Nations occurred between October 16 and October 19 in 1813. Over six-hundred thousand troops clashed in the villages surrounding Leipzig. Coalition armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden fought the French and their allies, the Italians and Poles as well as the German-speaking Confederacy of the Rhine. About 100,000 men were killed in the fighting. After the battle, the armies withdrew from the noisome scene of the carnage. Visitors to the area more than two years later saw windrows of unburied corpses still exposed in the fields and wood lands. In November 1829, the London Spectator reported that a vessel loaded with human bones collected from the terrain around "Leipsic" had embarked from Hamburg to a harbor in France – the bones were being repatriated to France as fertilizer.
A hundred years after the battle, the largest clash of armies in Europe prior to World War One, the citizens of Leipzig, a prosperous and cultural significant city, raised money by private donation to raise a monument to the fighting. Local Freemason lodges spearheaded the effort, lottery tickets were sold and, ultimately enough funds were raised to commission Bruno Schmitz to design the monument and supervise its construction. (Schmitz, from Dusseldorf, was a prominent specialist in monumental architecture; in 1888, he built the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial that stands in the center of Indianapolis as well as many so-called Bismarck towers in Germany – his towering monument at Kyfferhauser mountain is 250 feet high and a provided the architect with the engineering expertise to build the vast edifice at Leipzig.)
The monument and its grounds are about five stops south of the city center on either the 2 or 15 lines. (I caught the S-Bahn in the plaza in front of the old Rathaus in central Leipzig. The car that I occupied was completely empty – at one point a student entered with a bicycle, rode for two stops, and, then, disembarked. Unlike the sweltering subways and trams in Berlin, the car was air-conditioned.) The Voelkerschlacht stop, abbreviated to Voelk by the locals, is at an underpass – the bridge overhead is marked with eight-foot tall stone obelisks.
The bridge leads into a large park. Oaks were planted, symbolic of the primordial German forests as well as pines between the groves of deciduous trees – the oaks were thought to be fundamentally masculine, complemented by the more pliant and yielding (female) pines. The park is large with sandy trails where people were leading dogs on leashes, a few lovers sitting on benches with their limbs entwined and bottles of beer between their feet. The monument is not immediately obvious – a big divided roadway intersects with the street leading from the S-Bahn stop. The Denkmal is a couple hundred yards away, at the point where the divided road expands into a traffic circle.
The monument stands at the end of a hundred and fifty meter long reflecting pool. The pool was drained on the morning that I visited, a somber square indentation in the concrete rimmed by granite walls and about 15 feet deep. Workers were relining the pit and a couple of food-trucks, apparently on-site to provide lunch to the laborers, were parked in the traffic circle. Cars are few in this part of the city, nothing really parked along the boulevards and the big roadways empty at this time of day.
A mastaba-shaped structure, austere and designed like military bunker, stands on one side of the empty socket of the reflecting pool. Tickets are available in this building and you can buy souvenirs there and use toilets as well. The ticket to the monument displays New York’s Statue of liberty in silhouette, the Eiffel tower, and the Taj Mahal, all of these structures dwarfed by the blunt mesa of the Voelk. This is misleading: the Eiffel Tower is 486 feet taller than the Leipzig Denkmal; the Statue of Liberty, from base to torch, is six feet taller; only the Taj Mahal is shorter – it’s sixty feet less than the 300 foot Voelkschlachtdenkmal. The ticket says Schoenste in aller Welt (The most beautiful in the World).
But a war memorial, perhaps, should never be beautiful. It may be moving and impressive, even formidable, but not beautiful. This thesis may be debated.
Indeed, the Voelkerschachtdenkmal is not beautiful. It is also certainly not a paean to the glory of war. The artists who designed and built the huge structure were contemporaries of Cezanne, Klimt, and Renoir and the monument contains elements that seem to me to be intentionally grotesque. Despite the thing’s gargantuan size, the monument can not be construed as pious or, even, nationalistic – after all, the armies that fought on this site were comprised of all the peoples of Europe. The Denkmal, in fact, has curious surrealistic features – the huge arcades and vast cupola are like structures in a dreamscape by de Chirico: for some peculiar reason, probably the enormous scale of the architecture, the monument seems perpetually empty. It is as if no group of men and women, not matter how numerous, could fill the place up – it is built on an inhuman scale and simply dwarfs those who enter the structure. The Battle of Five Armies, as Tolkien fans will recall, was a cataclysmic struggle in the novel The Hobbit between Orcs and Wargs on one side, and men, dwarves, and elves opposing them. I mention this point because some of the imagery in Tolkien’s books, and, more dramatically, Peter Jackson’s films, seem to reprise the strange, otherworldly colossi inside the Voelk – the mountain of concrete and granite facade contains a huge cavern and here we enter the lair of the King under the Mountain.
A visitor passes under a sixty-foot tall guardian angel, Michael leaning on his oak-tall broadsword. Michael stands over the door, itself twenty feet high. To the right and left of the Michael, we see screaming women, furies, it seems, with contorted faces, figures with ruined exposed breasts and vast cantilevered arms that point across fields of corpses. The corpses and frenzied woman are carved in bas relief on the facade. The corpses are fallen giants and they form a landscape of hills and valleys, helmeted heads rising like a series of low ridges from where the warriors lie. On the other side of the great angel, another howling woman points across a terrain comprised of the flanks and upraised heads of dead horses – the horses have something of the character of the animal that Picasso painted Guernica. High overhead, where the sun is eclipsed by the tower, stone giants, also wielding shields and swords, guard the crown of the monument. The bizarre aspect of all these colossi is that they seem to be either dead or sleeping. Michael’s eyes are closed and he is turned inward, gazing, it seems, with blind eyes toward an inner reality. The warriors at the crest of the building are also inanimate, more giant rock formations than figures – but the threat, or promise, in the stone giants is that they might come alive at any moment if danger were to threaten the German people.
The motif of comatose giants continues inside the artificial mountain. A hundred feet above the entrance – you are carried up by an elevator – a great rotunda is ringed by two circular and colonnaded walkways. The lower walkway is forty feet high and looks across to giant masks extruding from the wall – these are the so-called Masks of Fate and they are big as a house, huge death-masks with bulging closed eyes and sealed lips. Each Mask of Fate (and there seem to be six or so of them) is half-hidden behind a sleeping thirty-foot tall knight. The knights are upright but in a coma – they also lean on tree-tall broadswords. The floor of the rotunda is richly paved and the dome rises up overhead to a dizzying height – it’s white and inlaid with some kind of repeating pattern that’s not exactly visible from this gloomy well. Above the lower colonnade, another walkway encircles the rotunda. Four immense giants are seated on thrones against the wall, each occupying a position across from its counterpart. These giants are also comatose – they sit upright on their mighty thrones but their eyes are closed, indeed, sealed so tightly that it is impossible to imagine them opening. These giants represent certain virtues – the most memorable of the four is a woman, profoundly unconscious, suckling not one, but two warrior-youths, each is clasped to one of her cyclopean breasts and her face, again, reminds me of Picasso, one of the paintings that the artist made of bulky females during his classical phase. The mother who seems to have produced her children to be slaughtered on the battlefield is mercifully asleep, her eyes and lips closed. Some human-sized peasants, also warriors carrying the tools of harvest, stand beside columns inset in the wall – those life-sized figures are also in a coma, eyes closed and faces wholly empty of thought or perception.
Another walkway lines the inside of the dome another fifty feet higher. This is the so-called Singer’s Balcony – when the monument was used for celebrations during the Hitlerzeit or, later, when the Communists controlled Leipzig (rallies and sporting events were held here), a whole orchestra would be lined up on this walkway together with a chorus and soloists. The high dome is said to possess spectacular acoustic effects.
From the Singer’s Balcony, you can see that the dome bulging upward another ninety feet is decorated with 363 horseman, terra-cotta cavalry, all identical, who spiral around the cupola in an endless surging procession. The identical horseman remind me, oddly, of the identical coursing dragons on the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin – the cavalry, slightly raised from the bluish heights of the dome, are like gemstones cut from carnelian: they seem hard and, yet, are delicately crafted.
Outside, terraces clinging to the side of manmade mountain let you look down over the park, its promenades and fountains, and, in the distance, the towers of Leipzig.
