Helene Hegemann: An Innocent Mind Has No Fear
In celebration of its 30th issue, 032c and artist-director Ralf Schmerberg created a proposal for the ultimate Berlin film. The 76-page editorial An Innocent Mind Has No Fear, styled by 032c fashion editor Marc Göhring, was accompanied by a libretto authored by Helene Hegemann. The 24-year-old has been German literature’s enfant terrible since the publication of her first novel, Axolotl Roadkill, at age 17. A Berliner through and through, she analyzes post-reunification Germany with hard yet effortless accuracy in her short story. Watch Schmerberg’s film in its entirety below.
Volker’s grandfather, who was the last German lieutenant colonel to be released from Russian detention camps nine years after the end of World War II, had at some point in his desperate anguish began bothering his grandchildren with the same old sad story of his survival. Air force. Long-range reconnaissance airplane. Who operated beyond hostile borders and sometimes played the mouth-organ in his plane. He had been shot down and, only slightly injured, had barely managed to rescue himself out of the wreck. Then he was taken to Siberia in some kind of wagon. In which most of the other people had already starved, or frozen to death. But not him. He was willing to survive, and he was smart, and brave, and intelligent. The wardens found him too interesting to expose him to randomized sadism. He had no prejudices. He started to love Russia. For five to ten years, they had nothing but potatoes to eat, and he taught the Russians that potatoes can not only be consumed boiled, but prepared 17 other ways, too. And apparently they enjoyed them. This gave the menu some variety. Since Volker was born, his grandfather had told him a lot about the war. Volker said, “Yes, I get it.” And his grandfather said, “You don’t get shit.” Then Volker had to repeat everything he was just told verbatim. Hardcore schooling. Volker built model planes as a little boy. He thought himself quite competent in the field. His grandfather thought himself more competent, since he was a pilot. A wisdom he defended excessively was that things that did not look good, did not work either. “Something is wrong with planes that are not pretty.”
Inevitably, Volker came of age. A mix between a late hippie and a West Coast musician, he moved to Berlin two weeks before the Wall opened, which, like many other things, he missed because he was attending his grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary at a wood-paneled rifle club near the town of Neckarwestheim. A few months later, he had his first sexual experience that involved two girls at once and – afraid of being judged by the staff for having “too universal” of a taste – at record stores routinely asked about non-existing bands first. In pictures of this time, he fidgets with Rio Reiser’s electric guitar, or, dressed up like a Turkish cleaning lady, takes a dump on some industrial magnate’s front lawn. He lived on the street that ten years prior saw David Bowie and Iggy Pop bickering about their cleaning rota. He drank a lot and read Nietzsche. While as a teenager he prided himself in unifying two variations of human existence within himself, he now realized that simultaneously maintaining some common sense and irrational inaptitude had helped provide him with nothing but good sex and flea market furniture. His cigarette burns too closely to this knuckle, his hair, soaked with sweat, hangs in his face. He stands on his balcony with the same sullenness with which his 75-year-old grandfather tried not to lose his slippers on the stairs up to the bathroom at night.
Around the same time, his grandfather started collecting empty yogurt pots in Neckarwestheim. He buried piles of them in the garden, mostly in the sandbox. A total idée fixe. Everywhere there were nests of collected sets of yogurt pots. It was impossible to suss out what he thought they could be good for. He did that for 15 years. Then he broke down from a heart attack after he shit his pants while standing in front of his daughter and flushed the toilet out of reflex. The detailed delivery of the news of his grandfather’s death still irritates Volker today, age 43, riding the U6 without a ticket. Yesterday, his wife explained that she loved him mostly for the lack of space between his eyes, that he looked like a jackal. She had realized this watching a documentary on steppe animals that was playing on her flight to São Paulo that ended with the jackal being trampled to death by a herd of zebras. Volker wore white jeans, did not know me yet, but I had long known him. His mindset was deemed relentless bullshit in the time in which we lived, and because on top of that we did not have any money, a feeling of weakness over the next years would force us to devote our tortured and poor selves to God, giving up our own will entirely.
The pattern of hard-shell seats, haphazard splashes of color printed on red plastic. Like a popped rainbow. What a mess. Across from Volker, a family leaned against a ticket machine. The mom called her son’s attention to a Labrador puppy under a neighboring seat, then to military footage playing on the on-train entertainment. Both monitors showed a loop of a 40 kg drone rolling down the runway. The drone looked ugly, its proportions idiotic. 10-meter-long wingspan, instead of a cockpit its nose just a gaping hole from which it fires. She asked the child if it knew what these machines are called. The child began speculating on how these unmanned fighter planes are operated with mischievous pleasure, as if talking about a computer program that helps his Pokémons sniff out dust clouds or rustling grass. Volker got off the subway at a station he had never gotten off before. It was one of the themed stations that star-architects were coerced into designing in the early 70s. It looked like the film set of a DEFA fairytale. Recesses that had glass insets instead of tiles reminded one of the station’s wartime past as a bunker. The subway doors closed, and Volker took a final glance at the family. The woman fell back into the arms of her husband, who reached under her blouse and started caressing her solarium-tanned back with the tip of his middle finger, both with their eyes closed, their oily faces gleaming, the nail on his middle finger trimmed shorter than the others. Volker panicked. For two whole minutes, he lost himself in a kind of trance, developing new seduction strategies. What he saw reminded him of the exhaustion that follows depravity, and the moment in which the archaic lechery in a girl’s look gives way to ordinary, damaged meaninglessness. It reminded him of animals in need of help. Of his wife. Of the line Jay Z rapped a while back: “I got a main chick, a mistress, and a young bitch. Forget it.”
