Germany Dreaming. III: Off to Magical Munich
von Michael Bracewell

Deutschlandreise, zweite Station

[Vorhergehender Teil der Artikelserie hier. Veröffentlichung mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Autors und der BBC.]

Making my way through the busy, uproarious streets, where the buildings looked like a Californian vision of medieval Europe and were festooned with hanging baskets overflowing with bright geraniums, I tried to work out how long it was since I had eaten.

This was in Munich, in the city’s ‘Old Town’, and the summer was getting underway on a weekend of blousy skies and gentle breeze.

That morning I had overslept and missed breakfast – this perhaps being no bad thing, when one considered the eggs, smoked cheeses, jam, sausages, pastries, salted ham and black coffee which comprise the typical German breakfast, but which strike terror into the heart of any tourist who has ever heard of saturated fats, antioxidants and Statins.

Health considerations to one side, however, there was another problem… I am a vegetarian. And being a vegetarian in Munich’s ‘Old Town’ was proving to be an insuperable problem. Through the mullioned windows of café after café and restaurant after restaurant, all that could be seen were  crowds of laughing diners, seated at long wooden tables, surrounded by vast bowls of boiled sausages, glistening, ivory coloured sauerkraut and fried potatoes – all washed down by enormous steins of pale, pinkish, foaming beer.

To try going into one of those places and asking – in either English or very bad German – for a green salad and a bottle of Evian water seemed not simply pointless but foolhardy.

Whether or not I would die of hunger on the streets of Munich was a problem largely in the hands of my hosts – a group of staff from the famous Haus der Kunst museum, who had kindly invited me to join them for supper. The chosen venue was reached through a low doorway, and seemed – like so many of the buildings in that district – to be located in the hollowed out buttresses of a vast castle.

To my shame, I couldn’t work out whether these castles were real, or nineteenth century romantic copies of medieval buildings. Inside, all was forge-like, hearty and filled with an air of smoking open fires, crossed broad swords, low timbered ceilings, escutcheons, antlers, crests, cast iron chandeliers and the wall mounted heads of unfortunate beasts. To a contemporary child from, say, suburban Atlanta, the nearest comparison would be to a set from ‘The Lord of The Rings’.

At the same time, it was impossible not to be impressed by the culture that all this fervid medievalism so enduringly represents.

Munich is the capital of Bavaria, in southernmost Germany, and is a wealthy city of regal pomp and splendour. While its current affluence derives from media, finance and the presence of BMW, its medievalist architecture – right down to the banners and shields which served to decorate what in Putney would be a high street bistro – is entwined with Wagnerian legends of heroes and struggle, kings and gods. Even this traditional beer hall was an outpost of mythic Germanism, and in rather the same way that Graham Greene once described how the diamond shaped window panes in a suburban, half-timbered coal merchant’s office were a profound summary of mythic England.

But in the meantime, there was the menu to consider.

Being a vegetarian is by no means unheard of in Germany – as history makes clear – but the news was still greeted by my hosts with a mixture of wry amusement, raised eyebrows and sudden horror. A glance at the menu – a piece of laminated and crested pseudo parchment, the size of a small table top – revealed prominent reference to something which translated loosely as ‘flesh sauce’.

Hope perhaps lingered in the bottom left hand corner: might I be persuaded to take some fish?

‘And how would you describe this fish?’ I asked. There was a pause…

… then: ‘Ah, so. It is a meaty kind of fish’.

Eventually, on the Belgian principal of stuffing one’s face with chips and mayonnaise, I settled for some fried potatoes and sauerkraut – choosing not to consider in what, exactly, the potatoes might have been fried. That, I felt, was the Nelson touch.

It is in Munich – the most stereotypically German of the German cities, in terms of its beer halls, statues, brass bands and general bare kneed muscularity – where the strands of intense German romanticism appear to entwine.

It was here, for example, that ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the ‘Dream King’, held his court – summoning the composer Richard Wagner to create operatic reconstructions of folk tales and myths, to be staged in castles of such extravagance that the Sun King, over in France, would have blushed. And to this day, Munich has a reputation within Germany for being a city where ‘society’ – in the English sense of social elite – features highly in a culture that remains sensitive about notions of democracy.

Walking once down Prinzregentenstrasse with a loudly socialist British museum director – who, ironically, was the youngest son of an Earl – I was surprised to hear him remark that he hated Munich because all people there ever did was go to the opera and meet for afternoon tea. Which having lived for most of my life in the suburbs of London, sounded like heaven to me.

Beyond the Old Town, Munich strikes the visitor as a city of broad avenues and stately squares. All appears ceremonial, and touched by the gravitas of royal presence. Where the air of opulence gives way to the thoroughfares of the modern shopping centre – and that point is marked, almost precisely, by a Porsche showroom – the sense of transition is so acute that you feel you must have entered a completely different city. Suddenly, you are reminded of a world of computer sales centres, tanning salons and small Turkish supermarkets. I found it hard to tell, precisely, but it seemed to me as though there was an invisible but deeply felt membrane which separates these two aspects of the city.