I don’t know what to make of this place. The stone giants are not lithe and menacing, but rather corpulent, a little bloated like Botero’s fat men and women. And everyone is asleep – it’s like a castle under some enchantment, already conceived in terms of the majestic, and enigmatic ruins that it will someday be. Why would someone build a vast monument to coma, to paralysis, to petrified death? The Denkmal is not so much a monument to war as to sheer bigness, as to space and volume, a cosmic space that dwarfs men and women and makes them inconspicuous and, ultimately, I think overwhelms them with some kind paralytic sleep. The huge place is eerie and melancholy. War isn’t glorious – it’s just a vast, ossified kingdom of the dead, an inescapable destiny that turns your fists and thighs and eyes to stone.
I am willing to argue that this Denkmal with its profoundly mixed meanings may be one of the last effective war monuments ever constructed.
Adjacent to the Denkmal, a museum contains uniforms, swords, antique guns. The vast and monumental is always conjoined to the tiny and the miniature. A large table shows a battle for a village in which one-inch tall soldiers fight and die. Perfectly detailed farmhouses, windmills, and barns are adorned with orange crowns of flame. Dead horses are pasted into the green meadows. Many of the tiny warriors are dismembered – torsos without heads or limbs.
This too is a part of the argument implicit about war.
At the end of World War Two, 150 SS men sought refuge in the Denkmal. They had enough ammunition to sustain a long siege and food for three months.
American artillery shelled the monument until the SS fighters couldn’t bear the barrage anymore and surrendered.
But it’s now all reconstructed. In Berlin and Leipzig, everywhere you look, construction firms are painstakingly detailing rococo and baroque buildings, installing open pediments and entablature atop the columns, creating stucco ornaments and high ornate entryways – the cities are being rebuilt as spanking new-rococo-era structures. It’s odd that the so much effort is directed at rebuilding according to styles that haven’t existed for three-hundred years.
It is the duty of the present to rebuild the past. Shall we debate this?
On the train back downtown, I am alone with a single girl standing beside her bicycle. Leipzig is laid-back, provincial like Denver or Aspen are provincial. (In fact, Leipzig is Germany’s fifth largest city.) It’s people are proud and regard the city as the Athens on the Pleisse. It is expensive – 20 to 25% more for everything than in Berlin.
I am hunting for Tuebke’s Arbeiterklasse und Intelligenz. The doors to the Leipzig University are open and so I look around within the big, cool buildings. No one seems to be around and the campus museum is closed. In an upper corridor overlooking the atrium, I see some paintings, but they seem to small renaissance devotional images, probably neatly applied to polished wood.
Across the small sunny quadrangle, I find a campus office where a young woman and man are earnestly conferring over a computer screen. I ask them about Tuebke’s painting. "Never heard of it," the young man says. The girl tells me to go to "Information Point" in the principal building, the big structure with the Gothic pointed windows that replaced the Paulus Kirche after it was dynamited.
I have been there and no one is manning the information desk.
On Monday, April 26, 1936, successive waves of Junker and Heinkel aircraft bombed the ancient Basque city of Guernica in northern Spain. The attack was by the Condor Legion, German volunteers fighting on Franco’s Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War. Controversy exists whether the famous market at Guernica was underway when the air assault occurred. Oberstleutnant Wolfgram Wilhelm Freiherr von Richthofen led the assault. (This man, later renowned for his leadership of the Luftwaffe in World War Two was the fourth cousin of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Frieda von Richthofen, D. H. Lawrence’s wife who died in Taos in 1956 was a fifth cousin to Manfred von Richthofen.) The number of civilians killed in the attack is also a matter of dispute – estimates range from 250 to 1500 casualties. Initially, both sides tried to pin the atrocity on the other, but, incendiary bomb casings found in the rubble were unmistakably marked with the German Adler or eagle insignia.
Of course, this event gave impetus to a great work of art, Picasso’s iconic Guernica. Somewhere in his writings, H. L. Mencken observes that he would trade the entire male population of New Jersey for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The casualties of Guernica were an unwitting sacrifice to Picasso’s art. But this is an ignoble way to view both Picasso’s painting and the attack on the Spanish Basque town. Don’t you agree?
Hans im Glueck (Lucky Hans) is a Grimm Brothers fairy-tale. Here is the story: A farm-hand named Hans works for seven years without wages. At the end of his indenture, his boss gives him a piece of gold as big as his head. Hans sets out to make his way in the world carrying the heavy boulder of gold. In the first village, he meets a man who sells him a broken-down horse in exchange for the huge gold nugget. Hans thinks it fortunate that he no longer has to haul the heavy gold around with him. Hans goes to the next village where he is hungry. He exchanges the horse for a pig. Hans feels fortunate that he no longer has to manage the sickly and tired horse. Hans drives the pig to the next village. The animal turns out to be balky and a nuisance. So Hans exchanges the pig for a goose. But Hans doesn’t have any way to slaughter the goose to make his meal. So, in the next village, he trades the goose for a knife. But the knife is dull and Hans thinks it should be sharpened and so he trades the knife for a whetstone. Since he no longer has his knife, the whetstone is useless to Hans. He goes into a mill and trades the whetstone for a broken millstone. As he is dragging the broken millstone over a bridge, it slips from his hands and falls into the river. Hans feels very lucky that he no longer has to haul the heavy millstone around.
Angelica and I are hungry. We have walked back from central Leipzig to our hotel about four long city blocks outside the Ringstrasse. The Leipzig Hotel Merkur where we are staying is on a very quiet street among residential townhouses and across from the Max Planck Institute for Neuropsychiatry and Cognitive Studies. A pastry shop is next door but it closes at 1600 hours and there are no cafes or restaurants in the vicinity. And so we will have to walk back to the Ring to find something to eat.
When we checked into the hotel, I studied a map but couldn’t orient myself. Finally, I asked the Desk Clerk how to reach the downtown area. "You are there already," the man told me. "So how do I get there?" I asked. "Just take a left out the door and another left and follow the street to Ring," the clerk told me. "How far?" "Oh, not far," the man assured me, "less than five minutes."
Germans will always tell you that your destination if "less than five minutes away." They will assert this to you whether the destination is, in fact, five minutes distant or, as far as a half hour walk (at a reasonable pace) from your location. I don’t know how fast Germans ordinarily walk, but, presumably, they move at champion speeds. From the Merkur Hotel to the Ringstrasse was a 13 minute hike at a dog-walking pace – that is, moving continuously but not hurrying. Walking as fast as she could, Angelica, who is 22, reached the Ringstrasse in 11 minutes. I don’t know what heroic distance a German would consider as a "ten minute walk."
Between the hotel and the Ringstrasse, on this single road in Leipzig, Goldschmidt Strasse, the person walking toward downtown passes the Grassi Museum (actually a complex of three museums bombed out of existence in 1944 and only recently reopened), a building in which the first Kindergarten in the world was initiated, a church site marked by a bronze plaque screwed to a building facade advising that the structure was destroyed in the Bombenhagel ("hail of bombs") of 4 December 1943 – more than 2300 tons of ordinance were dropped to destroy a Messerschmidt factory – and, finally, the composer Mendelssohn’s house, also resurrected from the ruins. It’s an interesting stroll, but not less than five minutes and, by the time, your reach the Augustinerplatz where a grandiose fountain spurts halos of bright water around bronze sea gods, you are more than a little foot-sore. The opera house occupies one side of the plaza and the concert hall rises in ornate terraces in the opposite direction and, among the shops opening onto the square there is a restaurant called Hans im Glueck.
We have seen these places at train stations – the name of the restaurant is intriguing and places look popular, with crowds of prosperous, well-groomed Germans sitting outside at the sidewalk café. "Let’s try this," I tell Angelica.
Hans im Glueck is a hamburger place. It serves burgers with cole slaw or potatoes. The hamburgers include tofu or vegetarian offerings and served with a savory sauce. Germans like elaborate mixed drinks with complex ingredients and you can buy expensive drinks to go with your burgers or, of course, the local brew either in 33 ml or 51 ml mugs. Germans also like ice cream and people are tucking into baroque-looking sundaes wearing brownies like little caps or studded with exotic tropical fruits or clownishly striped Harlequin Neapolitans with biscotti.
The menu can’t quite explain how the name of the restaurant connects to the food that it serves or its corporate culture. There are several learned paragraphs on the back of the menu, displaying the restaurant’s trademark, a silhouette of a merry-looking tow-headed boy leading a pig on a string across a meadow. The notion of fair exchange or Tauschung is adverted to, but I can’t quite figure out how a story about rube being continuously swindled has anything to do with the burgers I am eating. The interior of the restaurant is remarkable for simulating a birch forest – trees with silvery white bark are everywhere and the diners in their booths sit under bowers of leaves.
By law German menus must be elaborately footnoted. All known allergens have to be identified. Thus, most dishes bear four or five footnotes. Allegens are listed under italic letters A through N. (A is soy; N is lupine. Other allergens footnoted on the menu include peanuts, tree-nuts, mustard, crustacean, and celery.)
