Thursday, 9 July 2015
'There is no German artist who does not become more heavy-handed over whatever he does than he ought to be,' wrote Hugo von Hofmannsthal to Richard Strauss in 1923, sounding their own joint knell on the dog's dinner that Die Aegyptische Helena turned out to be (superb first act, wretchedly convoluted second). I thought of that when I came to the end of Fassbinder's otherwise magnificent TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz. The original Heimat follows it in serving up a kind of dream-nightmare for the final episode ('The Feast of the Living and the Dead") in which the Teutonic penchant for the metaphysical is hampered by an equal tendency to the stilted and unspontaneous. I was worried, having found the first three books such easy and lyrical reading, that Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers would end up the same way. I feel it does ramble a bit in Book Four, but steers back on course so that the end truly crowns the work.
Since I last mentioned my pleasant surprise over Mann's masterpiece on the blog, I've worked my way through the valley of the shadow of death as Joseph's brothers leave him in the pit - their psychology masterfully examined - the incredible evocations of ancient Egyptian upper class living which grace the really rather creepy story of Potiphar's wife and her very long-term infatuation with the beautiful Joseph, the lightly-handled description of a far from bad second imprisonment and the great recognition scenes when Joseph's brothers, and finally his father, come to Egypt.
To add to the superb set-pieces I noted then, there's the extraordinary chapter where Eni/Mut (Mrs Potiphar) wants her stylish lady friends to feel her pain. So she whets some little knives so sharp that, when the friends look up from peeling their fruit at the carefully-timed appearance of the stunning young man, they 'cut their fingers terribly - without being in the least aware of their gory misfortune right off, since one hardly even feels a cut from a blade sharpened to such keenness, particularly if one is as thoroughly distracted as Eni's friends were at that moment'.
It's part of a cumulative horror in which Mann affects to give understanding to a woman truly in love. Yet Mut remains creepy in her lovesickness so, like other women in the novel, she comes off badly all the same. Still, it's not bad for a 300-page extension of what in the Bible - as depicted here by Rembrandt - comes down to her decree to Joseph to 'lie with me' and his running off with her garment.
Mann's authorial voice remains quizzical and ironic, occasionally nauseatingly coy, not least in the address to the reader including the advice 'take my advice and do stick around!' when the tale seems as good as done (in the chapter 'Pharaoh Writes to Joseph'). But it also reveals more as it goes on, and it seems to me that Mann's attitude to the whole idea of Jacob and his family as 'the chosen' is finally unveiled here:
One might say that it was presumptuous and all too egotistical of Jacob to regard such a vast calamity as this ongoing drought, which afflicted so many nations and resulted in great economic upheavals, as nothing more than a measure taken to guide and advance the history of his own house - it evidently being his opinion that when it came to himself and his family the rest of the world simply had to make the best of it. But presumption and egotism are only pejorative terms applied to beneficial conduct worthy of highest commendation - a far lovelier term for it is piety. Is there a virtue that does not leave itself open in terms of censure or in which certain contradictions, such as humility and arrogance, are not inherent? Piety is the privatisation of the world as the story of one's own self and one's salvation, and without the, yes, sometimes offensive conviction that one is the object of God's special, and indeed exclusive care, without the rearrangement that places oneself and one's salvation at the centre of all things, there is no piety - that is, in fact, what defines this very powerful virtue. Its opposite is neglect of the self, its banishment to the indifferent periphery, from where no benefit to the world can come either. The man who does not think highly of himself will soon perish.
In order not to find Mann's Jacob and Joseph odious, despite the leavening of charm and sly humour in the latter's case, one has to bear that in mind. And the ending does indeed have a serenity brighter than anything that has gone before. I left the book with regrets - maybe, like Solti, I should go back to the beginning and start all over again next year. Which is not something I felt about Proust.
As for Edgar Reitz's Heimat, I can well imagine revisiting certain episodes, but not the whole. This TV saga of family life over decades in a German village, Shabbath in the Hunsrück - not at all far from where we were at Easter - has dazzling cinematography, and a sometimes enigmatic change between black and white (who could forget, for instance, the scene where one of the brothers hurls down roses from a plane over the village?)
There are plenty of sympathetic characters, above all Marita Breuer's eventual matriarch Maria Simon (pictured above) - though this beautiful actress doesn't age convincingly, visually at any rate. The thread concerning Berlin prostitute and entrepreneur Lucie (Karin Rasenack) and the simple-souled Eduard Simon (Rüdiger Weigang) is engrossing.
I was always waiting for them to reappear. But sadly they don't, at least not much, once World War Two is over. Instead the whole thing turns a bit queasy with the adventures of an attractive teenager, baby brother Hermann (Jorg Richter), and his relationship with a 27 year old woman. I got the sense that Reitz was longing for the young man to take his clothes off as often as possible - it's almost exploitative.
And I didn't have sufficient interest in the boy's talents as a composer to want to follow his further adventures in the next series. So few directors on stage or screen get it right in characterising creative artists.
Anyway, that particular saga is over and I've been indulging J as he worked his way through all series of The Good Wife on his few free evenings. I can see it's well acted, with astonishing guest appearances from a list of distinguished names, and sometimes complex, but slightly formulaic in the tradition of most American series. Now it's back to Orange is the New Black and series three, and I'm finding it difficult to understand what anyone is saying. Maybe it's just a question of re-adjustment.