The White Ribbon

I went to see Haneke’s The White Ribbon last night. It’s fair to say I felt rather ambivalent about it. According to Haneke:

"In places where people are suffering, they become very receptive to ideology because they’re looking for something to clutch hold of, a straw that will take them out of that misery." Does ideological belief remove the need to ask questions? "Of course. The less intelligent I am, the more easily I follow someone who is going to give me the answers."

It is partly for this reason, one assumes, that Haneke’s work never offers one simple answer where several complicated enigmas will do. As a director, he believes firmly that a film should pose more problems than it solves; his ideal viewer is "one who leaves with questions". Does he find it irritating when people who have seen his films ask him what happened next? "It’s not at all irritating because it’s a normal question. I say: take a look at the film, let it go through your head, consider what you want to think about it. People always want answers, but only liars have the answers. Politicians have answers." Later, he confesses that the only thing he watches on television is the weather forecast, because "that’s the only thing that is not a lie".

It’s certainly true that The White Ribbon is far from being monologic as a film. The pastor’s authoritarian approach with his children results in one stabbing his pet bird, while another offers his father a tamed bird upon seeing how upset his father is. The pastor’s puritannical morality contrasts with the Doctor’s adultery and lust for his daughter. Both contrast to the somewhat sentimental story of the Teacher’s love for Eva. However, the fact remains that the film does have a central premise to it concerning the origins of violence. The film is not depicting events defy meaning, in the manner of Kafka. It is depicting a didactic view of German society, seen as authoritarian, brutal and repressive, whether in denying sexual pleasure, in beating and abusing children or in treating workers with callous disregard. The children depicted represent the generation that went onto become Nazis. The point is not especially subtle and contrary to Haneke’s view that the subject matter is universal it seems difficult to see the same script being filmed in contemporary Germany. The themes would simply not translate for the most part. In another interview, Haneke notes that:

"Automatically when you make a film you’re manipulating the spectator. If you place your camera here instead of there, you’re going to give a very different impression, so filmmaking always involves manipulation. The question is rather, to what end do you manipulate the spectator? I’ve often said that manipulation is a form of rape. The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent."

I am unsure a film can easily be both manipulative and open-ended.

I’ve also just finished reading Mishima’s Runaway Horses, a novel that does tend rather more towards the dialogic; "he has excluded a number of contradictions…he sacrifices all perspective.. what the book lacks is contrast". Based around the central thesis that its central character, Isao is the reincarnation of the protagonist of Spring Snow, I assumed that Mishima is alluding to Nietzsche’s idea of the external recurrence. As with Nietzsche, the idea is far from being without problems. Just as the idea of the superman and the eternal recurrence seem to alternate and compete in Thus Sprach Zarathustra (since the eternal recurrence is a nihilistic concept wherein existence is simply a chaotic flux that is far from being susceptible to the individual will) so they do here. Where Kiyoaki in Spring Snow was destroyed by his Schopenhauerian willlessness, his inability to master and shape his desires, Isao is a model of the superman with all its fascistic implications made overt. Nonetheless, both return to the same fate ("the irony of the human will’s relationship to history.. every strong willed person was in the last analysis frustrated"), in spite of Honda’s attempts to save them in both novels.

Over the years I’ve found myself increasingly unenthused by Orwell’s writings and The Road to Wigan Pier has not proved to offer any startling exception to this. Orwell begins with a description of a working class guest house that caricatures its owners as dirty and disgusting stereotypes; "it gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all… they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world." Later in the same text, after complaining of black thumbprints left by the guest house owners on food, Orwell has the temerity to speak of the middle-class delusion that the working classes are dirty; "dirtiness is healthy and natural and cleanliness is a mere fad or at best a luxury." Orwell then claims to have overcome his own middle-class revulsion without any apparent trace of irony. In part, much of this appears attributable to the fact the guest house owners simply aren’t the right sort of working class people a good communist was apparently supposed to feel solidarity with, unlike the hagiographic (Stakhanovite ?) description of the miners that follows, in contrast to other figures like ‘Nancy poets.’ Northern working class heterosexuality is elevated above Southern middle class homosexuality. Middle class life is ‘sickly’, ‘debilitating’, ‘soft’ and ‘repulsive.’ But again, Orwell goes on to suggest that such ideas are pure mythology; "that the North is inhabited by real people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites." In fairness, Orwell’s views on this subject are admitted to be ambivalent; "soembody who grasps that what is usually called progress entails degeneracy and who nevertheless is in favour of progress." I’m not sure that this does much to mitigate the view though. The final closing peroration is perhaps the part I mostly intensely disliked; with the war with the fascist states imminent what is uppermost in Orwell’s mind is to "attract the man who means business and you have got to drive away the mealy mouthed liberal who wants foreign fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully." In one line, you can see clearly how communism did so much in ensuring the hegemony of fascism in much of Europe, but the idea that fascism was in many respects a reaction against communism or that liberalism would survive either of them, was not one that you’d find entertained here.

The recent novels of JM Coetzee operate on a relatively simple premise, taking a scenario that deals with the life of a character deliberately framed to resemble the author, only for the autobiographical aspects to be deconstructed as fiction. In the case of Foe, the principal works in reverse, with Defoe’s narration of Robinson Crusoe, itself a text that sought to depict itself as being a literal account, being deconstructed as a work of artifice that did not correspond to Coetzee’s account of events; one work of fiction being unmasked by another. For example, Foe tells Susan that while she wants the narration to only dwell on the island "it is thus that we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beginning, then middle, then end," thus showing how artifice is imposed on a mundane reality. The voiceless Friday epitomises how narrative and meaning can be imposed; "Friday has no command of words and therefore no defence against being rehsaped day by day in conformance with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal." By contrast, Susan says that "I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her desire." Of course, as Susan has to rely on her male ‘muse’ to tell her story, the novel has the paradox that Friday’s silence is better resistant to having his story imposed than her tale; "but noe all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left." Coetzee’s device of deconstructing Defoe’s text allows him to pose the question of what happens to the text if the author has been removed in true Barthesian style; "have we thereby lost our freedoms?…do we of necessity become puppets… do not suppose that because I am not substantial these tears you behold are not the tears of a true grief."