There are several footnotes to the footnotes:
Kreuzkontamination durch unterschiedlichste Zutataten in unsere Kueche ist nicht zu 100% ausschliessen. ("The possiblity of cross-contamination through a variety of circumstances in our kitchen can not be 100% ruled-out.")
Kannst Du Dich jederzeit gerne an unsere Mitarbeiter wenden. ("At any time you can ask our colleagues about this.") This note is interesting for a couple reasons. First, the note is addressed to the reader in the "thou" – that is, du, or "informal" mode of address. Normally, a text of this kind would be phrased in the Sie or "formal" mode of address. Presumably, capitalizing the Du forms (Du and Dich) authorizes this degree of familiarity. In Leipzig, the use of the term Mitarbeiter is questionable given the city’s history – Mitarbeiter as I have earlier noted is the term used to describe "collaborators" with the Stasi. The verb in the sentence is also interesting: wenden, that is, "to turn" – the name of the popular revolt in Leipzig was Die Wende ("the Turning").
These German menus with their elaborate allergen footnoting show us the future with respect to American restaurants and food services. Do you agree?
There’s a girl at the information desk in the Leipzig University the next day. I ask her in German about the Tuebke picture. She immediately knows what I mean. She points to a building across the little quadrangle and tells me to go to their third floor. The structure is a Hoersaal Gebaeude – that is, a "Lecture Hall". Third floor in Europe is what we would call the fourth floor since the ground level up to the first floor is counted as 0.
Tuebke’s painting is covered by a sheath of some kind of clear plastic. The colors are vibrant and the mural is immense – about twenty feet high and, perhaps, eighty feet long. The hallway is empty. Now and then, someone who looks like a researcher in mathematical physicals wanders past. On the wall opposite Arbeiterklasse und Intelligenz, a couple of doors are marked to designate male and female restrooms. You can’t back up far enough from the painting to see it all in one glance. Rather, the relative narrowness of the corridor constrains you to examine the picture in segments.
As you face the painting, the left side of the fresco shows a sort of vortex of young men and women surrounding a exceedingly fierce-looking old man. This elderly professor sits as if enthroned and his fists are clenched and clearly he does not like what he sees or what is happening around him – it is visual representation of the crisis of modernity. The students seems obsequious and deferential to the old man but he ignores them – his prophet’s face is peering far into the future or, perhaps, the past.
Behind the old man, the landscape opens into idyllic groves, a park with silvery canals, the landscape limned in the beautifully subtle greys that Corot uses in his paintings. People seem to be drinking blood-red wine from elegant goblets. To the right of the old man, there is a fat professor who glares out at us, crammed into a too-tight suit – he looks very smug. Then, we see students around a conference table – a shapely woman wearing a scarlet dress attracts our attention; the figure is enigmatic – we can see her only from behind. Another group of three students occupy the foreground – a young man is playing court to a girl who has put her hand on the thigh of the woman next to her. The young man doesn’t notice this detail. Behind them and to the right, a physicist points to a formula on a black board and a group of students seems to be engaged in a debate of some sort.
Farther to the right, a woman who looks a bit like a marionette prances across the proscenium of the painting. She is facilely pretty but robotic. Then, we encounter a stormy landscape with clouds bleeding red into an apocalyptic sunset. Across a vast distance, we see rivers and harbors, the sea, castles and small cities, everything bathed in a nuclear glow, a kind of irradiated, purplish stillness in the air. Men are working in a trench and we see their torsos and heads – they are wearing hardhats. Another group of men stand on a scaffold on the extreme left side of the mural – they look across their unfurled blueprint toward the figures half-buried in the left center of the picture. Heroically muscular workers are in the middle center of the painting’s left side, either extracting or shoving some kind of molten ingot into the orange volcano of a blast furnace. Forgotten amidst all this activity, a small group of children stand between the puppet-lady and the hard-hatted workers climbing out of their deep hole.
Remarkably, Tuebke (most probably inadvertently) has captured the paranoid ambience of the period in which this mural was made – 1971 to 1973. As a compositional device, he knits the painting together by glances, by looks – thus, every other figure is scrutinizing someone else in the painting. The architects on the scaffold cast nervous looks sideways, left or right. The workers in the pit are glancing over their shoulders as if expecting some sort of reprimand from that direction. And so it goes across the entire surface of this vast painting – everyone is surreptitiously looking at everyone else. Tuebke has painted the image of a surveillance society, a world in which Inoffiziel Mitarbeiters are covertly watching other Mitarbeiters who peer suspiciously at us. It’s no wonder that the ferocious old man at the right side of the mural seems so perturbed. This is a profoundly corrupt and perverse society.
A level below in the Hoersaalgebaeude, some other artist has posted on a wall corresponding to the one where Tuebke’s painting is stationed, a mural that is supposed to respond to the painter’s Arbeiterklasse und Intelligenz. As I understand it, Tuebke’s image was removed from whereever it had originally been installed and spent a decade or more in storage. Controversy erupted over the proposal to re-install the painting, something that seems to have happened in 2006 – and, so, the other counter-painting was commissioned: it’s a lazy image and doesn’t add anything worth seeing to the building or the context of the Tuebke mural. But anyone with eyes to see, looking and not ideologically blinkered, would have suspected that something is seriously amiss with the world that Tuebke portrays in his painting (because of the picture’s scale it is not just an image but the representation of a cosmos). Why is the old man so furiously angry? Why does the central female figure strut pretentiously like a marionette controlled by strings and unseen hands? (Tuebke painted a great canvas in 1977 showing himself and his entire family dressed as Sicilian puppets – that is, marionettes in a puppet theater.) And why is everyone anxiously looking over their shoulders, twisting and turning their heads like serpents, to peer at one another?
It’s a wonderful painting. You wipe your eyes with this mural and can see better.
A small museum in Leipzig contains the so-called Schadenplan for the city, a map that depicts areas devastated by aerial bombardment. According to the map, 44,000 buildings were totally destroyed. Some 50,000 structures were partially ruined. The city had lost 225,000 apartments.
Walter Beyer was Leipzig’s first Stadtbaurat (Urban Building Minister). Beyer planned an ornate mausoleum for Bach constructed in the ruins of the Johannes Kirche. Blueprints and elevation drawings show the structure as an oval crypt with colonnaded peristyles attached to the shattered steeple of the bombed-out church. At that time, Bach’s bones – at least what had been identified as the remains of the composer – were still partially exposed in the ruins of the church.
Communist city officials couldn’t agree on what to do with Bach. Various proposals were advanced. Ultimately, the deadlock was broken by the enterprising janitor of the St. Thomas Kirche who transported the skeletons in a wheelbarrow to that church.
According to the Communist officials: Truemmer schreien Frieden.
"Ruins scream peace." In other words, ruins proclaim the defeat of the evil and the restoration of a decent civic order. Ruins aren’t a bad thing and, perhaps, should be celebrated.
Leipzig’s Museen der Bildende Kunst houses a manageably sized collection of very high-quality paintings in superfluously vast rooms. The pictures are very interesting, but can be enjoyed in about two hours – it’s not such an enormous collection that you find yourself trudging from room to room and ignoring an embarrassment of riches. The structure stacks three towering galleries atop one another with cavernous canyons of travertine stairs between the levels. The galleries are offset so that from above, one can peer down into all levels. It was quiet in the museum when I visited on a Tuesday afternoon – a few couples were prowling the galleries, lovers obviously more interested in one another than the paintings on the walls, and the inconspicuous, slightly drowsy-looking guards outnumbered the museum’s patrons.
Max Beckmann was from Leipzig, although he spent that part of his career prior to World War One largely in Berlin. Beckmann was a prodigy and a famous artist by his late 20's. He enjoyed fame beginning in 1905 with his painting "Young men by the Sea" and Paul Cassirer wrote a monograph about him published in 1913. (He was 30 when he volunteered as a medical officer in World War One and suffered a nervous breakdown.) The Leipzig Museum has a room devoted to his work including a very large and almost monochrome canvas showing a bizarre battle between naked men and women – it’s an ugly work but very ambitious. Nearby, there are some late paintings, executed in Beckmann’s heavy declaratory style of the 1930's, notably "Venus and Mars" – Mars wears an absurd helmet, more like some sort of diver’s bonnet that something suited for warfare and his huge, stubby fingers close on the woman’s bare knee like an iron vise; Venus looks like a slutty porno-star, she gasps fraudulently in the arms of the brutish strong-man. It’s a powerful and disturbing image.
