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Culture

The German Cult of Michael Moore

The books and films of left-wing American political gadfly and cultural critic Michael Moore are incredibly popular with Germans disenchanted with the United States. DW-WORLD explores the Teutonic fascination with Moore.

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Michael Moore: Taking aim at the Bush administration and the European market.

It's probably safe to say that few countries have embraced the work of American author and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore as feverishly and enthusiastically as has Germany.

His diatribe against U.S. President George Bush Stupid White Men sold nearly 1.1 million copies in German – comprising an astonishing one-third of the book’s total global sales. Compare that with the 630,000 copies he sold in the United States, with its far larger population and you can begin to see why industry magazine Publisher’s Weekly compared his popularity here to that of comedian Jerry Lewis in France.

Moore in Germany is nothing less than a media force bordering on cult. During the first two months after its release, over 500,000 Germans braved the winter cold to see Moore’s Oscar-winning film "Bowling for Columbine." His second book here, the German translation of 1997's Downsize This, celebrated a print run of 100,000. Meanwhile, advanced sales of his new book, Dude, Where’s My Country have already placed him at slot 18 on Amazon.de, and Moore’s publisher is planning a 200,000-copy first run, a rarity for non-fiction books in Germany.

So where’s the attraction? And how does Germans’ appreciation for Moore differ from that of Americans?

Feeding stereotypes

"His film and books feed negative stereotypes in Germany and the traditional belief by many here that the country is uncultured, money grubbing, materialistic, superficial and that they run around with a gun in their hands," said Tom Clark, an assistant professor of history at the University of Kassel.

However, Clark noted, that much of the irony and self-reflection appreciated by American readers is lost in the transatlantic crossing. "Moore works in a different context in Germany than in the States," Clark said. Though his books are seen as a sort of "rambunctious comedy," they also lose much of the nuance caught by Americans.

Those differences in perception are also apparent in the book’s German marketing. In the United States Moore’s book is sold under the title "Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Union." In Germany, loosely translated, it’s called "Stupid White Men – Settling the Score with America under Bush."

Anti-American sentiment

Sentiment against American politics isn’t anything new in Germany. Washington’s popularity took a nose-dive here during the Vietnam War and at the time the United States installed Pershing missiles along the West German border. But Clark sees a new development in Moore’s rise in the post-9/11 era.

"Of course the immediate trigger was the Iraq war, but there are other factors, too," he explained. "Germans now are very insecure about their own identity," he explained. "There’s challenging European unity, an economic crisis and an identity crisis here in Germany. Everything is up for grabs and someone like Moore is just offering a release. He gives them something to protest against."

In Clark’s opinion, Moore appears to fill a political vacuum in Germany, where politics are often taken dead serious and American-style tongue-in-cheek pundits like Al Franken or tough-talking conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh are almost non-existent. "As some journalists have pointed out, wouldn’t Germans love to have their own Michael Moore?" German late-night talk show host Harald Schmidt comes closest, but he tends to take kid-glove shots at all sides and shies away from endorsing a single political ideology.

Moore’s popularity in Germany also reflects the current attraction in Germany to books that are critical of the United States and its policies. His books join a handful of others with themes critical of the U.S. on Germany’s best-seller list. Among them is Andreas von Bülow’s The CIA and the 11th of September, a conspiracy-theory packed tome that, along with other gems, questions the veracity of U.S. claims that a hijacked 9/11 jet crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Both books, published by the Piper Verlag publishing company, reached the Top 10 bestseller’s list here.

Shoddy research

Just as critics here have eviscerated von Bülow’s widely discredited Sept. 11 theories, literary critics and professors alike in Germany have taken Moore to task for what they have dismissed as shoddy research -- though it would be wrong to place the American writer in the same category as von Bülow, Germany's former minister of technology.

Michael Moore erhält Oscar

Andrian Kreye, a New York-based journalist who writes for Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung described a tendency in Moore to "undermine his own points with bad research and that makes him vulnerable to criticism." Though his work seems more solid in film and television, the fact that "he has done either too little or sloppy research first really comes across when you read him in black and white."

Nor does Kreye spare Moore’s German fan base. Kreye believes Moore’s popularity here is a reflection of often-knee jerk anti-American biases in many Germans. The problem with Moore's popularity in Germany is that readers express their own anti-American feelings by quoting his books, which he sees as a form of cowardice.

"German readers feel safe regurgitating anti-Americanism so long as it's an American who says it first," Kreye said.

Despite the barrage of criticism from many corners in Germany, Moore's star continues to rise here. In light of the advance sales of Dude, Where’s My Country, he’ll likely be able to fill sporting arenas when he arrives here for his November book tour.

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