A professor and a Ph.D. student discover a comet that will hit the earth in a couple of months. They try to transmit this information to the officials who can initiate action at this scale. However, their attempts in talking to the media or the president of the U.S. don’t end up with concrete action. Their message is lost inside the social media frenzy, political and business interests, the avoidance and the rejection of truth, etc. When the president decides that it’s the right time to tackle the issue, they team up in a project to do some propaganda about “saving the world” and to deflect the comet. But at the very moment, the Apple/SpaceX CEO intervenes and changes the plans since his team finds some very valuable minerals inside the comet. The passion for profit takes precedence over saving the world.
In terms of its overt messages, it is a critical movie. In terms of its screenplay, storytelling, and puns, pretty mediocre. Its success can be found in transforming the mainstream media and communication critique to superficial characters and dialogues. That is also its defeat. If it’s only a dinner of family and close friends that you can put against the whole extravagance you observed, it means you’re unable to build any counter-discourse against it. Cate Blanchett does her best for underlining what these patterns do to one’s own self, but it doesn’t suffice in the end. I felt sorry for Meryl Streep while watching her struggling with the terrible dialogues written for her part.
Peter Gay’s comprehensive account on the culture of the Weimar era (1918-1933), first published in 1968. I’ll try to take notes, chapter by chapter. For general histories of the era, check out the liberal Erich Eyck and the radical Arthur Rosenberg. For political history, see Heinrich August Winkler and Hans Mommsen. Or you can check out the authors, artists, directors, diaries, films for sure. It’s a pretty saturated cultural milieu as I understand.
Gay’s general thesis: “Weimar Culture was not encapsulated, not simply a product of a lost war. In short, the talents and the energies that were to make the republic virtually unique in history—certainly in German history—did not emerge from nowhere, virginal and unknown. But not until the disastrous end of empire could they really rise to their full potentialities.”
Gay aims to avoid the sentimentalist account of the era. Mannheim sees it as a new Periclean age, but for Gay, “it was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano”.
I. The Trauma of Birth: From Weimar to Weimar
Weimar Republic: “an idea seeking to become reality.”
“The Weimar ideal was both old and new. The striking mixture of cynicism and confidence, the search for novelty and for roots—the solemn irreverence—of the twenties, were a child of war, revolution, and democracy, but the elements that made it up came from both the distant and the recent past, recalled and revived by a new generation.”
The popular movements of Wiemar era had their roots in the pre-Weimar era, Gay takes expressionism first. Next to the several examples, “Kandinsky wrote his revolutionary manifesto, Über das geistige in der Kunst, in 1910 and published it in 1912”. The focus on outsiders: “The Expressionists were a band of outsiders. But they were determined and active. The Republic would add to their lives nothing but success”. Painting, poetry, and experimental short prose also had their roots, see Thomas Mann’s early works, “Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, and Tod in Venedig, all published by 1911”.
The roots of the currents in pyschoanalysis, history and music: “Psychoanalysis was introduced into Germany in 1910, with the founding of the Berlin branch of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Friedrich Meinecke and Otto Hintze, who drew the attention of the historical profession in other countries to Berlin in the 1920s, had done significant work before the war: Meinecke’s Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat, which some of his pupils would later fondly remember as his best book, was published in 1907. Max Reinhardt, the magician of the Weimar theatre, had practically filled his bag of tricks by 1914. Arnold Schönberg, who completed the twelve-tone system in 1924, had broken through to atonality before 1912”.
Burning questions of the era: “For the outsiders of the Empire as, later, for the insiders of the Republic, the most insistent questions revolved around the need for man’s renewal, questions made most urgent and practically insoluble by the disappearance of God, the threat of the machine, the incurable stupidity of the upper classes, and the helpless philistinism of the bourgeoisie.”
Gay interprets the Weimar era in a twofold way, successful but kind of destined to death: “the trauma of its birth was so severe that it could never enlist the wholehearted loyalty of all, or even many, of its beneficiaries.”
Cynicism and detachment: “Beyond all this there was another, subtler inducement to cynicism and detachment. In August 1914 the Western world had experienced a war psychosis: the war seemed a release from boredom, an invitation to heroism, a remedy for decadence. But it was in Germany that this psychosis reached heights of absurdity.”
The war in left: “the greatest, most effective enemy of the Weimar Republic was the civil war fought within the republican left, the struggle, as Eduard Bernstein said, of “Socialists against Socialists,” which broke out as soon as the Republic was proclaimed; its very proclamation, after all, was an act directed not merely against the monarchy but against the Spartacists.”
