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German Joys Uncut: On Film Music

And now for something very special. A project I've been working on for the past month or so. An entire, uncut essay by Max Goldt.

English-speakers are asking: 'Who is Max Goldt?'

He is a respectable-looking young man in his early 40s. Judging from the readings I've been to, he's partial to cordury jackets. You could call him the poet laureate of young, hip, well-educated, marginally-employed Germans, but he'd probably find that descrition pompous and trite. He writes essays and, in cooperation with comic-strip designer Katz, forms the 'comic-duo' Katz und Goldt (G). Here are a few of their T-shirts (G), which bear slogans like "Wasps - Your Reliable Partner When It Comes to Wasp-Stings"; "Hay Fever is like Rock 'n Roll for the Nose",  and "At a certain age, the only option left for meeting new people is to give birth to some."

There's no real way to convey Goldt's peculiar genius; but you might say he lives in a German-speaking neighborhood a few exits down from S.J. Perelman and Glenn O'Brien, where there are strange murals on the walls and bohemian-looking beggars. Better to just read a bit of Goldt and craft your own analogies. That's hard for non-German speakers to do, because I don't believe anything of his has been translated into English, more's the pity. So I translated* this essay, from the July Titanic (G) magazine:

On Film Music: Or more Precisely, on Television Music

It is the year of our Lord 900, or, as it was called in East Germany, “according to our calendar.” On an island off the Welsh coast live two wise, holy women who are bound to each other by two things, namely: a) a life-long enmity; and b) blazing physical desire. On an autumn night which is stormy even by Irish Sea standards, the two women completely independently search out an ancient Celtic grave-site, to solve a folk-mystery whose origins – even back then – were lost in the mists of time. A fearful battle ensues under an oak whose trunk splits at 30 feet. During the battle, deep, probing kisses alternate with millimeter-precise fist-blows. After both achieve a simultaneous sexual climax, one tries to wall the other into a dungeon, so that she will wither away gruesomely. The other, however, happens to have exactly the same idea. Something happens which never happened before in the entire early middle ages: Two women wall each other into the exact same tower. They die slowly of thirst, hideously cursing their fate from within their respective chambers. Moss and owls, but also spiders, as well as greedy Time, Space’s sometimes-unfriendly colleague, do their worst.

1104 years later, the Hamburg journalist, moderator, cat-raiser, bar-owner, foot-jewelry designer and, of course, author Heidi Würsel spreads the just-described dramatic material over 800 pages, to “float a few toads.” “Floating toads” – in her private jargon, this is how she refers to the profits from the activity that, in interviews, she calls “writing really exciting and, most importantly, historically credible entertainment”, but which, among friends, she calls her “bread job.” That is, that’s what she calls it when she’s in command of her senses, which, thank God, she usually is. However, when she’s among her very innermost circle of friends and the partying’s been serious, and lasts not just “a little longer” but into the wee hours, it can happen that she calls the bread job “throwing together a bunch of literary garbage for fat women,” but that doesn’t happen so often, so the other members of her posse say nothing more than that she can be “deliciously incorrect,” which of course is really the most ‘super-refreshing’ thing about Heidi. She sticks the dough from the “nicely lesbianized Middle-Ages plot” into the restyling of the Bali-Lounge of her restaurant “Schinkenkeller” on the island of Sylt, whose regulars include her half sister, the not-yet-very renowned sports car restorer, but already internationally renowned rock-garden expert – and, of course author – Eileen Würsel-Ahmadenijad, and the film and television composer – but recently almost completely television composer – Henner Larsfeld.

Everyone knows each other in this small circle, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone, at least insiders, that Larsfeld got the commission to deliver the music for the multi-million dollar TV film of the Würsel material.

Henner Larsfeld sits with his laptop in the kitchen. “I usually compose in the kitchen,” he would say in interviews, if he ever gave any, but he doesn't, because he just absolutely hates to “make himself naked” in front of a bunch of gawkers.  Once in a while, though, he imagines that he’s sitting in a talk show, and says, very calmly, in a casual masculine tone, that he usually composes his music only in his kitchen. He says this first because it’s true, and second because he can imagine that the talk-show host would reply, excitedly: “What?! This fantastic, dramatic music? Composed in the kitchen, next to the onions and the greasy Teflon pans?” That’s totally incredible!” And then all the housewives in the live audience: “This man’s fantastic! He composes this music with church choirs and giant symphonies just like it was nothing, right there in his own kitchen!”