In the middle of the steps that led up from the underpass and back into the city, he felt a warning of the emergency laws of the future instead of a breeze. He had started abhorring the earth’s surface like most others loathed hell a while ago. Had he already known me back then. I would have categorized the condition he was in as a brutally hysteric mind-fuck apropos of an era that nobody learned to navigate, not self-pity, rather paralyzed from shock, flamethrowers. Humanity essentially was one gigantic obscenity. With an appetite for Argentinian buffalo filet, they spent half of their Italy trip in front of the hotel room mirror to avoid looking like tourists. We were spears of doom, myth, history, silence, metamorphosis, Moscow, Rome, Paris, Berlin. Everyone was afraid of war, and the asphalt whispered the absurdities to Volker. At times in Saxon dialect. “Go home,” and stuff like that. Encoded gibberish.
Two days later, three kilometers away, we found ourselves and a few others in a bunker club decorated with Persian rugs. I was nineteen years old and slowly coming down. Volker had dosed me and some of the others with a hallucinogenic plant brew. We had been lingering in this spiritual hell-hole for 28 hours, having transcendental experiences. Puked into buckets, cried, rolled around in the tons of glitter some assistant had bought, fell in love, at times doubted the truthfulness of our circumstances, then again in a flash of wit accepted their ambiguity – what was a truthful experience in our profit-oriented world anyway, what wasn’t? Nothing mattered, the bathroom door stood open, a girl sat on the toilet, crying with diarrhea, loudly sobbing something about beams of light and her son, whom she loved very much, all the while looking happy. Once or twice she quoted Krishnamurti, “All ideologies are idiotic, whether religious or political, for it is conceptual thinking, the conceptual word, which has so unfortunately divided man.“ Once in a while Volker took our picture. We tried to make experiences that had nothing to do with the professionalized logic our sober lives were built on. A couple of months later, images of these transgressions served as a moody campaign promoting sneakers. I liked it because it was so wacky. I liked everyone and everything anyway.
At some point we went back home to carry on studying, making coffee, or exploiting ourselves for eight euros an hour, I do not know. I took a few steps, sunrise, purple, and pink, and a strip of bright yellow sunlight. I had no more money for food or cigarettes, no ticket, got on the U1, which for the most part crosses Berlin above ground, and found the whole city and its provisional beauty sickening. It seemed to me as though it was crying because people had robbed it of what used to distinguish it from other cities. Not enough dirt, not enough wasteland, too many trees and city maps. I did not want to get to any place anymore. I wanted to go back to some kind of origin. But I did not want to meditate on how this origin might look either, because that seemed boring. 135 people were either blown up or executed one by one in Paris last night, five times as many refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. I felt like my ass had gotten too fat for my favorite pink corduroy pants. In short: I felt pretty bad, so did Volker, so did the rest of my acquaintances, and nobody could quite put their finger on what it was.
Volker saw intense purple shadows. Global darkness, chopped off limbs, his hands would not really stop shaking in the next few months. He did not want to be a casualty lying in mud with thousands of other people, awaiting his death. He bought two bottles of cheap South African red wine at the discount supermarket and could hardly breathe by the time he left the store. He felt like a steel clamp had fastened around his ribcage. Pain spread to his neck and lower jaw. He left his wife a message, moaning: “Baby, emergency. Call me.” She was probably crawling through a wasteland burnt by a tropical blaze, exasperated that Western civilization – especially Berlin – looked like a meal worm infested pile of shit compared to South America: junkies, professors of political science, and sulky infants all plagued by headaches and ashamed of something.
In the evening, because he had lost his key, Volker heaved himself over the stone wall into the garden his wife’s bungalow stood in. He smashed the guest toilet window and felt like a real human being for the first time in days. These 140 square meters of feng shui-ed clutter were the only place he ever called “home.” Little furniture, lots of books, steel-framed cabinets stood next to Victorian nightstands and were filled with world literature in their original language. Practically everything in here was old, whether it came from a tinning factory, or a baroque water castle. A gigantic framed photo of his wife dressed like Rosa Luxemburg hung in the hallway. It was taken around the time they started to get to know each other. This production was their first box-office hit at a state theater, with her screaming “water bottle crap,” running through the auditorium, barking the pamphlets of a trendy radical left-wing director into a megaphone, all the while wearing a natural rubber overall under her silk costume because Volker had infected her with scabies right before opening night.
He kept the lights off and got drunk on the sofa. Podiatrist Dagmar was preparing canapés on TV to go with her first dildo party. Volker was mightily amused. He was drunk enough to think of his despair as some abstract outburst and by now could hardly slur a word. Still, around midnight, he left his wife a second message. “Do you know the Pushkin poem where this poor clerk cusses out some giant monument of a tsar in St. Petersburg?” She probably did. It was probably her who had recommended it to him, noting how at some point it would suit him well. He read it to her regardless. The clerk believes his life to be botched because the tsar had St. Petersburg built in the wrong place. Incessant flooding, many dying, including the clerk’s entire family, and the guy snaps and berates and slanders said equestrian statue until the tsar comes alive and chases him through all of St. Petersburg into insanity. “That’s kind of what this city feels like right now,” said Volker. Then he lay down on the four-post bed they had imported from Bali, in which five years earlier, he caught her in the act with the guitarist of a semi-successful krautrock band. Around midnight, she called him back.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you,” he said.
“Of course you do,” she said, taking a breath and shifting her phone into her other hand, “I pay your rent.”