long german words

As opening paragraph’s go, this one, from The New Republic’s Jeffery Herf, is pretty effective:

There is an ungainly German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that has no equivalent in the English language. It means “coming to terms with past,” and it was coined to refer to the efforts of German intellectuals, journalists, and even some politicians who, over the past half century, insisted that facing unpleasant truths about their country’s history was both a moral and political necessity. As a result of these efforts, Vergangenheitsbewältigung has become part of the core political culture of contemporary Germany.

You might guess Herf’s point: that American political culture suffers from its inattentiveness to its past. He applauds the German filmmakers who created Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, an edgy new flick about the crimes of Germany’s leftist Red Army Faction. And yes,  he ends wtih a call for American filmmakers to grapple with the unpleasant truths which Hollywood tends to gloss over.

The consummate strangeness of his piece is that he identifies only one area where Hollywood has failed to look at the past without flinching: the violence of leftist radicals during the 1960s, specifically the actions of the Weathermen. Better still than an honest drama about the Weathermen, 2002 saw a documentary, The Weather Underground, released and widely acclaimed. That the film garnered an Oscar nod shows that Hollywood was willing to embrace it. Then there’s another obvious objection to Herf’s complaint: I don’t think you need my help to come up with an aspect of America’s past that’s been overdue for a solid demystifying  a good deal longer than the Weathermen story. The Weathermen were household names again in the last election, and voters were well convinced that their members were both radical and terrorists. That canard failed to swing voters because Obama’s tie to Ayers was dubious and there were bigger  issues on the table – not because they had an overly sentimental view of what Ayers and his colleagues were up to.

It’s hard to understand why Herf believes that America desperately needs a drama that portrays the Weathermen as radicals and killers. Moderation is considered a virtue in our political culture, and even non-violent extremists tend to be pathologized. Condemnation is easy to come by, and as Herf’s piece shows, issuing it does not require much in the way of empathy or imagination – precisely the qualities of good cinema. The Weather Underground tells a story about men and women who were both sympathetic and calculating, in times where much was unsettled, and it is strong for it. Herf seems to want a drama that would be both historically accurate and morally unambiguous. And as rare as moral certitude is when history is done well, it’s rarer still in good art.


~ by staticandme on January 2, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: