Franz Kafka, in 1912, decided to undertake the project of writing a novel about America. He was 29 years old at the time, and it was to be his first novel. At the time of his writing, he was a lifelong resident of Prague and had never travelled beyond Paris. The United States of America was just beginning to gain world power at this time and had already accumulated a sort of grandeur abroad.

Many wonder at Kafka's purpose in so writing, as some sources claim that he read books about the country, went to lectures and did extensive research in preparation for his work. For this reason, many scholars think that he set out to create a realistic depiction of the country. However, in examining the text itself, this notion is called into question.

" ... a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illuminate the Statue of Liberty,
so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before.
The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft,
and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven."

From the outset of the novel, on the very first page; Kafka's usual blend of realism and distortion dominate. Here, a particularly interesting image of America's beloved Statue of Liberty is shown, not bearing a torch, but a sword; it is not holding the fire of Enlightenment thought as a beacon to the world, but rather a blade of metal to those entering the harbor.

The narrator who describes the sight so lovingly is Karl Rossmann, a 16 year old boy who was banished from his parents' house in Europe and sent abroad to make his way alone. Rossmann, being still quite an impressionable young man as characterized by Kafka, is blown about haphazardly throughout the novel, being influenced, persuaded, and sometimes enslaved by various individuals. He encounters a broad range of people, from a poor stoker on the ship that he travelled on, to his rich uncle, a Senator, to a spoiled upper class girl who attempts to force him to make love to her.

Kafka seeks to create a chaotic sort of world throughout the novel. Rossmann constantly encounters such scenes, and he observes the street below his uncle's house shortly after his arrival in New York City:

"From morning to evening and far into the dreaming night that street was the channel for a constant stream of traffic which, seen from above, looked like an inextricable confusion, for ever newly impovrished, of foreshortened human figures and the roogs of all kinds of vehicles, sending into the upper air another confusion, more riotous and complicated, of noises, dust and smells, all of it enveloped and penetrated by a flood of light which the multitudinous objects in the street scattered, carried off and again busily brought back, with an effect as palpable to the dazzled eye as if a glass roof stretched over the street were being violently smashed into fragments at every moment."

The end of the book has a particularly humorous and unexpected ending. After having been through countless experiences of being betrayed and pushed around, Rossmann mysteriously escapes from the hands of several slothful individuals who barred him from the outside world. However, he gains a new opportunity to gain employment at "The Theater of Oklahoma." He takes a train to the race-course where they are calling people who wish to obtain a position. Upon arriving there, he is greeted not by the abundantly rich scene he was expecting, but rather the ridiculous sight of several women standing on huge pedestals, dressed in flowing gowns and blowing into trumpets completely out of harmony with one another. It is an amusing image of supposed grandeur that actually looks quite silly. Despite this, Rossmann is able to obtain employment as a technician with the theater which ends the novel.

Kafka's perspective as a foreigner and detached observer makes this work extremely enjoyable, and his humorous depictions of aspects of American culture are both entertaining and highly intriguing.

In 1987 the press went absolutely nuts over a new television mini-series entitled Amerika. The telefilm followed the exploits of former presidential candidate Devin Milford, portrayed by Kris Kristofferson, and his attempt to free the nation from the tyranny of a Soviet occupation after being released from prison camp. The right wing journalist believed portrayal of the U.S.S.R was too soft and didn't capture their true brutality and threat. The Liberal Media believed the portrayal was too harsh and would jeopardize detente and antagonize the Kremlin.

Amerika generated more pre-broadcast phone calls and letters than any other program ABC aired, even more than the combined pre and post air reaction to the recently aired nuclear war series "The Day After." It was controversial, more so perhaps because ABC had spent nearly $40 million on what seemed to be a more political and dramatic rehashing of the same themes seen in Red Dawn. Despite this level of hype and controversy, it did poorly. Amerika's rating slumped almost immediately and nobody seemed to like it, not even the stars.

"I don't know if people will sit through the first two hours. . . . It's like the beginning of a slow Russian novel."Kris Kristofferson

Once it was viewed it hardly seemed worth the effort to lambaste it. It's reported that the film extended the length of the cold war some six to ten hours. Despite a top dollar cast for the time, that included Sam Neil, Robert Urich and Mariel Hemmingway, the acting was wooden and un-provocative. You never got the impression that they were dealing with anything more stressful than ordering latte's at Starbucks during rush hour. It was the eighties though, and America ( the real one, with a 'c') was at the climax of the cold war. Practically any movie about the Soviet Threat could be made and have a small audience of nut jobs and reactionaries. Almost to prove my point, for years after the airing the only way to get a copy was to order bootleg VHS copies from the Freedom Network, who believed that the film was being repressed as part of some conspiracy.

