Wednesday, June 27, 2007

German Culture

Germany, these days, is unpopular. You won't make a million bucks publishing a book about your year in an adorable little German village, the way you can about France or Italy. German-Americans are the largest ethnic group in the United States (I myself am about half German) but they don't make their presence known like the Italians or the Irish. There are a few kitschy German restaurants like Gustav's but otherwise German cuisine is not haute or hot.

Modern-day Germany has bounced back from its Nazi/Communist past, becoming an economic powerhouse and the most populous nation in the E.U. And I think, these days, Germans have a reputation for being smart, efficient, great engineers and businesspeople--but also cold, humorless, not artistic or passionate. Lately, though, I've noticed how much German culture is around us, unacknowledged.

"German comedy" sounds like a misnomer, but two very funny men, Tom Stoppard and Steve Martin, have seen fit to adapt old German comedies for a modern audience, resulting in "On the Razzle" and 'The Underpants." And let's not forget the Tony-winning musical "Spring Awakening," which has 19th-century German teens with previously-uncool names like Melchior, Moritz and Wendla singing rock music and captivating American theatergoers. Doug Wright's play "I Am My Own Wife" delves into Germany's fascinating recent history, winning lots of awards in the process. And what about Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret," in which Germany seems sexy, decadent, falling-apart and rising in power, all at once?

"Cabaret" brings us to another German artistic powerhouse: music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Wagner, Johann and Richard Strauss...Germany has a virtual monopoly on great classical composers. Lately I have also been getting interested in Kurt Weill. Check out this great video of Teresa Stratas singing "Surabaya Johnny."

During the Weill/Cabaret era (the 1920s), the world's best films were being made in Germany: directors like Murnau and Lang pushed German silent films to artistic heights. More recently, "The Lives of Others" is the best new movie I've seen in a LONG time (see my imdb review) and "Run Lola Run" is also pretty awesome (my review).

Many of the minds that shaped the world we know today originally spoke in German: Marx, Freud, Nietzsche. And though I don't know too much about philosophy, some of its greatest names are also German, like Kant and Hegel. The Russian intellectuals of "The Coast of Utopia" are certainly obsessed with German thinkers!

It's interesting that Russia, which has just as checkered a recent history as Germany does, still retains a romantic appeal: it's a mystical land of onion domes, snowy steppes and lovely fur hats. Germany has no such romantic reputation. Yet, at one time, Germany was the cradle of Romanticism itself. People KILLED themselves in order to imitate the suicidal young heroes of Goethe's novels! It was the land of "Sturm und Drang"--storm and stress--not efficient businessmen and engineers.

Some German artists do fit the stereotype of coldness or lack of emotion. Brecht's dramas are didactic, and Bach, for every transcendent "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" or Organ Toccata, has two very intricate but over-academic studies in fugue-making. Still, Germany's fascinating heritage and history is deeper than we often give it credit for.

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