Aside from Romy Schneider hanging out naked on the
Riviera and an aged Marlene Dietrich hiding her face from a nosy
photographer on an airplane, the most prominent German in a hugely
diverting paparazzi show at the Helmut Newton Foundation here through
mid-November is Albert Einstein.
He's now surrounded by the Sean Penns and
Brigitte Bardots of the world, looking as out of place as he must have
felt when he arrived in New Jersey in 1933. In a picture from three
years earlier, in which he's chatting in white tie with a dour bunch of
British diplomats, he wears that famous animated wide-eyed expression
suggesting he is kind of amused to find himself in this circumstance,
Actually, though, he's the ultimate German celebrity. Germany has long
been funny about its relationship to local stardom and to the very
notion of celebrity, which makes this exhibition a particularly
fascinating and revealing exercise.
With some 350 pictures it's a breezy affair, not too logical, but never
mind. It mostly recalls the glory days of the Côte d'Azur, the Via
Veneto and Studio 54, with Edward Quinn's gorgeous photographs from
Cannes in the '50s and enough current celebs thrown in to grease the
turnstiles. A few classics by Weegee don't really qualify as paparazzi
shots, and neither, strictly speaking, do the dozens of snapshots by
Jean Pigozzi, the Italian businessman, art collector and amateur
shutterbug who likes to hold out a camera, arm's length, and take
fisheyed pictures of himself beside famous pals. They're strangely
hypnotic: your neighbor's vacation slides in which Pamela Anderson, Mick
Jagger and Mel Brooks keep turning up.
Whatever. The show advertises itself as the first survey of paparazzi in
this country, and that makes sense. Chalk up Germany's ambivalence
toward homegrown celebrity to what Ulf Poschardt, the founding editor of
the German version of Vanity Fair magazine and now an editor at the
newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the other day called "aggressive
"The complete affirmation of yourself is considered kitsch here," he said. "You can't do it."
Patrick von Ribbentrop put it somewhat differently. "There isn't the
right setup," he said. A 35-year-old clothing entrepreneur with a famous
name to bear (he's the grandson of the Nazi foreign minister), he
attributes the state of German celebrity culture, such as it is, to "a
"Take Paris Hilton," he said, with obvious admiration. "Being a wealthy
individual, you also have to be willing to be in the public eye. Then
you have to have a whole system for promotion. I have suggested to guys
in Berlin who make films and who write for television that they produce a
series about the Berlin Wall, like '24' or 'Prison Break,' but they all
say the financing is lacking, the marketing is lacking. You need all
that to create celebrity culture."
On the other hand, he conceded: "I generally agree that in Germany there
is a reserve, which comes from the Second World War, about being
German, or there was: that has changed a bit since the World Cup was
here in 2006. Now Germans are no longer scared of people calling them
Nazis if they hang German flags on their cars."
The key word, explained Dagmar von Taube, a society reporter for Welt am
Sonntag, is Bescheidenheit, modesty. This week Barack Obama's arrival
in Berlin is heralded on the cover of Der Spiegel in "American Idol"
script with the headline "Germany Meets the Superstar." Next door to
Germany, the French president lives in a palace with his new wife, a
fashion model turned pop singer.
But here the chancellor, Angela Merkel, occupies a plain little house in
the middle of town. From across the street, busybodies can peer through
her windows. After delivering a speech before a Berlin Philharmonic
performance not long ago, Ms. Merkel glanced from the platform into the
semidarkened auditorium, caught sight of a waving hand, walked down the
steps into the audience and up the aisle, waited while patrons in her
row stood to let her pass, then like everybody else sat through the
concert (Beethoven and Webern, no less) without a security guard in
Sure, Germans read German celebrity magazines like Bunte and Gala, and
would-be Carries in their Manolo Blahnik knockoffs jammed the red carpet
when "Sex and the City" opened a few weeks ago. But particularly in
this capital of cool, locals take pride in ignoring stars like Christina
Ricci and Madonna when they're walking down the street or eating in a
"In Munich, they love celebrities," Claudius Seidl, an editor for
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, pointed out over lunch the other day in
one of those restaurants. He cited the old cultural divide that splits
the Prussian, Protestant north from the Roman Catholic south. Fifty-odd
years ago, he said, before globalization, Germans, both East and West,
fawned more over their own celebrities. But today's stars are dwarfed by
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's twins.
"That said," Mr. Seidl continued, "it's true there is a general
embarrassment among Germans about being famous for being famous. Unless
you are a world-class star, you must be intellectual and appear normal;
otherwise you're considered trash."
Mr. Poschardt elaborated: "It's the reverse of America. You can openly
be an intellectual elitist here, but materially you must act the same as
everyone else. We have a lively pop scene now, but Germany doesn't have
a real pop culture tradition because we killed or expelled everybody
who produced pop culture years ago, then we missed out on the next 50
"We developed this very heavy version of pop culture. Today German
intellectuals fixate on American pop culture precisely because you in
America have this natural, sparkling mix of fast-food entertainment with
more complex multilayered views of society, and this mix makes it
possible for a celebrity like George Clooney to become a kind of
"The question," Mr. Poschardt said, "is whether something is missing
here." Asked to name a German celebrity, he paused. "Angela Merkel," he
"Personally," he said, "I think we need to create our own independent
sense of glamour, not self-consciously, but because we should stop this
superegalitarianism and be more open to difference. I don't mean we
should have pomp, but the state here has the power to make everyone the
same. It's a democratic ideal, but it was also a fascist idea. Germans
have always disliked any kind of ostentation, and you could even say
anti-Semitism came partly from a dislike of a Jewish bourgeois
lifestyle, which offended both socialists and National Socialists."
Maybe. There's also something remarkable, though, about seeing a German
head of state surrounded by teenagers casually sitting on the floor at a
concert in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin listening to classical
music, as President Horst Köhler did not so long ago. German cable
television broadcasts shows like "Das Perfekte Promi Dinner," which
features minor German soap actors, former athletes and the occasional
ex-porn star shopping and cooking meals for one another in their
(generally modest) homes, then being gently graded on the results.
Sweet, guilty pleasures to watch, these discreet German versions of
hard-core American real-life celebrity programs recall the early days of
television, which introduced the widespread illusion of intimacy with
stardom. There was Jack Paar chatting with Fidel Castro, and Liberace
showing Edward R. Murrow around his new kitchen. To be a celebrity in
the new media age meant to demonstrate that you were like anyone else, a
fiction that gradually caused nearly the entire population of the
United States to delude itself into thinking everyone should be famous,
at least briefly. Celebrity became an end in itself, like wealth,
divorced from accomplishment.
Here, on the other hand, Germans still face the burden of St. Augustine,
who wrote that to be purged of the sin of pride, a person must also
purge the pride that comes from being humble.
Back at the Helmut Newton Foundation, the show ends with Newton's staged
and stately fashion shots of models pretending to be stars surrounded
by paparazzi. A native Berliner, Newton, as it happened, fled to escape
Nazi persecution and was inspired to make his career as a photographer
by, among other people, Erich Salomon, who took the Einstein picture and
later died at Auschwitz. Newton grasped the comic pleasures of
celebrity, minus the guilt.
But then, he spent most of his life in places like Los Angeles and Monaco, not Germany.
By Michael Kimmelman
For The New York Times