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Vergangenheitsbewaltigung

Unlike Bernd Eichinger’s earlier Downfall, which depicted events around one central figure over a relatively short period of time and an extremely confined space, The Baader-Meinhof Complex takes place over the course of the ‘red decade’ from the 1967 killing of Benno Ohnesorg by the West Berlin police (recently re-evaluated as inflammatory act by the Stasi) to the RAF’s plane hijacking and kidnapping spree that later became known as the ‘German autumn’ of 1977. The events proceed across the entirety of West Germany, with excursions to Jordan and Iraq, and include a large cast of the gang’s central figures. Like Downfall, The Baader-Meinhof Complex works by presenting events as reportage, intercutting the narrative with scenes with contemporary television footage (rather oddly showing the crushing of the Prague spring alongside student riots in Paris). One of its particular strengths is its observation that this particular revolution was remorselessly televised, with the protagonists repeatedly captured on film throughout and spending much of their time watching the reporting of their actions on television.

Inevitably, this opens the question of whether the film glamourises the terrorists, making them heroes in an action movie filled with glamorous locations. If one compares the film posters to the wanted posters that could be found on nearly every street in West Germany, then it is difficult not to notice that the modern actors are rather better looking compared to many of the bespectacled faces on the original. Nonetheless, if the characters are shown driving fast (stolen) cars, wearing leather jackets and raybans, much of this is simply because the characterisation of the originals as rebels without a cause is not entirely unreasonable; Baader did model himself in figures like Marlon Brando. Baader always wanted to be a leader, but as a young man he had little success inspiring others to follow him. When he was a teenager, he was sent to a new boarding school near Munich. In a attempt to draw interest Baader began periodically coughing into a handkerchief, while dropping hints that he had some incurable lung ailment. The other students noticed that his handkerchief never showed blood. Most students saw his sad attempts to generate interest exactly for what they were, and they ignored him. Later Baader would adopt a swaggering style. In new situations he often talked aggressively, trying to establish early that he was the toughest in the room. His act never really worked with some of the crowds he mixed with, like the Rockers — who saw through Baader immediately. But within the burgeoning student movement he found that his tough-man routine was accepted unquestioningly. Baader’s life as a terrorist was as much the story of a dedicated violent poseur as the story of a Marxist Revolutionary.

The film is thus rather acute when it comes to depicting the gang as intellectually vacuous, their actions borne out of sociopathic delinquency rather than conviction. Confronted by an Italian third making of with their stolen car, Baader is outraged, just after he has incited Mahler to steal a woman’s wallet. Ensslin’s hysterical rants about the immorality of standing by in inaction is counterpointed by the wailing of her ignored children. The policy to only attack representatives of the state and not workers does not last long, from the security guard in the department store they burn down, a librarian they shoot or the typesetters at Springer publishing.

Conversely, the film is not as good at pinpointing the group’s ideological underpinnings. If Baader was simply a thug, Ensslin and, to a lesser extent Meinhof, were ideologues. One would not be aware from the film that the gang were used as an instrument by the Stasi, from whom they received funding. German universities were awash in what would now seem to be radical Marxist thought, filtered through Fanon, and parsed by Marcuse, Horkheimer, and the other titans of the Frankfurt school. Students learned that German society, like all western society, was in the throws of late Capitalism, eventually to be replaced by true Democratic Socialism. While it does acknowledge the RAF’s connections with Palestinian terror organizations in both Jordan and Iraq, it does not have Ulrike Meinhof’s character recite the diatribe she wrote justifying what she called the Munich “aktion” – the 1972 murder of Israel’s Olympic wrestling team. It also does not feature the earlier new-left bombing of a Jewish Community Centre in West Berlin on November 9th 1969, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. This left-wing anti-semitism culminated in the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, in which two German members of the Revolutionary Cells — another terrorist group to emerge out of the West German student movement — and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet, flew it to Entebbe and separated the Jewish passengers and the non-Jewish passengers before Israeli commandos stormed the aircraft. The cells had also planned to assassinate Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. This from a student movement that began as a rebellion against the ‘Auschwitz generation.’ Horst Mahler, the actual founder of the gang is now a neo-Nazi.

In some respects, the converse also applies. The film is strong when it comes to depicting police brutality during the visit of the Iranian Shah to West Berlin or the police state tactics used by the authorities to locate the gang. Less is made of the continued presence of Nazi party members in the administration at the time. The Wanted poster itself had originally acted to glamourise the gang, showing that half of the gang as female. German society was still characterised by the tripartite ideal of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (Children, Kitchen, Church), where it was still technically illegal to co-habit with a man who was not your husband, where all abortion was outlawed, and where men were legally recognized as the head of the household. To men and women alike, the posters made the gang appear both liberating and chic. Even the police seemed to be tacitly accepting the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s premise of gender equality by equally spacing the women and men throughout the poster; few would have noticed had the poster lined all the of the men along the top rows and the women along the bottom, indicating men’s traditional dominant role and women’s traditional auxiliary role. If anything, police chief Horst Herold is used as a means of authorial commentary, (inbetween plying his colleagues with lobster soup), regularly stating that the group are protesting against political problems which objectively exist and which must be addressed in order to resolve the conflict – in practice, it took the fall of the Berlin wall to dissipate the violence. The result may simply be that film is not as well equipped to deal with subjects of this kind as the novel is.

