A spate of pre-election sex scandals have hit politicians on both sides
of the Atlantic.
In Britain the election campaign is over, while in America it is grinding
on. For voters bored to death by the election circus, only a series of sex
scandals involving prominent politicians has added some spice to politics.
It says a lot about the dismal state of politics in the nineties that the
private life of a man like Paddy Ashdown can excite more interest than the
slump policies of the major parties.
Sara Hardy exposes the moral of the story
The 'Paddy Pants Down' affair (invol-ving the shock horror revelation that
the leader of the Liberal Democrats had an affair with his secretary five
years ago) hasn't been the only election campaign sex scandal. In the States,
the sex life of Democratic Party presidential contender Bill Clinton became
the number one issue in the election primaries, after singer Gennifer Flowers
revealed that she had a 12-year affair with the senator. Meanwhile, back
in Britain, Sara Keays won a libel action worth £105 000 against New
Woman magazine, which had accused her of being a kiss 'n' tell bimbo
for writing a book about her affair with Cecil Parkinson for financial gain.
For a few weeks, sex seemed to have replaced politics as the main debating
point of the elections.
There may have been a surfeit of sex scandals of late, but they are nothing
new in British politics. Over the years, there have been dozens of revelations
about the sex lives of MPs, some of which have scandalised the nation - such
as the relationship between the minister for war, John Profumo, and the
call-girl, Christine Keeler, which came to light in 1963 and forced his
Some have attracted less notoriety. Few people probably remember the incident
in 1981, when the jilted lover, and secretary, of Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn
tried to hang herself from a lamp-post outside his London flat. These titillating
stories - Ron Brown's trial for stealing a pair of his former lover's knickers,
Colin Moynihan's relationship with Pamela Bordes - have been the stuff of
the tabloids for a very long time.
The politician usually responds to the sex scandal by denying everything.
If he is forced to admit anything he claims that it's all over, and that
he ended the affair for the sake of his family. He then appears with a wife
as fragrant as possible, as often as possible. If he's lucky, other politicians
will rally round him and make statements about his right to privacy. If
he's very lucky, he may even win some votes from a public which thinks he's
more interesting than they had previously imagined.
But how seriously should we take sex scandals? Some purists have claimed
that having an affair makes a politician untrustworthy. Anyone who breaks
the marriage vows cannot, they argue, defend the welfare of the British
public. This is nonsense. You would have to be a bit strange to think that
Kenneth Baker or John Gummer, who I cannot believe ever to have strayed
from the straight and narrow, are trustworthy individuals on whom we can
rely to take care of our interests. Politicians such as these are not to
be trusted whatever the state of their married lives.
What is important about sex scandals, however, is the way they are used
to promote traditional, conservative moral values. Admitting an affair,
for the politician, is admitting that you have broken the code of family
values. Every 'guilty' man presents himself as a sinner returning to the
bosom of his family. The most abiding image of every scandal is that of
the politician photographed with his wife and family.
Paddy Ashdown made sure that his wife took a photocall with him the day
he made his announcement. Jeffrey Archer took the press to court over the
accusation that he had paid off a prostitute. He won because his wife was
such a good witness. Mary Archer was so 'fragrant', commented the judge,
that it was imposs-ible to imagine her husband wanting to have sex with
a prostitute. Bill Clinton's wife appeared with him during all the embarrassing
interviews, and declared that their marriage was strong, that they loved
each other and that they would stay together. Cecil Parkinson ended his
affair with Sara Keays 'for the sake of his family'.
It can be embarrassing for an establishment which presents itself as the
guardian of our moral health to have its representatives breaking the rules.
It is an important part of political campaigning today to ensure that prospective
candidates are family men. The idea that only those with strong family values
are fit to rule is central to government propaganda. To have politicians
admitting they were wrong to have extra-marital sex can be useful in promoting
an atmosphere of moral conformity.
