Wednesday 16 January 2019

Syberberg, Borchardt, etc.


This is partly an assessment of the idea that eccentricity is an English thing, by means of talking about some German eccentrics. There is or used to be a German comic called “Der Excentrik-Club”, which told the comic adventures of the members of that club – a German image of England. (There were some films about them, I believe, specifically a 1917 film called 'Die Hochzeit Im Exzentrik Club', credited to Joe May but allegedly written by Fritz Lang.)

If you believe that there is a sector of important ideas, whether in solving political problems or in cultural achievement, which is repressed by a liberal consensus, you probably belong to the New Right. This is the New Right's private property, the asset they trade with. I don't actually believe that the 'liberal consensus' (that is, the ideas sector within capitalism, or half-outside capitalism) has blind spots, or that there is a windfall you could collect if society gave up on it. My understanding of how our institutions work, from personal experience, is that there is a sceptical principle which takes on any ideas and tests them out to see if they work. A monoculture with its inlets blocked does not prevail. I realise that saying this makes me part of an evil consensus in the eyes of the Far Right and their allies. Of course, there is a "legacy" of ideas which have been tried and exploded, and of false facts on which erroneous ideas are based, which are not allowed in court because by now they just bore and irritate everyone. I gave at the office!

A specific example of someone whose artistic career came to a mysterious end, which was probably connected to misgivings in the ranks of cultural administrators about anti-Semitism and Far Right sympathies, is the director Hans Jürgen Syberberg. Syberberg was born in 1935, in Mecklenburg, went to school in the DDR, and came to the West in 1956. From the Sixties, he was making documentaries, funded by himself from his salary as a TV producer in Munich. He seemed preoccupied with subjects much older than him, in fact with people born in the nineteenth century. This activity expanded, he made long films about Ludwig II of Bavaria, Hitler, and Karl May, still with very limited funds and in a style which was richly documented but almost home-made, abandoning cinematic values to save expense. The subject of the Bavarian monarchy and the Third Reich was unpopular with cultural managers in West Germany, but it could be interpreted either as an attempt to appeal to archaic authoritarian currents of opinion undermining the Federal Republic (and its cultural institutions) or as a laudable attempt to recover lost areas of memory and discredit them or clear them up. In 1990, he published a book which included a number of Far Right statements, including anti-Semitic ones – he saw modernity as Semitic because it was dominated by the ideas of Marx and Freud (not true in the Federal Republic, obviously) and connected his difficulty in acquiring funds to this nefarious cultural hegemony. His career then came to an almost complete halt. It is plausible that the funding panels, necessary to him since his work had little popular appeal, lost their nerve at this point. The ambiguity had almost disappeared – he was no longer seen as part of metabolising suppressed crimes and evils of the German past (this despite his statement about combining historical investigation with a Brechtian alienation effect, which would have meant that he didn't idealise Ludwig – or Adolf). As mentioned, he had always had difficulty in getting funding. However, 'Virgin King” was successful in France, playing at one cinema for six whole months, and it was quite rare for a contemporary German artist to be acclaimed in Paris, so that funding would not normally have been scarce following that. So far as I can tell his last important film was in 1982, but it's hard to tell from bare filmographies, some part of which may be just a display to refute widely-believed claims about isolation and decline.
I wanted to buy DVDs of his work, but the “marketplace” I consulted showed them only at about £40 a shot. This implies that they are all out of print, and that even used copies are scarce. It looks as if his disappearance from the cinemas prevented a demand from building up in the DVD world, and as if any “cult” following had been thin. There is no pool of used copies. I can’t easily quantify this, but you can get any old junk on DVD, the market is greedy and huge. Of course, this situation would encourage a certain kind of Far Right romantic, for whom anyone suppressed is of interest because they are hoping that there is a whole suppressed world which they can discover and then go and live in. You can get the 'Hitler' film on You-Tube, courtesy of the CelticAngloPress. My thanks to them although I suspect that my idea of the White race does not coincide with theirs.

