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Berliners Get a Crash Course in Glittery Celebrity Culture

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

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, too.

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 egalitarianism."

"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 marketing problem."

"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 sight.

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 restaurant.

"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 years.

"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 political figure."

"The question," Mr. Poschardt said, "is whether something is missing here." Asked to name a German celebrity, he paused. "Angela Merkel," he finally said.

"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

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