It's also worth remembering those whom the politicians and the press have
refused to forgive. Cecil Parkinson was let back into the cabinet; Jeffrey
Archer never left it; Nicholas Fairbairn's career doesn't seem to have suffered;
and Bill Clinton might still make the Democratic Party nomination.
But Jeremy Thorpe, forced to resign from the Liberal Party leadership because
he was exposed as a homosexual, has disappeared from public life. Harvey
Proctor, who resigned as an MP for the same reason, has never been let back
into the establishment fold. On the eve of the general election, Tory MP
Alan Amos had to resign in disgrace after being arrested with another man
in a car on Hampstead Heath. Adulterers can be accommodated by the establishment,
but those publicly accused of being homosexual are beyond the pale.
And another thing. Every sex scandal throws into sharp relief the role that
women are expected to play in political life. They are thrust into the political
limelight and paraded in front of the cameras in the role of lusty mistresses
or loyal wives. For all the talk of sexual equality and the New Woman, the
major roles which women play in British and American politics today are
still those of 'Smoking Bimbos' or fragrant ladies, wheeled on either to
bring down or prop up a powerful man. That is really scandalous.
An extraordinary film about how one Jew survived the
Holocaust has caused a national controversy in Germany. Emmanuel Oliver
looks behind the row about Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa
A Jew, a communist and a Hitler Youth
There is a great irony in the reception given to Agnieszka Holland's new
film, Europa Europa (showing in Germany under the title Hitlerjunge
Salomon). This is a film about the problem of identity. It tells the
true story of Solomon Perel, a teenage German Jew who, in order to survive
the Holocaust, is forced to hide his Jewishness and pretend he is an Aryan.
The irony is that a film which explores the identity crisis suffered by
a victim of the Holocaust has served to focus attention on the identity
crisis of the nation which presided over the Holocaust.
At the end of the film, Solomon Perel's identity crisis is resolved, when
he finds himself in Israel after the war, singing a refrain from a song
about 'how good it is to be among one's own'. Germany's national identity
crisis, however, which is the legacy of the Holocaust era, is not so easily
resolved. The difficulties of establishing a legitimate national identity
in a country where such terrible things were done in the name of nationalism
are readily apparent.
For Germany's modern-day rulers, however, forging a viable national identity
is a matter of necessity not choice. If Germany is to play a political role
in the world commensurate with its economic leverage, it must overcome the
legacy of a past which continually acts as a restraint on its ability to
assert its world leadership. This explains why Germany's rulers have spent
the past decade trying to bury the past or at least to explain it away.
It seems that whenever the German establishment thinks that it might at
last have erased the horror of its past experiment with fascism, something
happens to bring the Nazi past, which acts as a barrier to the free promotion
of a German national identity, back into sharp focus.
There have been many German films dealing with the Holocaust, but none has
caused such controversy as Europa Europa (a joint German-Polish pro-
duction). A timely new book by Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: the
Return of History as Film, provides a useful commentary on how the German
film industry has dealt with Germany's stigmatised history and on the shifting
preoccupations of the New German Cinema since the mid-seventies. After reading
Kaes' book, it is clear that the furore over Europa Europa has at
least as much to do with the political context in which it has been released
as with the content of the film.
From the point of view of the German establishment, Europa Europa could
not have appeared at a more inappropriate time. Today, when a reunited Germany
is once again becoming a powerful player in Europe, the last thing it needs
is a film that reminds everybody what happened the last time round. And
what it really does not need is a film that has taken the American box office
by storm and achieved international recognition by winning a Golden Globe
award for best foreign film of 1991.
Europa Europa would have had a better than even chance of winning
this year's Oscar for best foreign film. But the jury responsible for nominating
Germany's Oscar entry decided that no film was worthy of being nominated.
There can be little doubt that the decision was politically motivated. But
if the powers that be in Bonn thought that they could bury Europa Europa,
they were wrong. The German panel's decision not to put the film forward
for the Oscar nominations sparked a fierce debate inside and outside Germany.