The museum features a roomful of excellent Cranach paintings, one of Friedrich’s most beautiful canvases, "The Stages of Life", in which ethereally graceful sailing ships slowly pivot and head into the sunset while several couples on the shore echo with their stances the seagoing vessels, as well as a fine, eerie Dutch work by Pieter de Hooch showing a serene room, a mirror that is a black pool, and a servant girl teaching an infant to walk toward his mother – the baby has a pillow wrapped like a halo around his head to protect him if he falls. Arnold Boecklin was profligate with paintings of his trademark "Isle of the Dead" – the image in Leipzig is more anecdotal than the spooky picture in Berlin: the gondola is closer to the gloomy island and there is a red wreath mounted on the prow of the boat. Several characteristically vehement, even savage, paintings by Lovis Corinth complete the collection of 19th century German works. Corinth made his name with horrific and quasi-pornographic images of Salome tilting her sumptuous bare breasts forward toward a platter on which John the Baptist’s severed head reposes – in the Leipzig version, Salome looks as garish as a Hollywood film star, delicately prying open the Baptist’s tightly shut eye. Her own eyes are completely devoid of any life, bovine, uninterested, sleepy and only half-open. In another picture, a deposition of Christ, Corinth shows Jesus dead as a doornail, slumping from the bloody cross while a heavy-set man pulls out a thick, gory nail from the savior’s contorted foot – the man uses a big pliers to accomplish this task and pulls backward, all of his shoulder muscles tense with effort.
With two other artists, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Rernhard Heisig, Werner Tuebke constituted the so-called Leipzig school. These artists came to prominence when they exhibited works in the annual contemporary art exhibition Documenta 6 in Kassel, West Germany.
Three important Tuebke paintings are on display in the Leipzig Museum. "Chileanesche Requiem" ("Chilian Requiem" 1974) shows a woman bending over a grey-faced corpse. The corpse has contorted hands, frozen in rigor mortis, and rests upon a flag. Tuebke’s image is Mannerist – the anguished woman and the dead body are painted the way that Pontormo or Parmigiano might have treated this subject. Behind the central figures, an immense frieze of barren peaks rises, the Andes mountains, and the body lies in a field of pebbles each of them painted with a surreal intensity – every single pebble has the dignity of a human face; in effect, Tuebke has painted a thousand different, highly expressive stones, creating a pointillist effect around the corpse. The mother’s brightly red dress is the same color as the dress on the young woman showing her back to us at the University in "Arbeiterklasse und Intelligenz".
"Errinerung am Sicily" ("Memory of Sicily") imitates Titian or, more accurately, the free brush work of Tintoretto. A sumptuously dressed girl, painted life-size, looks out at us. The picture could be readily mistaken for an Old Master until the viewer looks more closely. The girl is posed against a crumbling antique fresco, either a grisaille or bas relief, and the bench where she sits seems rooted in several mummified corpses. (I assume these reference the famous mummies in the Capuchin crypt in Palermo.) A hedge behind her has been formed into topiary masks. The girl’s hands rest in her lap like spiders. The picture is souvenir from Tuebke’s 1973 sojourn in Sicily.
More enigmatic are the strange trompe l’oeil effects in "Lebenserrinerung des Dr. Jur. Schulze VII" ("Memories from the Life of Doctor of Jurisprudence Schulze VII") painted between 1966 and 1967. This is an ambitious work centered on two very large and very naked women – these aren’t idealized nudes, but, like Manet’s "Olympia," simply big women with their clothes off. A swarm of smaller monsters swarm around the women: the scene is a wild and grotesque carnival comprised of singing corpses, more naked women, some of them on rearing horses, a dwarf covering his face with a gas mask, harlequins and zombies and puppets with little gnomes wearing the skulls of stallions on their heads. The spatial relationship between this nightmare circus and the large naked women is unclear until you realize that the smaller figures are painted on a wall as a mural. The wall is split down the middle, a vee from it busted out and lying in pieces in the foreground, and the two women, like images of Nemesis, stand on both sides of the breach – it’s a richly suggestive image, flamboyantly painted, and could mean any number of things.
Tuebke’s subject matter in his pictures – the corpses that he paints and the barren landscapes and the innumerable swarming figures from a midnight carnival – are similar to much of the imagery in Max Beckmann’s paintings. We have the same sense that the spectacle of the world is a sort of theater, indeed, a baroque Theatrum Mundi, and that reality is a canvas that can be ripped open to show a deeper and more disturbing mythic world underneath.
Notions of this kind also underlie the work of Neo Rauch. Rauch is the leading painter in what is called the 2nd or "new" Leipzig school. Rauch’s work is garish, painted in colors that one might associate with the most vulgar form of advertising. The pictures are large, 12 to 15 feet tall, and depict surreal tableaux – images from fairy tales invaded by modern artifacts, things like telephones and Tv sets. Other pictures feature collages of architectural details, men in the uniform of some unknown army, and wild animals. I haven’t warmed to these pictures because they eschew most elements of painting that I value – the pictures are not "painterly"at all; they look like photocopies of collages, blown up and, then, colored in a way as to avoid any impression of brushwork; the paint is laid onto the canvas as a uniformly smooth pigment somewhat after the manner of artists associated with Pop Art. Critics sometimes compare Rauch to Balthus, but his paintings lack the perverse erotic charge implicit in the French artist’s work. In terms of his subject matter, although not painterly execution, Rauch is clearly influenced by Max Beckmann, particularly that painter’s late triptychs with their enigmatic scenes of torture and redemption, their clowns and circus performers, and the animals that stalk through those big canvases. Viewed from a distance, Rauch’s "Waiting for the Barbarians", a large format painting first exhibited in Los Angeles, looks very similar to Beckmann’s triptych, "Departure." Beckmann was a theosophist and believed that there was a reality behind reality – I wonder if Rauch doesn’t hold similar views.
Rauch is an orphan. His parents, who were art students, were killed in a train wreck shortly after he was born. He was raised in Ascherleben, a dingy East German city, and educated at the Thomas Muentzer School (named by the Communists for the leader of the Fruehe Buergerliche Revolution painted by Tuebke at Bad Frankenhausen.) Rauch says that he represents the "Para" school – that is "Para Communist", "Para Socialist-Realism," and "Paranoid" art. Clearly, his work is important and merits further study.
Do you go on vacation to discover things that require "further study"? With this writing, I have transformed my holiday in Germany into a very arduous sort of labor.
Max Klinger is Leipzig’s resident genius loci – the Museen der Bildende Kunst devotes half a floor to this artist’s work. Klinger, who lived between 1857 to 1920, is generally regarded as an artist tangential to the fin de siecle Vienna Succession movement. Around the turn of the century, he worked with Klimt to create a massive environment designed as a homage to Beethoven – Klimt painted a frieze meandering around the top of the big exhibition hall supposedly imitating Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the picture features lissome nymphs and a huge, fierce-looking mountain gorilla, the prototype to King Kong). In the center of this exhibition hall, Klinger exhibited a great throne made from marble with bronze eagles protruding from the sides of this elaborate piece of furniture. Naked, a much-idealized Beethoven (he looks like the young Siegfried in Lang’s Nibelunglied films) is sculpted in white marble. The Vienna succession tribute to Beethoven wasn’t permanent and it was dismantled – Beethoven enthroned now sits in lonely splendor in a huge hall in the Leipzig Museum. It’s Kitsch but on a heroic scale.
Klinger is so eccentric as to seem downright wacky. His pictures are huge, painted in a melancholy academic style with muted colors. One canvas, big as a house, shows an effeminate-looking Jesus marching toward Zeus on Mount Olympus. As his apostles, Christ has brought with him four burly-looking Salvation Army women who are lugging the Redeemer’s cross. A slim, nude Psyche kneels before Jesus to take the Lord’s hand. Zeus, who has a rubicund, drunken Dionysius leaning against his throne, looks non-plussed. The rest of the Olympian gods react with various gestures of theatrical dismay. The painting is completely over-the-top and has to be seen to be believed. Even more bizarre, the picture is gripped in the vise of an immense frame that has baldacchino-style columns at its sides, a bronze awning overhead, and metal torsos of naked women bulging out of its base. A predella underneath the huge image of Christ confronting the Olympians shows the Titans frying in molten lava. The whole thing is insanely ambitious and completely misguided.