There appeared to be no transitional district, but rather, beyond a final curve of grand and gracious buildings that still exuded an air of nineteenth century gentility, the loud, brash modern multicultural world simply took over – and between these two worlds there was no dialogue.

The contemporary social centre of genteel, ‘uptown’ Munich is Schumann’s famous bar, which occupies a suite of darkly panelled and dimly lit rooms over two floors, their style reminiscent of the sleek modernism of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York.

As iconic as Rick’s Café American, in the film ‘Casablanca’, Schumann’s stands within a corner of the colonnade that surrounds the neat lawns, ornamental temple and elegant sanded paths of the Hofgarten; and here, if anywhere, is a seamless fusion of American and European glamour. Schumann’s is a cocktail bar, restaurant and highly social meeting place, overseen by the silver haired and effortlessly suave Charles Schumann, who both looks like, and turn out to be (in his spare time, and just for fun) a male model for such publications as German and Italian ‘Vogue’.

As rich and famous as many of his banker and celebrity customers, Charles can be found on sunny mornings seated at a table overlooking the eighteenth century gardens, happily peeling potatoes and exchanging greetings with passing friends.

He would make an excellent King of Bavaria.

My visit to Munich had taken me to see an exhibition at the Haus der Kunst. The highly regarded contemporary gallery is housed within a stark, foreboding building, monolithically pillared along its street facing façade, which stands on the southern edge of the nine hundred acre ‘Englischer Garten’ park. One somehow knows without being told that this building has a dark past. It was originally constructed during the middle years of the 1930s as the Third Reich’s propaganda headquarters, and one of its earliest exhibitions was that of Nazi approved art. To this day, a sense of cold seems to linger in the long, high ceilinged corridors. The doors are constructed as though for a race of giants, and appear more sealed than closed within vast, brutal frames.

The galleries themselves comprise an equally portentous set of echoing rooms, the open portals between them allowing a series of shifting vistas. The effect is dizzying, suggesting an infinite series of cavernous rooms.

Along the principal corridor, set in a big glass fronted case, are the electricity switches and fuse boxes for the building. They appear, quite suddenly, like a grim summary of Nazism’s technological and militaristic ideals – a reminder that when this building opened, floats depicting the glory of the Reich paraded passed an audience of grandees that included Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Speer and other high ranking Nazis.

A German friend later said to me, during a discussion about his country’s history, “The Nazis would destroy, quite utterly, every single thing that you and I love or hold dear.” He said this without blinking, and without taking his eyes off mine. His step father had been in the SS.

The exhibition I had come to see, in this most German of German galleries, was of American art – of ‘Black Paintings’, to be specific, as in paintings with no colour at all, but pitch blackness, and made mostly during the 1950s by artists such as Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. It was a brilliantly conceived and installed exhibition – these slabs of profound darkness on the high, cold, mausoleum like walls.

Wandering from room to room, I recalled that one art historian had described the Third Reich as unleashed by a “generation of depressed dreamers and irrationalists”.

Seeking light and lunch on the museum’s terrace, overlooking a swiftly flowing river, I reflected on how the intensity of German romanticism – that profound, mystical relationship with nature, history and landscape – has a deep dark shadow, as well as a philosophy of beauty and sublime meditation. These American paintings, on a benign summer morning, had seemed to articulate that German trauma.

Walking through the sunny groves of the Englischer Garten, later that Saturday afternoon, it was interesting to come across a traditional Bavarian band, playing jaunty tunes of infernal catchiness, to table after table of happily beer drinking Germans. As a scene, it could not have been more racially stereotypically – like a group of Texans roping a steer, or languid Englishmen playing cricket.

The band were seated in what resembled a kind of Alpine pagoda, and the swaying rhythm and steady beat of each tune was utterly, to my ears, indistinguishable from one to the other. Rather, the music merged, like an esoteric Eastern drone, into a single all enfolding tone. But where an Eastern drone might have become meditational, or psychedelic, this Bavarian version became lulling and amniotic. It kept pace with a gentle, placid drunkenness – a lulling, supportive calm. And as I sat in the sun, listening to the band, a solitary white wine drinker amongst all that beer, I began to join in with the smiling, drowsy spell of it all.

Here we all are, I thought – a good team. One could do worse than simply sit here for a while, and watch the sunlight through the leaves, and listen to the band and… just hope nothing goes wrong.



[Dritter Teil der BBC-Serie »Germany Dreaming« von Michael Bracewell. Der erste Teil ging weitgehend in den Essay »Germany Is Your America« von Bracewell ein, den wir unter dem Titel »Deutschland ist dein Amerika« in Heft 4 von »Pop. Kultur und Kritik« in deutscher Übersetzung abgedruckt haben.]


Michael Bracewell ist Schriftsteller und Kunstkritiker. Buchveröffentlichung u.a.: »Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music«.