Places of Remembrance

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Bayerisches Viertel is an upper-middle class residential area in Schöneberg, a southwest borough of Berlin. On a warm Sunday in August, the streets are almost empty and except for some cafés and Spätkaufs (bodegas), all the shops are closed. It feels distant spatially and spiritually from the internationally celebrated areas of Berlin — the traffic and energy of Kreuzberg, the young-family-brigade of Prenzlauerberg, the old grandeur of Museum Insel. The bullet-holed and graffitied aesthetic that so typifies a city whose history can feel almost convulsively exteriorized is absolutely absent here; instead one finds well-groomed green lawns, cream and rose apartment buildings with decorated balconies, and quiet tree lined streets, and almost all of the very few people out walking or cycling are elderly and white. Barbarossaplatz, for instance, is a perfectly pleasant place to sit with a brötchen and enjoy the wind in the leaves. The street leading there, Barbarossastrasse, is a street like many others, in other family neighborhoods, in any other city: you see a mother and baby on the street, an older couple on their patio reading the paper, children’s bicycles in a pile, and a colorful, well-displayed street sign with a cat on it, the other side of which reads: “Juden dürfen keine Haustiere mehr halten,” which translates as, “Jews may no longer own pets.”

Twenty years ago this summer, German artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, installed their “Places of Remembrance,” 80 street signs with images or symbols on one side, and a particular anti-Jewish (and sometimes anti-Polish) Nazi law on the other. Stih and Shnock proposed this project in 1991 as their submission to a competition calling for ideas for a memorial in the neighborhood’s central square, right off Martin-Luther-Strasse. By unanimous vote, the jury — consisting of artists, historians, city planners, and representatives of the Jewish community in Berlin — opted for Stih and Schnock’s controversial, non-traditional memorial over the more palatable, reassuring option of a centralized monument. In 1993 the signs went up.

In interviews the artists suggested they wanted to make a memorial that would adequately reflect the ways in which the alienation, harassment, and eventual deportation of Berlin’s Jewish residents was not a sudden, immediately recognizable, or universally resisted attack on the community, but instead operated as a kind of integrated and initially subtle management of daily life and routine. Schöneberg was known in the 1920’s as “Jewish Switzerland” thanks to its largely wealthy Jewish residents, yet it is also remembered as a culturally diverse community enjoying an intellectual climate: it was one of the first gay neighborhoods during Berlin’s Golden Years, and thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein lived here. What Stih and Shnock’s work seeks to bring out, however, is that non-Jewish Germans met the anti-Jewish laws, not with great resistance but accommodation (though of course there was some organized resistance, notably the Social Democrats, the Communist party, and workers unions). Where a single, discrete, and perhaps noble memorial might suggest a single, discrete, and perhaps terrible event, peppering an ordinary neighborhood with inconspicuous (until you read them) signposts suggests a different kind of integration into history, and demands a different kind of negotiation in the present.

German has two words that we might translate as memorial in English, though exactly where to draw the conceptual distinctions is not obvious even to native speakers. A Denkmal is a memorial or monument whose purpose is to remind us of something that has happened or someone who has lived. Denken is the German verb “to think,” so a Denkmal stands as a testament to something on which we have a duty to reflect. Denkmals can be bloated and grand — as in the Soviet Memorial in Berlin or Mount Rushmore in South Dakota — or sombre and respectful — as in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, a black wall engraved with service members’ names, dedicated to honoring those who fought in the war.

A Mahnmal is something subtly different, and we have no readily available English translation. Mahnen means both “to admonish” and “to remind;” it is often paired with the idea of caution or observance, as when one urges someone to take caution or be vigilant. A Mahnmal, then, is something meant both to remind and to warn, it pleads for remembrance not for the purpose of glory but for the purpose of heedful acknowledgment, even shame. A Mahnmal takes the idea of “never again” and gives it shape.

Berlin has an impressive Mahnmal culture. The most famous is the Holocaust-Mahnmal, or the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast grid of concrete vertical slabs arranged on rising and falling ground. Across the street stands the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, a concrete cube with a small window into which one can look and see a video of men kissing (following protest, the video now changes every two years and includes lesbians as well). There are also the Stolperstein — “stumbling stones” — the some 30,000 gold bricks lain in the streets that note the name, address, and place of death for those Jewish Berliners murdered by the Nazis. Again, it isn’t immediately evident that these works would count as Mahnmal rather than Denkmal; for some people I spoke with, a Mahnmal calls to mind something rather imposing or commanding in structure, while the Stolperstein, for instance, are anything but. But one can argue that a Mahnmal is a work the purpose or effect of which is not to communicate historical knowledge but to occasion a new commitment to hold in mind the difficulties of reality and history.