The idea for Amerika was apparently spawned by a comment that Ben Stein from the Herald Examiner had made in his criticism of The Day After. Stein had posed a question about what life would be like under Soviet occupation. Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Circle Films, wanted to pursue that story but couldn't figure out how to do it without getting bogged down in the actual struggle to assert foreign control. So in the grand tradition of Hollywood, he just skipped it, setting the film ten years after the occupation. To be fair though, it was the idea of Stoddard's wife, not his own.

So what we're left with is a badly acted film about a nation taken over by the Soviets with the assistance of NATO troops in a bloodless coup because Americans have grown too apathetic to care that they are being driven into slave labor camps and are having their basic civil rights trampled upon. The only man with the charisma and will power to reunite the nation and get rid of that stupid K in favor of the more traditional C, is inexplicably released from prison by a foreign government that imprisons people for buying bread from the wrong line. We are never treated to an explanation of how such a thing ever came about, other than vague references to NATO, EMP weapons and lengthy soliloquies on the apathy of the American television generation. The irony was not lost on me.

"The premise of the show is still objectionable to me. That the Russians would ever occupy the United States is total fiction." Kris Kristofferson

Every cloud has a silver lining though, and this cumulonimbus was no exception. It was wonderfully produced for a television mini-series and the crew did a very convincing job of turning the location shots of Toronto into the American Heartland. Additionally it was the film debut of actress Lara Flynn Boyle whom you may remember from Wayne's World, Twin Peaks and Jacob: A TNT Bible Story.

Despite any redeeming qualities, the Berlin Wall fell just two years later and the Soviet threat quickly fell out of favor as international boogeymen. Amerika slipped into relative obscurity to the conflicted delight and horror of militia groups and conspiracy theorists everywhere. It was available for a time in a VHS boxed set but in recent years has fallen out of print, potentially because the New World Order is afraid of the films message, but more than likely just because it's a fourteen and a half hour long, boring political message that is no longer topical or even relevant and nobody was buying it.

Kris Kristofferson .... Devin Milford
Kelly Proctor .... Billy Milford
Keram Malicki-Sánchez .... Young Caleb
Jason Wild .... Youth Communist Leader
Graham Beckel .... Clayton Cullen
Richard Blackburn .... KGB Agent
Pete Boughn .... High School Principal
Lara Flynn Boyle .... Jacqueline 'Jessie' Bradford
Richard Bradford .... Ward
Ivan Dixon .... Dr. Alan Drummond
David Ferry .... Laird
Dorian Harewood .... Jeffrey Wyman
Mariel Hemingway .... Kimberly Ballard
Marcel Hillaire .... Dieter Heinlander
Wendy Hughes .... Marion Andrews
Christine Lahti .... Althea Milford
Piotr Lysak .... Mikhail
Armin Mueller-Stahl .... General Petya Samanov
Sam Neill .... Colonel Andrei Denisov
Cindy Pickett .... Amanda Bradford
Ford Rainey .... Will Milford
Don Reilly .... Justin Milford
Allan Royal .... President
Raynor Scheine .... Major Helmut Gurtman
Robert Urich .... Peter Bradford


We're all living in Amerika,
Amerika is wunderbar.
We're all living in Amerika,
Amerika, Amerika.

The opening lines of the second single from Rammstein's forthcoming album Reise, Reise might lead the credulous to believe the German techno-industrial-metal band to have moved to the United States wearing huge smiles which are dwarfed only by their outpouring of love for all things American. Sadly--for Amerikaners at any rate--it's quite the opposite.

Amerika represents a departure from Rammstein's usual barrage of twisted love and sex music and dives head-first into the polluted sea of international politics. I think this is fairly representative of the growing public awareness and resentment by people outside the United States of the virus-like spread of American pseudo-culture and mores.

Ich zeige euch wie´s richtig geht.

The song uses dancing as a metaphor for both government and individual thought. The dancers are, of course, the United States and everyone else. The American dancer wants to lead, control, and instruct his assumedly incompetent dance partner. The dancing partner, if reluctant, finds himself forced to dance. In many ways this is one of the more poignant political statements I've heard made in popular music in the last few years.

