Chasing the Expressionists, or, how I learned German in two weeks, part I

the ruins of Frauenkirche as they stood from Feb. 15, 1945 until 2004

“[Dresden] looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5, or, the Children’s Crusade

I have two copies of Slaughterhouse Five. One is the standard soft cover school edition with a broken spine and a handful of pages falling out, taped back in, and sticking out ready to maim you with a paper cut. The other is the 25th anniversary hardcover edition. Sprawled across the frontispiece is a photo of a ruin — a building of once significant stature razed to the ground by the allied fire bombing. When I read Slaughterhouse this past summer, I passed over the image. It was merely illustrative of the destruction Vonnegut deplored and would depict in the novel.

the Frauenkirche as it is today.

65 years and 5 days to the day of the bombing, I was sitting in a cafe in Dresden, sipping a coffee and looking onto the Frauenkirche — the building whose ruin stood coldly on the inside cover of my book.  On February 15, 1945, after enduring two days of fire-bombing, the Frauenkirche (the Church of our Lady) collapsed. For nearly 50 years, the church remained a pile of rubble, a ghostly reminder of the toll war takes on the innocent. In 1992, each stone was removed from the ruins, cataloged and reused. After 13 years of rebuilding, the Frauenkirche was reconsecrated. “There would always be wars…they were as easy to stop as glaciers,” wrote Vonnegut. They leave an indelible mark on the nations that wage them. Today, the Frauenkirche stands as it once did, a monument to God, but now also a monument to the strength of a nation to recover, to reunite,  to carry on, to remember. To see the church with it’s scars (the dark stones on the facade are from the original structure) was sobering.

If you had asked me two weeks ago how I felt about Germany, I would have answered you with ambivalence. I suppose I was like most Americans, holding onto a vision of Germany shaped by Oktoberfest, the Bauhaus aesthetic, Michael Henke films, Slaughterhouse Five, and the Third Reich. I would have told you that I needed to master the language — not because of some deep love for the throaty sound of the Germanic umlaut, but because German is a required language in the art world and a lack of fluency has turned out to be an albatross around my neck. I would have told you I wanted to study the Expressionists, maybe even write a dissertation about one of them. But beyond Kirchner and his posse, I had very little interest in Germany. Then again, even with their bold palates, the Expressionists painted a German existence that was pretty bleak. Could you really blame me for my ambivalence?

Therefore, the course I charted through the country was dictated entirely around museums and fencing venues (I was there first and foremost to compete, I suppose). I was chasing the Expressionists, the one German thing I knew anything about…besides frankfurters. On my hunt for Kollwitz, Beckmann, Ernst, Mueller, and Macke, I found a Germany brighter, warmer, and more captivating than I ever expected. The gray Bauhaus minimalism I anticipated was overwhelmed by the glistening gilt of the Baroque and Rococo.  The Bavarian churches in the south peeked out from puffs of snow, their curving spires like friendly dollops of cream on their villages’ skyline. From medieval town to modern city, it was all one Grimm’s Fairytale landscape. I fell a little bit in love with Germany, past and present.

There were many highlights — museums, pastries, highways, and cities — and many insights. Hopefully, over the next few days I’ll get them down for you. Right now I’m a little busy finding German classes to enroll in…


2 thoughts on “Chasing the Expressionists, or, how I learned German in two weeks, part I

  1. I started a German course in my first year at university but I immediately ran away to a Spanish one. I would never be able to reproduce those harsh sounds and I couldn’t bear listening to someone speaking like that for two hours three times a week. So I got a degree in Foreign Languages studying English and Spanish. I love those two languages! And my own of course, Italian. I’ve been to Germany so many times in my life and never had problems at communicating: most of them study and can speak English. I admire you for being so willing to achieve a good kowledge of German. Good Luck! It’s syntax is a mixture of latin cases and sentence pattern and old English! Anyway, I love your final description of Germany …as the landscape of one of Grimm’s fairy-tales. That’s true. German towns, especially medieval ones, can be extraordinarily beautiful! Have you been to Koblenz? I loved it!

  2. I envy your native tongue of Italian! It’s such a beautiful language (and it goes with such a beautiful country!). I drove through Koblenz on my way to Frankfurt from Koln — it’s adorable, as are most of the small towns along the Rhine. It was very cold and gray, very mysterious really, a perfect setting for Snow White.

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