Like the stumbling stones, Stih and Shnock’s signs are effective precisely in their unobtrusiveness. In both cases, one can fail to notice these small pockets of admonishment, and indeed this possibility of failure, this ever-present capacity for not seeing, is exactly what is being consecrated with these works. Where a Denkmal asks us to remember some thing, person, event, or place, a Mahnmal reminds us of the fact of our not having seen, recognized, acknowledged, or acted, the fact that when what is being memorialized was live or happening, it went unattended. In calling to this historic inattentiveness, these works complicate and darken our present willingness to pay attention; unlike a Denkmal which can make us feel edified or exhilarated in our remembrance, a Mahnmal tends to make you sick, suddenly exhausted, borne down upon. In this way a Mahnmal calls not just to the past but to the present, making an intervention not just in history but in reality.

There are 80 signs in Schöneberg, 80 images and 80 laws (of more than 400 such laws), extending over many blocks. Hardly any attention is given to them now, though at the time they were erected there were protests, both anti-Nazi and anti-Semitic. On the Sunday I visited, I rode up to Bayerisches Platz on my bike and scanned the streets, unsure what exactly I was looking for or even if I would find them. The first sign I saw was bright blue with a cartoon loaf of bread. Its banality is heart stopping. On the back it specifies that Jews are only allowed to buy groceries between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. The more signs I saw — signs forbidding Jewish children from public schools or the employment of Jewish actors and actresses, signs demanding that jewelry owned by Jews be turned over to the state and that Jews without Jewish-sounding names adopt either “Sarah” or “Israel” — the more ill I felt. There is a sign with an enthusiastic Welcome mat on one side (“Herzlich Willkommen!”), and the following law on the other: “to avoid giving foreign visitors a negative impression, signs with strong language will be removed. ‘Jews unwelcome here,’ will suffice.”

Speaking with German and non-German Europeans, some young people expressed some exasperation with efforts like this. The thought is essentially, “we know that this took place, that these laws were enacted and were evil — we’ve been remembering for decades now. But we have to move on eventually.” Stih and Schnock’s signs, though, have much less to do with memory and the disseminating of history than these reactions would suggest. There are other ways to learn about the history of anti-Semitic Nazi laws: the excellent Jewish Museum in Berlin, for instance, has a wealth of information. But the placing of signs in a residential neighborhood outside the main drags of the city, their pop-art colors and present-tense phrasing, all works to do something other than bring the past to us in the form of historical fact. The impatient desire to move on from the past can only arise from the belief that the past and present are neatly separable, that there is some discrete event or time to move on from and somewhere beyond to move on to; if anything these signs assure us that this is not possible. But again, they don’t do this by reminding us of something — something that happened, that was done by some to some others — but by placing a possibility, or better a reality into the present. And by articulating that reality with punchy color and bitter humor — “Welcome!” — it becomes harder to assure ourselves that what’s done is done, or that we can move on now, or that only unusually cruel humans, which we certainly are not, could do such things (just think of Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda”).

On that Sunday in August, Stih and Schnock’s signs were competing for attention with others kinds of signs; not only traffic and city regulations, but massive political posters in anticipation of Germany’s upcoming national election. In other neighborhoods — Wedding, Kreuzberg, and Neuköln especially — one finds alongside the political posters signs both in support of and critical of the crowded refugee center in the suburb of Hellersdorf, where many asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan are housed. Berlin has recently seen a rise in visible neo-Nazi activity; this month, NDP party supporters showed up in Hellersdorf to protest the arrival of asylum seekers, carrying signs saying, “Tolerant today — tomorrow we are strangers in our own country,” and “Maria, not ‘Sharia,’” accompanied by a picture of a flaxen-haired German woman juxtaposed with a woman in a niqab. In bars now it is common to see signs out front stating “Nazis are not welcome.” In such a climate, Stih and Schnock’s work no longer seems like a relic, but instead as a voice in a contemporary and frightening contest for allegiance, as part of reality as history.

In his radio lectures titled “At the Mind’s Limits,” the Jewish French intellectual and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry said that he holds onto his resentment so that the crimes against him can become a “moral reality,” in order that “history become moral.” Améry was concerned, skeptical, and furious that the German and international community seemed to so swiftly embrace a culture of forgiveness, before the scope and reality of the harm and brutality of the Nazi regime was acknowledged, before any responsibility or guilt was shouldered. Decades on, there is a no-less-urgent need to acknowledge that reality, to challenge ourselves to recognize that we haven’t yet, cannot ever, fully appropriate responsibility for that reality, don’t yet know what proper acknowledgment would mean. Stih and Schnock’s work seems to be part of that effort to make history moral, to make reality moral.

