Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Helmut Newton, Marlene Dietrich, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff escaped. They survived. But geniuses like Wilder and Newton never came back. German culture thereafter was, apart from painting and sculpture, mostly boring moralizing bullshit. And top writers like Günter Grass lived a total lie about their Nazi past, even as Grass continued his classic anti-Semitic thought patterns with a postmodern hatred of Israel.
With the loss of Wilder, Newton and Dietrich, Germany lost its temper. Kraftwerk changed the country by radicalizing the status of being totally uncool (or, as Lester Bangs put it, the only real currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re not). you’re uncool), and now it’s a leading actor like Waltz (an Austrian) who turns the radically uncool German into an exotic psychopath.
The new German culture has a very strong anti-American vibe. Left-wing and right-wing cultural criticism of US capitalist pop culture share a kind of bitter gesture of leaning towards melancholy. The new German supermorality is above all German and combines anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism in a neo-Teutonic resentment that grips left and right. It is also a belated revenge on the civilizational achievements of the Americans after 1945. They came as occupiers and brought us Elvis, and later hip hop.
Post-war German culture was mostly provincial and narrow-minded. But provincialism created greatness. In Düsseldorf, for example, with the Düsseldorfer Schule, the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher invented a new art of photography with superstars like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff. In West Berlin, a walled enclave of the West under the Warsaw Pact, the natives lived in a quirky little town that nonetheless became a world stage for culture. David Bowie produced his greatest albums mainly here. Depeche Mode followed.
Today, Berlin is one of the most powerful capitals of world politics. But after the exciting years of waking up from the fall of the Wall, with techno and the Love Parade, it’s as exciting as Springfield without the Simpsons.
How to describe the current contemporary culture? In Germany, Ned Flanders would be the main character in a comedy series. This is because he would be paid by Ned Flanders. German culture is – apart from commercial heroes like Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke – financed in many ways by the state. In terms of constitution and laws, Germany is (in theory) an open society in which music, art, science and citizens have a freedom that many other countries only dream of. Nevertheless, most artists are too conformist. They practice a revolutionary gesture that is hollow and seeks only applause from all sides. It’s a conformist rebellion that doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
Since reunification and even more since the financial crisis of 2008, the Germans have again opted for their Sonderweg, the notion of the country’s “special path”. They feel morally superior to others and let them feel that way too. Angela Merkel’s self-righteous and arrogant asylum policy has divided Europe and driven the British out of the EU. Since then, the political and cultural elites have renationalised, on the left as well as on the right. If in doubt, we Germans know better: it doesn’t matter whether it’s foreign policy, as in the Ukrainian conflict, energy policy, such as phasing out nuclear power, or migration policy. We know better, and we are. We are well. Let others do the dirty work. Our ambition is limited to a continuous navel-gazing.
We like to look away. And instead of reflecting and problematizing this in our culture, the mainstream German culture prepares the liturgy for this rather false belief ethic.
But the more I am bored with Germany, the greater my new cultural homeland, America, seems.
The Kardashians are more important than Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks because Germans tend to hide behind their historical intellectual achievements in order to quell the misery of the present. When Kim Kardashian says on the cover of American Vogue “I chose myself”, it’s a more philosophical puzzle than most contemporary dramas on German stages. When Kanye West asks in his new song “How am I not bringing anything to the table when I’m the table?” it raises more pertinent questions than the whole megalomaniacal art supershow documentation will increase this summer. Why? Because every theater and every exhibition in one of the official contemporary art spaces is run and organized by a new breed of cultural officials who turn tax money into catechisms.
Our Jimmy Fallon is a duo of handsome, fun government speakers; our Stephen Colbert is a bitter, passive-aggressive government spokesman. During the coronavirus pandemic, public television has acted as an endless campaign for ever tougher lockdowns. Even if you try to have a good time, the constant signaling of virtue makes you dizzy. It truly ends in disaster when calculated cynicism only works if it is a whiny indictment of those who do not dedicate their lives to decency and pietism.
Don’t get me wrong: I know there is also a neo-Victorian wokeism pervading American pop culture and universities. The difference is that American pop culture offers a variety of high-end characters unknown in Germany. Someone like Ari Gold, Barney Stinson or Dr. Gregory House is unimaginable here, just like Homer Simpson, John Wick or Jessica Jones.
The likelihood of such characters being invented in Germany decreases every week. The leveling of contemporary culture into an all-encompassing morality seems irreversible.
Is there hope? I do not know. But it doesn’t matter, as long as Kendall Jenner poses in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s jaw-dropping abstract painting “Green Blue Red.” When she confuses the museum with a podium, the modernist white cube is deconstructed as what it often is: an elegant wallpaper.
My country’s influencers, the high priests of venality and superficiality, have decided to apply a hyper-moral makeup to their work as impersonators. Green Party parliamentarians claim to be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on social media – but without her guts they would never have the guts to wear a ‘tax the rich’ dress to the Met Gala. Eighteenth-century German idealism already knew better: if the good is supposed to be beautiful, the truth is part of it. Kendall Jenner is an almost minimalist sculpture of radical self-confidence and post-naive authenticity. The new German culture culpably wallows in its lies.
Thank you for everything, dear American pop culture.