At the end of May 2019, after a 10-year break, the German metal band Rammstein delivered a new album, the self-titled Rammstein. Then they dropped the music video for one of the lead singles, “Ausländer” (Foreigners). Rammstein is one of the best-selling German music acts ever. It is the most successful German rock band on the international scene. As a sign of their cultural impact, David Lynch used parts of their second album Sehnsucht (Longing) for his 1997 Lost Highway movie.
In the video clip for “Ausländer,” the band’s white members, arrive on a rubber boat (the likes that refugees use to cross the Mediterranean), at an African village. You can quickly make out that the video was filmed in Cape Town. What follows, are a series of vignettes, of a colonial encounter that foregrounds the nakedness of black women and perhaps the ridicule of white men in Africa. The white men co-habitate with the black women and then leave; the women stay behind with mixed race children.
The new album very quickly registered a quarter of a million downloads. The live tour that was launched together with the album sold out across the world. By the time of writing, on June 29th, the video already had 14.2 million views on Youtube.
The reading that seems to dominate online commentaries in German is that this is a critique of colonialism. The lyrics are about furtive, casual sexual encounters, such as may have taken place during colonial times, and the title “Ausländer” does not refer to black people but to the white men who land on African shores. Yet, we cannot ignore the hapless ridicule that the black people elicit: they perpetuate a well-trodden path of racist depictions of black people. And black women are not only laughable, but they are also easily and eagerly available for the sexual gratification of white men. It is a grotesque, racist representation of black people.
Most Germans (and Europeans) do not see the video as racist. That black people are deployed here for the purpose of white entertainment, is mainstreamed. The other published video clip “Deutschland” (Germany) of the same album also instrumentalizes the black body for its own purposes.
Herein lies perhaps the banality of this (non)-event: Europe has regressed to a society in which, despite the apparent liberal openness to people of different backgrounds, and despite anti-racist legislation, black people are regularly depicted as stereotypes and are being used in a self-serving quest for fun, entertainment, and for facile art-with-a-political-subtext messaging.
Like most of what passes as art, “Ausländer” contains different layers of meaning. It can be read as a critique of colonialism and sex tourism or masculine quests for sexual adventures, but this does not undo the racist representations. The intent may aim for progressive politics but the means are contrary. Chinua Achebe made a similar critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. More than 40 years after he made that critique, the same still holds true.
Rammstein is a spectacular band—they deliver a spectacle. The live shows are bombastic, even humorous, perhaps ironic or cynical, at times disgusting with a tremendous set, overwhelming displays, pyrotechnics, simulated porn, sadism, and so on. In short, jaw dropping entertainment. Ever since they entered the rock scene in the 1990s, they traded on extremes: exaggerated masculinity, Nazi scenography and hence they courted controversy that fueled their fame, and fortune.
They are a band that polarizes—one either loves them and appreciates how the break taboos and how they show little respect for historical and emotional fine-tuning; or one hates all the gruesome iconography, repetitive riffs and monotone electronic sounds and tries to ignore them.
German mainstream music criticism falls into the first category. Besides the imaginative re-interpretation of German history and national symbols, the over-the-top persiflage of what Germans hold dearly, in high and low culture, commentators point out that every now and then the band declares themselves if not left-leaning then rather ready to undermine German totalitarianism, from the left and the right.
However, what gets lost to the harmonious chorus of admirers of these pop-disruptors, is that right-wing neo-nazis also enjoy the fascist iconography even though the meaning is ironic. In a mass-consumer democracy, the audience makes their own interpretations. Far right neo-nazis are reportedly equally attracted to the martial, neo-fascist mise-en-scene as are those who “simply” enjoy the spectacle. Real fascists can ignore the ironic subtlety of the show and lyrics yet indulge in the spectacle that celebrates fascist aesthetics, including black people as happy, naïve savages. In this role as spectators of black ridicule, mainstream audiences join neo-nazi, alt-right extremists.
In the face of the threat that the new, racist alt-right poses, Paul Gilroy turns to a renewed call for black humanity in his 2019 Holberg lecture. To counter a rising, global fascist threat, Gilroy proposes the reactualization of humanist ideals and practice, a radical humanism, that goes beyond the advocacy of rights and pushes against violence, nationalism and ethnic and racist essentialism, through mutual care and the recognition of all as “vitally and mortally human.”
This is then perhaps what the reception of Rammstein in Germany reminds us: that racism comes in many forms and that liberal tolerance towards racist imagery easily supports re-emerging fascism rather than helps to chip away at deadly stereotypes.