Lighten Up, Germany, and Save the Euro

Castelletto (left) and Gedeck (right) in "Mostly Martha"

Film Friday

Yesterday the German Parliament voted to extend its bailout to indebted southern European countries, most notably Greece, in an attempt to keep the euro from collapsing. Todd Buckholz of The New York Times speculates that the major motivation is cultural rather than economic, and he cites several German classic authors to back him up.

To his list I would add a film: the very entertaining 2001 German hit Mostly Martha.

Here’s Buckholz:

Germans struggle with a national envy. For over 200 years, they have been searching for a missing part of their soul: passion. They find it in the south and covet the loosey-goosey, sun-filled days of their free-wheeling Mediterranean neighbors.

In the early 1800s, Goethe reported that his travels to Italy charged him up with new creative energy. Later, Heinrich Heine made the pilgrimage, writing to his uncle: “Here, nature is beautiful and man lovable. In the high mountain air that you breathe in here, you forget instantly your troubles and the soul expands.”

Nietzsche claimed that the staid German psyche was stunted and needed more than a beer stein of passion. He was fascinated by ancient Greece and famously juxtaposed sober Apollo with that reckless, wine-drinking southerner, Dionysus. A dose of Dionysus might not be so bad, he figured.

Today, Germany still looks too Apollonian. Companies like BMW and Siemens conquer industrial markets by manufacturing flawless, perfectly timed motors. But when do Germans experience the fun of Dionysus? Only when vacationing in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Even then, they struggle to find the right balance. In Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, the humorless, authoritarian protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach loses his regal bearing and becomes infatuated while in Italy, letting go of his strait-laced ways. Aschenbach lurches from overly repressed to overly sensualized, dyeing his hair, rouging his cheeks and stuffing his mouth with overripe strawberries.

Shakespeare could be added in here as well as he too appears to have suffered from Mediterranean envy. When he wants to capture romance and passion, he places a play Italy (Verona, Padua, Venice).   When he wants to create a character that lives too much in his head, he makes him a German university student and situates him in Denmark.

But I want to focus here on Mostly Martha, later remade into the mediocre American film No Reservations. In it a five-star but tightly wound chef chef suddenly finds herself the guardian of her niece after the parents die in a car crash. Martha is such a driven perfectionist that she periodically must go into the restaurant’s meat locker to cool down.  She has no problem with shoving a customer’s meal into his lap if he makes an unjustified complaint. The restaurant’s owner requires her to undergo therapy.

Dealing with the child begins to humanize her, but it takes an Italian chef to complete the process. He comes to work at the restaurant because he recognizes Martha’s greatness and wants to learn from the best. Slowly he begins softening her up, and in one erotic scene we watch him blindfold her and have her engage in a series of taste tests.

There are twists and turns to their relationship, of course, but in the end the two of them and the child are setting up a restaurant together.  Her expertise has been acknowledged and her life has been saved.

So Buckholz may well have a point.  Remember, the bailout extension had to survive a political vote, and politicians don’t vote purely on economic grounds.  What’s the point of being the best cook in the kitchen when you’re not having any fun?


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