Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Review: Muller, Tannen und Wolken

Müller, Dr. Phil Karl Friedrich Tannen und Wolken (Firs and Clouds) (1934) A curious book. Fay found it at a yard sale, and bought it for me. The copyright date is significant - one year after Hitler was made Führer by a vote of the Reichstag (that Hitler became dictator by legal means is something that is rarely taught, and never emphasised.) The publisher describes itself as “Volkskunstverlag”, “publisher of folk arts.” This does not refer to naive painting, it refers to the arts of (and about) the Volk, the German people. The racist undertones are deliberate.

Also significant is the author’s academic title – Germans have overvalued such titles for generations, with some justification, since it was the ramping up of secondary and post-secondary education that enabled Germany to speed up its industrial revolution in the 1800s. But the assumption that a man with a D. Phil (and a Leica) will be a better photographer than the ordinary shutterbug is of course nonsense. The photos in this album are second-rate considered as art, and merely average considered as tourist snapshots. They are pleasant enough, and would grace a family album, in which they would serve to recall a hiking holiday. Müller uses all the rules of composition and landscape lighting – trees etc in the foreground to frame the distant vista, white clouds contrasting against the sky (difficult to do with the films of the time), layers of hills fading away to create the illusion of depth. He knows his stuff. But the pictures are banal and ultimately boring. They have some interest as documentation of the rapidly disappearing farm architecture of the region. But they don’t do what even many casual snapshots do: make us see the object with new eyes. They merely confirm the sentimental “Heimatliebe” (love of the homeland) that the Nazis pretended was the essence of patriotism.

What’s interesting is the almost total absence of any modern artifacts - no roads, no cars, no power lines, no agricultural machinery. The Black Forest is presented as an almost medieval landscape of peasant farms and semi-wilderness. Only the few people in modern dress, shown walking away from the camera, indicate that these photos were made in the 20th century. Why this nostalgia for a country life that never existed? In part, this is the debased legacy of Romanticism, the revulsion against modern technology and cities. But since it went further in its kitschiness in Nazi Germany than anywhere else, I think it’s also part of the Nazi ideology of Blut und Boden, blood and soil. It’s easier to feel sentimental about the farm, the forest, the mountains, to pretend that this supposedly more virtuous way of life still exists, than to face up to the injustices of corporate capitalism. We have a version of this sentimental claptrap in our own times: the idealisation of the small town. *

Stone Kiss (Book Review)

Faye Kellerman, Stone Kiss (2002)

Decker is asked to help find the missing niece of his half brother’s wife. But when he gets to New York, the family puts him off. He looks up an old nemesis, Chris Donatti, whom he sprung from jail because the evidence had been cooked, and who has become a major supplier of drugs and women. Donatti becomes a key figure in the denouement, and even more entangled with Decker and his family. The family, personal, and business relationships are a tangled mess, not clarified by corrupt cops, religious scruples, and horrific family dysfunction. Donatti is a psychopath, which makes for tension and violence, but when his purposes coincide with Decker’s, he is an ally. He uses violence as a tool, with no particular pleasure.

In fact, the book has a lot of violence – Kellerman is clearly angling for a wider audience. The result is a book that’s very TV, even its elucidation of the sources of evil has that facile psycho-babble that makes so much American TV less than credible. The accounts of Jewish life are, as always, interesting, and I must take them at face value. In the books between the first two (I read the second one) and this one, Decker has discovered his birth family, which was Jewish, so he turns out to be Jewish after all. But he still has close ties to his adoptive family. Etc. These aspects of the narrative are more interesting than the violence, which feels more like a movie than real life. A minor disappointment, despite its swift narrative rhythm. **