Mittwoch, 21. Januar 2009
I know a British neuroscientist obsessed with ‘The Sound of Music’. She grew up in the thrall of the movie, dreamt of being Liesel, even travelled to Austria as a young adult to see the von Trapp home, the gazebo, the church where Julie Andrews’ Maria and Christopher Plummer’s Captain were married. Time and time again on the Salzburg ‘Sound of Music’ tour she found herself humming ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ and ‘My Favourite Things’.
The neuroscientist’s confession started me thinking; what – or who – are the most popular cultural icons of the German-speaking world? To answer the question I conducted a totally arbitrary and subjective survey by writing to a dozen non-German friends. Their responses were both predictable, and surprising.
As well as sharing a passion for Captain von Trapp, a couple of my pals owned up to having a crush on tennis stars Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. Two Wagner lovers declared their devotion to the annual Bayreuth festival, the great Bavarian Woodstock for opera. The first German cultural icons which interested one American friend were – in his words – ‘the awesomeness of such giants of classical scholarship as Mommsen or Gruen’. He went on, ‘I currently have a man-crush on Til Schweiger, but that happened after I moved to Germany, so it'd be ex post facto to say I came here because of him’. Then there’s my brother, who is nuts about cars and plans to visit Germany next year. But he’s coming not so much to see me as to pay homage to motor engineering at the Volkswagen Autostadt museum in Wolfsburg. Vorsprung durch Technik!
The German capital itself is an especially interesting icon, for it is the myth of Berlin – rather than its day-to-day reality – which draws most visitors here. These days tourists flock in looking for Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, the sexual decadence of the ‘Golden’ Twenties, Bowie’s Heroes and remnants of the Berlin Wall. An acquaintance working in the tourism business reports that almost all his customers arrive in town with their heads full of preconceptions. His English-speaking visitors especially tend to be ‘utterly and completely obsessed with the Nazis’. He has been asked ‘a million times’ for the location of Hitler's bunker and witnessed his clients’ disappointment on being shown a dusty car park on Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße. Nazi iconography remains so potent that – sixty years after the end of the war – some English tourists seem to expect bus drivers still to be wearing discreet swastika lapel pins.
Obviously icons don’t necessarily reflect present reality. In truth Steffi Graf lives with her husband Andre Agassi near Las Vegas. The heinous Iron Curtain has been totally removed, apart from a token stretch of Wall on Bernauer Straße. ‘Edelweiss’, the popular folk song from ‘The Sound of Music’, was written in New York by Oscar Hammerstein and is little known in Austria. And do you remember that moving cinematic moment when the von Trapp family hiked over the Alps away from fascism and towards freedom? Had they really walked in that direction, they would have ended up in Germany, near to Hitler's mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. The real von Trapps simply walked to a local station and boarded the next train to Italy from where they moved on to London and then the United States.
Now – with a scientific casualness which would appal even a sentimental Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-loving neuroscientist -- I want to extend my research project. You, as visitors to the Goethe-Institut and Meet the Germans websites, are interested in Germans (unless you have mistyped gerbils into Google). So which German icon first interested you in German culture? Was it Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, and the utopian dream of a reborn world? Or Marlene Dietrich’s legs which gave rise to other fantasies? Was it ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ or ‘Mein Kampf’? Was it the Bauhaus chair or the VW Camper? Just click the Comments tab below and let me know. We’d all like to be surprised!
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