Nearby, you can see an elaborately detailed corner of the Roman forum where a pallid Caesar lies dead on the marble, his mouth gaping open and several assassins with drawn daggers leaning over the corpse. Gallons of red paint simulate Caesar’s blood. In "The Blue Hour", three huge and naked adolescents stand on a watery isthmus in the growing twilight. The giants have wet staring eyes that look rabid, the eyes of complete madness flaring like torches against the eerie purple mist. A small exquisitely worked canvas shows Death standing on the edge of morose, poisonous-looking body of water. Death has his trademark sickle down by his side and, at first, the viewer thinks that, for some reason, the Grim Reaper has been portrayed carrying his attribute blade like a golf club. Then, you look closer and see that the Reaper is merrily pissing into the flat expanse of swamp water – a bright yellow jet emerges from his bony groin and drizzles into the water creating a small ring of ripples.
Klinger is known for his graphic work from the 1880's, most notably ten etchings called "Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove", a bizarre cycle of images that transport us into the psychopathology of a sexually obsessed stalker. The hero finds a glove that a woman has dropped, pursues her, and, then, encounters an increasingly phantasmagoric series of adventures involving angels and weird glove-monsters. There’s nothing like these etchings (except other etchings by Klinger – for instance, Death neatly tied to train tracks to await the arrival of a locomotive to kill what is already dead.) On the evidence of the Leipzig collection, all of Klinger’s art seems equally zany. Maybe, it isn’t great but it surely fun and, indeed, memorable.
An image that affixes itself in our imagination is evidence of some kind of genius even if we reject the premises and, even, the esthetic upon which the picture is based. I think this is true.
Wer rein Wasser will, muss reine Kannen ha’n.
(If you want clean water, you need a clean bucket.)
On the apron in front of a big, bland facade, the elevation of an apartment building facing the Leipzig Ringstrasse, there is an old fountain, incongruous in this location. The fountain shows a girl carrying water in buckets dangling down from a yoke over her shoulders. The life-size girl stands over basins where water jets out and, then, flows down into a circular trough around the bottom of the fountain. The fountain seems out-of-place and unnecessary – something retrieved from this previously bombed-out sector of the city and posted arbitrarily in the open square in front of this high-rise.
As we pass, Angelica and I note a neatly dressed German businessman wearing a resplendently white shirt with tie. The man is bathing a villainously moustached Schnauzer dog in one of the zinc basins on the fountain. When the man is done, he sets the dog on the ground and the dog, then, scoots as fast as possible toward some bushes before obediently trotting back to the man. Another woman is sitting on a bench, cuddling a small miniature poodle – she is watching the man washing the Schnauzer. It looks to me as if she will avail herself next of the fountain to scrub down her dog. Someone else is approaching the fountain with a fat dachshund on a leash. Does that dog also need a bath? There are slogans on the fountain and I write them down in my notebook.
Wer mit will trinken // Muss mit Klinken.
"If you want drink, make a coin in my cup clink." This motto on the fountain is a little like Johann Tetzel’s infamous slogan promoting sale of indulgences: So wie das Geld in Kasten klingt / die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt ("As soon as the coin clinks in the box / the soul springs from the purgatorial fire."
Poor Tetzel – Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses primarily in response to Tetzel’s Ablasshandel (trade in indulgences). Theses 27 and 28 both denounce this trade and, even, cite the little couplet quoted above. Once Tetzel was approached by a nobleman who said that he intended to commit a serious future sin. Could he buy an indulgence in advance? Tetzel said yes but required that the nobleman pay right away. As soon as the coin clinked in Tetzel’s treasury box, the nobleman punched the priest in the nose and mouth. "There," the nobleman said, "that was the sin I planned to commit."
When Tetzel was dying, Luther wrote to him and said that he shouldn’t blame himself for the rift in the Church. "That schism," Luther wrote, "had quite another father."
Wasser nimmt alles weg // Nur schlechte Reden nit.
Water washes everything away except for bad words.
We took the train from Leipzig back to Berlin and spent another afternoon in that city. We went to the Neues Museen to see Nefertiti, and, then, took the U-Bahn to the East Side Gallery to look at the paintings on the long stretch of wall remaining there. Back at the Brandenburg Tor, Angelica bought souvenirs in the shops on Unter der Linden. Finally, we crossed through the gate and walked to the Reichstag.
It’s not easy to secure access to the Reichstag dome, the one part of the formidable building to which the public is granted admission. Entry is limited and you have to apply to the Government for a permit about a week in advance of your admission. The authorities require an application be filed with voluminous identification data. If you are accepted, the Reich emails you a formal letter confirming your admission to the building and this official document must be presented at the entry.
With the letter in my pocket, I sat on a curb outside the Reichstag entry complex, an unassuming group of buildings centered around a sort of ticket kiosk. The building was overhead, like a dark cumulo-nimbus cloud, sooty bronze sentries posted on the corners of the grey mass of stone. The bluish cupola, a glass globe mounted atop the grim heights of the building caught the sunlight and reflected its rays across the meadows of the Tiergarten where people were strolling in the glades and groves. Somewhere in the park, a musician was singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallulujah, a couple of accordionists standing by a fountain across the street were playing Con ti partiro.
Norman Foster’s Reichstag Dome symbolizes the transparency of the new German government. The cupola is supposed to be open to all at all times. As is the case with many clever ideas, the theory of the thing is more effective than its execution.
First, entry to the Dome is a hassle tangled in knots of bureaucratic red-tape. Although I had successfully navigated that process, as a result, the German government now has all sorts of data about me – shoe size, date and place of birth, sexual preference, passport number, marital status, an address where I can be reliably located in the event that it’s necessary to deport me to a camp for re-education. Second, you don’t just present your access letter and, then, stroll into the Reichstag. Rather, admissions are timed and you must submit to a humiliating search of the sort required at airports. After being frisked, bright-eyed and peremptory German interns, mostly cheerful-looking Hitlerjugend-types, herd you from the humble entry building up the massive, scarred steps to an intimidating system of doors that operate like air-locks. Entrants are crammed together into a hot annex in front of one glass door. Once that glass door has sealed you like some kind of microbial specimen between the twin glass walls, someone barks orders at you in German, and the next science-fiction door glides open. This forces you inside. The interior is bland like the lobby in front of an elevator bank in a glass skyscraper. You wait once more in metal corrals for huge elevators to descend from above. The Germans bark more orders at you, but you can’t understand them, only the tone is comprehensible and, of course, to your dismay the attitude investing those voices is exactly the same as in countless war movies – commands all have the same hoarse inflection. I’m not Jewish, needless to say, but the process of gaining admission to the Reichstag is more than a little, shall we say, creepy – too much technology, too many orders, rooms that are too tight and claustrophobic, and, then, the hot elevator with its stainless steel and brushed zinc walls, a little bit like a very sanitary lavatory or, even, a shower.
The design of the Reichstag dome, a transparent globe with a walkway spiraling up to an observation deck just under the north pole of the half-sphere, is reminiscent of Etienne Boulee’s visionary Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton, a huge dome simulating the starry skies that the great physicist had mastered with his equations. (It is interesting to know that Boulee was the honorary architect for the Prussian State under Frederick the Great – so far as I know, however, he didn’t complete any commissions for Der Alte Fritz.) The American architects Venturi and Brown in their landmark book Learning from Las Vegas differentiate between two types of buildings – there are "Ducks" and "Decorated Sheds." A "Duck" is a building that has a shape that expresses the meaning of the activities conducted within it. (The term "Duck" is based on the famous "Long Island Duck" a roadside store in the shape of a duck that sold poultry products built in the early 1930's at Flanders, New York.) A "Decorated Shed" is a structure that makes no effort to symbolize in its form the purpose for which the building was constructed. The Reichstag conceived as an ornate plinth on which to display the "gazing ball" or spherical globe of the cupola is an uneasy mixture of Duck and Decorated Shed. Clearly, the lower elements of the structure are an ornate shed, a grisly-looking neo-classical building elaborately adorned with statuary, Greek entablature, carved bas relief in its pediments, as well as carefully preserved Red Army graffiti, all dedicated to Dem Deutschen Volk. By contrast, the half-sphere of the dome is symbolic, ostensibly a representation as to the character of activities in the building and, therefore, a Duck.
Emerging onto the hot roof of the building, under the high glass dome, other problematic aspects of Foster’s design become apparent. First, the convex glass of the dome serves as a sort of magnifying glass, intensifying the rays of the sun. Even at 6:00 pm, when we toured the dome, the sun in the west made that exposure in the building scalding – the heat is focused and, almost, literally unbearable. Accordingly, the interior of the dome is hot and humid. The center of the cupola is a mirrored spine – it’s ugly and non-functional and its vaguely funnel-shape suggests some kind of meat-grinder plated with reflecting surfaces. As they say about legislature, law is like making sausages – no one wants to see it done, even though the outcome may be comestible enough – I don’t know if the Germans have a similar axiom, but the shape of the mirrored column seems vaguely unstable and the reflecting surfaces kick the sunlight, already amplified by the glass in the dome, back onto the spiraling walkways leading up to the top of the sphere. The audio guide says, without a trace of humor, that hot air emerging from the plenum, presumably the big legislative chamber inside the Reichstag building "ascends" to emerge at the top of the central column – of course, politicians emit "hot air".
