Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How German Is It? - Walter Abish

Walter Abish (1931)

How German Is It attempts to come to terms with what it means to be German post 1945; it describes the quest a nation must face in sorting out its identity; a generation of national bastards seeking the face of their father and understanding the responsibility, even those born after the war have for their own historical context.  A Germany coming to terms with the growing threat of the Red Army and attempting to understand how the past happened in order to avoid a similar future.

Written in 1980, through dreamlike post-modern prose, Abish covers this question from many different angles. From the point of view of the Hargenaus, a once respected and admired family, whose patriarch was shot in 1944 as a traitor. Or criminal? The two Hargenaus brothers must confront their own past and discover where and how they fit into a historical context.

The older brother Helmuth is an architect living in Brumholdstein, a posh new town, built over the remains of what used to be Durst, one of Germany's many concentration camps. Now all that remains of Durst is a small abandoned train station and rusty tracks that lead in both directions to nowhere. Helmuth designs sleek modern buildings for the New Germany, they cover up a depressing history and present a new and exciting future, a chance to move beyond the confines of the past. His buildings represent the miraculous rebirth of Germany and its new sense of satisfaction and completion. Its love of clean lines and efficiency.

Helmuth has designed a house for Egon and Gisela that has made the cover of the lasted edition of Treue. They are represented as members of a flourishing German society. "And what - one may ask - could be more spontaneously joyous, more filled with expectation and promise."  Yet under the facade, these two people represent a different sort of Germany. One where the husband must define and redefine what it means to be a German man, constantly seeking his identity and his sense of worth which he assumes must come from his desirability.  After the photo shoot, he runs away with the photographer Rita, while Gisela cowers in a corner unsure of how she can keep her husband interested, seeking endlessly a sense of stability.

Rita, as a photographer, tries to capture the Germany behind the facade. She is constantly seeking out the mundane and banal - hoping that new observation of a previously unobserved moment could provide a sense of revelation. Who are we between the cracks? Where are we behind the disinfected history? She attempts to make the familiar strange and unfamiliar simply by looking at it from a new perspective, by reaching into the familiar and making the unseen seen again.

A mass grave is discovered under Brumholdstein, which could only possibly be filled with victims from the concentration camp...but is this something a new Germany can admit? Is this a past they can acknowledge happened? And while the younger generation assumes the mass grave is filled with German heroes shot down by the Russians, the older generation debates the benefits of telling them the truth. Rita, in her ceaseless quest for documentation, sneaks behind the crew removing the bodies and photographs a pile of skeletons that have been removed from the mass grave. Then a shot of a single railroad boxcar on a siding nest to an unloading platform. What is she doing? Trying to leave the viewer with a bad taste in his mouth? Or searching out a past that has generated the everyday lives they must all come to terms with.

Brumholdstein is a metaphor for the rest of the country struggling to answer the question "what is being? what is thought? What is existence?"  Everything about this city is familiar, "But then, the intent to begin with was not to design or construct a city that would strike anyone, inhabitant or visitor, as unfamiliar."  What does it mean to be intrinsically German? How does one comprehend the nature of that "German restlessness and that intrinsic German striving for order and for tranquility as well as for perfection?" What is this sense of being that at its roots cannot be divorced from the German passion for exactitude and abstraction. Is there's a universal history? Were they merely replicating a period of disaster that is simply part of the human narrative...using only a slightly more efficient and precise method?

As Helmuth manages to tear the photographs from Rita's hands and begins ripping them up he is consciously performing the role of protector, we don't have to remember the past because it does not define us. You can extract the qualities of the German people that, yes perhaps in excess have the tendency toward the barbaric, but when they are distilled in the correct formula they leave a people striving for greatness and order, able to accomplish the unimaginable. If everyone could just have a new perspective how different could everything be? How different could everything have been?

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