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Juli Zeh: 'The Method'

Sabine Peschel als
October 8, 2018

Does a legal system become questionable if it claims infallibility? To what extent may the state — with the best of intentions — restrict individual freedom? Juli Zeh's philosophical novella asks quite topical questions.

Leipziger Buchmesse 2016 | Schriftstellerin Juli Zeh
Image: Imago/Star-Media

"Even as a young man Heinrich Kramer was committed to serving humankind." Kramer, smart talk show host and chief ideologist of the state "Method," has chosen Mia Holl to be his sparring partner. After all, Mia Holl hasn't been the same since her brother killed himself in prison. The sober scientist neglects her routine. The chip in her upper arm indicates it: She get too little exercise; her turbo trainer at home stands still. The utensils for taking blood samples and the beakers for regular urine samples remain unused. Dirty dishes pile up on her desk.

Instead of conscientiously devoting herself to the tasks that all citizens of the German state, regulated according to the "Method," have to fulfill in the middle of the 21st century, Mia isolates herself in her apartment — and grieves. Only the "ideal lover," a fictitious friend left to her by her brother, keeps her company. She, this anarchistic figment of the imagination, is the only comforting human voice in Mia's loneliness: "'This Kramer is a fanatic,' says the ideal inamorata, cradling Mia like a child."

'The Method' by Juli Zeh

Vision of the future: Physical well-being equals happy life

Juli Zeh first wrote The Method as a play for the Ruhrtriennale 2007 that celebrated a successful premiere in Essen at the time. Two years later, she reworked the material for her science fiction dystopia and published it as a book.

As in her later futuristic novel Leere Herzen (Empty Hearts), the future is not so far away; the present seems only a little projected. And at first glance, the future Germany doesn't look bad at all: Cities are nestled next to forests, unused factories serve as cultural centers, churches become open-air museums, and cars are no longer driven along the highways.

"These days nothing stinks here. Nothing is mined, drilled, burnt or covered in soot; the people here have found peace, have stopped fighting nature and stopped fighting themselves."

The supreme maxim in this state is not a philosophically-founded ideology, not a religion, not an idea, but the care and preservation of health. Health as a prerequisite: "... so that every individual can enjoy maximum longevity and minimal biological dysfunction — or simply put, a happy and healthy life, a life free of suffering and pain."

In May 2018, German President Steinmeier awarded  Juli Zeh the Federal Cross of Merit
In May 2018, German President Steinmeier awarded Juli Zeh the Federal Cross of MeritImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Deviations jeopardize government goals

In order to achieve this, people's behavior is surveyed by implanted data chips. They are not permitted to consume anything unhealthy, may not smoke or drink alcohol; even the waste water from their homes is analyzed for harmful residues. There cannot be deviations in this perfect system.

But dissenters do exist here, those who resist the surveillance of their private bodies in the name of the state. People such as Mia's brother Moritz, who simply wanted to live a life without direction, wanted to smoke, put his feet in brackish water, date a lot of women and let his imagination run wild. And he kills himself when he has to pay for a murder he didn't commit. Moritz is not an opposition member. He is simply a free man.

Historical arch that stretches into the future

There are also those who actually conspire against the "Method." They no longer want to accept the fact that the result of the DNA investigation ordered by the state determines the pool from which they may choose their partners. Almost involuntarily Mia gets involved in this circle.

Günther Jauch talk show with guests, including Juli Zeh
Juli Zeh often speaks out about political topics, such as on this 2014 talk showImage: imago/Müller-Stauffenberg

Juli Zeh is a lawyer and writer. In her soberly narrated novel, she demonstrates what can happen when a good intention is enforced by totalitarian means. The historical references to the "unworthy lives" defined and eradicated by the National Socialists are clear. "Santé" is the jagged greeting in the welfare dictatorship.

And the author goes back even further historically. In an ambiguous way, she refers to the witch hunts of earlier centuries. The name Mia Holl is reminiscent of Maria Holl, who was burned as a witch in the 17th century. Heinrich Kramer is derived from the author of the book Hexenhammer, which justified the burning of witches in the 15th century.

When does resistance become an obligation?

The fact that her novel is about the body that becomes the object of a crime — the corpus delicti — and about the eco- and health mania is perhaps just one example. It is a social field that can represent many other developments that are already in use today: global internet control to prevent terrorist acts, video surveillance to combat crime, comprehensive performance requirements, classification of people...

To what extent may a state restrict the individual rights of its citizens? Is there an individual's right to resist? When do people have to resist as citizens? Juli Zeh's book provokes highly topical questions. The Method is a compelling warning about the danger of slipping into a total surveillance state by showing how a free society evolves into an unfree one.


Juli Zeh: The Method, Vintage/Penguin, (German title: Corpus Delicti, 2009). English translation: Sally-Ann Spencer.

Juli Zeh was born in Bonn in 1974. She studied law in Passau and Leipzig, where she also studied at the Literature Institute. She frequently writes and comments on political topics and takes a stand on current social issues. Her books have garnered numerous awards and have been translated into more than 30 languages. Her 2016 novel about German society, Unterleuten, was on the best-seller lists for months.

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