So, it's not irrational to suggest that Syberberg is a talented artist whose access to funding dried up because he offended the liberal consensus. But the circumstances weaken the case for him to a remarkable degree – he really did go into print with anti-Semitic remarks in a country which wiped out half of European Jewry, he had received extensive State funding for films including a Hitler biography, there are major problems with his style, his slow and sparse manner is so unattractive to a wide audience that the commercial world has not picked him up (and he was rejected by them even before the 1990 book, so that he was deeply dependent on State funding). It looks more as if there is no demand for his work.

One webpage says“He also came into contact with Benno Besson of Brecht's Berlin Ensemble and through him was invited by Brecht to Berlin where he made his first film, in 8 mm.” That would be about 1953. It is probable that his unique approach to interview or biography was influenced by Brecht. He is not asking for identification but has a very important founding in documents, in dense recorded facts. He actually filmed the Berliner Ensemble at work (rehearsing four productions); in a context of 'alienation' this might not mean that he sympathised with their methods or Marxist propaganda content. He was 18 – this sounds like something unimportant to Brecht and yet also “spontaneous”, something we hardly expect in a zone of “managed culture” like the DDR. Had it been official, it wouldn't have been this 18 year old pointing the camera, it would have been a whole team of comrades, including a Spanish War veteran, a secret policeman, and an accountant.

I think Syberberg has his place in film history. I am not convinced that he had restored the sublime, or that the liberal consensus has crippled West German culture.

If you can imagine that one could have made feature films in 1885, what would those films be like? Unbelievably slow, wordy, close to the sublime, close to religious painting. Syberberg was making home movies in the style of the 1880s. The style of 'Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland' (HEFAD) is out of place. It is about ten times slower than you expect from a film narrative. This is not unpleasant but it is hard to admire; identification with the characters is impossible, and this is what might bring it close to Brecht. The settings remind me of Christmas cribs, with their wooden figures. It is radical: it is as if there were two styles of cinema, Syberberg's and the Hollywood style. Does it leave us in a state of complete boredom? Yes, but that leaves an empty emotional space in which we can do other things. It is the opposite of an advertising film, in which visual and auditory senses are jammed, there are rapid cuts, there is no emptiness at all. Behind this is a theory about modernity, by which it involves a crazily speeded-up, jangling, cage of over-stimulation which prevents consciousness and leaves us in a state of hyped-up frustration. Continual stimuli wear out our ability to respond, and we sink into insensibility. In contrast, there was the Victorian Sunday, in which the formal banning of any pleasant stimuli left time for studying theology and philosophy (acceptable because it had roots in theology) and this gave us access to the Sublime, to a settled personal view of things. Of course, these abstractions might be dependent on the exclusion of a wide range of stimuli, which would either refute them or at least expose their weaknesses. The sublime is less available in the twentieth century. So many thinkers, normally of the Right, have expressed this doctrine that the time-sense of the 20thC was bad for people. Syberberg is proposing a journey back into the 19th century. He is interested in subjects who were immersed in the sublime. His idea of Hitler as a fantasist, a classic German adolescent who had trouble with reality and tried to live in a world of his own, is strikingly original and in many ways convincing (although it leaves out his other career as a politician). Fantasy leading to violence? – yes, persuasive because dialogue, relationships, a sense of borders, indeed a belief in the reality of other people, are all likely to make violence unnecessary, and yet are less available to someone who is sunk in fantasy at all relevant times. The time-sense of the film is mimicking the tempo of Hitler's fantasies. Is boredom equivalent to sublimity? Is a move into monologues, into long takes, enough to drag us back into the nineteenth century?
The film is hard to evoke, but it couldn't be more anti-Hitler, and it is compelling even if exhausting. It is designed to prevent identification, and leaves feelings of sorrow, lucidity, and determination. Its viewpoint is complicated and indirectly expressed but is in no way of the Far Right. It is very personal and offers a text in Syberberg's own voice, over a complex mesh of sound montage, superimpositions, and allusions. The cultural quotations are too many to pick up.

