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Old 19th Jun 2009, 14:44   #1
beer good
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Default Wolfgang Borchert: The Man Outside

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Helmet off helmet off – we have lost!
Wolfgang Borchert was one of millions of Germans who fought in WWII. Not for Hitler, for national socialism, or for Germany; for Germany, he'd written plays against the nazis, which earned him a one-way trip to the front (it's easier to have your enemies take care of dissidents).

When he came back home, the war was over, Hitler was dead and Wolfgang himself wasn't far behind. Four years of bullet wounds (some allegedly self-inflected), field hospitals, sickness, jail and POW camps had finished him. So he sat down and started writing again. He wrote about fighting in a war he didn't believe in, where schoolboy fantasies about honour turned out to mean mass graves. He wrote about coming home to a country in both material and moral ruins, where everybody seemed to just want to pretend the last 10 years never happened. He wrote about a Europe that had marched straight into a meat grinder shouting happy slogans. He wrote as quickly as he could; everything old had been obliterated by the war, something new had to come, and he knew he wouldn't be around to see it.
Quote:
We don’t need poets with good grammar. We lack patience for good grammar. We need those with the hot feeling that’s been sobbed hoarse. Who call a tree tree and a woman woman and say yes and say no: loud and distinctly and threefold and without a subjunctive.
There are several editions of Borchert's work. This one, The Man Outside, collects roughly a dozen of his short stories and the titular play, literature that runs gasping for breath along a knife's edge between furious polemics and horrified sentimentality and somehow manages to never fall off to either side. A direct, frenzied prose that occasionally simmers down into dreamlike, elegic pieces like "The Bread" and "The Rats Sleep At Night" and become completely heartrending.

In Borchert's stories, soldiers stumble down the street of once-again peaceful Germany with their heads full of machine-gun fire and the number of people they had killed. Boys sit in bombed-out buildings, keeping constant vigil so the rats don't eat their little brother buried under the rubble. Decades-old marriages threaten to crash over something as trivial as a piece of bread. Prisoners risk their lives for just a glimpse of a wildflower. And above all there's a narrator who at times seems to have endless sympathy and pity for his co-sufferers, and at other times drop all pretenses of telling a story and just yells at the reader: this is what we are. This is what we did, all of us. There are no attempts at setting it in some ideological or political perspective, all ideologies and politics got massacred in the war, there's just the now, the ground zero, where they need to start again.
Quote:
Say NO! Say NO! Say NO!
Borchert isn't subtle. He doesn't have time for subtle. He has an incredible raw talent and had he lived, he might have looked back on these early stories today and thought of them as punkishly charming but a little too black and white, but that would never happen and he knew it, so he just needs to get it all down on paper.

Wolfgang Borchert died in 1947, 26 years old. The day after his death saw the first performance of "The Man Outside", the aforementioned play that makes up the centrepiece of the collection, with the subtitle "a play no theatre wants to perform and no audience wants to see." In this, a lone soldier returns to Germany after three years in a Siberian POW camp. His name is Beckmann - just Beckmann, everyone's forgotten his first name; he's never been anything but a soldier. He has no initiative of his own; he's never done anything but take orders. He still wears a uniform; he's never owned any civvies. And now they tell him that's all over, there's no need to feel bad about it, you only did your duty, here, have a schnapps and let's sing Alte Kameraden, why do you keep looking at us like that? But his parents, faithful nazis, are both dead. His wife found someone else. His general refuses to understand why he feels guilty about all the dead. With nowhere to go, nobody to listen, he tries to drown himself in the Elbe, but even Death won't have him. And so he stands there as the curtain falls, one of millions along dozens of riverbanks in a Europe that doesn't know where to go and finds no answers in 2000 years of civilization and millions of dead:
Quote:
Go on, answer me!
Why won't you say anything? Why?
Won't anybody answer me?
Anybody?
Won't anybody, anybody answer me?
And the voice echoes.

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Old 19th Jun 2009, 17:11   #2
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Default Re: Wolfgang Borchert: The Man Outside

This guy sounds really interesting, BG. I'm going to get a copy of this book.

Of related interest, kinda, have you heard of die Weibe Rose? They were a group of anti-Nazi activists at the latter end of WW2, I think only 5 or 6 students in total, who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets. They were eventually caught, put on trial, and executed. It's quite a moving story. There's a memorial dedicated to them somewhere in Germany: the Munich University, I think. I read a book on the main woman of the movement years ago. It was truly inspiring stuff.
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Old 19th Jun 2009, 17:21   #3
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Default Re: Wolfgang Borchert: The Man Outside

Yay! Borchert is definitely worth discovering. There's a couple of amateur translations of his stuff here, but the site doesn't seem to work too well...
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Originally Posted by The Third Man View Post
Of related interest, kinda, have you heard of the die Weibe Rose? They were a group of anti-Nazi activists at the latter end of WW2, I think only 5 or 6 students in total, who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets. They were eventually caught, put on trial, and executed. It's quite a moving story. There's a memorial dedicated to them somewhere in Germany: the Munich University, I think. I read a book on the main woman of the movement years ago. It was truly inspiring stuff.
Yup, we covered them in history and also watched a movie about them in German class, but it's been a few years. Do you know what the title of the book was?

Nitpick, though: it's "die weiße Rose", or "die weisse Rose" if you can't get your computer to do the ß. Weiß = white, Weib = derogatory term for women.
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Old 19th Jun 2009, 18:51   #4
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Default Re: Wolfgang Borchert: The Man Outside

Ah, cheers for the info on the language! I discovered them by way of a German hardcore band years ago (2001 or 2002) called Heaven Shall Burn. Their album artwork for Whatever it May Take is like a shrine to them and it prompted me to investigate them further. I bought an Inge Scholl book on them; can't remember what it's called and a quick search doesn't reveal it. Until now I didn't even realize that a film had been made on Sophie. That is now high up on my list of films to be watched.
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