Rosa, the regime, socialists and Spartacists: “He did, in fact, do more than wait: he killed, with abandon and with impunity. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the Spartacist movement, were murdered on January 15, 1919; Kurt Eisner, Prime Minister of Bavaria, was murdered by an aristocratic student on February 21, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic which came out of the assassination was brutally put down by regular and Freikorps troops toward the end of April and the beginning of May. And these events could only exacerbate fratricidal hostilities: the Spartacists denounced the governing Socialists as pliant, socially ambitious butchers; the government Socialists accused the Spartacists of being Russian agents. It all seemed like a sarcastic commentary on Marx’s call to the workers of the world to unite.”
The Peace of Versailles, “the shameful, humiliating peace”. The old order: “These were fateful strategic mistakes, but the men of Weimar made an even more fateful mistake when they failed to tame, or transform, the machinery of the old order—the military, the civil service, and the courts.”
Lowest of the Low (‘Ganz unten’ in the original, ‘En Alttakiler’ in Turkish) is Günter Wallraff’s undercover participatory journalism book where he disguises himself as a Turkish migrant and attempts at experiencing the daily lives of these migrants in Germany. It was published in 1985, translated to Turkish too -that’s how I read after a recommendation from a friend. It is apparent that the book had caused debates and had a considerable impact when it was first published. It seems to have become popular in the 80s in Turkey too, but it was a forgotten book as of today, or maybe I just never encountered it in another text or in a bookstore.
It’s not the only sensational work Wallraff published. Even though I haven’t read the other ones, there are some other journeys he took throughout his life starting with working in a tabloid newspaper or lately wearing blackface to act as a Somali. With his work, he is criticized both from the right (as expected) but also from the left about his methodology being racist. Even though I admired his way of working, there are also some disturbing aspects of his methods, maybe mainly not putting his own identity on the table in his personal observations. One main question for me is about the will to present his own experience instead of building close relationships with people whom he wants to represent and strengthening their voices. He tries it from time to time in the book where he transmits the dialogues without intervention. Nevertheless, Lowest of the Low was an impressive book for me.
Wallraff disguises himself as Ali and builds a story around the challenge of not being able to speak Turkish. In his story, he is the son of a Turkish father who leaves him at a young age and a Greek mother. He grows up in Piraeus with his mom. When others ask him to speak a little bit of Greek, he gives examples from his early courses about Ancient Greek, Odyssey in particular. Despite being 43 years old, he does some physical training and acts as if he is around 25-30 years old. He thinks that he sees the other face of society by his experience.
I don’t aim to summarize or transfer the disgraceful experiences he was exposed to during his life as Ali. He narrates all these in the book in a way that I cannot even cover even a gist of it. Instead, I just want to note jobs and the places he worked at just to remember and go back in the future maybe.
As first steps, he repairs the barn of a mansion in Cologne, works at a farm in Lower Saxony, next to Grohnde Nuclear Power Plant. He goes to a football match between Germany and Turkey in Berlin, 1983 and to a meeting of CSU in Passau where Franz Josef Strauss also joins. He even pretends that he’s a follower of the Turkish nationalist movement and Türkeş which leads to him having an autograph from Strauss.
After working some time at McDonalds, he critically examines the work culture of the company which might look pretty ordinary (in a negative sense) today but was surprising for him back in the 80s. After the service sector, he starts to work in construction sites, without papers (GBI, WTB, DIMA), and as a subcontracted labourer.
Ali tries hard to be baptized, meets with several priests who reject his will to convert to Christianity. Only towards the end, one migrant priest accepts his request. He even tries his luck with Sannyasins, followers of Bhagwan, but of course, he is ridiculed and rejected there as well. An infobox among the pages redirected me to an interview that Bhagwan gave to Der Spiegel in 1985 where he had some terrifying appraisal of Hitler. That wasn’t mentioned in Wild Wild Country, or maybe I missed it. This religious side story ends with Ali discovering the funeral services in order to send his corpse back to his country after his death. What he documents is an early account of necropolitics.
I found out that going step by step with every other experience will be hard for me. I couldn’t even cover the majority of the book. Let me take a short note about the drug trials he attends, the factory near Hamburg that produces brake pads by processing asbestos, his long-lasting knot at Thyssen, his dear boss Adler and Würgassen nuclear power plant.
Throughout the book, Wallraff refers to numerous occasions that tarnish one’s physical health and self-esteem. Even though I read some critics who argue that what the author cares about at the end is his personal gains after these projects he did, when I think solely about the book, I found Wallraff’s effort and position positive and solidarity. As I understand, his conclusion is a puzzled one. How did these people tolerate all this misery?