Not entirely unrelated themes emerged in the rather more traditional setting of the Old Vic, with a performance of Joe Sutton’s Complicit. The interior of the building had been extensively remodelled to replace the conventional stage with a circular dais at the centre of the theatre. The result is rather like the Globe, allowing for a rather more intimate performance where the actors are not quarantined from the audience. With only a few props and three actors (David Suchet’s performance being particularly good), the play is a rather intense piece although a little unsatisfying: it feels like a vehicle to explore political ideas around torture rather than a character piece.

The Tate’s Rodchenko and Popova exhibition leaves me feeling a little depressed; ane arlier exhibition last year had captured Rodchenko’s decline into a propagandist on a par with Leni Reifenstahl. This exhibition covers an earlier period and demonstrates how great the fall was. The early work of both artists is easily comparable to that of artists in Western Europe. The texture on many of Popova’s works recalls Kandinsky, while her use of wood as a canvas and wood dust to add texture to the paint anticipates Duchamp’s readymades. Rodchenko’s focus on the geometrical recalls Mondrian, Braque and Malevich, while a painting of two layers of black anticipates Rothko’s version of abstract expressionism. Nonetheless, their social context created difficulties their Western counterparts lacked. Like the Futurists, the Russian constructivists embraced the machine age, dwelling on the dynamic and geometric. The discarding of representational models seemed to chime with the Bolshevik policy to discard the traditional elements of society. In practice though, the attempt to reconcile avant garde art with politics was an uncomfortable one. Assigning a utilitarian purpose to artforms lacking representational content proved difficult at best, with attempts to replace subjective artistic creation with objective construction of forms doing little other than to obfuscate the problem with terminology. A point of crisis comes as Rodchenko paints three solid blocks of red, yellow and blue and declares it the end for painting. Hereafter, art must be aligned to industry, and a turn to architecture, textiles, set design and advertising (under Lenin’s new economic policy) follows. This isn’t entirely unusual in art; the Arts & Crafts movement was closely related to the Pre-Raphaelites. Figures like Lautrec, Millais and Mucha produced adverts. The difference between high and low art is certainly an arbitrary one, as examples like Chinese ceramics show. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to be relieved that Millais didn’t base a career on his Pears soap work and it’s equally hard not to be dismayed at seeing Rodchenko and Popova throw themselves into often rather bad posters for Red October biscuits and rubber boots. This seem particularly so when one considers that their design work was not greatly more purposeful than their artwork; Popova might have thought seeing a peasant woman wearing one of her designs the highpoint of her career but in practice the peasant’s need for clothes was not overly dependent on Popova’s designs. While the suppression of constructivism in favour of socialist realism was certainly done by Stalin’s fiat, it also seems surprising that it was not done earlier; as an artistic project it was simply rendered superfluous by the the same October Revolution it had embraced. Before leaving I revisit the Soviet School room – a collection of Soviet propaganda posters. None are overly constructivist in style but they do represent a better view of what popular style in the Soviet Union was than the work of Rodchenko and Popova.

Zola’s Germinal and The Belly of Paris both betray a visceral hatred of the Second French Empire, to the point of siding with the assorted communists who wished to see it annihilated. By contrast, the novel that depicts that annihilation, The Debacle takes a surprisingly moderate. The novel is balanced between the views of two characters, Jean and Maurice. The latter is depicted as intelligent and unstable, accordingly sides with the commune. The former is portrayed as stolid but dependable, and accordingly sides with the government. The relationship between the two is oddly homoerotic, with them kissing; “no woman’s arm had held him as close and warm as this.” Dead soliders are frequently depicted locking in dying embraces of hatred or love. When Jean kills his friend the act is described as being akin to the removal of an infected organ. At the same time, the novel dwells on the possibility of the creation of a ‘new France’ by Jean, even after he has said that “it was destruction for destruction’s sake so as to bury the ancient, rotten, society beneath the ashes of the earth in the hope that a new society might spring up.” The novel endless debates these points, beginning and ending with the observation that “Is not life a state of war every second? Is not the very condition of nature a continuous struggle?… war if life and it cannot exist without death.” The evolution analogy is explicit with the soldiers compared to wild beasts or to black ants on the march. While here, as in Germinal, Zola advances the idea of a new dawn (typified in Jean and Maurice’s love; ” in the midst of the savage egotism around him… this total self abnegation”), the novel stresses the “self centered rage of the individual” and a relapse into savagery. Unlike in Stendhal, there is no sense of glory in the fighting and no sense of a guiding hand, with Napoleon being depicted as weak and powerless.

I often have reservations about reading much postwar American literature, much of which seems imbued with a sense of machismo and a fear of emasculation by women. Where nineteenth century American literature foregrounded pioneer mythologies of the lone hero, its later counterparts centre on the irrelevance of such figures cast into the enfolding social structures of a commercial, bourgeois, society. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is perhaps less bad than examples like Hemingway and Bellow, but it still seems present. The plot rather reminds me of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying: but whereas Orwell is sceptical of romantics seeking to shun mundane existences of work and family, Yates leaves little doubt that he subscribes to them. As such, when Frank seems to avoid a bohemian life in Paris in favour of public relations, his animosity to April’s sponsorship of these ideas manifests itself as misogyny, citing Freud’s ideas of penis-envy or characterising abortion as a ‘denial of womanhood,’ later admitting that his masculinity had felt threatened. Shep Campbell imagines April after years of being the breadwinner as having become like a man. Frank denounces a woman who criticises his affairs with a secretary as a ‘latent lesbian.’ When it comes to the final tragedy, the voice of the chorus represented by John Givings denounces Frank as a coward but rather than praising April he also denounces her as a tough shrew who gave Frank a hard time. Frank is allowed to step outside prescribed social structures, April is not, meaning that she must be punished.

