The Arts in Germany: From Literature to Cinema

The Arts in Germany: From Literature to Cinema

Land of the poets and thinkers. Goethe was German, as were Bach and Beethoven. And yet as a nation of culture Germany still has no national authority with overall responsibility for culture for the country as a whole.

According to the Basic Law, culture is the responsibility of the individual federal states. Yet why are cultural affairs something that the nation itself as a whole cannot, or is not meant to, govern? Ever since the era of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the late 19th century, German culture as the expression of a single German nation was suspected of being the reflection of a craving for status. The disaster of National Socialism ultimately resulted in a re-alignment. Following the Second World War the opinion gradually gained sway that Germany would only be able to return to the world community if it avoided all semblance of exaggerated emotionalism as regards the national culture. This is one of the reasons why, when the Federal Republic was founded in 1949, one bore the federal tradition in mind and handed over cultural sovereignty to the federal states. Only since 1999 has a State Minister for Culture and Media been part of the Federal Chancellery. Since then Germany has once again seen this or that cultural matter as being something the entire country should be involved with. Federal film production was re-organized, and the German Federal Cultural Foundation founded. Berlin is increasingly turning into a magnet for the creative class, and has already become a cultural force, a melting pot of cultures, whose museums are a reflection of the history of humanity. The Holocaust Memorial is testimony hewn in stone to how Germany as a cultural nation is dealing with its history. It is impressive proof of a form of national cultural policy that has become necessary since the dawn of the 21st century. Cultural federalism, in turn, kindles the ambition of the federal states. Cultural policy is local policy. Over many years, the Ruhr district, for example, a former mining and steel-producing region in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has re-invented itself as a cultural region.

Literature: A Universe of Stories

Germany is a book country: With around 94,000 titles published or re-published annually, it is one of the world’s leading book nations. International Frankfurt Book Fair, which is held every October, is still the international pub¬lishing world’s most important meeting, while the smaller Leipzig Book fair in the spring has also made a name for itself as reading festival for the general public. Since reunification Berlin has established itself as a literary center and international city of publishing, from which exciting big city literature is emerging, the like of which Germany has not experienced since the end of the Weimar Republic.

In the first ten years of this century internationally successful authors dominated the top places of the bestseller lists. They include Joanne K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Ken Follet and the German children’s author Cornelia Funke. At any rate, few decidedly literary books succeeded in occupying the top places. Alongside Daniel Kehlmann’s bestseller “Measuring the World” (2006) one such work was Charlotte Roche’s novel “Wetlands” (2008), which triggered a debate about female sexuality and role models, documenting in a highly lively manner that literature can still treat socially relevant topics bluntly, even if these are more private than political in nature.

Furthermore, based on the Booker Prize in the UK and the Prix Goncourt in France, the German Book Prize (bestowed for the first time in 2005) honors the best novel of the year and has been successful in effectively marketing highbrow literature to the public. In addition to the prize money, winners of the German Book Prize can look forward to high sales figures and media attention.

Although several of the great post-War literary figures such as the Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Siegfried Lenz are still writing, their recent works have had less impact on the language of literature. Following the aesthetically innovative post-War decades and literature in the 1970s that was dominated just as much by social analysis as it was by experiments with language and form, around the turn of the millennium a return to more traditional narrative forms, to ingeniously simple stories (Judith Hermann, Karen Duve) became discernible. This included, alongside skilful narration, formal experiments (Katharina Hacker), the diverse literary forms of authors moving in various cultures (Feridun Zaimoglu, Ilija Trojanow), and the linguistic power, oblivious of fashion, of Herta Müller, who hails from Romania. Since winning the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature she is now known beyond the literary scene.

At the same time the boundaries between highbrow literature and entertaining works have become more penetrable. In the work of younger authors readers search in vain for political and moral stances. Yet in what would appear to be a retreat into the private sphere, precisely those topics are being addressed that literature has always focussed on: How do individuals deal with society’s re¬quirements and expectations? What impact is the global dominance of the economy having on individuals? In that sense, in contemporary literature the private sphere is indeed political after all.

Theater: A Genre Constantly Reinventing Itself

Outside the country, German theater frequently has a reputation for being brash and self-absorbed. It is, however, theater with a much-admired system behind it. Even provincial cities boast artistically interesting venues catering to three areas of the performing arts (theater, opera, ballett), which can mostly be classified as repertory theaters, in other words have several productions in their program simultaneously, and as a rule a permanent ensemble. Overall there is a distinct theater world, a well-established network of state, municipal, traveling, and private theaters. In Germany a lot goes into this system: in terms of stimulus, attention and money. For many this is a luxury, especially as box office takings amount to a mere 10–15 percent of theater expenses. The system has long since passed its zenith and is now in a difficult position because time and again art is measured in terms of the material requirements.

