Shimrit Lee

Max Beckmann’s “Departure” (1932-1935), recently on display at the Neue Galerie exhibit “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” is a  triptych in which two scenes of torture and imprisonment juxtapose, on either side, a calming seascape. In this central panel, a group of heroic figures stand serenely in a boat upon the open sea, a scene of freedom sandwiched between imagery of apocalyptic horror. Beckmann’s work, labeled as “degenerate art” by the Nazi regime, reflected contradictory human impulses – the violence and bondage of a dark political order, as well as fantasies of light and redemption. In his latest book Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film and the Shadows of War, Dutch historian Ian Buruma confronts these paradoxes head-on to investigate how our fearful fascination with power, cruelty and death during times of war is acted out vicariously in film, literature, and drama. 

Originally published as separate essays in the New York Review of Books, Buruma’s new book deals with the lives and works of artists making sense of the violence of World War II, specifically in the contexts of Germany and Japan. Buruma covers an impressive array of topics, including the Nazi occupation of Paris, the Allied bombing of German cities, and Japanese kamikaze missions. Much of his writing is based on the assumption that art has the potential to reveal deeper human instincts that lie behind the shroud of so-called civilized behavior. This aesthetic investigation is what draws him to the work of German and Japanese artists such as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mishima Yukio, and Yokoo Tadanori, as well as to filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. 

Buruma begins with a vignette of Israeli teenagers visiting Auschwitz. The nationalistic message of shared victimhood is clear: only in Israel can Jews be safe and free. The allure of victimhood haunts most cultural, ethnic, religious and nationalist communities, a badge of identity that Buruma terms “pseudoreligion.” In a poignant chapter on the controversies surrounding the dramatization of Anne Frank’s diary, he aptly points out that “everyone wants his own Anne.” Even German author Jörg Friedrich reclaimed Germany’s haunted experience of displacement and bombardment at the end of the Nazi period, causing a controversy in an attempt to represent German civilian suffering. 

The author’s exploration of guilt is more complicated. While he sets out to examine the ways in which artists search for an ideal community, most of his case studies feature individuals experimenting with an alternative sense of self, escaping into dandyism, alter egos and alcoholism. German artist George Grosz engaged horrific imagery, while simultaneously constructing himself as a Dadaist clown, dreaming up wild adventures, cowboys and Indians, and Manhattan skylines in his paintings. Likewise, Beckmann’s 1937 self-portrait, entitled "Released" shows him with the word “Amerika” on his left shoulder, reflecting hope to begin anew, far from the grotesque realities of Europe. Theater of Cruelty’s collection of dreamers and floaters conjure Arjun Appadurai’s notion of ‘ethnoscape,’ in which people’s lives constitute the shifting world in which they live.1 The term, used to describe how dispersed communities utilize media in new ways, redefines the interrelation between territory, nationality, identity and – most importantly – imagination. German expressionist artists, in a quest for fluidity of identity and movement, reckoned with fantasies of escapism or realities of exile. 

This form of escapism figures prominently in the work of Japanese artists as well, ranging from the militarized playacting of painter Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita to the sexual violence lurking beneath the surface of “cute” Japanese kawaii culture, and the performative suicide of neo-Dadaist Mishima Yukio. Expressions of carnivalesque spontaneity amongst Japanese artists reflected a desire to “strip off the thick crusts of Chinese, Japanese, and Western artistic influences” and “start again with the body, with those Japanese guts and bones.” 

Even as Buruma skillfully brings a cast of hedonistic characters alive through insightful details and accessible writing, he falls short of interrogating the moral responsibility of the artist. He presents Leni Riefenstahl, most famous for her role in directing Nazi propaganda films such as Olympia (1938), Der Sieg des Glaubens (1933), and Triumph of the Will (1935), as a romantic careerist rather than a champion of fascist aesthetics. In a similar vein, Buruma describes German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg as a “reactionary dandy” rather than a crypto or neo-Nazi, despite Syberberg’s yearning for the “Blood and Soil” of a united German Volk. He labels German writer Harry Kessler, who likened Jews to lice and considered a certain beauty in the racial state, as a fantastic romantic and “simply a man of his time.” 

