Slightly Off-Topic but Completely On Target

I think that the phrase "canaries in the mineshaft" belongs on that list of metaphors to be retired, along with "Proust's madeleine" and other little hints that writers often drop to tell their readers "See, I read books." I feel comfortable saying that because I will confess to doing it myself from time to time. However, that's not what I want to write about here.

In truth, in societies in the throes of violent change, Jewish intellectuals are often very useful barometers of danger, like those damned canaries. The most obvious example is Weimar Germany, where Jewish cabaret artists and satirists saw the coming of the dark times more clearly than most (other than Bertolt Brecht, from whom the phrase "the dark times" comes). And few were more prescient than Kurt Tucholsky, who is all but forgotten outside the Germanophone world. Tucholsky was a left-wing democrat, a socialist and pacifist, as well as a sparkling wit and songwriter.

The reason I draw your attention to Tucholsky is that so much of his writing from the '20s and '30s resonates powerfully in today's atmosphere of strangulated discomfort and choked-off rage. You can find his scathing piece on the life of a fetus (written in 1927, long before Pat Robertson and his ilk were able to formulate a coherent sentence) and many other pieces ably translated by American ex-pat blogger Indeterminacy at http://kurttucholsky.blogspot.com
In addition, the excellent music blog Zero G Sound has several recordings of Tucholsky's songs and stories here. (I cannot vouch for the legality of these MP3s; all I will say is that they are German recordings, hard to find in the States but available through the Internet.) Finally, several of Tucholsky's books, including his novel Castle Gripsholm, about his exile in Sweden after the Nazi ascent to power, are available in English. Check out Powell's Books for more info.

To put this back on a cinematic footing, Gripsholm has been filmed twice, in Germany in 1963 by Kurt Hoffman, with Walter Giller as the author, and again in Switzerland in 2000 by Xavier Koller, with Ullrich Noethen as Tucholsky. I haven't seen the '63 version but was disappointed by the Swiss film. When it played New York in 2003 I wrote, "As directed by Xavier Koller (best known for the Oscar-winning “Journey of Hope”), the result is sentimental and predictable, with old friends parting as enemies divided by the rising tide of Nazism."

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