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 afterwards was, apart from painting and sculpture, mostly boring moralistic bullshit. And the best writers like Günter Grass lived in a total lie about their Nazi past, even if Grass continued his classic anti-Semitic patterns of thought with postmodern hatred of Israel.
With the loss of Wilder, Newton and Dietrich, Germany lost its cool. Kraftwerk changed the country by radicalizing the status of being totally uncool (or, as Lester Bangs said, the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool), and now it is a luminary 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. The left- and right-wing cultural criticism of capitalist pop culture from the USA share a kind of bitter gesture of bent over melancholy. The new German supermorality is above all German and combines anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism into a neo-Teutonic resentment that catches on both 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.
German postwar culture was provincial and narrow-minded most of the time. But provincialism created greatness. In Düsseldorf, for example, with the Düsseldorf School, 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-in enclave of the West within the Warsaw Pact, the natives lived in a bizarre small town that nonetheless became a global stage for culture. David Bowie produced his biggest albums mainly here. Depeche Mode followed.
Today, Berlin is one of the most powerful capitals of world politics. But after the exciting years of awakening after the fall of the Wall, with techno and the Love Parade, it is as exciting as Springfield without the Simpsons.
How can one describe the current contemporary culture? In Germany, Ned Flanders would be the main character of a comedy series. That’s because it would be paid for 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 its 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 over-conforming. They practice a revolutionary gesture that is hollow and only looks for applause from all sides. It’s a conformist rebellion that doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
Since reunification and even more so since the financial crisis of 2008, the Germans have once again opted for their special way, the notion of the country’s “special path.” They feel morally superior to others and let them feel that, too. Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, self-righteous and arrogant, has divided Europe and driven the British out of the EU. Since then, political and cultural elites have renationalized themselves — the left as well as the right. When in doubt, we Germans know better: It doesn’t matter whether it’s about foreign policy, as in the Ukraine conflict, about energy policy, like the nuclear phase-out, or about migration policy. We know better, and we are. We are fine. Let others do the dirty work. Our ambition is limited to continuous navel-gazing.
We like to look away. And instead of reflecting and problematizing that in our culture, mainstream German culture prepares the liturgy for this rather mendacious ethic of conviction.
But the more bored I get with Germany, the greater my new cultural home, America, seems.
The Kardashians are more important than Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks because the Germans tend to hide behind their historic intellectual achievements in order to suppress the misery of the present. When Kim Kardashian says on the cover of American Vogue “I’ve chosen myself,” it is a more philosophical puzzle than most of the contemporary dramas on German stages. When Kanye West asks in his new song “How I ain’t bring nothin’ to the table when I’m the table?” he raises more relevant questions than the whole megalomanic art super show documenta will raise this summer. Why? Because every theater and every exhibition in one of the contemporary official art spaces is run and organized by a new breed of cultural civil servants who turn tax money into catechisms.
Our Jimmy Fallon is a duo of good-looking funny government speakers; our Stephen Colbert is a bitter, passive-aggressive government spokesperson. During the coronavirus pandemic, public TV acted like an endless campaign for more and harder lockdowns. Even if you try to have a good time, the constant virtue signaling makes you dizzy. It really turns into a disaster when the calculated cynicism only works if it is a crybaby indictment against those who do not devote their lives to decency and pietism.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that there is also a neo-Victorian wokeism invading American pop culture and universities. The difference is that American pop culture offers a variety of high-end characters unknown in Germany. Somebody like Ari Gold, Barney Stinson or Dr. Gregory House are unimaginable here, as are 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 who cares, as long as Kendall Jenner poses in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s breathtakingly beautiful abstract painting “Green Blue Red.” When she confuses the museum with a catwalk, the modernistic white cube is deconstructed as what it often is: an elegant wallpaper.
The influencers in my country, the high priests of venality and superficiality, have decided to apply hyper-moral makeup to their work as copycats. Green Party parliamentarians pretend to be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on social media — but without her courage, they would never have the guts to wear a “tax the rich” dress to the Met Gala. German 18th-century 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 wallows guiltily in its mendacity.
Thanks for everything, dear American pop culture.