Apr 16, 2013

My Heart Is Mine Alone

As far as I am concerned, the blacklisting of countless artists, poets, painters, philosophers, and other cultural creators due to their political allegiances was one of the most disastrously deleterious effects for Germany after the Second World War, especially considering many of these important individuals were either fundamentally in contradiction with National Socialist ideology and/or they would later change their political persuasion, and German expressionist poet Gottfried Benn – a nationalistic libertine of sorts who later wavered in his support of Nazism after the fratricidal Night of the Long Knives – was certainly a incidental victim of such cultural barbarism, despite the fact he was essentially an introverted nihilist who, as a physician of medicine, was plagued by the biologically macabre and, even more curiously, bedded an aged Jewess – the Zionist poetess Else Lasker-Schüler who would be one of the first high-profile Jews to be buried in the Jewish Holy Land. Luckily, Benn’s pleasantly perverse poetry and ‘infamy by association’ has been semi-immortalized by kraut feminist auteur Helma Sanders-Brahms (Heinrich, Germany, Pale Mother) of all people, who depicted his discordant life, poetry, and relationship with Lasker-Schüler via her audacious arthouse effort My Heart Is Mine Alone (1997) aka Mein Herz - Niemandem! – a surprisingly objective cinematic work that manages to depict the once close but ultimately tragic relationship between Germans and Jews via two subversive poet lovers who also happened to be ideological and racial enemies. Like the bisexual-nudist-Satanist-drug-addict author Hanns Heinz Ewers – a rather eccentric and excess-ridden mensch who, on top of having Jewesses as lovers, considered both Germans and Jews to be two equal master races – Gottfried Benn ultimately faced persecution from his National Socialist compatriots and his expressionist poetry was even described as “degenerate, Jewish, and homosexual” in the May 1936 issue of the SS magazine Das Schwarze Korps. A physician by profession, Benn, not unlike German New Cinema master auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s father, treated prostitutes and was a venereal disease specialist, so he was quite familiar with the more unflattering aspects of man and his putrid flesh, which would ultimately find expression in his poetry, with his lover Lasker-Schüler once describing his strangely seductive, if not sweetly sickening, style as follows: “Every line a leopard’s bite.” As factually depicted in Sanders-Brahms’s My Heart Is Mine Alone, Lasker-Schüler bequeathed Benn with the curious pet names “Giselher,” “The Nibelung,” and “Barbarian,” which are more than apt titles for a jaded Jewess to bestow upon her Germanic goy toy, yet quite ironically, as the film also demonstrates, the naughty National Socialist scribbler found a greater kindred spirit in a radical racial alien than his own Aryan kinsmen. In the end, Lasker-Schüler died in Jerusalem during the final year of the Second World War and Benn would live on to see his poetry banned by both the Nazis and the Allies, as well as the suicide of his young Aryan wife, thus proving that loves does not always conquer all, even if remnants of the two ill-fated lovers’ romance survive today in the form of their mutual romantic poetry. 

 Told through the narration of both poets’ actual poetry, intentionally theatric and expressionistic tableaux, and vintage stock and documentary footage, My Heart Is Mine Alone is a postmodern celluloid collage that depicts the complexity and subjectivity of history via a love affair destroyed by bad timing and circumstance. Beginning with their radically different childhoods, with Else Lasker-Schüler growing up in a consciously Jewish family with a brother who is adamant about assimilating into a Christian and Gottfried Benn growing up as the son of a Protestant pastor/scholar who taught noblemen and put a premium on Germanic blood and brother loyalty, My Heart Is Mine Alone establishes early on that it is rather remarkable that the poet lovers would ever go on to develop such a deep love and understanding for one another in terms of both aesthetic and emotional kindredness. As Lasker-Schüler’s mother tells her brother Paul (Leonard Schnitman), who wants to convert to Christianity, “You can’t shed your Jewish faith as if it were skin…You were born with it. You are circumcised.” Paul believes that the anti-Jewishness of Christians no longer exists, stating, “That was in an age of darkness. We are now safe and secure,” but little does he realize that in the modern world, race trumps spirituality among new age anti-Semites, or to quote proto-Zionist communist Jew Moses Hess, “Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism. The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race - they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews, less than their peculiar noses.” Despite being an apparently true blue Aryan by the grace of Odin, Gottfried Benn (played by Cornelius Obonya) is libelously attacked for the supposed ‘Jewishness’ of his poetry, with his medical professor even stating, “The newspapers praise you as an infernal snob, a rugged roué, a Jewish half-breed.” While Benn states, “I swear to my professor, I have no drop of Jewish blood in me,” his teacher certainly has a point when he adds, “You see that as an advantage. Then you and those coffee-house poets must be kindred spirits. They’re exhibiting those daubs now, those colored animals…The rabbis with the crooked noses.” Of course, as My Heart Is Mine Alone progresses, it is revealed that unfounded rumors of Jewish blood will continue to haunt Benn for the rest of his life, with one rival poet even falsely claiming his surname (“Ben” apparently means “son” in Hebrew) was of Jewish origin, but as he once wrote himself in his autobiographical essay The Way of an Intellectualist (1934) regarding the apparently Wend origin of his name and his mother’s Swiss Calvinist bloodline, “So, what happened was mixture, not miscegenation, producing crossbreeds, not mongrels, and in any case it was an Aryan mixture…” Unfortunately for Else Lasker-Schüler, her bloodlines were not as strictly Aryan in origin. 