Image courtesy the author

The Rapist Next Door: On Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

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How much of a mirror are we willing to let Spring Breakers be? In indulging in a nauseating, exhilarating, and absolutely familiar fantasy of American fun, Harmony Korine might be offering the unflinching depiction of rape culture that our national conversation has been needing.

Five days after Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted of raping a minor, with Mays also charged with the dissemination of child pornography; 20 days after The Daily Princetonian reported the results of a 2008 survey about sexual assault at Princeton that revealed that about 28 percent of female students had been “touched in a sexual manner or had their clothes removed without consent;” a few days after Girls Gone Wild filed for bankruptcy; the month before Sexual Assault Awareness month; and following, or joining, a new national conversation about rape culture, Harmony Korine released Spring Breakers. If you manage to sit through the whole film — 5 people walked out of the first screening I attended — you will see a vision of the world in which all of this is possible, a world that holds together in a terrible, perfectly-packaged union: gun culture, consumerism, wealth inequality, college culture, American Christianity, racism, our global obsession with underdressed young girls, rape culture, and Britney Spears.

If there is anything like a common theme explored in Spring Breakers, it might be the question of how much any of us are willing to do, watch, or endure, in the name of or search for fun. Sliding from the beaches swarming with college kids testing their limits to a lifestyle apparently unconstrained by limits of any kind, untouched by the larger culture’s moral codes, the hinge around which both of these worlds pivot are four young girls in bathing suits. If we’re going to place this film in our contemporary conversation about rape culture, its contribution will be in revealing our unchecked appetite for female bodies, and the role played by these bodies — as mere bodies — in our culture of fun.

The film begins with manic young people pumping under the sun on the beaches of St. Petersburg, Fla., an explosion of headached colors, terrifyingly exalted faces, and endless, perpetually topless girls, their skin splashed with beer. The plot follows four female college students as they devise a quick-money scheme to make it to Spring Break (“spring breaaaaaak 4eva!”) and, once there, revel in the suffocating, hyper-sexual, round the clock party, nightmarishly disconnected from any other reality, and energized by the clench-jawed commitment to experience everything within a limited life span. After being arrested for being in the same room as drugs, the girls are sprung from jail by Alien (James Franco), and spring break gives way to Florida’s year-round criminal underworld, which itself gives way to what the critics have roundly agreed is a “fever dream;” some of the girls make these transitions seamlessly, others reach a limit in terms of how much fun, how much experience they are able to live with.

Perhaps at the sight of the first bikini being thrown off, or when a muscly 20-year-old male swings that same bikini above his blond head, lasso-style, or when a young woman lies passed out on a mattress surrounded by partiers who are either utterly indifferent to or lasciviously interested in what will happen to that unconscious human, at some point the veneer on all of this fun peels off, and suddenly the only phrase that seems adequate to what’s being shown is “rape culture.” The phrase comes to mind, and if the images had been hard to stomach before, they are, from this point on, nearly unwatchable, numbing, excessive to a violent degree. But what is most unsettling, is that it is possible still to be seduced by them, to thrill at them, all that color, all those bodies. When not utterly nauseating, the film achieves a kind of pop harmony, sweeping us all up in the rush of spring break, making us know it from the inside. Where we might imagine a more European filmmaker, perhaps one practicing the tradition of the “New French Extremity,” would have exposed us to what’s awful about this youthful rite of passage, Korine adopts a different, properly American tactic, demanding that we see what those very youths see: the exhilaration, the colors, the fun.

This is precisely what makes the film work, the very thing that will threaten to drive you from the theater in protest: Korine presents this culture, not for the assessment of knowing outsider — within, for example, ironic quotes marks or a moralizing narrative — but through the eyes of its most ecstatic participants, the camera roaming through the seas of anonymous dancing body parts, palpably elated by the unhinged, unparented energy. When Faith (Selena Gomez), the film’s vague outline of a moral center, begs in confusion and panic, “I feel uncomfortable, I want to go home,” it’s like having one’s mind read: Yes, I feel uncomfortable and want to go home. But when these four girls sing Spears’s well-loved “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in a convenience store parking lot, you realize, of course, you are home, this is home turned up.

One possible, totally appropriate response to this film is wild rage. With an art director’s name attached to this big-budget exploitation romp, it can, at times, feel like the film simply indulges in the very culture it should be critiquing, or like Korine is banking on us reading the film as critical, rather than as the worst and most familiar brand of cinematic misogyny, simply because he directed it.

