Even though the American South was primarily settled by Irish, Scotch-Irish, French and convicted Englishmen (damn Georgians!), Southerners have a lot in common with Germans. Both are losers of stupid, catastrophic wars their ancestors started. Both inherit the indelible shame of immoral racist crimes they didn’t have a fucking thing to do with.
Besides the fact that I took German in high school and watched the Wall come down on live TV in a school library conference room with a weeping teacher, I’ve always felt sympathy for the German people. I’ve always felt sorry for the kid nobody likes. It’s not their fault, really. It’s just the way their language is constructed. You know the old joke about the Spaniard, the Frenchman, the Englishman and the German asked to compare one word in their respective languages to see whose is most beautiful? The Englishman chooses first, “Butterfly.” The Spaniard replies, “Mariposa.” Not to be outdone, the Frenchman instantly chimes in, “Papillon!” Finally the German slams his fist down on the table and shouts, “What's wrong with Schmetterling!”
But anyone who’s ever read Goethe aloud knows the German tongue can be beautiful as snow falling endlessly on endless woods. And when whispered in one’s ear in a dark bedroom from the dusky lips of a gorgeous woman, her breath tinged with whiskey… Ah, sublime!
I think about this because I recently saw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a movie I thought I’d hate and unexpectedly liked a lot. In fact, it may be the best, most enjoyable thing I saw all summer. Brad Pitt’s character was even from Tennessee and made reference to Sergeant Alvin York, who hails from Sequatchie County, just over the mountain from where I grew up. What’s not to like about that?
But one thing about the movie really irritated me. Irritated me so much, in fact, it nearly spoiled the whole thing in my mind. If I ever meet Tarantino face to face, I’m gonna ask him why he did it, just because I liked everything else so much.
What bothered me was the resolution of the character arc for the unfortunate Pvt. Zoller, Daniel Brühl’s memorable character, the heralded, accidental folk hero whose exploits formed the propaganda film which premieres at the movie’s climax. In a movie full of ludicrous cartoons, Zoller was one of the few real, multi-dimensional bona fide characters. (Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Landa has been lauded everywhere else, so I’ll skip him here.)
It's clear why the beautiful, angry Shosanna must despise the ardent, well-intentioned Zoller; but their relationship—or, rather, his naïve pursuit of her, accrued a quietly tragic power. It had the chance to become the center, the cruel beating heart of the film—a tragedy almost Shakespearean, at once personal and universal.
But Tarantino pussied out. Zoller, you see, was only doing what he thought was right, what the situation called for him to do—kill or be killed. He wasn’t a professed Jew hunter like Landa or even an unknowing one; he was fighting on the Italian front. (The Italians, though Axis allies, apparently went to great lengths to protect Jews in their homeland.) His act of heroism involved a shoot-out in which he was outnumbered 50-1 (admittedly, with a sniper’s vantage) . And when he saw this depiction immortalized onscreen it made him sick.
For a moment, I really thought Tarantino was going to allowing Zoller to be the one—ONE—redeemable German character in the whole story. (Til Schweiger's Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, while a Basterd "good guy," is nonetheless a grunting homicidal maniac with a grudge). A stand-in for those unwilling or unknowing accomplices who were legitimately trying to do the best for their country, relatively innocent victims of a dastardly official machine much, much larger than them; not unlike American GI’s in our own despicable, criminally unlawful war.
But, alas, no. Tarantino pulled his balls out of his pants and teabagged himself at close range. And Zoller became, in his final, defining moments on earth (and celluloid), a psychopathic, gun-waving, red-faced, would-be rapist.
I’m sure my friends Rob and Georg appreciated that. Their family risked their lives escaping Germany for the Dutch border to live a peaceful, kind life building and operating a nursery. Or my friend, Matthias, a man who has always blended his passion for politics with intelligence, compassion and service in his work with The Shoah Foundation and, currently, the United Nations.
So, in the spirit of German friends and the looming Oktoberfest, I turn to one of the German exports I love best, Tarantino be damned: Amon Düül II.
Amon Düül II was not an offshoot, but rather a sophisticated reincarnation of an original group that released a series of drug-addled experimental music under the name Amon Düül. Really more of a political commune than a band, the original namesake's albums were actually culled from one three-day long jam session from the outfit’s home in Munich in the late 1960’s.
A few of the members, notably multi-instrumentalist Chris Karrer, guitarist John Weinzierl, and lone frontwoman/singer Renate Knaup, split off to concentrate seriously on music and formed the trademark-friendly Amon Düül II (on some albums written “2”).
They are generally lumped in with the Progressive rock trend of the early-seventies, and are often cited as the creators of “Krautrock.” But the truth is this music defies all convention, classification and expectation. Most importantly, and probably most baffling to even German aficionados, is the sly sense of humor that runs throughout their catalog, cheekily tweaking German historical and cultural stereotypes (and thus themselves) while skewering the national politics of the day.
But this humor also expressed itself in musical terms—albums borrow sounds from everything from 50’s crooners, to 60’s surf guitar, to Beatles-esque harmony pop to German village folk songs to Marlene Dietrich-style Weimar cabaret. With one important caveat: they rock like nobody’s business. And they’re trippy as HELL.
Vive La Trance emerged in 1973, their first album to focus on shorter songs (11) and away from the extended, psychedelic experimental/orchestral pieces that won them early acclaim. (Most fans consider 1971’s Tanz der Lemminge their masterwork).
Vive La Trance, however, is an album I love, one of myriad weird pleasures. From the opening slinky percussive guitar riff echoing into a baroque laugh on “A Morning Excuse” to the neo-garage rock anthem of “Mañana,” highlighted in the middle by the back to back epics “Mozambique” and “Apocalyptic Bore,” which is anything but…
This album remains a tongue-in-cheek, fully loaded masterpiece for those who like it complex, imventive, intelligent and strange.
AMON DÜÜL 2 VIVE LA TRANCE, 1973, United Artists