The authorship of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates is often disputed, with the text attributed to Defoe rather than the eponymous Charles Johnson. Like Defoe, the text presents moral fables that undermine that basic premise with an emphasis on the contingent nature of vice (“in the beginning he was very averse to this sort of life.. yet afterwards he changed his principles”). AS in Defoe ‘sudden changes of conduct’ are far from uncommon. In many cases, crews of attacked vessels are forced into service on the pirate ships, making difficult to determine whether their service was voluntary or not. The author notes at one point that the only difference between a sailor on a pirate ship and a government man of war is circumstance; &quo; who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause”. As in Defoe, poverty is often cited as a key motivation for vice. However, in a vein that is less characteristic of Defoe, the author often cites little cause for a life of piracy other than piracy: “it is surprising that men of a good understanding should engage ina course of life that so debases human nature and sets them on a level with the wild beasts of the forest.” If Defoe is often Lockean, this is rather more Hobbesian; “nature seems to have designed him for a pirate from childhood”. In some of the tales, the pirates simply end up dispersing back into society, in others they revert to their old ways even when offered repentance.

It’s been a while since I looked round the permanent collections at the V&A and there were more things that I recognised than on my previous visit: the statue of Perseus from Munich in the Cast Court or the three silver lions from Rosenborg Castle in the silver galleries, for example. But there were many other exhibits I didn’t recall; three ivory dragons fighting over a crystal globe in the Chinese section, an articulated metal snake in the same area, Celadon pottery from Korea, Chinese funerary art such as ancestor painting or ceramic horses and camels. In the Islamic section there’s the large Iznik tile frieze, the Ardabil Carpet, Rock crystal ewers and marble window screens. In the European section, I’m quite struck by Leighton’s frescos and a ceiling in the vein of the Great Exhbition that is only visible through a small window, as it has only since been blocked up with the construction of a smaller roof beneath to block out the light. The section on the Great Exhibition itself is quite striking, noting that similar buildings were planned for New York and Munich. The contents of the exhibition included a German style tankard with a byzantine mosaic and gothic planters by Pugin. The Victorian section also includes furniture from Webb, Voysey, Burges (especially ornate cabinets and glassware) and Wyburd through to Mackintosh and art nouveau. The origins of the Gothic revival are traced in Beckford’s Holbein furniture and in the Walpole collection. An entire fake Monk’s cell is included from a house designed in imitation of Strawberry Hill. Imperial influences also abound – Japanese influences on Godwin’s furniture or porcelain clocks, Islamic influences on Owen Jones and Morgan’s ceramics. The section of stained glass proceeds directly from the medieval period to Rossetti, Burne Jones and Piper. The sculpture section contrasts Canova with Thorvaldsen, the paintings section comprising Blake, Martin, Roberts, Rossetti, Alma Tadema and Turner. Last but not least is a small picture of a church reflected in a pond taken by the Victorian photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner.

Food cooked: Sicilian spaghetti, Peking duck, Balti pasanda, Chicken and papaya soup, Salmagundi, Turkish chicken with walnuts, Calderette of rice with allioli, Flamenco eggs, Steak with anchovy sauce, Duck liver pilaf, Scallop and potato soup, Steak with anchovy sauce, Chocolate cake, Morroccan chicken with pears and honey, Lychee curry, Paprika Hendl, Spaghetti Carbonara, Prok Stroganoff, Portuguese Jugged Duck and Orange, Chicken with Tamarind and Turmeric, Vietnamese seafood with lime and coconut, Apple and Coconut cake, Poacher’s pie, Georgian chicken, Louisiana paella, Crab bisque, Greek prawns with feta and peppers, Pecan pie, Fish with Harissa and Tahini, Bobotie, Spanish pork and chocolate stew, Sri Lankan cashew and chicken curry, Kidneys with Mustard, Guinea Fowl with Pomegranate and Cherry, Chicken with Sumac and Lemon, Poussins with dirty rice, Mediterranean Baked Fish, Polish pork with juniper, Carbonnade Flamande.

Changing Trains

My previous visit to Germany saw me travel from Berlin down to Leipzig in the East. This time I reversed the pattern by beginning in Munich, returning to Saxony and visiting Dresden before journeying back to Berlin. Munich is rather different to either of the cities I had visited previously, being both more visibly prosperous and more visibly conformist, a state that consistently tends to elect the same conservative political party. Bavaria is an excellent case in point for a critique of democracy; ruled by a monarchy that was essentially indifferent to political or military expansion, war with Prussia and France was demanded by the state’s Parliament prior to it becoming the spiritual home of Nazism. The image of a city modelled on the ideals of the greek revival and the architecture of the enlightenment becoming a fascist marching ground is one of the most appalling notions in Western history.

I begin by walking along a street opposite the old Botanical garden. A rather crude brutalist statue of Neptune stands in the centre, in contrast to the mock Egyptian gateway. I walk past towards the Frauenkirche. Like much in Germany, this has been reconstructed having been destroyed in the war. The haphazard evolution of the building gives its exterior an odd aspect, as with the Bynzantine domes atop the redbrick towers. The exterior walls are lined with tombstones lifted from the graveyard while the interior is rather more empty, an exercise in streamlined gothic. A display shows the cathedral before the second world war as being full of baroque clutter before showing it as a devastated ruin. I see a lot of similar displays during my visit, raising the same sort of questions Sebald raised in The Natural History of Destruction. Exceptions include an elaborate grandfather clock, wooden statues of the saints and a large mannerist monument to the emperor Ludwig; it rather resembles the Hapsburg tombs I saw in the Kaisergruft in Vienna. I walk onwards to the Marienplatz. Like the townhall in Vienna, it’s a pleasingly florid example of Flemish gothic, its surface pullulating with dragons, knights and lions. As often with the gothic revival, the nearby old town hall fails to be sufficiently medieval or adequately gothic in comparison. The square in front of it is littered with devotional statues of the Virgin, putti and, rather oddly, a pufferfish. By contrast, the nearby Heiliggeistkirche and PeterKirche are archetypal baroque. As I enter the latter, the light is streaming through the upper windows and forming coruscating paths down to the floor. Its spire, so broad from the front and so narrow from the side, reminds me of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch.