Artur Brauner, the film's German producer, himself a concentration camp
survivor, castigated the jury members. Brauner argued that Germany's leaders
are so desperate to promote a new image of Germany and to put the past behind
them that they have resorted to political censorship. The film's Polish
director, Agnieszka Holland, accused Germany of allowing national arrogance
to become official policy by blocking the film. Brauner and Holland were
supported by all the major German film- makers, including Volker Schlöndorff,
director of The Tin Drum, the last German film to win an Oscar in
1979. The attempt by the German establishment to bury the film thus had
the opposite effect. It became the centre of a fresh debate about Germany's
present attitude towards its past.
The content of Europa Europa has also aroused controversy. It is
a far from conventional treatment of the period. The film does not dwell
on the popular images of Nazism, such as SS uniforms, swastikas and concentration
camps: images which can be assimilated with ease because they are so familiar.
Nor does the film conform to the traditional depiction of the Jews as noble
but passive victims of fascism. Instead, Holland's film focuses singlemindedly
on the dilemma of Solomon Perel, who survives the Holocaust by concealing
his Jewish identity and becoming a Hitler Youth.
From the moment that he is separated from his older brother as they flee
over the Polish border into the Soviet Union, Solomon is forced to respond
to whichever way the wind blows in order to escape the fate of his fellow
Jews. At home in Germany, he is a Jew among Jews. As an orphan in the Soviet
Union, he becomes a communist among communists. When the Wehrmacht invades
the Soviet Union, he becomes Josef Peters, an Aryan among Aryans. At an
exclusive school for Hitler Youth, he becomes a Nazi among Nazis. In Israel
after the war, he becomes a Zionist.
The trauma experienced by Solomon in having continually to conceal his identity
(especially his circumcision) is the centrepiece of the film. In order to
survive, he is forced to adopt a different persona to the extent that his
own identity is endangered. When Solomon does reveal his identity, first
to a gay German soldier and then to the mother of his Aryan girlfriend,
we are all aware that he has placed his life in the hands of someone who
may well betray him.
Whatever the director's intentions, Europa Europa is not simply a
film about how identity is tested by adversity. Agnieszka Holland said that
she wanted to tell this extraordinary story of an ordinary young man in
order to illustrate a central theme of our times: humanity's lack of control
over its own destiny.
Solomon Perel's personal story is indeed extraordinary; so extraordinary
that were it not true it would seem preposterous. But in one important respect,
it is a story which accords with the experience of millions in the twentieth
century. It is the story of a young man whose fate was determined by forces
beyond his control. It is the sense of humanity being on the receiving end
of history that makes Solomon Perel's story so compelling to people whose
overriding experience is of having no control over their lives and no say
in their fate.
- Europa Europa opens on 15 May at Screen on the Hill and Odeon
Kensington in London
- Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: the Return of History as Film,
Harvard University Press, £10.25 pbk
Loss of faith
The Tate gallery has been hosting a retrospective on Otto Dix, a leading
German artist of the interwar years. Craig Barton questions the notion that
he was a political artist
Otto Dix's potted biography has usually been slotted into the familiar mould
of the Weimar 'political' artist: shock of the First World War, scathing
social commentary of the degenerate Weimar years, persecution by the Nazis,
and final contentment in the postwar years. The Tate exhibition is comprehensive
enough to raise doubts. In commemorating the centenary of his birth, the
gallery has assembled an impressive overview of the artist's works, particularly
his most famous works of the twenties and early thirties. Looked at as a
whole, they reveal him to be engaged in a project different to that imagined
by many critics.
Dix entered the First World War as an enthusiast - war was an episode to
be 'experienced'. Throughout those years Dix was a detached observer of
a world being torn apart. His landscapes are slashed with jagged, discontinuous
lines, both the sky and the battleground below converge into continuous
jarring explosions. In the middle of this was the human subject, victim
of a world that was out of its control. Where soldiers are depicted, they
appear crawling and insignificant while the storm rages about them.