Most troubling, however, is the fact that the spiral ascending and descending walkways rise above the top of the building without affording any vantage at all of the interior of the structure below. The roof of the building seals off the structure in which the legislature meets. Far from being a metaphor for transparency, the dome stands for the opposite proposition: the business conducted in the hulking structure below is concealed from us and remains enigmatic. We are afforded no vantage into the building and, instead, are sealed-off, as it were, trapped under glass. Curiously, the structure induces a sense of paranoid claustrophobia – what is going on below? What happens inside the dark, battered building underneath this dome? The walkways are conceived as vantages affording views of Berlin and this is all fine and good except that the reason we are making this ascent is because of the significance of the activity, law-making, in the structure below – we didn’t come here to see the roofs and green parks and rivers of Berlin. We came here because laws are being devised and enacted in the building’s interior on which this showy dome is mounted. But that aspect of the building’s business is concealed. Instead of being afforded a view into the legislative process, we are instead invited to look away from the structure and out to the monuments in the surrounding city. The legislative building becomes a kind of sinister panopticon from which the city and its citizens can be placed under surveillance by the big, bulging eye of the dome.
You must exercise caution when taking pictures on the Reichstag steps. When you stand under the looming motto Dem Deutschen Volk, there is certainly a temptation to clown around a little, maybe make a snapshot with right arm raised in a Fascist salute (ein Roemische Gruss). The German interns, however, are hovering nearby and, if you were to make this gesture, something illegal in Deutschland, you would certainly be taken into custody. Indeed, this recently happened to two Chinese tourists who were a little too blithely sardonic while taking photographs in this place.
Norman Thomas’ design for the Reichstag Dome is a failure in my view. Architecture errs, I think, when it becomes overly metaphoric. A building is not a metaphor. True? Or false?
A small museum in Leipzig contains the so-called Schadenplan for the city, a map that depicts areas devastated by aerial bombardment. According to the map, 44,000 buildings were totally destroyed. Some 50,000 structures were partially ruined. The city had lost 225,000 apartments.
Walter Beyer was Leipzig’s first Stadtbaurat (Urban Building Minister). Beyer planned an ornate mausoleum for Bach constructed in the ruins of the Johannes Kirche. Blueprints and elevation drawings show the structure as an oval crypt with colonnaded peristyles attached to the shattered steeple of the bombed-out church. At that time, Bach’s bones – at least what had been identified as the remains of the composer – were still partially exposed in the ruins of the church.
Communist city officials couldn’t agree on what to do with Bach. Various proposals were advanced. Ultimately, the deadlock was broken by the enterprising janitor of the St. Thomas Kirche who transported the skeletons in a wheelbarrow to that church.
According to the Communist officials: Truemmer schreien Frieden.
"Ruins scream peace." In other words, ruins proclaim the defeat of the evil and the restoration of a decent civic order. Ruins aren’t a bad thing and, perhaps, should be celebrated.
It is not a good idea to fly to Germany on an airline named Condor. The airline’s moniker is inauspicious. It doesn’t refer to the majestic winged creature of the California high desert and sierra. Rather, the airline’s name seem to reference a war-time atrocity. It is not, let me repeat, a good idea to fly with Condor.
My wife, Julie, bought to and from tickets to Berlin on Condor, an enterprise obscurely connected with Thomas Cook, a British travel agency. (It turns out that the Thomas Cook company owns Condor.) The flight was from Minneapolis and not non-stop. Condor landed in Frankfurt with a transfer to an 45 minute Lufthansa flight to Berlin’s Tegel airport. The return flights to Minneapolis were similar: Lufthansa first to Frankfurt, a couple hour layover, and, then, Frankfurt to Mpls. by Condor. Since the plan was to travel to Germany for my daughter, Angelica’s, birthday (August 2), Julie bought the tickets far in advance – she paid for them in March, I think.
Sometime in April, Thomas Cook issued an email to us, sent, I think, to Julie. The email announced that for reasons beyond the control of the travel agent, the return flight had been changed. The trip from Berlin to Frankfurt was no longer a one hour Lufthansa flight from Tegel. The ticket now said "Ride ‘n Fly" with a mark DB. The trip was no longer one hour but four-and-a-half hours. I had no idea what this meant until July. In that month, I attempted to book train fare from Berlin to Leipzig. This endeavor brought me into contact with Deutsche Bahn or DB, the German train system. Apparently, the itinerary marked DB meant that I was to go to Tegel, take a train from that airport, and travel to Frankfurt by rail. This seemed problematic to me, the substitution of a long train ride for a short air flight without refunding part of the air-fare to me, and raised more questions than answers.
Beginning a few days before my flight home, I asked German hotel clerks if they knew anything about the "Ride ‘n Fly" option with DB. No one had ever heard of it. I made several additional inquiries, including asking agents at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof and no one knew anything about it. "What should I do?" I asked the concierge at the hotel in Berlin. He was a sleek Turk with flamboyant moustache and eyebrows. "I think you should go to the airport very early and ask them about this," he said.
On the morning of our departure, the skies over Berlin were streaked with lightning. Warm rain fell in gusts and, at five in the morning, the twilight streets were empty. Some pastry shops showed lights in their windows and delivery trucks were nosing down the avenues and a few bicyclists coursed along the lanes dedicated for their use. A man in pajamas was walking a small dog. I looked around and tried to note every detail in my surroundings: this morning would begin in Berlin but by nightfall, if all went well, I would be among familiar surroundings back in Minnesota. The large residential blocks loomed against the dark sky and statues of luminaries whose names I didn’t know gestured silently to the shrubs and trees in the empty parks where they stood.
At Tegel, the terminal was deserted. Dragging heavy luggage, Angelica and I walked back and forth looking for a Condor gate agent. But there was no sign of Condor anywhere in the terminal and the fruitless search was exhausting us. I went to the Lufthansa check-in and asked the agent about Condor. "We know nothing about Condor," the gate agent said. "Aren’t you part of Condor?" "Oh no," the gate agent sniffed, "we have nothing at all to do with them."
This was troubling. Not only was there no Condor presence anywhere in the airport, but there was no one who knew anything about "Ride ‘n Fly." Fortunately, a Thomas Cook kiosk was open. A tired-looking woman was looking at Facebook on her computer. I asked her about "Ride ‘n Fly" from Tegel. "Never heard of it," she said. I showed her the itinerary that I had typed out from Thomas Cook. "What is this?" she said. "It looks like something you typed." "I did," I said. "Well, it’s wrong," she said. "Condor doesn’t fly from this airport. How did you get here?" "I came by Lufthansa," I said. "Well, then, why don’t you leave by Lufthansa?" she asked. "Because I have this Ride ‘n Fly’," I said. "Never heard of it," she repeated.
"Can you make some calls?" I asked. "This was all booked through Thomas Cook." She rolled her eyes and looked as I had asked her to endure a root-canal. I showed her my passport. Fortunately, my Condor flight number from the trip to Germany was still adhered to the back of the passport as a luggage receipt. This intrigued her. Maybe, my wild story had some grain of truth. "I’ll make some calls," she said. She placed several calls. I leaned against the counter. It was subway-hot in the plane terminal and I was drenched in sweat.
At first, it seemed that Condor denied any knowledge of me or Angelica and that we were wholly castaways. Then, someone else indicated that we were, in fact, booked on the flight from Frankfurt to Mpls. More calls followed. Finally, the Thomas Cook agent said to me: "Ride and Fly is with Deutsche Bahn. That is a train." She made a punching gesture to show the train roaring ahead implacably on its shining steel tracks. "This is an airport," she said. She flapped her arms like wings. "You need to go to the train station and take a train to Frankfurt." "You can’t get a train from Tegel?" I asked. "Sir," she said, "this is an airport (flapping her shoulders like wings) and not a train station (driving her fist along an imaginary rail between the two of us)." "What do I do?" I asked. "You will have to take a cab to the Hauptbahnhof and get a train ticket for the two of you to Frankfurt," she said. She turned away and printed a voucher with a number on it. "Take this to the Hauptbahnhof, use it to get a train ticket, and ride to Frankfurt," she said.
