The Germans Are Here

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at080506d.jpgIf I were the cultural commissioner of this city, I would have declared the past few weeks a 'mini festival' of German culture in Los Angeles. Judge for yourself: a week ago I went to a screening of the new documentary, Shadows in Paradise, a fascinating story of German émigré musicians, writers, and filmmakers who fled the Nazis and settled here in LA. Some of them flourished; others merely managed; a few committed suicide. Never before have so many of the best and brightest creative minds of one country either left on their own or been forced to emigrate, and what's especially unusual is that most of these people ended up here in LA. The impact of this German-exile community on the cultural life of our city was profound.

at080506b.jpg Don't miss the chance to see this film when it premieres on KCET on May 22 at 9pm. And if you get hooked, here is another morsel for you - the endlessly interesting, though long out-of-print book, The Kindness of Strangers, by Salka Viertel. Her modest house in Santa Monica became a haven for German and Austrian intellectuals, and her memoir spills stories about her friends, enemies, and lovers.

at080506a.jpg Among other recent manifestations of German culture in LA was the first-rate exhibition of Anselm Kiefer, part of which is still on display at the First Baptist Church in Koreatown. But it's the two exhibitions that just opened at the Getty Center that made me especially aware of the tremendous influence of German creative genius over the course of the 20th century. During his long life, legendary German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) was obsessed with creating the ultimate portfolio containing hundreds of objective, straightforward portraits of his fellow countrymen, organized into seven groupings defined by class, profession, city, and so on. The Getty has 1200 of Sander's photographs, the second largest collection in the world, and though this exhibition presents only 125 of his vintage prints, it's nothing less than a multi-course artistic feast. Let's start with Young Farmers: three dandies in their Sunday best, black hats tilted just so, walking sticks in hand. The contrast between their get-ups and the farmland they're strolling through en route to the city is almost comical; the story one can extract from the image is priceless.

at080506c.jpg What always surprises me in Sander's photos is how much one can glean from these obviously brief encounters with mostly unnamed people. He has sympathy for a middle-aged man identified only as a coal carrier and for a young woman in her waitress uniform. If you spend at least a minute looking at any of his images, you will be surprised at how much of their story you will be able to read – in their faces, clothing, gestures... Sander clearly has a sense of humor, but it's a gentle one, in the spirit of Mark Twain or Anton Chekhov. Also, prepare yourself for a very matter-of-fact and therefore very unsettling portrait of a banal-looking man who happens to be an SS Storm Trooper.

at080506e.jpgAugust Sander's influence on 20th century photography is impossible to overstate, but it's two other Germans, Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose almost spellbinding effect on European and American photography over the last few decades continues to this very day. While Sander concentrated on people, the Bechers documented the distinctly unglamorous industrial architecture of Western Europe, such as water towers, blast furnaces, and basic farm buildings. They like to group their small black-and-white images in tight grids of nine, twelve, or fifteen prints, and that's when the magic happens, when the ordinary becomes extraordinary and their distinctive 'non-style' typology becomes their trademark style.

August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century
On view at the Getty Center through September 14

Bernd and Hilla Becher: Basic Forms
On view at the Getty Center through September 14

Banner image: Detail of Bernd and Hilla Becher's Water Towers, 1980