So, Henner Larsfeld sits in his kitchen, which theoretically could be described as fascinating. He’d really like to go to the sea with Eileen, Heidi’s sister, and get hammered. But first, she’s got to "de-rust" as she calls it, an "incredibly exciting 1965 Lamborghini", and second, Larsfeld has only 24 hours’ time to supply a 90-minute television mystery-thriller with an appropriate soundtrack. How he hates the word “de-rust”! But he’s not afraid of the soundtrack-writing. He’s always been able to fulfill any job within 24 hours with ¾ of a tablet of Lexotanil and regulated wine-intake. Nothing serious – no cocaine or anything – just Lexotanil, which any doctor will prescribe. But he’s not looking forward to it. He looks over at the good old sound-sample CDs that his old friend Björn burned for him nine years ago, when they both staged an event which was – not at all ironically – called an “evening for friends of elegant electronic entertainment” in the Podewil Club in Berlin. The audience was students with time-consumingly selected glasses and city-hoppers with retro wool caps.

That was 1997, and Larsfeld still uses the Björn-created sound files. On one CD “Monk Choirs” is written, on the other “Humming Sounds – Extreme Reverb.”

“I’ve done 134 TV jobs with this sound software already,” Larsfeld ruminates, “three ‘Crime Scene’ detective shows, 21 nature or geography films, and 60 history documentaries. Of these, three were about Egypt, seven about the Vikings, three about the 17th of June, four about the 20th of July, ten about the 13th of August, 11 about the 9th of November, and two, as long as we’re counting, about the 11th of September. I always used the same sounds, with one single exception: For a 30-second spot about Adam Riese, I though ‘hey, why not give yourself a challenge. Try some new software, mix in some crumhorn and dice-noises.’ But then the woman from TV mailed me and said that wasn’t what they had in mind. So back to the old monk-choirs and humming sounds. The reaction: ‚Totally exciting! Unbelievably atmospheric! Why didn’t you send us this the first time?' It’s all so sad and ridiculous – the 17th of June and monks’ choirs! Naturally, for contemporary history I add a pair of alienating sound-filters, so the choirs sound a little rougher, less choir-y, a little bit like scratchy strings. You know, so they sound more ‘political.’ But it’s actually the exact same original material. The fact nobody notices, the fact that no viewer has ever complained – man, that’s really depressing.” 

The telephone rings. It’s Eileen. “Hey, let’s drive to the ocean tomorrow and get smashed! Should we take the Ferrari or the yellow Lotus? Too bad the Lamborghini hasn’t been de-rusted yet!” Larsmann replies: “Eh, I dunno. I’m feeling kind of droopy right now, burn-out wise, you know. I’ve got the feeling I should do something that has more to do with what I started with ten or fifteen years ago.”

“Oh, come on!” Eileen replies. “Get the job done, then come have a blast with us! Do you really want to end up like Björn, teaching music theory and ear training twenty hours a week at the music school in Kreuzberg?”

“Well, not that, I guess, but there’s got to be some middle path between making serious money and doing what you really wanted to do.”

“Middle paths are for fairy tales! What, you think I could find some kind of middle path between rock-garden expert and sports-car restorer? Don’t you think it doesn’t annoy me to have to prattle on about these stupid rock-gardens during the ‘noon buffet’ TV show? Rock gardens have bored me to tears for about a hundred fucking thousand years now! These stupid old hags would puke the studio full, and I mean literally puke the studio full, if I told them anything about professional de-rusting. So what? That’s life! Shit happens!** So I’ll just take my rock-garden money and restore my Lamborghinis in my secret hideaway.”

Larsmann is convinced. He works the whole night through, delivers the product on time, as always, and drives with Eileen to drink himself silly by the side of the ocean. A smashing time was had by all. There are plenty of fantastic people there. Some are talented hacks, some are just ordinary people who don’t take everything so bloody seriously, and think plenty of things have changed for the better in Germany over the past few years. The Germans have become so relaxed! There’s no country in the world where people put as many chairs on the sidewalk as in Germany!

The film adaptation of the Welsh drama is a huge hit with the audience. The TV station commissions a sequel that plays in the year 1520. The two walled-in holy women have returned to life and begin a years-long trek through central Europe. Throughout the whole journey, they must suppress their alternating hatred and sexual appetite for one another. Often, they’ve got to combat both at the exact same time, while simultaneously jumping over slippery rocks in the middle of a treacherous stream. In a mystery-cave decked out with lots of convincing special-effect moss, they meet a disowned sister of the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli and do something or other with her. In the capsule description, there will be two thumbs up under the words “Exciting” and “Sexy.” So, without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say there’s something for every taste.

But you can pretty much imagine how the music will sound.

* This translation is furnished free of charge to all, for educational purposes only, in the name of fostering Max-Goldt-related understanding among the peoples of the world.

** These three phrases are in English in the original.