Walking on again, I walk past the Hofgarten near the royal palace to the Englischer garten, a odd combination of wild wood with garden. A stream from the river Isar proceeds through the garden at pressure leading many to surf in its waters. As it grows calmer swans and ducks try to swim upstream. Follies abound from Klenze’s classicist Monopteros (unlike English neo-classical architecture it’s beautifully painted in pinks and greens) to a chinoiserie pagoda used by a beer hall. Walking back to the centre, I enter the Theatinerkirche. A nauseating mustard glass yellow on the outside, the inside is covered in stucco detail but is unpainted and left in white; the resulting view of the dome in the interior rather reminds me of Wren. Some of the surrounding buildings present a different picture, with frozen stone dramatising the dialectic of romanticism and the enlightenment as with the Klenze’s gothic Felderhalle with its statues of lions and Bavarian generals (one could be forgiven for viewing its connection with the beer hall putsch as predestined). The structure commemorates Bavarian military victories, one of many such monuments. Further down the street, past the university buildings with their wide fountains and before the classicist Siegestor is the Ludwigkirche. The building is under repair, with the roof being recovered with glazed tiles, so the ceiling is covered with nets that block my view of the sky blue gothic vault. With its patterned walls and giant altar painting, it reminds me quite a lot of English architecture of the same period, though Bavaria’s penchant for rundbogenstil meant a romanesque revival rather than a gothic one, just as the Nazarene painters were essentially Raphaelites.

The following day is taken up with visits to the various galleries in Munich. The Alte Pinakothek was badly damaged during the war and its surface remains a morass of scar tissue. The interior feels both cavernous and empty, lacking the decoration one would normally have expected of such a building. The collection is initially rather disappointing, with some rather generic Italian renaissance paintings; for instance an austere Botticelli from the period when Savonarola’s influence was at its height. I’m struck by a version of the annunciation where Gabriel has peacock wings (later, I find myself smirking at similar paintings showing the wings as rainbow coloured and resembling gay pride flags). I feel most interested when we come to Canaletto’s veduta paintings or a vanitas painting by Salvator Rosa . As is often the case, my spirits are restored when I come to the Dutch section; deserted church interiors by Saenredam, de Velde seascapes, Ruisdael landscapes, der Heyden paintings of palaces, portraits from Hals and Rembrandt. There’s even a set of landscapes showing Brazil as if it were Utrecht (there’s later a Burgkmair painting of St John on Patmos, complete with monkeys and palm trees). Unlike the Italians, the Dutch were more alive to the sensuous joy of things. I’m struck at how flower still lives combined different plants that could never have been in bloom simultaneously as a fantasia. Even moral allegories like Jan Steen’s The Love Sick Girl combine their fables with still-lives showing this love of surface.

The same holds true for the Flemish section (as with Brueghel’s Harbour with christ preaching where christ is simply one figure in a crowd and not nearly as central as the two housewives in the centre staring back out at the viewer), even if there is far too much Rubens, although one of his cartoonish paintings of the last judgement is quite striking. I’m particularly struck with a painter I hadn’t heard of, Cornelis Van Dalem, and a painting entitled Landscape with Farmstead showing a preoccupation with ruins in the form of a derelict church and a dilapidated famrstead. Like Ruisdael’s painting of the Jewish cemetery, it shows an early form of romanticism. The Spanish section is less interesting, notable only for a Velasquz court portrait and El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ while Claude’s landscapes are the only things to leap out in the French section.

The German section comes last. Even in spite of their religiosity, I can’t help liking Michael’s Pacher’s paintings trompe l’oeil alter paintings that simulate gothic niches or his paintings of a devil with face on its backside. Like Bosch, it mostly seems like a work of surrealism at this point in time, no different to Brueghel’s painting of the land of Cockaigne where pigs run around with knives carving them up in the process. I’m more taken with a Durer self portrait, done in a style designed to consciously recall christ paintings and representing for me Burckhardt’s discovery of the individual, just as a nearby Altdorfer painting is the first landscape with a definite topography, that of Regensburg.

I pass onwards to the nearby Neues Pinakothek. The early rooms here are dedicated to international art (a Canova sculpture of Paris, Adonis by Thorvaldsen a Fuseli painting of Satan and Death). A rather gaudy Goya stands out clearly from an excessive number of Gainsboroughs. The German section is of the most interest to me as it again dramatises a dialogue of classicism and romanticism; Dahl’s The Day After a Stormy Night, architectural fantasies of ancient Athens from Klenze, Blechen’s The Construction of the Devil’s Bridge, Friedrich’s The Arbour. I feel more ambivalent about the Nazarenes; their use of colour is something I certainly respond to but their subjects are often anodyne at best. By contrast, the entire room given to Rottman’s paintings of Greece is fascinating. Bavaria had helped Greek independence in return for giving its dynasty the Greek throne (for a short while) and Rottman was one of the first Europeans to paint the ruins of Corinth and Athens. Delacroix, Gericault and Daumier represent French work in the same period. The modern section is surprisingly comprehensive, covering Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Lautrec, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir and especially Guaguin and Van Gogh. The final rooms turn to the more unusual; Klimt, Schiele, Von Stuck and Munch.

