I saw Terry Gilliam’s fairy-tale fantasy The Brothers Grimm over the weekend. As a big fan of Gilliam’s movies, I liked it, but while I plan to reference the film here, this is not going to be a straight-forward review. Rather, the film got me thinking about the historical Grimms and their relation to anthropology, and it is this I plan to write about, mediated by Gilliam’s vision and my own spotty memory of the Grimms’ work and lives. That said, if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, you may want to skip this post for awhile (though it’s hard to imagine what I could give away about a movie you should already know begins “once upon a time” and ends “and they lived happily ever after”).
The Brothers Grimm is a highly fantasized story inspired loosely by, rather than based on, the lives of folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Set at the end of the 18th century, in French-occupied Germany, Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm are a pair of hucksters who use their scholarly knowledge of Germanic folktales to fleece superstitious peasants by combating the witches, trolls, and other bogeymen that haunt their villages. Captured by the French for their fraudulent activities, they are condemned to die — unless they can solve the real mystery of young girls (including Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel’s sister Gretel) disappearing from a Bavarian village under their captor’s command. Order is wanted, and the Brothers Grimm are assigned to establish it.
The real Brothers Grimm were not, so far as we know, hucksters. Neither were they collectors of children’s literature, despite the status of their work today. Rather, the Grimms were linguists and scholars attempting to document and construct a Germanic national literature, and through it, a German national consciousness — what Boas would later call their Volksgeist. Remember that, before 1871, Germany had no existence as a unified nation-state; to the contrary, it was a loose collection of kingdoms, duchies, baronies, and papal electorates, almost coincidentally geographically co-terminous and only theoretically unified by a shared language.
It was also a region hard done by the Napoleonic expansion. German intellectualism rejected the tenets of the French Enlightenment, with its emphasis on a top-down civilisation emanating from the king in the ancien regime and the State in post-Revolutionary France. Instead, German scholars like the Grimms embraced the Kultur of the Volk — the culture of the folk. As Raymond Williams notes in Keywords (1983; New York: Oxford University Press), the word Kultur is etymologically linked with “cultivation”, and carries with it the sense of culture as something autochthonous, something that grows out of and is rooted in the soil, in a place. This was what the Grimms were documenting, the shared culture that tied the Germanic peoples together and linked them to the soil itself. Germans were to be unified not in their allegiance to a king or a State but in their common heritage and their common link to the land itself.
In Gilliam’s film, this is most clearly illustrated in the portrayal of the Napoleonic conquerors. Despite their political and military domination, they remain forever alien, incapable of forming the language correctly, incapable of stomaching the local food, and ultimately incapable of relating to the land itself except as conquerors: the French governor’s response to the mystery of the enchanted forest is to burn it down and enjoy his “victory”(as he calls it) in the warmth of its flames.
Of course, the forest has ways of protecting itself, as it always has. At the center of the forest lies the remains of the Thuringian Queen’s castle. The castle, we are informed, was built by the Christian kings centuries earlier — and torn apart by the stronger and more primal power of the forest itself. All that remains is a single tower in which the last Queen, fleeing the plague that wiped out the rest of the court, locked herself. Alas, she too contracted the plague — and, as the first signs of disease appeared on her heretofore beautiful face, she laid a spell over the forest.
The Queen in some ways parallels the Grimms, in other the French. As a Christian, she and her court were aliens, strangers in a strange land, and the land dispensed with her and her kind, as it does with the French. Before the fall of the court, though, the Queen had occupied herself with collecting (or less euphemistically “stealing”) the spells of the local villagers. She was able to collect all but one of the locals’ spells before succumbing to the plague — and in a tossed off line which doesn’t get followed through in the movie, it is said that she needs the last spell to break the curse she’s under. The Grimms, too, are outsiders, attempting to construct a larger identity through which they would become insiders through the collection of stories; interestingly, by completing the story of the Queen’s curse (by destroying the Queen) the Grimms achieve this insiderness, when they are told that from then on the village they have saved will always be their home.
