Das Jackboot: German Heavy Metal Conquers Europe

The New York Times, January 2005

DURING THE GERMAN band Rammstein’s 1998 American debut tour, the lead singer, Till Lindemann, whipped out a monstrous black appliance in his performance of “Bück Dich” (“Bend Over”) and employed it to simulate sex with his keyboardist, who lay on the floor with a mask on his face, a chain around his neck and a gag in his mouth. When they tried this in Worcester, Mass., the two men spent the night in jail on obscenity charges.

This is nothing compared with the uproar they have caused in Germany, where people actually understand their lyrics.

Their pyromaniacal stage shows and songs about mass graves, white flesh, screaming mothers and the eroticism of power have made the band members infamous, as much for their neo-fascist aesthetic as for their assiduous denials that their music has anything to do with what it very much seems to be about. Whatever the case, the band, six grown men from the former East Germany now touring Europe for the first time in two and a half years, is the second-most popular (after Kraftwerk) in German history.

Hours before Rammstein played the Berlin Velodrome, on Dec. 19, thousands of fans crowded the entrance, despite the bitter cold. “We find it funny how Germany talks about the band,” said a Berlin woman in her late 30’s, staking out her place at the front of the line. “In Germany they’re in a lot of trouble. But that’s because Rammstein is misunderstood. People think they’re evil and racist. They don’t get the irony.”

Some of Rammstein’s fans had arrived in jeans and anoraks; others had come in leather, and one had shown up on a dog leash. The crowd was of all ages, from children to an elderly man in a tweed jacket. Many fans were wearing T-shirts with the legend “You are what you eat,” a reference to Rammstein’s recent hit about the German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who in 2002 shared a final meal with his willing victim of the man’s severed, flambéed penis. The cold seemed to dampen the crowd’s energy; the fans only once burst into into the traditional skinhead chant — “Oi! Oi! Oi!”

“We love Rammstein because they make it so hard, so dark, so evil, and that makes it so interesting for us,” said another woman in her late 30’s. When I told her I was about to interview the band members, she lit up. She asked me to tell Mr. Lindemann that his face was tattooed on her body. The tattoo was, she said, in a special place.

I would have told him, but when I ran into him several minutes later, in the corridor backstage, he scowled. “I don’t speak,” he said, “nein,” and stomped off. This colossal former swimming champion looked bloated and unwell. He had deep circles under his eyes. His dark stage-makeup was smeared.

The band’s second guitarist, Paul Landers, who was holding court in a small office backstage, was more forthcoming. “At first, yes, we thought it was our duty to provoke Germany,” he said, “to get Germany going in a certain direction. That was at first. But then we realized, it doesn’t work that way. It takes time. What we can do is set a certain example. We can show the way. Blaze a trail.”

That trail, he explained, was toward healthy German self-esteem. “Before, it was Deutschland über alles — Germany above everything,” he said. “And now Germany is below everything. Rock bottom. Our problem is that we actually think Germany is pretty good. But almost nobody thinks that. Everybody’s very embarrassed to be German.”

In the early 1990’s, when Rammstein burst onto the scene, resurgent German nationalism had given rise to an efflorescence of politically strident “Fascho-rock” bands. Rammstein’s innovation was to look and sound very much like Fascho-rock while denying any political opinions at all. “Rammstein’s music,” said its publicist, “has no political content whatsoever. Their songs are about love.” Rammstein’s lyrics and imagery were just close enough to the line — a line no mainstream artist in Germany would dare to cross — to arouse very uneasy emotions, but just far enough that their game could be plausibly denied and the critics dismissed as humorless hysterics.

Perhaps more important, Rammstein was also a terrific group of musicians. Although the band sang only in German, it set sales records in the rest of Europe, and even managed to intrigue Americans (among them, unfortunately, the boys who opened fire at Columbine High). The men are enormously popular in Russia, too; according to authorities there, the organizers of the Beslan massacre were Rammstein fans as well.

Rammstein’s commercial success opened the door for pop music in the German language and inspired scores of imitators. But the Neue deutsche Härte — the new German hardness — was, of course, anything but new. Anti-discrimination groups were appalled. Critics were none too pleased, either. “The Neue deutsche Härte,” wrote the music journalist Martin Büsser, “is playing with fire in many ways, and at the same time is trying to shirk any political responsibility.”