Anyone familiar with Korine’s other work, though, will know that while his films are challenging, thoughtful, almost impossible to endure, they don’t aspire to be critical, if that means offering some kind of privileged commentary; if anything, Korine’s consistent cinematic aim seems to be to reject the position of privilege that directors tend to enjoy and to offer to their audiences. In Spring Breakers — with sounds, colors, and a budget more luxurious than any he has enjoyed before — Korine pushes this effort further, accompanying characters into a space that they very much want to explore, leaving it up to the viewer to determine to what degree we will join them, take pleasure with them, or try to resist. And though Julian Donkey Boy, Gummo, or Trash Humpers each challenge the capacity of the viewer to separate herself from what she sees, to ask herself what it means to feel entertained by such a film, this task is taken to new heights of difficulty when the world one wants to remain distanced from, the thing one can take no pleasure in, is pop culture, our culture, perfectly distilled.

So “critique” in this sense is not Korine’s aim at all; the viewer is never invited to join in anything like critique, there is no external vantage on this world, there is rarely anything like an assuring wink. We are rather swallowed whole by spring break, by its nonstop terrifying energy, and asked to revel in it. The closest we get to critique are the repetitious shots of various degrees of debauchery paired with the whimsical, hollow voices of the girls talking to their mothers about the life-affirming experiences they’ve been lucky enough to have; its impossible to take this seriously, and through this we are, perhaps, given a kind of distance from the screen. But for the most part this world is presented in utter sincerity, nowhere better realized than in Alien’s soulful, seaside rendition of Britney Spear’s “Everytime” — which, to be sure, is an oddly moving ballad, in a ghostly kind of way.

In interviews, Korine has emphasized that his goal was to achieve, in contrast to an arced plot and developed characters, “liquid narrative,” that he wanted to make a film that looked like it was “lit with Skittles;” “its meant to be candy…there’s no right or wrong way of viewing the film.” While it may be unproductive to insist, as some offended critics have, that this film was not worth making or showing because of its candied presentation of rape culture, it seems wildly irresponsible to insist, as Korine does, that a movie about a culture structured largely around the drugging, undressing, filming, and habitual assaulting of women should be easily consumable, or that there is no wrong way to view it. There is of course the question as to whether Korine means this seriously or if, by insisting on the emptiness of his film, he is just goading the moralizers in the audience. Still, though, if someone could watch Spring Breakers and not experience a moment of fighting rage or bleak sadness, I would say they haven’t seen it rightly.

And indeed it turns out Korine wants it both ways: in the same interviews in which he’s insisted on his achievement of cinematic substancelessness, he’s also tossed off comments about Spring Breakers as a movie about “female empowerment.” What this means is he’s either pandering to the audience’s need for a message or suggesting that the idea of female empowerment is a kind of candy, a junky fantasy. While we might get some rush from their ruthlessness, the realization of a feminist vision is hardly his goal. If female empowerment was actually the issue, maybe the girls would have massacred, not the black gang members and rivals of their boyfriend-collaborator, but instead their grinning, eager, white male peers from the beach, the ones who’d been yanking off bikinis and circling passed out women like sharks (its not insignificant that Korine’s climactic image of power is Vanessa Hudgens gunning down Gucci Mane in his hot tub). Korine’s vague idea of feminism is ultimately nothing more than a marketing gimmick for the film; putting his “girls” as he affectionately calls them in balaclavas seems less a nod to real-life empowered females Pussy Riot, and more of a smirk. And truly, what could be more marketable than this hysterical, well-trodden male fantasy of female power: interchangeably beautiful, half-naked girls, dancing with rifles; these are women without identity, incapable of much emotion other than excitability, “sociopaths,” as Korine himself has said.

Korine’s insistence on superficial fun repeats, of course, the mantra of the very culture in which Spring Breakers is absorbed, and it is this commitment to superficiality and fun that inspires people, in real life, to threaten rape victims who come forward. If Spring Breakers can have any place in our culture, if it can be something worth seeing, its worth must be located in its frightening capacity to capture a world we dismiss as “just fun,” to capture the seductions of a world we refuse to understand. And there is potentially something valuable about being subject to this world without the assurances of critique, without being able to congratulate ourselves on knowing that we are well outside that environment, morally and experientially. There might even be something valuable about coming to the film expecting a play of surface and light, and instead glimpsing something profoundly real and deep and present.

The scenes that are most difficult to watch are not the more spectacular scenes of violence and revenge, but the ordinary, familiar parties on the beach that could be pulled from any Google image search of “spring break” or from any music video; what is hardest to stomach is so much “fun.” In making the party scenes, some of the most difficult to endure moments in American film history, Korine effectively brings rape culture, masked as ever in the guise of party culture, into the bright sunny dancing daylight. Which is to say that what’s most compelling and infuriating, what ought to leave any viewer deeply unsettled, is simply seeing the world we live in, the world in which spring break is an experience of a lifetime, a world scored to Britney Spears and fueled by blue Kool Aid.

Credit: Publicity photo.