It is imagination that first taught man the moral meaning of color, of contour, of sound, and of scent. At the beginning of the world, it created analogy and metaphor.
—Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)
I HAVE DEDICATED the greater part of my professional life to questions of art, design, and aesthetics. They are a fundamental part of our existence, in a far more existential way than we are consciously aware of. That’s why we need the arts — that’s their humanist strength and their imminent danger as well.
The first time I became consciously aware of Rammstein must have been about 15 years ago when one of my stepsons asked me to translate the German lyrics of one of their songs into English for him. Yes, the band is also well known in Israel and has astounding popularity here as well. I was puzzled when I started to look a bit deeper into their music and even more so into the aesthetic formulas they were using, and still do until this day.
fascists vs. fascist aesthetics
To clarify upfront: I do not consider Rammstein a right-wing or Nazi band. Anybody who listens to their lyrics will be able to see that. But this band is a lot more than their lyrics. And it is particularly these other parts, visually strikingly dominant, that are consciously using the dangerous emotional strength of fascist aesthetics: those grand, strong, powerful, and megalomaniac artistic gestures that had their beginnings in Italy at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century — perfected through Hitler’s Nazi architecture and aesthetics that we can find in German cities until this day.
Rammstein’s video “Stripped” e.g. pays tribute to the beauty of the “Aryan body” — using footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Nazi propaganda film “Olympia.” And also their newest video “Deutschland” delivers the desired dose of fascist aesthetics Rammstein fans lust for:
• The heavy powerful music that directly attacks and takes control of your intestines.
• Till Lindemann’s dark scary voice, with his harsh and peculiar pronunciation that brings out the worst of the German language: It reminds rather of speeches by Adolf Hitler than the beauty of a Rainer Maria Rilke or Heinrich Heine.
• The usage of language in a very clear-cut manner, often working with only one-word lines (Du – Ich – Wir – Ihr) that become their own symbols of power and strength in combination with the music, meaning everything and nothing.
• The grand visual gestures of a Leni Riefenstahl or Arno Breker meeting the “Aryan race”, always playing with ambiguous metaphors. In “Deutschland” e.g. a black woman plays the Germania, the personification of the German nation, carrying the ultimate severed Aryan head (Till Lindemann with his SS-Officer’s haircut) in place of the orb. In a time when Germany is drowning in new lows of Antisemitism, racism, and the well-known German fear of strangers, those become dangerous games with double meanings.
megalomania for the masses
The fascinating aspect is that it seems to work with people from all sides of the political spectrum. In Germany, the very country that by law forbids the trade with Nazi devotionals, even my so-called leftist friends don’t seem to have any issues with this sort of visual language. Any criticism of Rammstein is downplayed, and the person expressing it is declared an ignoramus. Something I, again and again, observe with a sense of surprise and wonder. The fact that a band like Rammstein is playing with fascist aesthetics for their own benefit is one thing, the amazing success they have had with it for over 20 years now is the far more worrisome aspect about this all for me.
What is it that resonates with people when they expose themselves to this music and these sort of aesthetics? I haven’t explored the subject sufficiently yet, but I imagine it is the same sort of feelings that resonated with people back then, in the old days, the ones Germans don’t want to be reminded of too often: Strength and empowerment. The same type of feelings you might get when standing in front of the National Monument in Rome or listening to a Wagnerian opera. After all, there was a reason why he was Hitler’s favorite composer, not to mention their shared hate of the Jewish people.
I just can’t listen to that much Wagner, you know. I’m starting to get the urge to conquer Poland.
—Woody Allen (*1935)
So, why am I telling you all this? The reason I am writing about this now is Rammstein’s newest video “Deutschland” that was premiered on YouTube yesterday evening. The video is a crazy ride through 2000 years of German history, presented in the gory and megalomaniac style that their fans long for. No, it’s not a right-wing song, quite the opposite. It’s a brutal ballad describing the well-known German identity crisis of not being able to hate nor to love one’s country. “Germany, your love is curse and blessing. Germany, I can’t give you my love.”
The trouble with this video is not so much the video itself, but its controversial marketing ahead of the official release. A day before its premiere on YouTube, a 35-second excerpt from the video was released on social media around the world. It shows the musicians on an execution gallows dressed as concentration camp inmates, one of them visibly wearing the yellow star. Nothing else.
I work as a graphic designer for over 20 years, I teach creativity and design to students for almost 20 years and the strategy of provocation is a well-known tool of the advertising industry. Provocative ads are often designed to test the lines of what is appropriate and acceptable within society. I vividly remember the 1990s when the clothing company United Colors of Benetton created some of the most memorable provocative ad campaigns in advertising history.
The photo of Giusy, the newborn baby girl, was one of the most censored images in the history of Benetton ads with protests erupting throughout Palermo, Milan, and other Italian cities.
Such campaigns wouldn’t be a problem anymore in 2019. The lines of what is socially acceptable have shifted. While Benetton was condemned back then by the ICC, the Code of Advertising Practice Court, that the photo »does not take account of public sensitivity«, we have reached a time where people’s sensitivities are basically no longer existent or have been severely brutalized by social media and the internet.
And that’s why the provocation Rammstein has chosen deserves to be discussed, as it also tells us about present social sensitivities when the Holocaust and the suffering of Jewish victims are used to create attention and click-baiting for the band’s new video and CD that came out after 10 years of silence.
Is Rammstein allowed to do this?
They certainly are.
The freedom of the arts and the freedom of expression grant them this right.
Is it morally correct to do this?
That is a more complicated question.
a calculated provocation
I personally found it disgusting and despicable, in particular after viewing the full video. They could have chosen any other part of their »German epos« but they intentionally chose to exploit the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust to create a well-calculated provocation for their marketing purposes. And they knew exactly why. In the land of the Shoah, this provocation resonated as expected.
Josef Schuster, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany said that “whoever misuses the Holocaust for marketing purposes acts in a deplorable and immoral way.” Other organizations called the teaser for the video tasteless and unacceptable. I read many German voices that called these reactions absurd, hysteric, or even laughable howling; reactions that are not new and rather popular in German society as soon as Jewish organizations express public criticism or concern about anything relating to the Holocaust or the dangers of the rising Antisemitism in Germany and Europe.
Rammstein’s provocation worked. The manifold discussions on social media, hundreds of thousands of views of the video premiere on YouTube confirmed their success, no matter how morally wrong. And I am worried.
You who have not experienced their anguish, you who do not speak their language, you who do not mourn their dead, think before you offend them, before you betray them …
—Eli Wiesel (1928–2016)
p.s: stripped again in 2019
When “Stripped” was released in 1998, people’s sensitivities towards the Nazi-Era were still higher and more empathetic than today. After quite some uproar, even the popular music channel MTV had decided to no longer show the clip back then. Still in 2006, Till Lindemann stated that they had crossed a red line with “Stripped” and that he would not agree to release a video again in this form.
But that was then. And now is now. Only two months after the single »Deutschland« and only a few days ahead of the release of Rammstein’s new album, “Stripped” is back online.
We say in advertising that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Or is there?
© Yehudis Jacobowitz, Hidur Design Works