Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Drang nach Osten

(from a work in progress Poor but Sexy)

(x-posted from Faces on Posters)

The 1970s was the era of defeat. As the 60s were extremely intense in terms of political and social change, from the early 70s the flux went steady. David Bowie, who debuted in late 60s, when he invented Ziggy Stardust in 1972, marked this change: no more real heroes, from now on, it was most desirable to be fabricated. What is genuine, authentic, is boring. The only hero that really matters is pure artifice, cut out from the comic books, movies and dressed in everything that’s glamorous. Bowie more than anyone contributed to the cherishing of artifice in pop music, realizing the idea of a “hero for a day”, only following the course mass culture was taking since decades.

Was he conscious of that? Some of his lyrics of the era mark the mourning of the depoliticisation of his generation: in the lyrics to the song Star, he mentions “Bevan (who) tried to change the nation”, and posing himself as someone who “could make a transformation as a rock & roll star”. Facing the growing nihilism of his generation, he still believes that as an artifice star, he can carry on their political task. All the young dudes, a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople in ’72, reeks of youth's disappointment and disillusionment, forming a kind of “solidarity of the losers” anthem. Bowie, always too erratic to make any firm political commitment, was rather in love with various dubious figures, “cracked actors”, (the inspiration for Ziggy was a forgotten singer who believed to be a combination of god and an alien), dodgy occultists like Aleister Crowley and fascist dictators. He was driven to German culture, especially Weimar period, expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, theatre, everything Brecht. Yet his image of contemporary Berlin must’ve been seriously twisted, if he thought he could find a shelter with another drug addict, Iggy Pop, in a place that had already become one of the most narcotics-degenerate places on earth.

One of the reasons the punk generation reads dystopias like A Clockwork Orange as if they were their lives, and looks longingly towards the communist East in their aesthetics, is their depoliticisation. The generation of their grandparents was the one who survived the war,  believed in socialism, was changing the world, joined political parties. Earlier, to piss off your parents, you’d join a communist party. By the 70s, those who wanted to change the world, were discredited and all that had left was the aesthetics. A generation-two before, people believed in the modernist idea of living: built estates for dense living, in which neighbours were to meet in the center and socialise. 1960s and 70s marked also the crisis and decline of the nuclear family. In the regress towards the private life and individualism, with growing number of divorces, this generation was paying for the necessary experiment of their parents by not having anything in return for what they'd given up. Counter culture as a resource/channel of political culture also began to decline. What has left were the drugs. Berlin since the 70s started having an enormous population of drug addicts.

If you look at any footage of West Berlin in 70s, you see a murky, sinister city, whose punctum, trauma, is the Wall. People gravitate around it. Living next to a prison, even if theoretically you’e not the prisoner, you can develop symptoms of suffocation. Seeing people regularly being killed over an illegal crossing of the Wall, not being able to walk through your city, imagining what there can be on the other side. RW Fassbinder felt shame for the post-war West Germany, for the way the West stuck their mouth with consumptionism and told to shut up. In In a Year of 13 Moons, he punishes the viewer with a 15 minute sequence of rhythmical murdering and quartering of animals in the carnage, senseless death that is then wiped out and put into neat plastic bags as meat. Half of his films are acerbic commentary on the situation of the left, where they start to look more like funeral elegies. Fassbinder was friends with Holger Meins, who was a cinematography student, when he joined the RAF. He died in prison after a hunger strike. In May 1976 Ulrike Meinhof commits suicide or is killed, followed by Ensslin and Baader, after months of being hounded by the press, dragging on like a soap opera, with Meinhof's personal life put out as the cannon fodder..

When Christiane F and her boyfriend Detlef have awkward, clumsy teenage first sex it’s on a poor lair of bloodied, dirty sheets cobbled together in their drug den. Poor kids, they and their teen friends have their regular injections & bad trips, they hunger, shake, come, ejaculate and overdose under one and the same photograph of Ulrike Meinhof torn out of a newspaper.

The 70s was an era of the abandoned children, with no more support in institutions. Christiane F. - Wir sind Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (this sentence has the same structure as the "Wir Sind Helden") - the 1980 film, starts from a murky shot of Gropiusstadt, the estate on the outskirts of West Berlin where Christiane lives in a small flat with her mother. This most infamous block estate in Berlin, by then decaying of social and material neglect, was plagued by crime and violence, which brings more and more argument to the new class of politicians declaring the ideas of modernism ”bankrupted”. The infamous estate Pruitt-Igoe was taken down in the mid-70s.