The tag in the New Right chat I saw on-line is “the loss of the essence of the German nation”. That is, the idealistic philosophy of the 19th century, “remote from the world” (weltfern), is raised to being the German essence, and its disappearance is a loss of essence rather than a development in public language and cultural style. I should say first of all that when this philosophy originated there were few bookshops in Germany and few people read books, certainly books of philosophy; and that the feeling of isolation and infinite power which animates the philosophy is connected to the status of a tiny educated class, cut off from the masses and by the way also cut off from a political process, in monarchies which observed no democratic principle. It is credible that the later arrival of mass literacy, of a book and newspaper trade which reached all parts of the country, and of a political process (interrupted, to be sure!) which could solve problems by legislation, and which strove to reach all voters and indeed all adults, made this speculative and solitary philosophy out of date. In a strange way, the idealism produced both the arbitrary power of the petty kings and the helplessness of a thinker in a kingdom where he was not genuinely a citizen. It is plausible that German collective culture simply developed away from it, across the board, and so that it was not the “German essence” at all. To be accurate, 99% of Germans in the 19th century were hardly touched by difficult works such as those of Schopenhauer or Hegel, and the main axis of German thought was surely theology. The idea that Germany is suffering from a desperate shortage of megalomaniacs does not convince me.

He went from filming actors rehearsing to filming real people against a fantasy stage set. The predecessor to the Hitler film may be the interview with Winifred Wagner, in her eighties at the time. Once a close friend of Hitler, she is an unrepentant Nazi and makes no secret that the twelve years of the Reich are the ones she recalls most affectionately out of her long life. Syberberg gives her all the time needed, and rigorously never either rebuts or sustains anything she says. The film is rigid and this may give insight into the rigidity of the Hitler film. The aesthetic is much more easily reconciled with an American aesthetic, i.e. that of various documentarists, say Pennebaker. If you look at Syberberg's subjects, Brecht and then the head of the Wagner family, it is apparent that ideology is the key thing, and that unless you show the sublime landscape of ideology you can't get close to the mentality of these rigid egotists. This accounts for the visuals of HEFAD – a static backdrop, rather complex, resembling the scenery of an opera. It represents Hitler's fantasies and is vague and blurred because that is how fantasies are. It shows for example the Welteislehre, the “cosmic ice theory” of Hörbiger, as Hitler’s idea of how the planets came into existence. The characters can't walk through the backdrop or interact with it, obviously. This is also very cheap. It looks as if Syberberg had never heard the American mantra of film, “don’t tell me, show me”: he gives 90% of the exposition to words, and the visuals are static (if sometimes beautiful). He is less interested in the sensory world than in reason, the faculty which makes us persons and draws us into the world of morality. While this cinematic world is profoundly Syberberg's, rescued from a state which is merely real, and not imagined, at the same time it is not a dream we share, the whole staging keeps us at arms' length. HEFAD is about sorrow and the natural pace of sorrow is slow.

Syberberg's racial slurs affected the way you could read his films. For example, his style is anti-Hollywood, ignores all the rules which Hollywood has developed since about 1910. Hollywood was run by Jews. So making those remarks re-contextualises his artistic preferences: now it appears that being anti-Hollywood could be a way of expressing anti-Semitism.

Syberberg would have been ten when the Third Reich collapsed. He belonged to the landowners of eastern Prussia, in fact the “ostelbianer” who were cast in European mythology as the most militarist, right wing, and unreconstructed of all classes. The war destroyed their grip on the German army, huge numbers of non-professionals reached the rank of officer and large numbers of the professional officers died. The years after the war saw the destruction of their estates, redistributed in one of the few benign acts of communism. Syberberg came from an enemy class and grew up in a country where class determined everything about you. It is unlikely that he accepted the pieties of Marxist teachers at his school. Anyway, Mecklenburg was one of the most conservative parts of northern Europe. He missed the ethical teaching offered by Western German schools and it is credible that he emerged into the Sixties as a deep conservative, regarding the twentieth century as one long night of trauma. It does not seem that the word progress meant anything to him. Certainly he was interested by the 19th C when he came to make documentaries. The word "market" probably didn't say a lot to him.

Generally, today, we believe either in progress or in the market. Someone who believes in neither is an interesting proposition. But what he says may be merely puzzling.
If you look at Ludwig II, with his glittering career as patron of the arts (chief funder of Wagner, builder of numerous fairy-tale castles, etc.) followed by intervention of the soulless Bavarian bourgeoisie, subjection to business values, budgets, etc., in 1885 loss of his throne and sequestration in one of his castles, etc., it is hard not to see the pattern of Syberberg's career. Again, he was someone alienated from official DDR culture who managed to make himself alienated from cinematic culture in the Federal Republic. Some fatality is at work here. It may be that this romantic enactment of a myth is inseparable from a commitment to Idealism.