Musik kommt aus dem Weißen Haus

To be fair, some of the things that Rammstein is complaining about in the song are not strictly the sole domain of the United States. The spread of "free market" mentality (and subsequent economic domination) to impoverished countries is most often done by the heavy-handed practices of the World Bank. I will not dispute that U.S. interests often stand to gain the most in those situations, but the music for that and for the cultural annexation of the world does not "come from the White House", as they sing.

nach Afrika kommt Santa Claus,
und vor Paris steht Mickey Maus.

While the song gets a little off-track with the primary theme a couple of times, the main thread can be summarized in the above lines which translate to "Santa Claus comes to Africa, and Mickey Mouse stands before Paris." The uprooting and replacement of the varied cultures of the world with American ideals and icons, which is a phenomena known as cultural imperialism in media theory.

This is not a love song,
I don´t sing my mother tongue

The clever juxtaposition of English and German in the song is one of the more amusing bits. Until near the end of the song, the smiling, head-bobbing, non-German-speaking American is assumed to believe that it's a song glorifying America and things American, as the chorus is mostly English and states plainly, "America is wunderbar." The criticism, metaphorical and otherwise, is all in German, which may in itself be a statement about America's mono-linguistic culture and the widely known problems with the education system here.

However, Rammstein discards the ruse with the above lyric, and makes it plain to all that the meat of the song is buried within the German lyrics.

Lyric snippets from:

Artist: Rammstein
Album: Reise, Reise

All lyrics © Copyright 2004 Rammstein and used within Fair Use guidelines.

Rebirth and Redemption in Amerika

"Karl soon got used to his new circumstances in his uncle's house, and his uncle was also very kind to him in every little matter, so Karl never had to learn from bitter experience, which was the lot of so many when they began a new life in a new country.

Karl's room was on the sixth floor of a building, whose five lower floors, and three more which were subterranean, were taken up by his uncle's business concern. The light that came into his room through two windows and a balcony door never ceased to astound Karl when he emerged from his little bedroom in the couldn't look for pity here, and what Karl had read about America was perfectly correct in this regard; here the fortunate few seemed quite content to enjoy their good fortune with only the pampered faces of their friends for company.

A narrow balcony ran along the entire length of the room. but what would probably have been the highest vantage point in Karl's hometown here did not afford much more than a view of a single street, which ran in a dead straight line between two rows of lopped-off houses until it vanished in the distance where the massive forms of a cathedral loomed out of the haze. In the morning and in his dreams at night, that street was always full of swarming traffic. Seen from above, it appeared to be a swarming kaliedescope of distorted human figures and the roofs of vehicles of all kinds, from which a new and amplified and wilder mixture of noise, dust, and smells arose, and all this was held and penetrated by a mightly light, that was forever being scattered, carried off, and eagerly returned by the multitudes of objects, and that seemed so palpable to the confused eye that it was like a sheet of glass spread out over the street that was being continually and violently smashed.

Cautious as the uncle was in all things, he urged Karl for the moment in all seriousness, to avoid all manner of commitments, He was to absorb and examine everything, but not allow himself to be captured by it. The first days of a European in America were like a new birth, and while Karl shouldn't be afraid, one did get used to things here faster than when entering the human world from beyond, he should bear in mind that his own initial impression did stand on shaky feet, and he shouldn't allow them any undue influence over subsequent judgements, with the help of which, after all, he meant to live his life. He himslef had known new arrivals, who, instead of sticking by these useful guidelines, would for instance stand on the balcony for days on end, staring down on the street like lost sheep. That was certain disorientation! Such solitary inactivity, gazing down on an industrious New York day, might be permitted to visitor, and perhaps even, with reservations, recommended to him, but for someone who would be staying here it was catastrophic, one could safely say, even, if it was a slight exaggeration. And theuncle actually pulled a face every time when, in the course of one of his visits, which he made at unpredictable times but always once a day, he happened to find Karl on the balcony. Karl soon realized this, and so denied himself, as far as possible, the pleasure of standing out on the balcony." -- from Kafka's Amerika

Franz Kafka’s hauntingly beautiful Amerika or The Man Who Disappeared is strikingly different from his darker fiction, very much a fairy tale, the story of the struggle of a small boy in an overpowering city. Karl Rossman, a European boy of sixteen, exiled by his parents for the questionable behavior of a servant girl, embarks upon a quest in the new world, traveling through city after indifferent, unfeeling city, passing from the shelter of one guardian to that of the next, slowly abandoning his childhood as he dons a newfound maturity. While we soon come to understand that Karl is of an outstanding character- compliant, considerate, and kind- we also become aware of the boy’s remarkable naiveté he is perhaps excessively trusting and obedient, lacking the worldly experience that brings with it fortitude and resilience, qualities critical in so demanding a society. Karl’s innocence and simplicity distinguish him from the multitudes, placing him at the mercy of a cruel world for so long. In this passage, Kafka manipulates comparative and contrasting imagery such as strong metaphors and similes and detailed juxtapositions in addition to various other literary devices to subtly yet startlingly convey Karl’s amazement and the merciless, mesmerizing nature of the world, thus revealing the fundamental disparity between the two, the source of conflict and the reason for Karl’s quest.

