12 Cities, 12 Fates: Germany Looks Back on the Eve of the 70th Anniversary of World War Two

Cologne WWII

Source: Cologne Museum

Horror on an unprecedented scale engulfed Europe in the 1940s, but it was only after the smoke had cleared that the true scope of the brutality came into focus. Millions across the continent were dead, tens of millions displaced, and whole nations found themselves on the brink of annihilation. In the decades since the end of the war, much attention has been justifiably been paid to the victims of the Nazi ambitions that ravaged Europe, but oftentimes the German civilian suffering has been ignored or forgotten.

A new documentary from Vox seeks to address this oversight on the eve of the 70 anniversary of V-E Day. 1945 – 12 Städte, 12 Schicksale features the experiences of 12 different cities in the immediate aftermath of the war through the lens of archival footage and interviews with survivors and historians. In order to learn more the experiences of the German civilians featured in the series, I sat down with Sabine Wilmes, an editor at Vox, who was in charge of the development of the documentary.

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A German Epic

Of the many cultural highlights I enjoyed while living in Germany, an Abo (subscription) to the local Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra was definitely one of my favorites. We regularly attended concerts featuring world-class musicians at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, an impressive concert hall with phenomenal acoustic quality. The Stuttgarter Philharmoniker were unafraid to present the audience with challenging works, ranging from traditional to modern, and regularly impressed me with unique combinations of styles during each performance.

One of the most memorable performances I attended there was of the music to the 1924 Fritz Lang silent film “Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Rache” (Kriemhild’s Revenge, the second of a two-part epic; part 1 was “Die Nibelungen: Siegfried“; music by Gottfried Huppertz) . The orchestra played the score, mostly in the dark, while the audience watched the black-and-white film on a large screen in front of the auditorium. I was blown away, both by the story and by the orchestra.

Having never heard of this epic tale, I began asking my German friends about it, and many of them had learned it in school. Das Nibelungenlied is an old epic poem, whose manuscripts date back to the 13th century, the authorship of which is unknown. Consider it along the lines of The Iliad and you get the idea. I found the movie so fascinating that I wanted to read the story for myself. While my German is fluent, and I often read German books and regularly read the newspaper and magazines, I knew I couldn’t handle mittelhochdeutsch (German from the middle ages) in poetry form. Happily, there is a contemporary author who has crafted the tale into a novel, and I found his book Hagen von Tronje, by Wolfgang Hohlbein, easy to follow and very enjoyable to read.

Another form of the tale which I have yet to experience is the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, a series of 4 epic operas that loosely follow the story of the Nibelungen. In fact, the German title is Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is another form of the tale that I am not sure I am quite ready to consume, although I might enjoy the attempt.

I can highly recommend either the 1924 silent film or the novel format of the epic as a good starting place for learning this mythical tale. Don’t worry – you won’t feel like you are back in grade 10 Literature class, and there is no quiz at the end. The benefit is in your deepened understanding of German cultural references (Yes! They regularly reference this tale when referring to things like the Nibelungentreue, and have done so throughout history).


Germany’s Stolen (Degenerate) Art Problem

The German Nazi Past seems always to be lurking around in the background of German life. Over the past few weeks the German Past has once again emerged from the shadows, suddenly all too evident in the glare of headlines all around the world.

In a story that the German news magazine Focus first broke in the first week of November 2013, it was revealed that a cache of more than 1,400 artworks confiscated by the Nazis had been discovered in a cluttered apartment in Munich’s Schwabing district. The inhabitant of that apartment turned out to be 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, despite having a Jewish mother, was an art agent commissioned by the Nazis to cleanse German museums and galleries of so-called “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). Continue reading

“Almanya” in San Diego

San Diego kicked off its first German Film Festival, German Currents in 2011. It seemed to be a long time coming considering that there are an estimated 100,000 Germans living in the San Diego metro area and Orange County.

The festival opened with the screening of Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland, a movie written by two Turkish German sisters, Yasemin and Nesrin Şamdereli, about a Turkish immigrant family’s literal and figurative trip back to Turkey. The family’s patriarch, Hüseyin, leaves his hometown in a village near Anatolia during the initial Gastarbeiter wave of Turkish immigration in the ‘60s in order to earn what was considered big money working in a German factory, which he sends back to support his family. Although originally unplanned, the whole family, made up of his wife, Fatma, and their first three children, eventually join their father and move to their new home in Berlin. Hüseyin and Fatma soon thereafter welcome their fourth child who is their only child born in Germany. Continue reading

Germany and Hollywood

Valkyrie movie posterBesides the glaringly obvious World War II thriller Valkyrie, opening Christmas Day in the United States, there are several other current or upcoming German-Hollywood connections. The more dazzling Tom Cruise blockbuster about the attempted assassination of Hitler by German Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was directed by Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil, X-Men) and filmed largely in Germany for an estimated $80 million. But the much quieter film, The Reader, which opened recently in US movie theaters, was not only filmed in Germany, it is based on a German novel, Der Vorleser (The Reader), by Bernhard Schlink — a book made famous in the US by Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Stephan Daldry (The Hours), the film features Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and a German actor by the name of David Kross, who plays the young character of Michael involved with Hanna (Winslet). It’s a Holocaust film with an interesting twist, looking at morality and guilt in a very personal way.

When I was living in Berlin last year, I kept reading and hearing about Cruise’s problems with German authorities about filming locations (and a film lab disaster in Germany that led to the re-shooting of some key scenes). Later Continue reading