Peter Stein, a unique figure in German theater, is a “world-class” director. As opposed to other dramatists he created an oeuvre that is clearly recognizable by virtue of the continuity of repeated motifs, themes and authors. A theater of memory, with a directing style that takes its cue from the text. There are worlds between the up-and-coming generation of directors and a Peter Stein, Claus Peymann, the Principle of the Berliner Ensemble, and Peter Zadek, who died in 2009. Contemporary stage productions can no longer be portrayed using the vocabulary of the generation that created what is known as director’s theater. Terms such as enlighten, instruct, expose, and intervene sound antiquated. Nor can audiences be really shocked any longer, theatrical provocation mostly comes to nothing and is frequently little more than routine attacks on surviving clichés. The theater of today’s young people no longer sees itself as being avant-garde; it strives for independent forms of expression. In this context the number of premieres of works by contemporary authors has risen considerably with the dawn of the new century. Varying enormously in quality they reveal the entire range of current forms of presentation, traditional theater merging with pantomime, dance, film sequences and music to create ever new blends. Significantly these performances, which are frequently very open and dominated by improvisation are called “dramatic installation” and “scene production”.

Frank Castorf, General Manager of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin, who has texts dismantled and put together again, is one of the role models for this young generation of directors. Christoph Marthaler also represent a different interpretation of what theater is about and the search for new opportunities for expression that are appropriate to globalized capitalism and a world dominated by electronic media. Michael Thalheimer is regarded as an expert on difficult subject matter with an eye thast concentrates on the essentials. Armin Petras, Martin Kusej and René Pollesch have created styles of directing that prioritize style over content; traditional narrative methods that stick close to the text are not something they are necessarily familiar with. On the other hand there is repeated criticism, which at the same time demonstrates how lively the world of theater is, despite all its strife.

For an alert, interested audience this diversity is a step forward, providing as it does new access to what were regarded as familiar texts; it can unsettle, annoy, entertain and create ever new images of our life.

Music: A Vibrant Spectrum of Styles

Germany’s reputation as an important musical nation is still based on names like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel and Richard Strauss. Students from around the world flock to its music academies, music lovers attend the festivals – from the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth to the Donaueschingen Festival of Contemporary Music. There are 80 publicly financed concert halls in Germany, the most important being in Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Munich as well as Frankfurt/Main, Stuttgart, and Leipzig. The Berlin Philharmonic, under the star British conductor Sir Simon Rattle, is considered to be the best of around 130 symphony orchestras in Germany. The Frankfurt “Ensemble Modern” is a fundamental engine room behind contemporary music production. Every year it masters some 70 new works, including 20 premieres. In addition to internationally known maestros such as Kurt Masur and Christoph Eschenbach, of the young conductors Ingo Metzmacher and Christian Thielemann in particular have come to the fore. The violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter even has an enormous following beyond classical music enthusiasts and is “the” German international star.

German pioneers of electronic music such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died in 2007, and his traditionalist opposite number, opera composer Hans Werner Henze, have had a resounding international influence on contemporary music since the mid-20th century. Nowadays there are a wide array of stylistic trends: Heiner Goebbels combines music and theater, while Helmut Lachenmann takes the possibilities of instrumental expression to the extreme. Wolfgang Rihm reveals how in the way it is developing it appears possible for music once again to become more comprehensible. With his sense of the zeitgeist and the sensitivities of his fans,at the other end of the musical spectrum the pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer has been enjoying success with songs in German for years now. The Punk rockers “Die Toten Hosen“, the heavy-metal band Rammstein and the teenage fan group “Tokio Hotel” also come in the category of German superstars. Furthermore, over the past few years young artists such as the singer Xavier Naidoo (of the group “Söhne Mannheims”) have been successfully basing their work on American soul and rap. Especially in this particular scene, many young musicians from immigrant backgrounds such as Laith Al-Deen, Bushido, Cassandra Steen and Adel Tawil are emerging as stars. Most recently, the success of the Berlin band “Wir sind Helden” has influenced a whole new wave of young German bands. The founding of the “Pop Academy” in Mann¬heim clearly demonstrated the wish to put German pop music on an international footing.

In the club sceneas well Germany has numerous “in” locations, in particular in the major cities Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt/Main, Stuttgart and Mannheim. With the disco trend of the 1970s, the Rap/Hip-hop of the 1980s and the techno style of the 1990s, DJs liberated themselves to become sound artists and producers. Scratching, sampling, re-mixes and computer technology made sound media into infinitely changeable raw mass for meta music. In Sven Väth, the “Godfather of Techno” and Paul van Dyk, Germany has produced two of the absolute top stars of the club scene.

