I recently watched Syberberg’s Parsifal, which makes it the fourth of his films I’ve seen (Ludwig, Karl May, and Our Hitler being the others). I loved it!
Anyway, the question is this: Where are the references to Goethe in this tetralogy of German culture? I am no expert on Goethe or German culture. I’ve only read Faust, Werther, and a few of his poems, all in translations. So if I’m wrong, help my ignorance and point them out to me.
There is the subtitle of part 1 in Our Hitler: “From the Cosmic Ash-Tree to the Goethe Oak of Buchenwald”, but that seems small in comparison to other German figures who are minor in comparison, yet get more attention.
If I’m right in thinking that there is a strange absence of Goethe in these films, could someone explain why there is such an absence? Yes, the films seem to be more focused on what developed into Nazism, but isn’t Goethe just as important as, say, Wagner in German culture as a whole?
“Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.” – Goethe
This quote – with which Sunsan Sontag begins her famous essay on Syberberg’s “Our Hitler” – pretty much reflects on the coherency of the entire tetralogy which attempts to exemplify recent history by tracing it back through the times till reaching Wolfram von Eschenbach and the very first manifestations of German culture. I think one can easily say that Goethe is of greater importance for German culture as a whole, many of his poems and saying have become part of the everyday word pool, and “Faust” is widely regarded as the most significant work of German literature. But Syberberg’s reliance on Wagner as the prime example of the grandiose and heroic which Ludwig, Karl May and Hitler (try to) represent makes sense in this context, and it’s not by chance that Hitler and Goebbels were huge admirers of Fritz Land’s “Die Nibelungen” (not to mention the stab-in-the-back legend which became the backbone of their power). While thirst for knowledge (which also shines through in Goethe’s quote above) is one important aspect of German cultural history which made it produce a large number of artists and philosophers, the tetralogy pretty much has its focus on the counterproductive force which denies knowlegde (such as Karl May writing about America without ever having visited it) and in its consequence rather burns the books instead of reading them. Hitler’s alleged affinities for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were bragging to say the least, but his love for Wagner has certainly been real. In that sense the Goethe Oak on the Ettersberg becomes an unsettling and sarcastic metaphor: The spot on which Goethe planted his tree and where he is said to have written the bedevilment verses of his “Faust” became one century thereafter the scene of barbarism. I think that “Our Hitler” is also a film about the distortion of cultural achievements, may be it be those made by the cosmopolitan Goethe or those by the nationalist Wagner, notwithstanding National Socialism damaged the image of Wagner far more than that of Goethe.
“National Socialism damaged the image of Wagner far more than that of Goethe.”
One wonders how the image of Goethe could possibly be damaged by the fall of any state that praised him, but many may have thought the same about Wagner.