Finally, I visit the Lensbachhaus. I haven’t been enormously impressed by Lensbach’s rather stodgily realistic paintings but there’s undeniably something rather striking about his former villa. The courtyard is an Italian renaissance fantasia of sea horse fountains and statues while the undamaged sections of the interior are equally richly decorated. This takes up where the Neue Pinakothek had stopped, with Von Stuck’s Salome (paintings of Salome often recur in various galleries and I later see a fountain dedicated to the Strauss opera) and the likes of Corinth’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton (presumably an echo of Bocklin?), but most of the house is given up to the various members of the Blue Rider group. Kandinsky represents a clear core to the group but although I’m unfamiliar with the other names, I’m quite impressed with Munter’s folk art, Jawlensky’s & Macke’s landscapes and Marc’s animal paintings. The Lensbachhaus is close to Konigsplatz and opposite the Propylaen, a classicist monument By Klenze to Otto’s brief reign as King of Greece. It faces a black obelisk on the other side of the platz that serves as a Napoleonic war memorial. Inbetween are Klenze’s equally Grecian Glyptotek and Staatliche Antikensammlungen. I only later learn that this was the central Nazi administrative area; Troost’s fuhrerbau where Chamberlain was handed his piece of paper stands nearby. It’s a music school now, wreathed in ivy. I walk back into Munich and visit the Michaelkirche. As austere as the Theatinerkirche, it does have a funerary monument by Thorvaldsen, much in the style of the Caniova tombs I’d seen in Venice. By contrast, the Asamkirche, is florid with rococo detail. I’m especially taken with a sun image in the ceiling and by a skeleton attacking a cherub with a scythe.

The following day is taken up with a visit to the Munich Residence. Combining late reniassiance and North Italian baroque designs with later work from Klenze, the building takes you through grotto halls decorated with shells, a courtyard with a statue of Perseus, an antiquarium with walls painted with roman decorations and walls lined with busts of Roman emperors (I especially like trompe l’oeil paitnings that show the already long hall extending even further into infinity), a chapel with ceiling blazing with blue and gold and walls lined with marble and frescos, state rooms lined with tapestries that have retained most of their colour, a long gallery lined with portraits, porcelain cabinets, a miniatures cabinet, baroque galleries whose mirror lined walls create the impressions of an infinitely recursive space. There are various collections in the Residence; a grisly display of skulls and bones in a reliquary, an exhibition of various orientalist tapestries and above all an exhibition of ‘white gold’ porcelain, covering the collection of Chinese and Arita Imari through to Meissen wares. There’s also a brief exhibition on a lost palmhouse constructed atop part of the residence and containing various follies. Finally, there’s the Staatliches Museum Agyptischer Kunst containing an impressive red marble statue of Antinous as Osiris, a translation of the Greek geographer Artemidorus in papyrus, several sphinxes and gold jewellery from Meroitic tombs.

In the afternoon, I return to Konigsplatz and to the Glyptotek. Like the Pinakothek, the interior is stark and bare creating an uncanny feeling of emptiness, something exacerbated by each room having a plaque showing its orginally highly ornamented interiors. The collection here varies from pediment cornices and palmettes to kouroi, tombstones, sarcophagi and votive reliefs. The most famous statue, the Barberini faun, is given a room largely to itself. I’m most struck with a representation of the head of Medusa, a statue of Diomedes and a bust of Antinous. The centre of the collection is statuary from the Temple of Aegina showing sphinxes and Trojan warriors. Opposite, the Staatliche Antikensammlungen is largely dedicated to Greek depictions of women, especially in terms of how the Amazons were depicted (mostly in vases but also statuary) as an orientalised other, mounted warriors shown in the same terms of Scythians or Thracians, just as the Maenads were shown as worshippers of an asiatic cult. The permanent collection is somewhat sidelined, but it does have an excellent collection of glass wares and a beautiful gold crown of leaves.

The following day is taken up with a rather preditactable visit to Schloss Neuschwanstein. It’s one of those uncomfortable moments that remind you that you are a tourist and not just a visitor, as you join the crowds thronging their way to this remote castle. The landscape here is certainly beautiful with the old castle of Hohenschwangau overlooking a swan lake circumbscribed by mountains. The new castle lies halfway up one of these mountains and is reachable through a surprisingly gentle path that twists and turns on its way up. I’m interested in part in the rather tragic story of King Ludwig (partly a case study as to the medievalist ideals of Ruskin or Wagner being put into practice, partly the archetypal story of the persecuted gay aesthete) and in another part in the medievalist architecture. Created by a theatrical set designer rather than an architect, Neuschwanstein combines Ludwig’s preferred romanesque arches with a design that is gothic overall, a fantasia on a middle ages that never existed. The interior is characterised by a horror of emptiness, with every surface painted, patterned and decorated. Wagner’s operas form the basis for a series of frescos throughout the various rooms, with the swans from Lohengrin forming a leitmotif throughout (although the lion forms the basis of the Bavarian crest and mythical creatures like dragons appear to guard stairwells) in tapestries, frescos and porcelain. The throne room is an odd combination of Romanesque and Byzantine, depicting historical monarchs and christian allegories alike on its walls. By contrast, the furniture in later rooms is pure gothic, with encrustations of wooden crockets abounding. The Singer’s Hall rather perversely reminds me of Wren’s Greenwich Hospital where the main hall also culminates in a wall sized fresco, here of Klingsor’s magic garden.