Groupuisstadt is scary, but wasn’t meant to be. Walter Gropius designed it as a quite modest density estate. Later, with the migration from the East rising, it was rebuilt several times to cram the new population in growingly lesser quality flats. Christiane hates Gropiusstadt, where she lives with her single, always-at-work mother, who is always absent, unless she is fucking her dodgy boyfriend. The only company and community she finds is in the night clubs and friends, who are all into drugs. She goes to the Sound, the famous disco club, labelled as "the most modern discotheque in Europe". She starts lightly, takes speed and coke, but the whole thing is about “H”. H is her obsession, a gate to different reality, where she can communicate with her idol, Bowie. Seeing her friends all drowning in H, she thinks this transgression is the only way to belong to their community.

Bowie, then a Thin White Duke, had cocaine as his toxin of choice, a typical drug of someone who insists they have the full “control” over the habit. The first half of the film is basically a Bowie fan story. Christiane has all his records (which she, when the first part ends, symbolically sells to have money for drugs). Bowie is the god for her postpolitical generation, who recreates politics as spectacle. In the film, he’s present everywhere, as music or endlessly repeated image: his music oozes out in clubs, at the Zoo station, where the young addicts gather their alternative home; they hear him, when they forget themselves in the drug haze. He looks at Christiane and others from posters, like a Big Brother, from the LP covers, in their dreams; his concert, central to the film, is an EVENT she waits for. It is her most intimate company, it accompanies the kids, when they prostitute themselves and when they inject the drug and go on a trip, he IS that trip and that drug and that malaise.

Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever

In “Heroes”, Bowie puts a final declaration: there’s no more heroes, long live the heroes! Yet, his character, the new, bodiless, endlessly androgynous, sexless fugure, has still some miasmas of political nostalgia, he’s yearning: "I can remember standing by the wall/ and the guns shot above our heads/ and we kissed, as though nothing could fall/ and the shame, was on the other side.” They don’t understand this Drang nach Osten and yet they are haunted - why else would they stick to the Zoo, the filthiest, most hideous, most brutalized station in the city? Next to it: the bling of Ku’damm, along which they walk searching for drugs and are taken by clients. Just like characters in Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons, they look at the shop window displays as at the promise of a life they will never have.

Five hours way from that city was another one which was also levelled to the ground, but by Germans. 'Warszawa', Bowie’s most sinister and mysterious track, appears in the film in the most grim moments, when they first take heroin. It was also full of young, emaciated people. Perhaps the boredom the Polish youth felt at the time was the result of that isolation. Warsaw didn’t have the wall, but the lives of its people gravitated no less around what happened with this piece of concrete. In 1981, the year Christiane F is screened, it was invaded by its own tanks. Bowie was a tourist, who left Warsaw a postcard, and then left. They couldn’t, continuing to felt trapped with their lives. For young people of the declining late 70s, Bowie - an endlessly enigmatic hero for one day, less real than celluloid, replaces their politicians, parents, institutions, their god. But how to stake your whole existence on something that does not exist?

[Film o pankach (Film on punks) dir. Mariusz Trelinski, a portrait of PL punk scene, 1983]

Also the Drinker from Ulrike Ottinger’s Bildnis Nach Trinkerin, shot at the same time in 1979, sees the splendidly dressed Tabea Blumenschein, Ottinger’s lover and muse, as a beautiful mysterious millionaire, landing at Tegel airport, who chooses Berlin as the scene of her destruction, with alcohol as the drug. She's wearing always splendid  clothes, inspired by early Dior or Balenciaga, with the rule: dress well to you dying. To make it funnier, Ottinger accompanied her with a choir of three women, dressed in identical uniforms: Social Question, Accurate Statistics and Common sense, who comment and cheer her. She drinks in the bars until she’s unconscious, meeting various weirdos, crossdressers, punks and transes on her way. Her only friend is a homeless woman. She goes around degenerate Berlin, which is full of trash, which, together with homeless Lutze, they gather in a supermarket trolley (Ottinger was friends with Wolf Vostell, artist of destruction, who appears briefly in the film). She picks a random from the bar and takes him on a night Berlin derive without end. She does a lot of pointless things: one sees her balancing on a tightrope in a ridiculous ballerina dress, against the towers of Gropiusstadt, after she joins a circus troupe, a regular Ottingeresque bunch of weirdos, of society's marginals, who take a dim view of her circus art. After several attempts, when she manages to degrade herself completely, she goes to the Zoo station, as if looking for a way out. Yet, she’s is overrun by the careful, punctual German middle classes, hurrying to work. The film's alternative title is Ticket of No Return.