Rural Mecklenburg in the Thirties didn't have capitalism. Generations earlier, The liberation of the peasantry in the eastern provinces involved the serfs paying the landowners back for their loss of property – it made the peasants poorer. Mecklenburg lost serfdom in 1822 (not every aspect was abolished) so nostalgia for the 19th century, in Mecklenburg, gets you close to feudalism. When the Romantics were vapouring about the Middle Ages, around 1805, the lower classes, in some parts of Germany, were still serfs. Again, I would question what exactly someone could mean by “the essence of the German nation”. Serfdom, tyranny, overlords – is this what Syberberg was afraid of losing?

But is there a “pot of gold” of Far Right culture which the liberal consensus won't allow us to see? I am sceptical partly because I have hung out in German bookshops and looked at the torrent of militaristic Second World War memoirs, which were sold in millions of copies. Ex-SS generals came out of jail and published their self-serving memoirs without problems. In the Federal Republic, from its foundation, you could publish all kinds of Reich-nostalgia-kitsch. Obviously, you couldn't buy those books in East Germany. Being a monarchist in the DDR of the 1950s meant living in eclipse, in oppression. Equally, a Jacobite in Britain in 1760 could not express his or her beliefs in print. The Jacobite songs from Scotland and Ireland got into print much later. But, in the West, the market rules culture. Everything gets published, and it only disappears because the shops can’t sell it. Former Nazi authors made lots of money in the 1950s, their books are available second-hand, today, in large quantities. (I looked up Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, just now, on the abebooks marketplace: 618 titles.) The idea of a secret marvel world of Far Right cultural creativity is false – this area was not suppressed. At most, you can talk about work which never got written because the Far Right genius was so hurt at the idea of being mocked by clever centre-Left literati around their café table. He turned into custard in the face of their cosmopolitan sarcasm, etc.

Another eccentric German figure was Rudolf Borchardt (1877-1945). What I first read about him described him as having written a complete translation of La Divina Commedia into a fictional mediaeval German dialect. This took decades. I imagined him as an unworldly and benign figure, and thought of this invented language as being like Tolkien – from philology into near-lunacy. However, when I read a biography of him it turned out that he was into power, dominance, and freedom from bourgeois restraints, that his preoccupation was with seducing well brought-up young women who had an idealistic view of men, and that he was a Jewish anti-Semite. The last part really sticks in my throat – I find it very hard to sympathise with someone like that. Admittedly, that group was large in Wilhelmine Germany, and you could even argue that disliking them is a form of anti-Semitism, since they were an integral part of the complexity of European Jewish culture. Borchardt wrote an autobiography which does not even mention his mother, allegedly because she was the channel by which Jewish blood had permeated him. Pretty unusual, an autobiography which never mentions the subject's mother. Since the biography was published, actually since I drafted this post, a thousand-page long pornographic novel by Borchardt was published – 70 years after his death. (This is the legal moment when the family lost control of the copyright.) After the German book market was closed to him, as a Jew, he had to think of ways of making money – having paying guests for cultural tours in his Italian villa, writing about gardening, and writing pornography were ways of keeping his family fed. The most interesting thing about Borchardt was that there is a document, signed by his former professor, directed to a prospective father-in-law, which describes all his youthful sins (quite a catalogue) and says that he was a rascal but has now grown up. The biographer says that it is very likely that Borchardt wrote this document himself. This is a complex event. Borchardt was someone who lived in a lofty and dead world of Classical European culture, hardly unusual in the late 19th century, and had problems in reaching a market, even if the book market now attracted millions of people. His breakout was as an orator – after 1918 he made political speeches – great speeches, allegedly, but dedicated to overthrowing democracy, overthrowing peace, restoring military honour by a new war, which would first demand an end to demands by the workers. In the Thirties, he was unable to get with the Third Reich even if they had realised his personal programme and overthrown the Weimar Republic, and gave his energies to socialising with the (uncrowned) king of Bavaria, the former Crown Prince Rupprecht (1869-1955). So before Syberberg was trying to connect to Ludwig II, Borchardt actually was connecting with Ludwig's relative. (I believe Rupprecht was the grandson of Ludwig's uncle, in fact. Ludwig was not the marrying kind.) The idea was that the Prussian monarchy had discredited itself too much but the Bavarian monarchy could provide the leadership for a new (old-style) Germany. Borchardt wanted a restoration of monarchy – he was closely associated (this included quarrels, obviously) with von Hofmannsthal, who originated the phrase “conservative revolution” to sum up the enemies of the republics in Austria and Germany who desired new monarchies. Von Hofmannsthal was an important influence on Eliot's Criterion. In the Thirties, a number of German Jews expressed wounded conservatism by reconnecting with Jewish culture, alphabet mysticism, medieval folklore, and with the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine – sadly, Borchardt made no connection with this at all. The Wilhelmine Second Reich really expressed what he believed in. I became aware of him through Thomas Kling's recovery of his poem “Bacchische Epiphanie”. I was translating Kling so I became aware of his cultural salvage exercise, recovering poets of the past often from under many tons of accumulated rubble. The “Epiphanie” is a great poem; I doubt a translation is possible, but anyway the outcome would be to show that B was imitating Swinburne, so that if you read Swinburne (especially “Atalanta in Calydon”) you have got what Borchardt was doing in his Bacchic poem. It is an extremely classicising, costume poem, 20th century elements are hardly to be found in it. Adorno wrote a long essay on Borchardt, from which we can gather that Adorno still belonged to 19th century ideals of high culture and classicism, and that he was by no means a participant in 20th C democratic culture in the way that his modern supporters would wish to have him.