The band and the fans counter with one simple question: Why should guilt over the events of a previous century prevent Germans from enjoying heavy metal along with the rest of the world?

With the release last September of the album “Reise Reise,” Rammstein for the first time took an explicit political stance. The song was “Amerika,” an exercise in garden-variety European anti-Americanism. “Reise Reise” immediately became the best-selling album in Europe. I was told by one fan — a 36-year-old Berlin restaurateur who has known the members of the band since they were all boys together — that Rammstein’s anti-war position proved their harmlessness.

The members of Rammstein report themselves puzzled — and wounded — by the controversy over their music. So, too, with the uproar over their use of a clip from “Olympische Spiele” — a Leni Riefenstahl documentary commissioned by the Nazis in 1936 as “a song of praise to the ideals of National Socialism” — in one of their videos. They had, they said, used it only because it was so pretty.

“You know, it’s funny,” said Richard Kruspe-Bernstein, the band’s founder and lead guitarist, before the Berlin show. “I was reading yesterday about 50 reviews of the last shows, in Germany — and not one of them was any good. Not one person, not one writer, not one journalist likes the show? I mean, come on. There’s something weird there. I don’t know. I think Germany still has a big problem with us. I can’t really figure it out. You know, it’s almost like a man who would never admit he likes to go to a bordello or something — but he still goes.”

The band’s handler came in to tell me that my time was up, and hustled me toward the wings of the auditorium, where stagehands were preparing the explosives. The evening’s schedule, taped to the wall, could have doubled as a battle plan: For the song “Du Hast” (“You Have”) there would be “Gas/Lyco/Comets/Grid Rockets/Mortar Hits,” and for the encores there would be “Airbursts,” “Flames,” and the ominous-sounding “Concussion Boat.”

At precisely 8 p.m, Exilia, the warm-up act, began, and the audience suffered it politely. Then the group left the stage, and a man beside me pulled out a pack of cigarettes and ripped off some filters to stuff in his ears. “Reise Reise,” now the No. 1 German single, began with the sound of lonely waves and seagulls, an ominous warlike pounding, the primitive chanting of sailors on a galley. According to the band’s official translation, the title means “Voyage Voyage.” But it can also be translated as “Arise Arise,” and that is how the audience took it.

A huge curtain dropped, revealing a row of massive Potemkin amplifiers that flashed with the band’s insignia, something like a swastika. The guitarists descended from the ceiling like gods, and the audience was steamrollered by smashing drums, violent bass and the sound of a full choir, amplified to unspeakable levels. The auditory assault was not, however, merely loud: it was thrilling. Rammstein is popular for a reason. Its rhythmic craftsmanship, its eerily hypnotic chords, its command of musical tension and release make much American heavy metal seem childish and anemic.

Most compelling is its lead singer. Dressed in an imperial German military uniform, Mr. Lindemann gave off an air of such brute masculinity and barely contained violence that it seemed that he could have reached into the crowd, snatched up a fan, and bitten off his head. He commands a low, powerful bass rarely used in contemporary pop music, untrained but electrifying. The audience members, enthralled, began pumping their fists in the air.

The band then introduced one of its most notorious songs, “Links,” with the sound of metrically precise, marching jackboots. Links means left, and the band claims this song is an expression of its left-wing sensibilities. The jackboots were followed by a furious chorus: “Links-Zwo-Drei-Vier! Links-Zwo-Drei-Vier!” (“Left-Two-Three-Four! Left-Two-Three-Four!”) The German language lent itself to the powerful, rhythmic song. The keyboardist stomped about in a German military helmet. Mr. Lindemann performed an exaggerated goose step. The crowd shouted “Hi!” in unison, which sounded just different enough from “Heil” that the resemblance could be denied.

The musicians, wearing flame-throwing gas masks, sprayed fire over the stage. They burst explosives in the air and shot balls of flames over the audience, generating heat so intense that fans began to pass out. Medics strapped the fallen Germans to gurneys and carted them away; as for the survivors, it would not have been hard to direct their furious energy toward a target. When, later, the band sang “Amerika,” it seemed quite clear what the target of preference would be. I emerged from the concert profoundly relieved that the members of Rammstein declare themselves to be against war: If this is their pacifism, the mind boggles at what their aggression might look like.

“Reise Reise” has been released in the United States. Whatever the group thinks about America, Rammstein plans to tour it at the end of this year, again bringing its music of brutal ambiguity to its large number of American fans.

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