This essentially concludes my visit to Munich and from here a long train journey follows to Dresden. The countryside gradually changes from fir trees and hills to something that more closely resembles England (I do wonder whether Germany actually has an agricultural sector; all I can see being grown is Sweetcorn) I feel rather ambivalent about this city. Standing on the Bruhl Terrace and looking at both the Neustadt and Altstadt, it’s easy to understand the glib label of it being the Florence of the North, even if all the spires and towers had long since been blackened by pollution and rather resembles Edinburgh more than Italy. The building is predominantly baroque with some older structures such as the medieval Residence. Bisected like Prague between old and new towns, with the the Bruhl terrace serving the same purpose as London’s embankment, the city is in many ways of maze of sighing bridges and walkways beneath buildings (the terrace was built after the removal of the city fortifications and the casemates remained hidden beneath them; like those in Prague they now contain original versions of statues replaced with copies outside, such as one of the Duke of Moritzburg and the skeletal figure of Death). It soon becomes clear that none of the buildings I can see escaped the firestorm and they are all efforts in conservation and reconstruction; many like the Dreikonigskirche, the Frauenkirche and the Kreuzkirche have left parts of their altars as they were after the firestorm. Some, like the Kreuzkirche appear undamaged on the outside but without any restoration on the interior (although the Kreuzkirche does have a striking renaissance totentanz relief). Others like the Frauenkirche are hyperreal constructs, entirely new buildings that simulate their predecessor. In this case, the interior is filled with paint that replicates marble patterns and has a pastel quality that I suspect is toned down from what it would would have been. I’m equally unclear if trompe l’oeil paint is a restoration or a substitute for certain architectural features. Perhaps because I have never seen a new baroque church before (nor ever will again), I’m struck at how kitsch it is; it seems to need the patinia of age. I also find myself preferring the blackened towers to the gleaming cream of the new Frauenkirche. Equally, much of the city was never reconstructed after the Seond World War and instead saw the building of various Soviet building blocks (many of which have become hotels now). A rather grim statue of a female worker stands in front of the town hall and the Kulturpalast in the city centre is a depressing rectangle with Soviet murals on its facade. It rather resembles the late and unlamented Palast Der Republik in Berlin. Nor are many of the gleaming glass and steel buildings that have been errected since the Wende much of an improvement, although I do get the impression of greater prosperity than I had recalled seeing in my earlier visit to Leipzig. While I do see derelict villas in the suburbs that were never rebuilt after the war, I also see several that either have been or are being reconstructed.

Inevitably, I begin at the Zwinger Palace, with its satyr caryatids, reliefs of Perseus and St George and carillion chimes. The Porcelain museum here is rather better than its Munich counterpart, explaining the symbolic significance of much of the imagery (washing a white elephant meaning to wash away the delusions of the world). Augustus the Strong described himself as having a ‘maladie du porcellaine’ even bartering his troops for porcelain; the museum includes rooms containing white porcelain representations of animals, from rhinos ane elephants to peacocks, an attempt to model the world in porcelain. Much of the afternoon is taken with Dresden Gemaldegallerie. The Italian section is notable for Messina’s semi-pornographic depiction of Saint Sebastian, some Venetian nightscenes by Canaletto and a number of Belotto paintings of Dresden itself, showing the original Kreuzkirche and its demolition. Once again though, it’s the Ditch and Flemish section that interests me; a Valckenborch painting of the Tower of Babel similar to the Brueghel, Brill and Savery’s paintings of ruins, Rembrandt’s portraits of his wife, a Vermeer painting of a girl reading a lette (the orginal had a representation of Cupid to make the meaning clear, which Vermeer removed) and Ruisdael landscapes. The German section has a number of Cranach and Holbein portraits and a ruin painting by Klengel. I also visit the Green Cabinet in the Dresden Residence; a series of rooms holding a royal wunderkammer, that ranges from amber and gold to mother of pearl, coral, nautilus shells, ostrich eggs and coconuts. There are a few other structures that seem noteworthy; a gilded gold statue of Augustus in the Neustadt, a Japanese palace with mandarins as caryatids and a police headquarters decorated with bat and owl gargoyles.

The following day is taken up with a trip to Moritzburg and a walk around the Baroque castle. Situated in the middle of a lake, it’s a peaceful walk around the lakeside woods and reed beds. A number of geese vociferously demand bread. As one might expect from an inflated hunting lodge, the interior has few walls without stag antlers and with many paintings following suit. Much of the walls are decorated with an embossed leather that has not weathered well, lending a rather sad aspect to the interior belied by the vivid orange of the exterior. I’m rather taken with the idea of a palace having a ‘Hideous Hall’ decorated with mythological scenes. Walking back through the grounds to Faisanderie, a pink lodge surmounted with a mandarin that nods in the wind. In conventional baroque form, the Faisanderie exists in a stright line from one wall of the castle, although the stream that leads down this path suffers from its fountain being damaged and is simply a low pool filled with reed and lilies where dragonflies go back and forth. The final folly I see is a lighthouse, painted to represent the lines of pink bricks on plaster. The building leans out onto another tranquil lake and again seems to resemble a pagoda as much as a conventional lighthouse. Returning to Dresden, the evening is spent at an organ concert in the Frauenkirche; Vierne, Durufle, Franck and Messiaen.

Changing trains again, this time a shorter journey back to Berlin. My original visit to Berlin had been the subject of a depressing journey to Leipzig through derelect factories and abandoned villas. Some of this remains but rather less so; I’m unclear if the difference is my own memory, the elapsed time or greater prosperity in Dresden than Leipzig. Berlin itself remains an anomaly. As a capital is seems rather empty, with the punks loitering around graffiti covered streets reminding one of London in the seventies. In many respects, it’s a pleasant, elegant city of green spaces and wide boulevards. The S-Bahn system is now one of the most modern and impressive in Europe and far preferable to the London Underground. On the other hand, much of the city remains an odd mixture of grey housing blocks from the Soviet era, often placed directly alongside gleaming corporate buildings, neither of which engage me much. Alexanderplatz, with its cheerless combination of dun coloured communist kitsch and skyscrapers is especially unengaging. On the other hand, the reconstruction of the city has been rather more thorough than that in London (I eagerly await the plans to demolish the Barbican and Southbank), with a few concrete towers now being all that remains of the Palast Der Republik while construction is underway nearby to rebuild Schinkel’s Bauakademie.