 As quasi-expressionistically depicted in My Heart Is Mine Alone, Gottfried Benn and Else Lasker-Schüler were to fall in love at the “Café Megalomania” – a place in Berlin where literary outlaws traded verses and sins of the flesh. Lasker-Schüler (played by Lena Stolze of Michael Verhoeven’s The White Roses (1982) and The Dirty Girl (1990)) was the ‘high priestess” of the café, but her beau Benn described her as a “Queen of the Night,” and, indeed, in My Heart Is Mine Alone, she certainly rules over her male counterparts with a hyper-horny Hebraic fist. Nearly two decades older than her lover, Lasker-Schüler was essentially to Benn what Lou Andreas-Salomé was to Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and like the famous white Russian muse, the Jewish poetess had been with a number of men before her little Nazi poet and suffered much heart break during her life, including the death of her son in 1927, which led to a deep depression that she would arguably never recover from. Indeed, until the rise of National Socialism, Benn acted as one of Lasker-Schüler's greatest sources of solace, thus the German poet's political proclivities came as a major blow to her. While Benn’s ‘static’ poetry was promoted by mostly leftist subversive types who were often of Jewish blood, and he apparently engaged in homosexuality, he still promoted the Reich, even with his romance with Lasker-Schüler being one of the most passionate points in his life up until that point. When Lasker-Schüler, who won the prestigious Kleist Prize in 1932, learns of Benn's support of National Socialism she is terribly shocked. He also ends up marrying a Wehrmacht typist and attempts to live the stoic life of a good German while Lasker-Schüler hightails it to the Jewish Holy Land. Sanders-Brahms concludes My Heart Is Mine Alone with the ghost of Lasker-Schüler laying next to Benn starring into a mirror in a somnambulist state that is clearly a tribute to the iconic scene of Jean Marais doing the same in Orpheus (1950) aka Orphée directed by Jean Cocteau. Lasker-Schüler leaves her lover with the following words, “They dug up my bones to build a freeway to Jaffa…So the oranges will reach the sea much faster. Now I have a grave in the sky above the holy city…and all the way to you.”  For a Helma Sanders-Brahms film, My Heart is Mine Alone undoubtedly ends on a 'positive' note, especially when considering Benn's personal struggle after Lasker-Schüler and the conclusion of the Second World War.

 Despite what Helma Sanders-Brahms may have portrayed of his miscegenation-based love life in My Heart Is Mine Alone, Gottfried Benn himself regarded the period in 1943 he spent in Landsberg (now Gorzow in Poland) with his young typist wife after his area of Berlin was evacuated as the greatest period of his life, writing, “these eighteen months were the quietest and happiest in my life.” Of course, Benn’s wartime ecstasy was short lived because by the end of the War, he was in Soviet occupied area and his wife, who he had sent away to spare her from the Russian hordes, had committed suicide. As Benn told his friends in 1947, “Though I think every day of my wife and her pitiful end, I just got married again.” Possibly thinking of his romantic past with Else Lasker-Schüler, the Wend-descended widow wrote a friend regarding his new wife – a dentist who was only 34 years old (while he was 61) at the time of their marriage – that, “She is sorry she isn’t non-Aryan; it was always her dream, and to her patients she brazenly pretends to be Jewish. She regards that as a distinction…” Indeed, Benn may have fornicated with Jewesses and homos, but his pride never waned, writing, “I will not have myself de-nazified.” To a somewhat ‘noble’ extent, Sanders-Brahms de-nazified Gottfried Ben via My Heart Is Mine Alone to a degree as a man who was more than a just a born-again Aryan, but it seems the reality of the two poets’ relationship was more one-sided than as portrayed in the film, as if the director personalized the film in a romantic manner, thus living vicariously through the life of a Jewess as an ethno-masochistic kraut feminist who has the incapacity to put her herself in the unkosher shoes of an Aryan artist (like Leni Riefenstahl) of the same era. 

 While probably not her greatest film, My Heart Is Mine Alone is indubitably my favorite Sanders-Brahms flick and for a number of reasons, including the director’s relatively objective portrayal of Gottfried Benn (thankfully, she refrains from depicting him as a one-dimensional ‘nazi semen demon’) and her aesthetic choices, as the film seems to be a Teutonized, albeit feminized, take on what Paul Schrader attempted with Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) in its aesthetically eclectic pomo collage approach and utilization of the subject's own written words, albeit executed in a more minimalistic and avant-garde manner. Combining expressionist tableaux, an improvised experimental score, authentic stock footage, and readings of Benn and Lasker-Schüler’s own poetry, My Heart Is Mine Alone is as good as ‘biopics’ get, especially in regard to depicting the seemingly inexplicable and irreconcilable – a lurid yet aesthetically fruitful romance between a tragic Zionist Jewess with a highly conscious sense of Judaism and a naughty National Socialist degenerate of a similarly tragic background who enjoyed a curious cocktail of morphine, men, and mystical Jewish poetesses.

-Ty E

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