Wikipedia reminds us that “As a direct descendant of Henrietta of England, daughter of Charles I of England, he [Rupprecht] was claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in the Jacobite succession.” I can't spend time on this, but it does allow a flashback into the “exile culture” of the 18th century. There was a way of being anti-modern in 1714 just as there was in 2014. The origins of the European Right are often traced back to the speculations of French monarchists after the fall of the monarchy, spun out in their enforced leisure as exiles and people without power. This (in, say, 1792 to 1815) was the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment, but perhaps we can already find elements of it among the Jacobites and their fertile myths of resentment. In the 1920s, the European Right received a new injection of rather shopworn and past its best DNA from Russian, Austrian, and German monarchists, out of office. Rupprecht firmly discouraged any mention of his possible claims to the English throne, “However, during his mother's lifetime Jacobites had styled him 'Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay', because of her claim.” The Jacobite era was a time of people emotionally living in a country which was not the one they physically lived in, and which in fact did not exist anywhere. This situation was one which became a habit of the Far Right, and contact with reality was something incompatible with their cultural style. There is a rumour that Jacob Rees-Mogg is a Jacobite.

A book on Syberberg has this quote: “
while his more sympathetic colleague Rainer Werner Fassbinder described him as a 'merchant in plagiarism' who simply imitated Werner Schroeter’s techniques and 'competently marketed what he took from Schroeter' (Frankfurter Rundschau, Feb. 24, 1979: 21).” I never managed to go and see any of Schroeter's films when the Goethe Institut, London, showed them (in the 80s?) but the write-up suggested they were extreme gay films, made from the point of view of someone who had no compromise with heterosexual aesthetics or emotional norms at all. I am not sure what Fassbinder says is true (as opposed to being a sprinkle of bitchy rage) but it does open up the possibility that the Far Right position and the far gay position might coincide, in their wish to find a new world hidden behind the dominant reality channel. So a film about Ludwig II might simultaneously express a reactionary monarchist sentiment and a gay, operatic, beautiful male martyr sentiment. Would Ludwig II have made better films than Fassbinder?
The idea that Austria/Germany do not produce eccentrics is much like the idea that they do not produce homosexuals or bad films or unambitious, popular films. There is a whole range of minority-interest material in Europe which simply does not make it through the boundaries of translation. If you wander round a city like Munich for a week, you find all kinds of things which never got exported – in Munich, the late-Baroque Catholic devotional kitsch is an obvious example, but I imagine something similar is true of every European city.

* You can get Syberberg's films on DVD via the director's own website. This includes the Berliner Ensemble footage.