Weimar: This smallest (60,000) of European Cultural Capitals opened its year long festival with a flourish--in the history laden German National Theater, where 80 years ago their forefathers designed and enacted into law the first German constitution. The expensive rehabbing of the historic structure is glorious, and the foyers are garnished with fascinating photos of players doing Mephito or Doctor Faust from over a century of performances.
The ceremonies stressed how important a frank confronting of all of German history was to an ever more productive future. (Bus line 6 goes from Buchenwald in the North to Gemelroda in the South, where German-American artist Lyonel Feininger has made his favorite little church world famous.)
Weimar's struggling with its complex history was evident in the long struggle (officially decided the day before the inauguration) of what the dominant plaza --formerly Adolf Hitlerplatz followed by Karl Marxplatz--was to be named. 74 different names competed for acceptance as factions vied to memorialize their favorites. The city fathers finally chose Weimarplatz, to settle the dust for good.
Meanwhile, a group of disgruntled locals have just announced an elaborate sequence of street theatre events called "Weimar Remembers", to begin on April Fool's Day and continue for 99 days--to keep the visiting public from concluding that only Goethe and Schiller matter in the city's history.
The contentiously named plaza is an architecturally ugly legacy from the days of Nazism and the DDR. One scheme proposed demolishing this "Gauform" ("gau" was the term for a local political jurisdiction, followed by the East German "bezirke"), and Bauhaus University students entered a competition to propose alternatives to the Gauforum.
None of the entries dazzled the eye of this architectural buff, and besides there's precious little money left for grandiose alternatives. (Local, state, and federal revenues in the amount of almost a billion Deutschmarks have left all accessible budgets bare.) The official reason for Weimar getting this European honor was the coming 250th birthday of Goethe--August 28, but the real reason for such a concerted effort was to give the country in general and East Germans in particular confidence that the disastrous results of over a half century of Nazism and Communism could be overcome. Living here for almost a year now, I'm impressed by the high seriousness of their efforts.
Deep thinkers have been hee-heeing at the inevitable stumbles such outsized aims brought so very small a place: on opening day, President Roman Herzog's security detail kept Dr. Rolf Bothe, director of the city's museums, from taking his last minute seat. Two days before, the director of the Lucas Cranach Gallery on Market Square declared bankruptcy--she blamed the innumerable construction sites on stopping her usual stream of customers.
Media publicity forced the government to give her a reprieve. The Goethe Museum won't open until May, along with the new Congress Hall. And the splendidly rehabbed main train station was two months late in opening. (Deutsche Bahn has installed a brilliant exhibition on the boom in new train station construction at one end of the station's main hall--at the other end is the Times Square Internet Cafe!)
By far the most interesting exhibition is in the former Gauforum, "Wege nach Weimar" (Paths Toward Weimar), which illustrates with political posters, newspaper and magazine illustrations,and historic photos, those crucial 180 or so days that the new legislators hammered out their agenda for a Social Democratic Germany. They had moved down from Berlin, three hours by train away, for fear of the mobs in the streets. Weimar was easier to defend.
Also not to be missed is a black and white photo exhibition in the new Schiller House galleries, "The Myth of Weimar," by fiftyish Ute Klophaus, who started out shooting student art happenings (she is a favorite of artist Joseph Beuys). Her photo book on the Slovakian city of Kosice caught the eye of Weimar's planners to great effect. Her eye is omnivorous: famous local Goethe/Schiller icons cheek by jowl with the staircase leading to Buchenwald cellar crematoria and the infamous entrance gate logo "Jeden Das Seine", the translated Latin motto of the Prussian kings. The catalog is a must have from the "Salve" Shop on Schillerstrasse or in the Main Train Station. "Salve" was classicist Goethe's rather cool "Howdy".
There's more controversy over the Neues Museum, the first contemporary art museum in Weimar. Cologne collector Paul Maens' choices tend to be quirkily avant-garde. One of the first "pieces" is a Dadaist canister of the artist's shit, certified as authentic in four languages. Ha Ha. There are two powerful Anselm Kiefer's, but too too much young American (Keith Haring) hijinks. It was so off-turning to me that when I came to the back gallery, a restored series of eight nineteenth murals on the Ithaca legend, I almost began to regret the "triumph" of modernism.
All is not lost in that magnificently transformed old museum: in the basement is one of the most satisfying shops I have ever seen. ManuFACTUM is a mail order firm which sells well designed objects of every kind, and this is its first effort to merchandise inside a museum. (It's the Bauhaus ideal finally come true--affordable, well-designed objects for the masses.) And it has a comfortable cafe.
And while on that subject, kitty korner from the New Museum, across Rathenauplatz is the Thuringia Design Center. Its visionary director, Hans-Joachim Gundelach, has set himself the goal of reviving Thuringia's badly battered manufacturing industry through well publicized good design competitions. I have seen more great exhibitions of furniture, advertising, architecture and design there this year than the Museum of Modern Art in New York puts on in a similar period.
Similarly, on Bergplatz, across from the Castle is the ACC Restaurant and Galleries. 32 year old Frank Most (he won the Weimar Culture Prize last year for his inspired leadership) is a legendary figure. This Ossie couldn't face more than a year of engineering study. He came to Weimar, took possession of a wreck of a building, and with volunteer help at first created a complex of cultural activities that is the leading edge of Weimar's artistic future.
Incidentally, when I was leading a Slovenian TV crew there, their TV reporter asked me if I didn't find "Germans" too cold and bureaucratic. I told her of my epiphany on an Icelandair flight from Luxembourg shortly after President Reagan and Kohl stumbled in an SS cemetery in Bitburg. Behind me were three generations of Germans--the grandfather was clearly a Wehrmacht relic, his fortyish son a kind of sour civil servant, but the seventeen year old daughter indistinguishable in her fluent English and hip demeanor from any American girl.
Just as I finished this anecdote, we ran into an ACC factotum and asked him where we could get permission to film their current exhibition. He assumed a mock solemnity and replied that they required four weeks advance notice so it was out of the question filming now. The reporter looked at me crushed until I explained he was joking--he was, in fact, mocking the very stereotype she had dragged along. I left her happy as a clam, deep in a discussion with the curator whose work she was about to report on. And the ACC Cafe has the cheapest, tastiest special lunches and dinners in Weimar.
But don't think Weimar 99 is just a bunch of excellent exhibitions. It's a town that's a pleasure to saunter through. The first thing you should do at the main train station is to pick up at the Salve Shop "Walking Through Time in Weimar", a map of 25 places where you can really begin to capture the spirit of the place. "Text and image, audio tapes and documentary film reconstruct people and events from German and European history within a setting composed from original experience and memory."