“The Weekend” by Bernhard Schlink – A Reunion of German Leftists

“The Weekend” by Bernhard Schlink (2008) – 211 pages

 Translated by Shaun Whiteside

I have often read and thought about what would have happened if someone had assassinated Adolf Hitler in 1936 or 1937. That one act might have spared everyone World War II and the Holocaust. Yet I can picture someone sitting at their breakfast table twenty years after that saying “You remember that insane leftist who murdered Adolf Hitler? We never did get a chance to see what kind of leader Hitler would have been. It’s a good thing they locked that crazy assassin away for good.”

In “The Weekend” by Bernhard Schlink, Jorg is finally being released from prison after spending 24 years there for his involvement with a radical leftist group in the 1970s. His sister Christiane has a little weekend release party at her house for him to which she has invited several of their old friends. Each of the guests has a different take on Jorg. Ilse is writing a novel about the movement. Marko, a young radical, wants to use Jorg to advance the cause. Jorg’s son Ferdinand has some angry father/son issues. And so on. Mostly there is a feeling of faint embarrassment for Jorg among these friends because over the years they have moved away from the radical politics of their younger days. They never did get caught up in the violence of the movement the way Jorg did and now they are well into their adult careers. Mainly what they remember are the newspaper headlines of several innocent people getting killed in these violent radical acts.

One of the problems of this novel is that the conversation between the guests does not seem natural at all; rather the talk is wooden like each character is making pronouncements stating his or her case. There are also just too many guests to keep track of. I think the novel would have been better if instead of eleven or twelve people, there would have been only four or five characters who would have been more fully developed. Sections of Ilse’s novel about a radical named Jan are also included in “The Weekend”. These ‘novel within a novel’ sections don’t work at all, because they are about the violent physical acts themselves rather than the passions that went into the acts in the first place. Politics without the passion is tiresome.

Jorg gets the closest of anyone to remembering the passions of the past with the following quotes.

    “He couldn’t accept the badness of the world. He wanted to fight for justice, confront the oppressors and exploiters and help the hurt and the humiliated.”
    “Our parents conformed and shirked resistance – we couldn’t repeat that. We couldn’t simply watch children being burned by napalm in Vietnam, starving in Africa, being broken in institutions in Germany.”

By not dealing more with the history of the radical movement, the book stacks the deck against Jorg. If we don’t know the reasons for what he did, it is hard to view his actions with anything but disdain and embarrassment. The radical leftist movement in Germany began in the late Sixties when the Unites States was using Germany as a staging area for its war in Vietnam where the United States was burning whole villages and pouring Napalm on the villagers to make sure they died a horrible death. In the Sixties and Seventies, some people would become radical after hearing about things like that. Also some people in Germany were concerned because some of the leaders of Germany at that time were ex-Nazis; the leftist movement was virulently anti-fascist. At least as many women joined the radical movement as men. Later some of these groups got into heavy duty criminal operations, bank robberies, kidnapppings, etc., and it was discovered later that much of their funding came from Communist East Germany sources.

There were reasons groups like the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Cells formed. If the reasons are forgotten, the groups don’t make sense at all. In 2007 the movie “The Baader Meinhof Complex” was released to much acclaim. In his positive review in the New York Times, Fred Kaplan said :

    “When the film opened in Germany last year, some younger viewers came out of theaters crestfallen that the Red Army Faction members, still mythologized, were such dead-enders. Some who were older complained that the film had made the gang look too attractive. But they were dead-enders, and they were attractive.”

What I think is missing from “The Weekend” is an insight into the attractive qualities of these leftists which probably would have come out if we had gotten to know the characters better. As the novel is, I had trouble caring about any of the characters.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. By coincidence, I have the film of the Baader-Meinhoff Complex from Big Pond Movies at the moment, and might watch it this weekend if I can tear myself away from my books!

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  2. Hi Lisa,
    I want to watch “The Baader-Meinhof Complex too. Some of the same people who made this movie also made “The Lives of Others” which was excellent. Big Pond Movies must be an Australia thing.

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    • Yes, it is, but I think (hope) most countries have something similar. Big Pond Movies is much better than hit-and-miss visits to the video shop where they mostly don’t have much in the way of classics and foreign films anyway. You browse their DB which is nicely categorised and put the films you want in your Q and then they send you whatever comes along. It’s dirt-cheap and you can keep the film for as long as you like.
      They’re just invented some new thing that you attach to the TV and then you can download the movies on demand, but of course I don’t have time to find out about it and will probably miss the bus on that (the way I missed iPods for the best part of five years.)
      LoTech Lisa

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  3. […] Tony’s Book World by anokatony – ““The Weekend” by Bernhard Schlink – A Reunion of German Leftists“ […]

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  4. Tony: Many thanks for this perceptive review — as someone who was part of the North American radical movement in the late 1960s, a description of it would have attracted me. Your review convinces me that the result would only be frustration on my part.

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    • Hi Kevin,
      I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1970 which certainly was a political hotbed, but I was too much of a chicken at the time to get involved in demonstrations, etc, just watched from the sidelines.

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