Cinema: A Success Story in Moving Pictures

Shortly before the dawn of the new millennium a firework woke the slumbering German film industry: Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film “Run Lola Run”. The experimental comedy about the redhead Lola, fate, love and chance captures the spirit of the late 1990s. The global audience saw Lola’s daredevil race against time through the streets of Berlin as a metaphor for the restlessness of an era. “Run Lola Run” proved to be the international breakthrough for director Tom Tykwer. For the German cinema it marked the beginning of a revival. For the first time since the era of so-called auteur cinema and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (died 1982), foreign commentators once again began to enthuse about German cinema, which is now enjoying international success. In 2003, Caroline Link won an Oscar for “Nowhere in Africa” and in 2007 Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won the cherished trophy for his film “The Life of Others”, and the same year the Cannes International Film Festival awarded its prize for best script and its special prize to Fatih Akin for his film “The Edge of Heaven”.

While at the beginning of the new millennium it was comedies that surprisingly boosted German cinema’s prospects – such as Hans Weingartner’s “Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei“ (2004) – by the end of the first decade attention focused on serious films. The themes have remained the same, however: The tragicomedy “Good Bye, Lenin!” (2003) was a success in over 70 countries because it portrayed the failure of socialism, and Donnersmarck’s “The Life of Others” (2007) is about life and suffering in East Germany’s police state.

Fatih Akin, a Hamburg citizen with Turkish roots, on the other hand, tells the story of life in Germany at breathtaking speed. In his movie “Head-On” (2004), which among other things won the B.I.F.F, Golden Bear, he offers us the love story of two Turks brought up in Germany, and how they are crushed between the two cultures. The story is brutally precise, but deliberately not a tear-jerker. And in 2007 in his “Edge of Heaven” he tells the story of six people in Germany and Turkey, whose lives are tied up by destiny. For the German Film Prize this was worth no less then four awards. In 2009 in “Soul Kitchen” he creates a movie testimony to Hamburg, this time in a comedy.

German films are successful because they use national themes when telling universal stories. Yet the filmmakers filter the material of which their movies are made from the history and difficulties in their own country and their own biography.

Fine Arts: A Place for New Ideas

Since the 1990s German painting and photography have been enjoying international success. Abroad, this new German painting revelation is known under the label “Young German Artists“. The artists involved come from Leipzig, Berlin and Dresden. Neo Rauch is the best known representative of the “New Leipzig School“. His style is characterized by a new realism that has emerged, free of all ideology, from the former “Leipzig School” of East German art. The paintings reveal for the most part pale figures that would appear to be waiting for something indefinite; a reflection, perhaps, of the situation in Germany at the beginning of the new millennium. So-called “Dresden Pop“, propagated among others by Thomas Scheibitz, references the aesthetics of advertising, TV and video to playfully deal with the aesthetics of finding certainty in the here and now.

For most younger artists, dealing with the Nazi era, as was the case in the works of Hans Haacke, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys, belongs to the past. Rather, a “new interiority” and an interest in spheres of experience that collide with one another are emerging in the art scene: The works of Jonathan Meese and André Butzer reflect depression and compulsive phenomena; they are seen as representatives of “Neurotic Realism“. The subject of Franz Ackermann’s “Mental Maps”, in which he points out the disasters behind the facades, is the world as a global village. Tino Sehgal, whose art exists only at the time it is performed and is not allowed to be filmed, is aiming for forms of production and communication that have nothing to do with the market economy. The interest shown in art in Germany can also be witnessed at the documenta, the leading exhibition of contemporary art worldwide held every five years in Kassel. In contrast to the fine arts – whose importance is underlined by the boom in the foundation of new private museums – photography had to struggle for a long time to be accepted as an art form in its own right. Katharina Sieverding, who in her self portraits sounds out the boundaries between the individual and society, is considered to be a 1970s pioneer. The breakthrough came in the 1990s with the success of three young men who studied under the photographer duo Bernd and Hilla Becher: Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff portray in their pictures a double-edged high-gloss reality and possess such a trailblazing international influence that they are simply referred to as “Struffsky”.

German: An Attractive Foreign Language

German is one of around 15 Germanic languages, a branch of the Indo-Germanic family of languages. It is the most frequently spoken mother tongue in the European Union (EU) and one of the ten most widely spoken languages in the world: Around 120 million people speak German as their mother tongue. After English German comes second in terms of foreign languages in Europe. There are currently some 17 million people worldwide learning German as a foreign language at institutions and schools. The teaching of the German language abroad is promoted by the Federal Foreign Office and entrusted to organizations: The Goethe Institute offers German language courses in 127 cities in 80 countries. 440 German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) lecturers work on behalf of the DAAD at universities in 102 countries. The Zentralstelle für das Auslandsschulwesen (ZfA) manages 135 German schools outside the country, as well as some 1,900 German staff teaching abroad. „Schulen: Partner der Zukunft“ (Schools: Partners for the Future), a Federal Foreign Office Initiative aims to establish German as a foreign language more strongly abroad. The goal is for a network of 1,500 partner schools.