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Frank Mehring: The Patriotic State of Exception in the Urban Visions of German Émigré Film Directors

My paper will take a close look at émigré perspectives on American paranoia, the state of exception, and urbanity before and after 9/11. In the 20th century, German film directors utilized the cultural imaginary of the immigrant city par excellence New York City and the American capital Washington as heterotopian spaces (in the sense of Michel Foucault) and a signifiers of the “American Nightmare” (Wim Wenders) to critically comment on the American promise of democracy, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. I will turn to a general system of response patterns which Samuel P. Huntington established in his book on Promise of Disharmony. It will become apparent that German directors often turned to a moralist response which is in line with intellectual émigrés who have engaged in what I call patriotism of dissent. This form of activism produces a paradoxical situation. While using dissent to reaffirm the belief in the great potential of the American experiment, the founding myths, and the democratic promise, Americans disqualify the patriotic statements as naïve interventions from alleged cultural outsiders. The transnational arena in which directors such as Roland Emmerich, Wolfgang Petersen, Volker Schlöndorff, or Wim Wenders screen their urban visions exemplifies a German longing to fashion democratic America into a heterotopian urban space. This paper will argue that even in the destruction of urban spaces, be it in the fictionalized version of American movies or the historical catastrophe of 9/11, lie the seeds for a re-enchantment with “America.”

About the Author

Frank Mehring studied English and American literature, history and musicology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Harvard University, and Justus Liebig University Gießen, where he received his PhD in 2001. He teaches at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Berlin. He is the author of a book on the avant-garde composers Charles Ives and John Cage (Metzler, 2003). He published a biography on the German-American abolitionist Charles Follen (Ferber, 2004) and edited his writings (Lang, 2007). He is currently in the process of finishing his post-doctoral project on “Dissent of German Immigrants and the Promise of American Democracy.” Mehring was awarded a 2004-05 Fulbright American Studies Fellowship to the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. In 2008 and 2009, he conducted research for a biography on Winold Reiss as a fellow at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

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