Buruma’s ability to contextualize the lives of his subjects recalls Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘banality of evil,’ which explains how ordinary people have the potential to become mass murderers. The book thus returns to the same rather cliché question of moral philosophy: What makes the human species behave atrociously? Yet Buruma’s writing is too apologetic. While Arendt elucidated the unremarkable life of Adolf Eichmann, she never excused his crimes and insisted that “obedience and support are the same.”2 By attempting to separate art from its sinister setting, Buruma risks whitewashing systems of violent oppression. Susan Sontag is right to dispel any notion that Leni Riefenstahl was “a beauty-freak rather than a horrid propagandist.”3 

While some artists “looked into the abyss and made art of what they saw,” many others turned the other cheek. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, for instance, French aesthete Philippe Jullian filled his diaries by doting on dinner parties and friends in high places. French photographer Andre Zucca whose images of young people bathing in the Seine, old ladies knitting in the gardens of the Palais Royal, and upper-class Parisians sipping aperitifs on the Champs-Elysees similarly illustrates the normalization of occupied France. Buruma reminds us that “to keep going,” as a writer, a filmmaker, and a poet, might be seen as a form of defiance. However, he misses an opportunity to critique how artist disengagement is a form of collaboration, of upholding a façade of normalcy, and creating what Franz Fanon called “those aesthetic forms of respect for the status quo.”4 While encouraging his readers to consider the ‘banality of evil,’ Buruma’s case studies raise the question of whether evil lies in banality itself. 

The exhibit at Neue Galerie sheds light on the so-called “degenerate” artists who refused to conform to Nazi goals. When Hitler came to power, work by Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Ernst Kirchner, George Grosz was confiscated from museums and put on public display as a means to vilify the artists, who risked losing their careers and citizenship. While paintings such as Beckmann’s “Depravity” may refer directly to the realities of the Nazi era, its message, in the words of Beckmann himself, “can be applied to all times.” As Buruma ponders whether the beauty of Leni Riefenstahl’s art can transcend fascism, it is the “degenerate” artists’ refusal to detach from their world that makes their work truly commendable. 

While Buruma covers a wide range of subjects, Theater of Cruelty at times reads as a collection of fragmented pieces without a common thread. Sections on David Bowie’s fashion, Christopher Hitchen’s career, and the construction of British classism in the 1960s seem out of place. A chapter on joint Palestinian-Jewish protests in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is particularly divorced from the central themes of World War II and art, and is best read as a separate article. 

Despite these minor misgivings, Theater of Cruelty raises a number of important questions that can be readily applied to contemporary settings. For instance, how are post 9/11 politics proliferated (or ignored) in literary and artistic forms today? How do art, education and culture go hand in hand with nationalistic goals? How do forums such as Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam erase narratives of suffering through aesthetic means? What is the relationship between the artist and the state? As “degenerate” German artist Oskar Kokoschka asserted, “I don't think one can separate the Nazis' art policies, their campaign against Degenerate Art and their plundering programs later, from the ideological, the genocidal project.” Buruma leaves his reader suspended in this tension between art and authority, creativity and complicity.


1. Appadurai, Arjun. “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology” (1991), In Fox, R. (Ed.), Recapturing Anthropology (191-210). Sante Fe: School of American Research. 

2. Berkowitz, Roger, “Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem,’” The New York Times, July 7, 2013. 

3. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” New York Review of Books, February 6, 1975, 2. 

4. Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. (New York: Grove Press, 2004), p.3. 

Shimrit Lee is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Her research interests focus on media witnessing and the visual culture of violence specifically in the context of Israel/Palestine.

Image: Max Beckmann’s “Departure” (1932-1935)