We dragged our luggage outside. More rain fell intermittently. A cab driver loaded us and we traveled across the city to the train station. By this time, more traffic was on the roads and there were some slow intersections, but we reached the glittering train station, its huge mechanical horse, a platinum-colored sculpture, bucking slowly on one of the crystal terraces around the ramps and u-turns where the taxis were dropping their fares. A tram sidled up to the station and, beneath us, subways roared and gnashed their teeth.
At the DB Reisezentrum, a clerk looked at the voucher, said that it was something called "Ride ‘n Fly" and that this was something that she had never heard of. She clicked her tongue disapprovingly. But she entered the number into the computer and printed a couple of itineraries. The bottom itinerary provided for a train from Berlin to Frankfurt with a stop and transfer en route in Erfurt. "There’s no non-stop?" I asked. "No non-stop," she told me.
I said that the trains were difficult to board, particularly with heavy luggage, and that I wanted seat reservations. "That will cost another 9 euro," she said. "Okay," I told her. She took a number of the kind that you might pick from a machine in a busy supermarket delicatessen. "When the counter, Schalter, flashes go there, show her the itinerary, and the agent will get you the seat reservatiosn," the woman advised. I sat down, waited for ninety seconds for the Schalter-numeral to display and, then, took the itinerary to the gate agent who sold me reserved seats for the two trips.
This done, Angelica and I walked down to the platform – we had about a half-hour wait. I studied the train tickets and the reservations. The woman had booked me for two seats on a train from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof ("our beloved train station") through some city that I didn’t recognize to Hanover. I had handed the agent at the Reisezentrum, the itinerary that had printed at its top a trip from Berlin to Hanover and that was the journey on which my seats were reserved (at the cost of 9 euros). There were no reservations issued on the Berlin to Erfurt, Erfurt to Frankfurt ICE (bullet) trains.
I didn’t have time to do anything about this. The ICE train pulled up to the platform and we dragged our heavy luggage up the steps into the wagons. The train was crowded and many seats were reserved and we had to stagger from car to car, traversing three Wagen as the train moved forward before we could find two, widely separated seats in one compartment. My arms were numb from dragging the luggage and Angelica was moaning in distress and the compartments were warm and humid, filled with screaming babies and English or Norwegian hikers with towering backpacks and seedy-looking German businessmen with satchels full of money to launder, haggard divorced women running away from bad relationships, drunks wonderfully alkoholiziert sprawled across seats and blocking the way.
It took two long hours to reach Erfurt. The countryside went from flat plains with big enclosures of still water reflecting the stormy skies to low mountains pierced by tunnels. Everything was very green outside and wet. The small villages had steeples that looked like of Friedrich der Gross’s Kartoffeln ("potatoes") were stuck in their craw. The train was very long. At rural road-crossings, cars were waiting behind flimsy-looking barriers, the drivers outside, leaning on their Audis, and smoking cigarettes.
The transfer between trains at Erfurt was harrowing. The ICE to Frankfurt was even more crowded. Gangs of shabby backpackers, hostel kids with torn pants and girlfriends with pierced noses, occupied the accordion-floored compartments between cars. There were no two seats side-by-side and, at last, I couldn’t go any farther – the luggage was simply too heavy. A Turkish man with a dirty sweatshirt was squatting between cars with his four-year old son. The child had a runny nose and was crying. I told Angelica: "Go into the next car and see if there are any empty seats." She came back: "Yes, two at opposite ends of the car." "Okay," I said, "we’ll take them." By this time, the train was hurtling through the green mountains around Eisenach. There were deep valleys and big rivers and bridges spanning small wet gorges. A huge mine had cratered one city and a mountain of red and sulphur yellow and greenstone tailings towered over the narrow medieval streets.
I was faint with hunger. I had eaten nothing since the night before and not had a sip of water and, of course, I was afraid to leave my hard-won seat for fear that some other traveler would take it from me. Traveling reduces you to a bestial state. The train accelerated and reached 194 km/hour. I was drenched in sweat.
It is best not to travel. Just stay at home.
Beyond the rain-streaked train window: two huge cooling towers at a nuclear plant gushing clouds of steam into the dark sky. The enormous structures had the shape of geometric theorems, graceful and elegant, like the curve on a woman’s body between rib cage and hip. The steam towers had white skin, the color of ice in the Alps. A little village was clustered around the base of the towers. A dark slope of tangled green trees and underbrush intervened: more hills and tunnels. We are somewhere near Halle, but I don’t know where this is.
The Condor gate at Frankfurt is as remote from the rest of the airport as physically possible, a long hot walk from the train station through congested terminals to airport security, then, more moving platforms and escalators and endless corridors to the jet way, except that Condor doesn’t have a jet way – it intends to truck its customers across the tarmacs boiling with rain falling out of the passing thunderstorms and, then, let us scramble unsupervised across the runway onto the front or back of the big battered airplane.
But this is later: now, we have to wait because the plane is delayed – at least, an hour. The Turks at the gate amuse themselves by selecting random people to be searched. Angelica gets frisked and she is not happy about the procedure. Across from where I am sitting, a couple of Rumanian gypsies in long dresses are leaning against one another, obviously exhausted. It seems odd that that gypsies are traveling to Minneapolis. One of them is retarded and she excavates her nose, picking it with studious and indefatigable determination. The Turks at the gate decide to frisk her. She gets up, obviously agitated and upset about being interrupted in her nasal endeavors: "Mach’!" she says, "Mach’, Mach’..." (I interpret this to be an abbreviation of machen, the German verb that means "to make.")
We stumble down the corridor looking for something to eat. There’s a sweaty-little kiosk-store called Relay and, for five euros, you can buy a stale white-bread sandwich made with one leaf of wrinkled lettuce, a couple slices of desiccated tomato, and some wholly tasteless mozzarella cheese.
The plane has arrived and we are signaled to prepare for departure. I show my ticket to the gate agent and am waved forward. Angelica’s ticket triggers all sorts of Sturm und Drang – bell sounds and a red light flashes and there is, even, a hint of a siren. "What is this?" Angelica says. "You have to be searched," the Turk at the gate says with a sadistic gleam in his eye. "But I was already," she remonstrates. I am hovering near-by. "Get on the plane, sir," the Turk shouts to me. "This is my daughter," I say. "I don’t care, get on the plane," the Turk tells me. A woman hustles over to the gate. "We already searched her," the woman says. "It’s not marked here," the Turk replies dogmatically, pointing to her ticket. "It’s been done," the woman says. She’s German and outranks the Turk and, grumbling, he reluctantly stands down.
As King Lear said: "a dog’s obeyed in office". Agree? Disagree?
It gets worse not better. The flight lands in Minneapolis at the Hubert H . Humphrey Charter Terminal. Three planes have landed, more or less, simultaneously and the customs hall is crowded with about 600 people. Angelica and I stand at about 560 in the line. Although there are 12 stations, there are only three passport control officers. Welcome to the land of the free and the home of the brave!
It takes us one hour to reach the kiosk where you must lean forward and position your face amidst crosshairs to be photographed. Then, it takes us another hour to reach the Passport Control officer. We are standing behind a Senegalese man with jheri curls conked out beneath his natty panama-hat. The Senegalese man has shoes with toes that curl up, a little like the footwear of the Wicked Witch killed when the Kansas house fell on her in The Wizard of Oz. He is wearing a velcro-snapped jumper that is decorated with large dollar-sign patterns and carries a ukulele.
"This is going to be trouble," I tell Angelica. The Senegalese man has reached passport control. He digs around in his pocket and comes up with something that looks a cash-register receipt. "No, no," the passport control official tells him. He digs around some more and shows an ID in which he is grinning at the camera and a dog-eared document that seems to be a cell-phone invoice. This yields more confusion and, of course, the passport control man is baffled. The Senegalese dude speaks in melodious French but, of course, the sort of morons who work as Passport Control officers don’t speak French – they can scarcely manage English.
Long delays occur and there is much gesticulating and, at last, some officers come and take the Senegalese man away to be interrogated and, possibly, ordered into stress positions or, even, waterboarded. Angelica and I, now the very last passengers in the great empty and echoing hall, are waved through.
But, then, at the next stop, where you present your custom’s declaration, bells and whistles sound when the machine scans my passport. A red light flashes. A tiny official with a little wizened face shaped like that of an unfriendly rodent cries out: "You WILL get your bags and you WILL bring them to me where they WILL be inspected."
Angelica asks me: "Why is he talking like that?"
Of course, the answer is because he can and he is too young to have watched reruns of the Andy Griffith show to know that he is doing a pretty passable imitation of Don Knotts as the officious deputy sheriff, Barnie Fife.