For Dix the human subject never emerged intact. For the rest of his career,
he saw the human subject as degraded and disfigured. From the end of the
war to the early thirties, Dix explored several themes to express this problem.
First came what are sometimes called his 'political' pictures. The depiction
of dismembered war veterans and the inclusion of contemporary political
culture are often used to justify categorising Dix as a radical artist.
Yet taking Dix's work as a whole, it is apparent that he was more interested
in the degeneration of the human subject rather than political commentary.
His crippled war veterans provide such an example. Dix locates the source
of degradation not in society, but within the subject itself.
Dix also used prostitutes as subjects. Here two themes were explored: the
woman as marketable commodity, and the futility of sex and beauty before
death and decay. By portraying the individual as a commodity, Dix highlighted
its 'nothingness'. In the 'Sex Murder' series this is explicit. Dix depicts
the mutilated body of a prostitute in circumstances which emphasise that
the corpse had become no more significant than the other objects of the
Several of these themes are combined in the famous Metropolis triptych completed
in 1928. The centre panel represents the rich at play and Dix pays great
attention to their elaborate patterned clothes. For the rich, the point
of life was the search for pleasure. The costumes and poses were to suggest
that for them appearance was all and content nothing. On the left panel,
crippled war veterans stare after prostitutes with one prostrate on the
ground in an attempt to look up their skirts. More expensive prostitutes
parade in the right panel, with the clothing of one woman suggesting the
entire body as female genitalia.
The body as the object of both lust and decay came to be a growing preoccupation
for Dix. The futility of the human experience is represented by either mocking
the attempt to stem decay through lusting after the body of another, or
the allegory of confronting the body's own inevitable degeneration.
Lastly there were the 'society' portraits. Dix's growing reputation by the
mid-1920s was earning the attentions of the Weimar elite. However, even
these clients did not escape Dix's critical eye. The portraits approached
caricature through exaggeration of their oddities. Not surprisingly, the
paintings did not fulfil the self-flattery required of the bourgeois portrait
and some were never displayed by their buyers.
If Dix found the human subject such a disappointment, it seemed inevitable
that he would reach the point where it no longer seemed worthy of investigation.
It is possible that Dix's work was running its course even before the Nazis
came to power. Nevertheless, Dix's earlier works of degeneracy made him
unpopular with the new regime. Paintings were confiscated and destroyed.
Dix was removed from his chair at the Dresden art academy.
Dix turned to allegorical paintings, often with biblical themes, as well
as landscapes. In addition, he produced several sympathetic portraits of
his family which he began painting in the late twenties. Commentators have
often pointed out that many paintings from this period were subtle social
commentaries within the restraints of Nazi censorship. This change in direction
to more asocial and ahistorical subjects also summed up the obvious disillusionment
with the changes in Germany. But as is obvious from looking at Dix's career,
his loss of faith was hardly new.
It was a loss of faith that was not restored by the fall of the Nazis. In
fact, contrary to the usual idea that Dix's subject matter was forced on
him by the Nazis, liberation brought no major change in the content of his
paintings: biblical themes and landscapes predominated in his work post-1945.
Dix concentrated on innovation in style rather than content. The results
of this final period are not very interesting and it is no great shame that
the Tate exhibition has devoted only one room to his last 20 years.
Where does the retrospective place Dix in the century's art? In his heyday,
Dix stood out in a time and place rich in innovation. Yet his works are
disturbing because they show a profound lack of sympathy for his subject.
For the modern portrait painter, portrayal of the subject has been affected
by the uncertain status of the individual itself. But while some artists
saw the subject as requiring excavation to reveal its hidden 'essence',
in the course of his career Dix seems to have reached the conclusion that
it was hardly worth the effort.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992