Kafka cleverly uses imagery, diction, and syntax in his detailed descriptions of both Karl and New York, expertly characterizing the two. Many immigrants, including Karl, are almost religiously compared to “lost sheep,” left destitute after their “new birth” in the world. Karl, like an infant, stands on “shaky feet” in his “little” bedroom, venturing slowly onto his “narrow” balcony. Such simple comparisons and connotations demonstrate that Karl is childlike, small and impressionable. In fact, descriptions of Karl in this passage are very brief, also small in comparison to the words lavished on the city. Uncle Jakob, the second of a series of guardian figures in Karl’s journey, serves to shelter the young boy from the perilous allure of the city, but in the process, hinders him, an obstacle to his enlightenment. For the time being, he does not have to “learn from bitter experience,” and is free to live a privileged life. Jakob keeps the boy isolated, almost imprisoned on “the sixth floor” of his lofty penthouse, far above the world below, hopelessly alone. However, mere physical separation cannot mask charms of the outside world.

The city is deceptively simple at first glance, Karl can only see a “single street, which (runs)in a dead straight line,” this presents an image of the city as small, alone, and straightforward as himself. But in fact, New Yorkis “industrious” and “unpredictable,” a “massive” haven for the “fortunate few” rather than the “poor little immigrant.” The city is hypnotic, a “distorted,” “wild,” “swarming kaleidoscope” that engulfs the senses. The lengthy, winding sentences punctuated with disquieting images conveys this effect simply and flawlessly, alternately soothing and shocking, demanding our attention and yet still stunning us, unsuspecting.

The contrast between little Karl and the enormous city is made evident through literal juxtaposition, emphasizing their incompatibility. The “highest vantage point” in Karl’s old home is compared directly with the heights of the city and its incomprehensible views, highlighting the scale of the transformation Karl must undergo to achieve assimilation. Indeed, Karl views the street from the “sixth floor” of a skyscraper, from where people appear “distorted human figures” – a description derived not only from his great physical distance, but surely also from his inability to comprehend these cold Americans, due to vast, irreconcilable cultural, spiritual, and emotional discrepancies. Thus Karl is isolated in innumerable ways, a model of “solitary inactivity” directly before the “industrious New York day.”

Beneath this imagery, further literary significance is present as symbolism surfaces to stress the hazards of America, foreshadowing Karl’s difficult journey ahead. Light is frequently referenced in the passage, beautiful, pure, and captivating to young Karl. It “never (ceases) to astound” him, illuminating his window each day. Similarly, Karl renews his aspirations daily; thus, light easily represents Karl’s hopes and ambitions, perhaps even the hopes of humanity.

However, the city’s promises are still illusory; it distracts its “confused” inhabitants, deluding them, making the light, their dreams, seem almost “palpable” one moment, just before they are again “scattered”, so that their ideals are “being continually and violently smashed” in a cruel game that Karl will inevitably be “captured by” as he descends into the depths of society, where little light can penetrate. Just as his seemingly benevolent uncle and apparently eager companions delude the boy with false hopes, the sparkle of these fascinating lights deceive our hero, endangering him many times before his salvation.

Thus, Kafka skillfully weaves the web of language, conveying his meanings and the plight of Karl Rossman with incredible delicacy, using an intricate pattern of imagery to express utter isolation, despondency, and futility. Karl and all those exiled to America are aptly described with the aid of similes, metaphors, and carefully chosen adjectives. New York City, with its promises and cruelty, is depicted with even more depth, with images describing it superficially relating points about its true, devious nature through symbolism, word choice, and syntax. When all of these desperately disparate images converge, awkwardly sharing sentences, the inherent incompatibility becomes obvious, as does the fate of young Karl. Kafka’s descriptions, so lacking in sensuous language, are expertly, meticulously detailed, so softly and subtly composed that the reader remains unconscious of his work, but therefore becomes emotionally absorbed in the hero’s quest, feeling the tale reflected in his own reality.

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