"Just do what he says," I tell her.
I am a known sausage smuggler. Last year, returning from Bergen, I packed my bags with a reindeer sausage and a whale-meat Wurst as well. I was honest, had the temerity to declare these sausages and my tiny bottle of Aquavit on the back of the customs form. Needless to say, the sausages were confiscated as was the Aquavit, undoubtedly a pleasant late evening snack with a shot, for the customs officers involved in this affair. Presumably, my passport is now flagged as that of a sausage smuggler and so, of course, I am subject to search, even one supposes a body cavity frisk because, after all, I might have a sausage concealed in my rectum.
The Customs cop scans my bags a couple times and finds nothing unusual. But Angelica gets searched again. She is carrying a backpack on which the words appear: I Am Groot! a citation from the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, but presumably baffling to the Customs officer.
"Why am I being searched?" Angelica cries.
"I search hundreds a day – it is my job as a Federal Agent," the cretin says. He draws on his rubber gloves and digs around in Angelica’s backpack. She has candy wrappers there, a German phrase book, 15 CDs and her CD player with headphones.
He searches the back pack for a long, long time.
"Okay, you are free to go."
Traveling doesn’t broaden the mind. It just makes you angry. There are too many petty irritations. This is demonstrably true.
I am carrying a green briefcase with a shoulder strap. The briefcase is marked with brass clasp that reads Mn CLE – I received the briefcase many years ago as an honorarium when I spoke at a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar. I think my topic was recent appellate decisions relating to insurance coverage. In this briefcase, I have my books, some maps, a couple of vials of medications for control of pain and anxiety – I am always terribly fearful when I travel and every trip abroad terrifies me. Zipped in a special pocket in my green valise, I am carrying my car keys, the voucher for the parking lot where my car is waiting for me in Minneapolis at the airport, and information as to how to access the shuttle bus from the terminal to the Park ‘n Fly lot on the river-bluffs.
At last, we have come to the Frankfurt Airport. The train has a couple more stops before reaching its terminus at Wiesbaden. The airport station is underground, a subway platform between rails bathed in unwavering white florescent light. Most of the people in the car rise to exit the train. Angelica is ahead of me and she reaches the train’s door, stepping down onto the concrete platform. I am relieved to be at the airport train station – at least, this part of the complex trip from Berlin to Minneapolis is behind us.
As I step forward, the briefcase in my right hand pulls back hard against me. The briefcase resists my exit from the train. I have a heavy suitcase in my left hand, bearing me down. I tug at the green briefcase again, but it doesn’t yield. The Germans, who seem to be businessmen, in the queue to leave the train grumble.
I pivot and see that my briefcase’s shoulder strap is entangled with a recliner lever on the seat next to the aisle. I put down my brief case, bending over to disentangle the shoulder strap. The German businessman immediately behind me stoops as well and he deftly flips the loop of the strap over the lever to unknot it. But this merely makes the tangle more complex. The Germans behind him begin to protest. This train will remain at the stop for three minutes at most and ninety seconds have already elapsed. I look up and see Angelica standing outside the train, forlornly looking up at the exit from which I have not yet emerged.
I kneel and claw at the strap. The knot is Gordian, I have no idea how to disentangle the loop trapped around the seat’s recliner lever. I yield to the queue behind me and the Germans, who are muttering at this curious misadventure, shove by me, almost stepping on my hand and kicking over my suitcase. The loop entangled around the chair’s handle is a puzzle in space and I am notoriously incapable of solving such puzzles – I have never learned to tie my shoes effectively and, now, the train is wheezing querulously at my discomfiture and I have to untangle this knot within the next minute or the train will depart and Angelica will remain alone on the subway platform and I will be whisked away to Wiesbaden where ever that is. I am now alone in the train car. Perhaps, someone is sleeping in a backseat. If I leave the briefcase entangled in the car’s front seat, I will lose all my books, my maps, but, also, more importantly the car keys that I need to return to my home whenever I finally reach Minneapolis.
I pull on the strap as hard as I can, but, of course, such things are made to be durable and tough and there is no way that I can tear the briefcase free from its entrapment. I now have about 30 seconds to solve this conundrum. Drenched in sweat, I desperately lean forward to try to visualize the way that the strap has become knotted around the chair’s recliner handle. But the knot is hidden from view, concealed under the lever and its round knob inserted like an axle under the chair. A whistle blows three short blasts. The train wheezes louder and louder.
Sweat is pouring into my eyes. I look up and through a blur see Angelica standing on subway platform, an expression of confusion on her face. I tug at the strap but it will not come free. Twenty seconds, fifteen, ten... the whistle shrieks again.
This is a pure instances of what Germans call die Tuecke des Objeks – the notion that inanimate things conspire against human beings. If I had attempted to knot the shoulder strap of my old CLE briefcase around a seat handle in a Deutsche Bahn train, I would never be able to accomplish this objective. But, of course, creating such a knot was never my intention and, so, now I am left with the dilemma of solving this problem and under the most dire pressure of time imaginable.
My anxiety about traveling is well-founded. One false move and you are, to use the vernacular, fucked and, indeed, truly and utterly fucked. But isn’t this proposition also true in most human affairs. But the malice of objects, the malign conspiracy of mere things to destroy us, seems most obvious and lethal when one is traveling. Ultimately, travel is a mistake – I can show this to you and you will believe my proof.
The train has slowed and is about to enter the train-shed at Frankfurt. Across a wasteland of tracks, parallel to one another and criss-crossing, I see two identical skyscrapers rising like colossal steeples over the grim iron fields. The skyscrapers look vaguely like steeples and are fitted with massive Gothic windows, grey and featureless giants rising from the wet plain. Each skyscraper is flanked by a massive industrial chimney, a huge tapering column like a candlestick. The skies are grey and fluid with storm and, although I think the smoke-stacks are not emitting any ash or soot – they have probably been capped with some Green-approved pollution protection – it is impossible to imagine them without envisioning vast, turbulent columns of smoke billowing upward, industrial flags and pennants with fiery highlights.
I think it can be argued that Frankfurt is one of the ugliest cities in the world.
The drive from the airport to my home in Austin takes a little less than two hours.
After I had passed the outer ring of suburban lights, the country was dark and the hallucinations began. The night beyond my headlights and the lit entrance and exit ramps was full of shapes. It’s a misnomer to call these faint, fugitive images "hallucinations" – a "hallucination" is an apparition that seems completely real to the person perceiving it. The murky landscapes and villages trembling in the darkness just to the side of the road were not real – I didn’t mistake them for something that could be seen if better illumined. Rather, I understood these forms, persuasive as they might be, to arise from a derangement of the senses – I had been awake, indeed, anxiously awake, for too many hours and my tired eyes were playing tricks on me.
Just to the right and left of the illuminated tunnel made by my car’s headlights, I saw Germany’s landscapes, the country through which we had traveled by Deutsche Bahn from Berlin to Frankfurt. In shadowy darkness, I saw faint phosphorescent outlines: the red roofs of a village, a middle-European church with a bulbous onion-shaped steeple, the spidery girders of a train shed, the flat marshes around Berlin with mournful stockades of distant trees posted against the wet horizon, the densely wooded steep green hills at Fulda and, then, the golden fields one after another extending to the vanishing point, a yellow corridor toppling off the edge of the earth. These landscapes in skeletal form, as if inscribed by some sort of penetrating x-ray, were visible only out of the corner of my eye and vanished abruptly when I turned my head to look for them behind the veil of shadowy prairie and hill skidding by my car, beyond the range of my sight, a blurred, swift, linear darkness under the stars. The moon skimmed along the horizon, an orange dying ember. The ghosts of German villages and fields clung to the edge of the night, an encrustation in the shadows.
I suppose that Germany is now superimposed on Minnesota. This is the nature of travel: to see our place under the sign of some other place that is, more or less, distant – it’s a mandate of the imagination. I sensed that the small villages and the industrial cities and the fields and farms of Germany were present, adjacent to the reality of the country that I was traversing or inserted into the interstices of the space through which my car hurled, falling to my home in Austin like a stone dropped into a dark well or like a lead meteor plunging to earth or boulders rolling down a steep slope.
I can’t prove this and have no way to persuade you to this proposition, but, on that night, Germany had come to Minnesota and was imprinted on the darkness, an eerie shadow of a landscape, an engraving made from eidetic images almost completely faded from the eye, but still present to the imagination. I blinked my eyes. The fields and prairies stretched away from me as if stunned and the mark of Germany was upon them and will always be upon them, an impression of tremulous lines and shapes that must always elude exact observation and that are best understood when not seen at all.