Although we expect a certain darkness in Gilliam’s films, it seem especially fitting that The Brothers Grimm is a dark, murky, chaotic film. The fairy tales we have inherited from their work might seem light and airy, inconsequential even, but the Grimms did not devote their careers to the collection of stories for children. No, the stories they collected were stories adults told other adults, and they were every bit as dark and chaotic as Gilliam’s film. Take “Little Red Riding Hood” — 18th century peasants didn’t tell a story about an innocent girl saved from a wolf by a woodcutter, they told a story about a sexually promiscuous young woman (thus the “red” clothing) whose failure to exercise restraint puts her family and herself in danger — and is deservedly eaten by a wolf (or sometimes ogre). Charles Perrault, a predecessor to the Grimms and author of the Mother Goose tales, notes this in his “moral” to the tale:
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous! (From Wikipedia)
The tales collected by the Grimms, Perrault, and others were a jumble of symbols, anxieties, and local understandings; they carry with them a surplus of meaning evident in their adaptability to both children’s education and nation-building. For the peasant of the 18th century, these tales offered both a source of entertainment and — like our modern-day urban legends — a warning about the sudden and often arbitrary harshness of the world, a message we have, of course, downplayed in our Disneyified versions of these tales.
Like the tales themselves, the Grimms’ nationalism, portrayed by Gilliam as an aspect of a heroic resistance against the French invaders, had a darker side as well. Although they did not live to see Germany united in 1871, the Grimms work was part of the steadily mounting process that led to Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871, following the bloody Franco-Prussian War. Dubbed “the Iron Chancellor”, Bismarck declared “iron and blood” the decisive answer to the issues of his day, setting the tone for German militarism that would shape so much of the first half of the 20th century’s history. Like a later Chancellor, Bismarck led his won Kampf, the Kulturekampf of 1870-78, drastically reducing the rights of Catholics he saw as sapping the strength of the new nation; though this campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, serving only to strengthen the Catholic population’s resolve in its resistance, it again set the tone for German politics.
The Grimms’ vision of a German national identity with roots in the very soil and dating back to the days of the original Roman Empire would find its greatest resonance — likely in great contradiction to the desires of the Grimms themselves — in the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis. For decades before Hitler’s assumption of power, though, the “return to the land” was a key feature of German nationalism as a remedy for the degeneracy of “civilized” living, what Hitler called the “syphilization” of the German people (which was, in the understandings of the day, a stab not only at the effects of urban living but also at the Jews, widely perceived as carriers of syphilis as well as the pre-eminent urban-dweller). While the return to the land was first and foremost a return to nature, wherever it was located — and thus “degenerate” German colonists in Indonesia founded colonies in the wilder, more “natural” New Guinea in search of redemption — it was best if it were a return to the land of one’s fathers, the Fatherland. Like plants — there was a native plants craze in gardening throughout the 1920s and ’30s — people grew best when rooted in their native soil, the land and climate to which they had specifically adapted.
I don’t want to argue that the Grimms’ fairy tales led directly to Nazism, only that they were part of a nationalist project which, along with other influences, played a role in the development of modern history. Nationalism is not the major theme of Gilliam’s film, though — as in his other projects, from Time Bandits and Brazil to his as-of-now failed efforts to bring “em>Don Quixote to the screen, The Brothers Grimm is concerned mainly with the collision between fantasy and reality, between worlds imagined and real. Like many of Gilliam’s films, The Brothers Grimm presents the story of a fantasy world penetrated by reality that climaxes with the collapse of the constructions of the imagination — the destroyed castle, the angel horn of his wings, the storyteller buried beneath the rubble — but its protagonists do not return to a world simply “real”, they are touched forever by their trip through the fantastic. The tales of the Grimms document this crucial link, the effect of the imagined and the imaginary in and on the real world, both in local histories where these tales once provided the means to deal with a life in a world in which suffering and pain were daily occurrences, and in global histories where a people united by their stories takes a place on the world stage.