Christiane F. is a weird kind of a zombie movie, with the action taking place only at night. When for the first time we see Christiane going to a night club, it resembles hell.  Gradually, all characters, as the habit develops, more and more start looking like ghosts, or rather zombies. Edel is too literal, when he throws Christiane to a projection of The Night of the Living Dead, we can soon see that from their disintegrating faces, changing expression only on the sight or possibility of getting the drug. In the last part of the trilogy, Day of the Dead, sicentists discover the zombies have no stomachs, they can;t digest, so their necessity to eat humans is pure physical compulsion, just like in a sexual passion and, needless to say, like in a drug addiction. They don't need drugs to survive, but to destroy. Everything becomes clear during the ravishing sequence of Bowie concert. If they’re zombies, Bowie is their master ghoul, a zombie-king. As Christiane looks her all-prepared, artificial idol in the face, then at his absolute artistic heyday, we start to believe he’s not only the sun they need to exist; he's a vampire living on their flesh. In a horrific vision he, or rather his persona, becomes identical with the drug, the reason for the decline. What follows is the naked horror of addiction: the physical and mental degradation and prostituting of the 14-year old kids, while their bodies waste away. Larry Clark’s ’94 Kids can be a version of this, post-AIDS.

Berlin is there a hard edged, harsh city with no mercy, ruthless, easily claiming lives, a formerly ascendant city of modernity, where their dreams have died. We are in the realm of “joy division”: their passionless sex, their un-joy, resignation, their absolute nihilism. Punk was dead. The western Berlin was full of pale, lifeless, sleepwalking young people (Hitler called Germany once in a “nation of sleepwalkers”). Christiane F. (Felscherinow) was offered a career to “tell us your story”, she recorded hours of material, that then become the bestseller biography, and then the film. I read it at 13, and despite the grimness, the filth and horror of the addiction, for weeks I lived only on dreams of putting myself into the frame of the story, see the Ku’damm, see David Bowie, see the Zoo. On my first trip there, in 2000, the Warsaw-Berlin Express landed me at the Zoo, but there was nothing left anymore. The story leaves us with the track of corpses under the wall, with the sinister towers looming everywhere.

(work-in-progress from the forthcoming Poor but Sexy)


  1. Interesting but difficult to read/understand in places...

  2. I thought the most striking passages are the two about Poland: "5 hours way from that city" and "I read it at 13." It seems clear that by the late-1970s, NYC, London and Berlin formed some sort of global-city network celebrating a "punk" aesthetic. So in the first passage, looking at that Berlin from the distance of Warsaw has more value for me than any generic account of the global phenomenon. Likewise in time, the fact that all this captured your interest at some later date, when the physical traces had disappeared, make me wonder how 70s Berlin sustains itself.

    Concerning Bowie, don't you think his "hero for a day" was sourced from that Slovak Andy Warhol? By the 1970s, Warhol's scene had moved to Max's Kansas City where Bowie spent time. (For Max's Kansas City, see Yvonne Sewall Ruskin's book _High on Rebellion_.) And what of that German Nico? Your post had me thinking that Warhol's success was in positioning himself against the Parisian sensibilities of the Manhattan elites, and also against US popular sensibilities, which were bound up with African-American culture. Where to go but Germany?

    I think it's possible to identify a utopian/dystopian drug dynamic: idealistic kids turns to hallucinogens, creating a drug market that is eventually dominated by organized crime, which promotes the substitution of profitable substances like H, Coke and Meth. The best account I've found is in Simon Reynolds's _Energy Flash_, but you can also see it in Woodstock/Altamont, so well protrayed in the films of those concerts. It seems to me that this is how Bowie and Christiane F. meet each other.

    I'm not sure that the reasons for Pruitt-Igoe's failure as public housing are the same as Gropiusstadt's. Was there ever a place for the International Style urbanism in American settler culture? France certainly rejected modernist housing in a different manner, as Philippe Boudon's account of Corbusier's Pessac housing attests with considerable amusement value.

    Please post more!

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