The initial days are clouded with dark skies and rain, so I retreat to the Gemaldegallerie. The pattern of my responses is essentially familiar by now, with a mixed response to the medieval works becoming more affirmative to the later works. The medieval German section does have a Cranach work that I haven’t encountered before, The Fountain of Youth. I wonder if this isn’t an allegory of the resurrection but the painting seems equally ‘readable’ as a hymn to the joys of youth and the flesh. As often I find myself most drawn to the portraits against the legions of anonymous saints; Holbein’s The Merchant Georg Gisze or Fiorentino’s Portrait of a Young Man. I also find myself warming to Brugehel’s The Dutch Proverbs (vernacular rather than sacred wisdom) and Bosch’s St John of Patmos a painting whose realism is interrupted by the appearance of a strange creature opposite a raven. Later Dutch paintings that stand out for me include Vermeer’s The Glass of Wine and several Ruisdael landscapes, as well as a more unusual view of the Damplatz in Amsterdam. The Italian section includes a number of more pagan Botticelli paintings than I had seen earlier in the visit, a painting of Venus by Titian, a capriccio from Canaletto showing a ruined baldachin and an interesting veduta scene from Martini. The Spanish section is immediately notable for a pair of Caravaggios, including Amor as Victor. I also briefly visit the Hamburger Bahnhof; a former train station turned modern art gallery, with a small collection of Rauschenberg collages and Warhols.

This is then followed by a visit to the Bodesmuseum. Shut during my last visit, I found myself impressed by the interior; the Radcliffe Camera style dome houses an equestrian statue of one of the Prussian monarchs while a central hall is cast in the form of a basilica, housing Maiolica works from various Italian churches. The exhibition is perhaps less interesting; much of the medieval sculpture seems clumsy and cartoonish, although two saints depicted in clothes coated with gold leaf and elaborate top hats strikes an odd and pleasant contrast. The same applies to a loaned kunstkammer with an elaborate gold statue around whose feet crawl jewelled beetles and a variety of ivory and amber capriccios. The best section is dedicated to the Byzantine; beautifully decorated sarcophagi and the apse mosaic from a Ravenna church. A nearby section is dedicated to Coptic textiles and funerary work. The Altes Museum was also shut during my last visit; organised around a central rotunda Schinkel had clearly designed to remind one of the Pantheon, the lower section is dedicated to Greek and Roman exhibits that are new to me. Highlights here include a bronse statue of Antinous as Bacchus, a praying boy statue formerly owned by Frederick the Great and a bowl depicting a satyr orgy that made the Warren Cup seem restrained. The upper floor is the Egyptian section I had seen in its former home in Charlottenberg, so I recall exhibits like the Bust of Nefertiti and the Fayum mummy paintings (though I’m not sure I recall the Meroitic section or the sheer number of Mummy masks). I also revisit the Altes Nationalgallerie, part of which had previously been shut; such as the Canova and Thorvaldsen sculptures.

The skies briefly clear the following day and I walk down Unter Den Linden from the Brandenburg gate to Alexanderplatz. I recall buildings like Humboldt University and the State Library but I also decide to detour and see Gendarmenmarkt, with its symmetrical cathedrals and opera house. I then stop at the Schinkel Museum, a redbrick gothic church that could have passed for a gothic revival structure from the typically classicist architect. The interior is rather eerie for its absence of pulpit and pew; instead various marble statues are scattered about, from artists like Thorvaldsen, Schadow and Christian Daniel Rauch. The nearby Neue Wache with its austere classicism and tomb-like interior is entirely different again, especially in the environs of the Schlossbrucke with its elaborate statues and wrought iron seahorses. Reaching Alexanderplatz, one finds oneself underneath the towering bulk of the Fernsehrturm, easily Berlin’s tallest structure, which dwarfs the Nikolaikirche and the Marienkirche underneath it. The interior of the latter provides quite interesting; gleaming white gothic sheltering elaborate tomb monuments. The Weltzeituhr is easily the best thing in Alexanderplatz; I certainly find myself unimpressed with the continued presence of the statues of Marx, Engels and Leibknecht, which should have all been exiled to a historical theme park long ago.

A visit to the Neue Synagogue proves a mixed experience; although the exterior has been beautifully reconstructed the interior has not, thwarting my expectation of something similar to the synagogues I had seen in Prague. The exhibition inside documents the guilding of the synagogue as a part of the reform movement, its place in the history of Jewish life in Berlin, the murder of that community and the dereliction of the building. There’s something similar with the Kaiser Willhelm Memorial Church, now twinned with Coventry Cathedral. The ruin is shut during my visit although I can see some rather fine mosaics and marble statues through the windows. The modern church, containing the Stalingrad Madonna, is open and although a rather ugly box from the exterior is awash with blue light inside. Amongst other destinations during my trip, I visit the Oberbaumbrucke (mostly a desire stemming from having seen Lola Rennt) and the Saint Matthias Churchyard (which is nowhere near the church of that name, which resides in the Kulturforum). Containing the graves of the Brothers Grimm and Von Stauffenberg, many of the monuments are rather generic and could as easily be found in London, but I am struck by a tomb that contains a white marble statue of the deceased, only just visible in the gloom of the interior, various monuments in verdigris encrusted copper and an art deco statue wreathed in ivy. I also note that grave of Napoleon Seyfarth and his lover, their grave marked with two arrows emblazoning their homosexuality. Another grave has a rainbow flag on it.

There were various good restaurants during my visit, including Jewish, Persian, Czech, Cambodian, Uzbek (boar ghoulash) and Russian as well as German meals like blood and liver sausage with one litre tankards of dark beer.