Should Rammstein Be Banned?

Since the end of May, a #MeToo scandal has rocked the German media
Ian Buruma

Several women have accused Till Lindemann, the burly, leather-clad, 60-year-old lead singer of the heavy-metal rock group Rammstein, of various forms of sexual abuse.

An Irish fan named Shelby Lynn claims that she was drugged backstage and “groomed” for sex. Others have spoken of unwanted sexual encounters, which they were too intimidated to refuse. There has been talk of an infamous “row zero,” near the stage at live performances, from which young women, including Lynn, were allegedly recruited for Lindemann’s gratification after the show.

How much of this is true is being investigated by Berlin state prosecutors. Lindemann’s former wife avowed that her ex-husband was always unfailingly kind to women. And Lynn later reiterated that he had not touched her.

But whatever the truth may turn out to be, the Lindemann affair raises a question that has been hotly debated over the past few years, especially in the United States, but more and more in Europe, too: must art be judged by the private behavior of its creator?

It has become fairly common for critics to denounce Pablo Picasso’s paintings because he made women in his life suffer. A well-known movie critic declared that he could no longer view Woody Allen’s films in the same way after the director was accused, without any evidence, of abusing his seven-year-old adoptive daughter. Roman Polanski’s movies are no longer distributed in the US, because he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

Picasso painted powerful portraits of some of the women he allegedly abused. One film by Allen features a middle-aged man, played by Allen, who falls in love with a teenage girl. Even though lusting after a 17-year-old is hardly the same thing as assaulting a seven-year-old child, this is often cited as evidence that the accusations against Allen must be true. None of Polanski’s films has anything to do with the crime he committed in real life.

The case of Lindemann and his band is trickier. Provocation and sexual violence are at the heart of Rammstein’s performances, as well as of Lindemann’s poetry.

Till Lindemann
Till Lindemann

Postwar Germans have gone out of their way to repudiate the image of the Teutonic warrior, the uniformed sadist, and the ecstasy of collective extremism. Anything reminiscent of Germany’s brutal past has become a taboo in the pacific, civilized, democratic republic. Rammstein’s rock ‘n’ roll rebellion is a theatrical demolition of some of these post-Third Reich taboos.

Rammstein’s videos and stagecraft feature Nordic warriors, concentration camp atrocities, sexual torture, and hard porn. There are deliberate echoes of Albert Speer’s Nazi spectacles and Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films. A song, entitled “Pussy,” extolls rough sex. A reference is made to Übermenschen in a song called Deutschland. And Lindemann wrote a poem about having sex with a sleeping woman who has been drugged.

One might argue that expressing dark human impulses is a part of artistic creation (or of some sports). It is safer to act them out on stage, or in football stadiums, than in politics, let alone war.

There is a strong element of irony in Rammstein’s shtick: the Third Reich as an earsplittingly loud operatic act, less to celebrate past demons than to exorcize them. Some of this is in horrible taste (reenacted concentration camp scenes in a music video), but audiences worldwide are enraptured by Rammstein’s theatrical take on German guilt: “Deutschland – my heart in flames / Want to love you and damn you!”

Rammstein have attracted criticism in the past, but the sulfurous air of scandal only boosted their popularity. Playing the German devil, after all, was the whole point.

Should the accusations against Lindemann change our view? Should his music be banned because of his alleged personal bad behavior? A recent poll in Germany found that 45% of people asked thought it should, and 23% thought absolutely not. Meanwhile, 240,000 people bought tickets for June concerts in Munich.

Even before the case has come to court, the allegations have had other repercussions. Lindemann’s publisher, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, has dropped him from its list, even though it had no problem publishing his most notorious poem, “When You Sleep,” three years ago. Angry protesters have smashed the windows of the Rammstein office in Berlin. Some people think the case will lead to the group’s breakup.

It does not look particularly good that the group immediately fired the woman who allegedly recruited girls in “row zero,” even as Rammstein’s members denied any knowledge of abuses at after-show parties. There have been no more rows zero, or even parties after recent performances.

There are perfectly good reasons for deploring Rammstein’s act, just as there are good reasons why postwar German taboos should not be dismantled so lightly, even if only in a heavy-metal burlesque. Perhaps Kiepenheuer & Witsch should have paused before publishing a poem about a rape fantasy. But the question remains whether the art should be banned because of the behavior of its creator. Here there is room for doubt.

If the accusations against Lindemann prove to be true, he should pay the penalty. But that is no reason why people should stop listening to his music. One can criticize Rammstein’s theater. I am in no hurry to go to a Rammstein concert myself. But much of what should not be allowed in life should be allowed in art. I am not convinced that banning fantasies is the best way to protect society from the acts of certain fantasists.

© Project Syndicate 1995-2023 

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