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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Good Germans 

I spent a lighthearted, fun filled Friday night watching the German movie Downfall, where you get to be a fly on the wall in Hitler’s bunker during the last days of the Third Reich. For a claustrophobic 2 ½ hours, you witness the utter chaos and anarchy as the members of the Reich turn on each other like frenzied dogs while the Russians close in. One critic said it was like watching rats trying to claw their way out of a slow flushing toilet for 2 ½ hours. I’ve spent several restless nights as my subconscious has tried to process and work out the horrors I saw: the summary executions for the slightest hint of disloyalty, weeping officers blowing themselves and their unsuspecting families up at the dinner table, roving bands of MPs shooting and hanging civilians, Magda Goebbels calmly poisoning her 6 children with cyanide because she couldn’t bear them living in a world without National Socialism, Nazi officer’s drunken, cocaine fueled orgies, Hitler and friends methodically discussing the pros and cons of different suicide methods, people throwing themselves at the feet of Hitler in crazy-eyed, fanatical devotion.

I've had enough of Germans for a while. I recently tried to watch Heimat, the epic German miniseries, which came highly recommended. I had expectations of some sweet, life affirming chronicle of village life like one of those sleepy English series such as The Vicar of the Dibley or All Creatures Great and Small. After the first show I really had to stop watching. I believed that the story of a German village that spans a hundred years would provide illuminating insight into the German human experience, like the exquisite, heartbreaking Stones from the River, which explained how ordinary human beings could get caught up and participate in great evil. Heimat was created by Germans, so I expected at least a little bit of a romanticized and sentimentalized version of their history, especially since they were getting to tell their side themselves. First of all, Heimat is filmed in the German Expressionist style, and its weird and upsetting camera angles, long, odd silences all filmed in a black and white like dreamscape, were alone enough to make me recoil in horror. Instead, Heimat did nothing but confirm my worst suspicions about the German people. The miniseries begins right after Armistice in a small village. The hateful, suspicious residents of Heimat constantly pry into their neighbor’s business and turn each other into the authorities for whatever petty and vindictive reason they can. Roving bands of bullying children taunt and throw rocks at anyone weak, especially those with physical deformities. Anyone dark is accused of being polluted with gypsy blood. Songs the villagers sing would seem beautiful until you paid attention to the words, which would describe how hateful the French are and how they would be getting theirs soon. You can see where this is all headed. I have enough problems with the Germans as it is – I don’t need to fuel it.

I often have to be careful with what I read or watch. I had to take a break from reading popular Chinese-American authors like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston because their stories populated with despotic, unbelievably cruel mothers and mothers-in-law, and the overall nasty treatment of the characters to each other in were too painful to take. Their descriptions of the peasantry, especially their misogyny and superstitions, which seemed particularly alien and repulsive to me, were stirring dark currents of xenophobia within me rather than building bridges to cultural understanding.

Comments:
hey, that's the same reason i stopped paying attention to the 49ers
 
i'm reminded of this diversity training i had to attend for a tutoring job a few years ago. out of a group of 30, i was one of 4 white kids. the speaker made the honkies stand in the middle of a circle while everyone stared at us, silently. i think this was supposed to stir empathy in me, but all i could think was, 'this is the biggest waste of a saturday morning'. i learned during the break that everyone else was pretty bummed, too. so at least we could unite in our resentment of diversity.
 
So it's not racist to bitch about German people then?
 
Despite the face that many Germans proclaimed themselves the 'master race,' they are not a race. Perhaps your crude vocabulary limits your ability to express yourself. Xenophobia is a better word to use, which I freely admitted to in the post.
 
There are two kinds of people in this world I can't stand. Those intolerant of other peoples' cultures, and the Dutch.
-Nigel Powers
 
I had the same reaction to the first installment of Heimat that you had--especially to the film angles and slow pace. However, I decided to give it a second chance and am glad I did, because by the third episode or so, I was completely hooked. You might also like The Second Heimat better (Die Zweite Heimat); while it builds on some of the characters in Heimat, it is a self-contained story, set in Munich during the 1960s.
 
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