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Michael Naumann is the first German Minister of Culture since that post was abolished in 1933 and renamed Minister of Propaganda and People's Enlightenment under Joseph Goebbels. Naumann spoke recently with European Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where the German novelist Thomas Mann spent the Nazi years in exile.

NATHAN GARDELS: During the whole postwar "Bonn'' period Germany has been a kind of "alias nation'' excelling at physics and BMWs, but repressing, in the words of filmmaker Hans Juergen Syberberg, Germany's "heart'' -- its myths and heroes.

With the advent of the "Berlin Republic,'' has the time arrived for a
new aesthetic in German art and culture that replaces the "ugly German''¿

MICHAEL NAUMANN: The return of the capital to Berlin clearly enables a kind of a national "self-conversation.'' Germany -- students, critics, the filmmakers, artists, musicians, politicians, writers -- can talk to itself to a larger degree in Berlin than anywhere else in the country today. Certainly, this process will redefine how Germany appears to itself and to others.

But I don't think German identity has been "repressed'': Rather, its
heavy load and the terrorist misuse of the notion of "heroism'' by the Nazis have introduced the character of the "melancholic man'' into our films instead of the classic hero. Thus, storytelling has been difficult since the huge rupture after 1945.

Our lead characters in movies have since that time been dark, usually depressed, sophisticated and ironic. In fact, I would have a hard time finding a postwar German film that portrays a heroic male. Even in a worldwide success like the film "Das Boot,'' the submarine was the hero, not the captain: It didn't crack.

Yet, all cultures need heroes and heroic stories; it is archetypal. No
doubt one of the big secrets of Hollywood's success in dominating the German film market -- 85 percent of the films in our cinemas are American -- is that these films satisfy the archetypal needs of the German public.

GARDELS: One senses a new tone in the Berlin Republic from a new generation not implicated in the Nazi era. The new Schroeder government played a prominent role in fighting for human rights in Kosovo; Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, never tired during the NATO campaign of saying "never again'' to ethnic cleansing in Europe.

NAUMANN: This new tone is not so romantic. Rather it is practical. The question is whether Germany, the third largest nation in the world in terms of GNP, can continue to stay aside and refrain from projecting its influence on burning issues like the Balkans and human rights in Kosovo.

It was quite an experience for us Social Democrats to suddenly find ourselves in support of sending German troops anywhere, no less the Balkans. But this was not a proactive move on Germany's part.

Of course, intervention was called for from a human rights point of
view, but if we hadn't agreed to fight in Kosovo, Germany would have removed itself from any decision-making role in NATO or the U.N. in the future. Then all decisions would be left up to one big superpower -- America. We would have damaged NATO. And nothing is further from German interests.

GARDELS: How has the "new tone'' and the "self-conversation'' of
Germans affected the decision on what kind of Holocaust memorial will be built in Berlin?

NAUMANN: The Holocaust memorial was proposed by a citizens' group and agreed to by (former) Chancellor Helmut Kohl after an almost 10-year process. Six hundred proposals were sifted through before a group of experts decided the memorial should be built in the center of Berlin. A piece of real estate the size of two American football fields was provided for this project.

Two architects were chosen -- Peter Eisenmann and Richard Serra. Serra later pulled out, saying that the Holocaust could not be represented by a minimal arts gesture like the one proposed by Eisenmann --- a structure with thousands of silent stone columns. What were these supposed to mean? They were totally open to interpretation. Eisenmann said they were "to get people thinking.''

Kohl never acted on the matter, so it came to us when Gerhard Schroeder became chancellor.

My view is that an architectural, aesthetic gesture to memorialize the Holocaust isn't possible. It will fail. Since the mid-'60s the very process of remembrance of the Holocaust in Germany has profoundly changed our views of our own history. The state should not, so to speak, expropriate this very complex field of remembrance -- that includes everything from discussions in grade schools to slave-labor compensation claims to Red Cross archive searches by families to Fischer's "never again'' pronouncements about ethnic cleansing in Kosovo -- and turn it into a stone symbol.

A stone monument might serve to stop the process; it would serve as a tombstone, a symbol of finality and closure, on this very living process of remembrance -- there you have it, let's move on.

Therefore, I suggested we add a dimension to the memorial that would nullify this danger, that is, a learning center. Parliament has now voted for the construction of the project but with a "locale'' for learning and remembrance. The foundation in charge will now decide whether that locale is a kiosk or a mid-size museum.

During this whole process I learned that the Holocaust Memorial Center in Washington, D.C., underwent a similar change. The founders wanted to build a memorial, not a museum. But once
an architecturally modern work of art was designed they realized it was hugely open to any kind of interpretation. Yet, the Holocaust was a very concrete crime. That is when the learning aspect -- those powerful exhibits such as the piles of shoes from Holocaust victims and the railroad boxcar -- was added.

GARDELS: You noted that 85 percent of films shown in Germany are American. How can German cinema regain its footing so that it, along with the rest of Europe, doesn't become a "dubbed culture'' -- American actors with European voice-overs?

NAUMANN: First of all, we need to stop being defensive and just get going. In order to recover the diminishing segments of our own market, we need to be able to muster the kind of marketing and financial power of the American studios. The best way to do this, while improving the quality of European films, is through co-productions.

I know that the French want to confront Hollywood with a quota system, not only on TV but in film as well. They want to introduce this issue into the new "millennium round'' of trade talks within the World Trade Organization.

I am firmly against this. Quotas of any kind are a form of censorship. Within Europe, there will be very tough negotiations on this. We already have somewhat strained relations with France, but we will stand up to the sustained pressure from them.

GARDELS: Finally, how can one define the contemporary German volksgeist (the national spirit) when the country has become multicultural? Some 25 percent of the population of Frankfurt, for example, is Turkish.

NAUMANN: There is no German volksgeist. And who wants it?

(c) 1999, European Viewpoint/El Pais. Distributed by the Los Angeles
Times Syndicate

For immediate release (Distributed 11/15/99)

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