Rammstein has a militant look and texts that break taboos. Really? The word most often growled by frontman Till Lindemann is "Liebe" (Love), and the lyrics are inspired by classical poets like Goethe.
Surprisingly, "love" and "heart" are two of the words that turn up most frequently in texts by Rammstein — at least statistically, as revealed by an analysis of individual word roots vocalized in the songs on the band's seven studio albums.
Singer and lyricist Till Lindemann most often uses words having to do with the concept of "Liebe" (love). Second place in the Rammstein lyrics ranking goes to "Herz" (heart), followed by "Mann" (man) and "gut" (good).
Apart from love, heart, man and good, words like child, skin, blood, face and hand; sun and light; scream, no, stay and see are frequent in Rammstein's lyrics
That sounds like Rammstein could perform in a cotton-candy German Schlager show, with the audience merrily clapping along on the first and third beats of a four-four bar. But listen to the complete lyrics, and the comfort zone ends here:
A man is slaughtered and eaten, a girl confined in a basement by a rapist, a man driven to death by a mob.
Welcome to Till Lindemann's little shop of horrors.
Goethe and German fairy tales in Rammstein
Not all of the horror comes from Lindemann's pen. Some of the frontman's lyrics are inspired by classical German literature, exemplified by the most prominent poet in the language, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Goethe's famous ballad Erlkönig, for example, translated:
Who rides so late through the night and the wind?
It is the father with his child.
He holds the boy safely in his arms;
he holds him tight, he keeps him warm.
The mood, rhythm and content of Goethe's poem are echoed in Rammstein's "Dalai Lama":
An airplane lies in the evening wind
On board is a man with a child
They sit safely, sit warm
And are lulled into falling asleep
In Goethe's poem, a ghostly apparition, the King of the Elves, whispers seductively to the child and seeks to abduct him into his realm. At the end of the ballad, the son dies in the arms of his father on horseback.
In the Rammstein song, the "King of the Winds" endeavors to claim the boy, who finally dies in his father's arms, held too tightly in anticipation of an airplane crash.
Read more: Rammstein and Wagner, kindred spirits?
Bertolt Brecht, Struwwelpeter and Theodor Fontane
There's more to it than just Goethe: The Rammstein song "Rosenrot" (Rose-Red) takes its cue from Snow White and Rose-Red, fairy tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm. Snow White herself turns up in the music video to the song "Sonne" (Sun).
In "Hilf mir" (Help Me), the narrator plays with fire and then burns — just like the iconic Paulinchen in the old, but in Germany ever-popular book Der Struwwelpeter from the mid-19th century, in which the author Heinrich Hoffmann warned children of dangers by telling macabre tales.
The duel scene in "Roter Sand" (Red Sand) recalls the one in the novel Effie Briest by Theodor Fontane, also from the 19th century.
The influential German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, founder of the epic theater genre, also finds his way into the Rammstein song "Haifisch" (Shark):
And the shark: it has tears
And they stream down its face.
But the shark lives in water
So you don't see the tears
Those words clearly echo "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" in Brecht's Three-Penny Opera of 1928:
And the shark, it has teeth,
And it wears them in its face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife can't be seen.
Apart from literature, Rammstein references other elements of German culture and history. The music professor and musician Rob Burns found similarities between Till Lindemann's song texts and those of cabaret singers in the Weimar Republic. Costumes and sets from the band's live shows, he adds, echo the machinery aesthetics in Metropolis, Fritz Lang's expressionist film of 1927.
Are Rammstein Nazis?
The rolled "R" and the hyper-clear pronunciation are typical not only of Till Lindemann's singing but also of the cliched depiction of Nazis in films worldwide. The band's logo recalls the cross of the Wehrmacht, the symbol of the armed forces in Nazi Germany. The performances include many pyrotechnics and spectacular lighting: These are things that, to Germans nowadays, uncomfortably recall the Nazi regime.
When Rammstein covered the Depeche Mode song "Stripped" and used images from a film by Leni Riefenstahl in the video, it was a scandal: The band were castigated for quoting one of the most controversial directors in film history.
A highly innovative director at the time, Riefenstahl supported the Nazi regime with propaganda films like Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) and Olympia, excerpts from which were used by Rammstein.
In several interviews, Rammstein have stressed that none of the members of the band adheres to right-wing ideology. In a new video, the band again takes a stand on the "Stripped" video.
In a 2015 interview for the magazine Cicero, Till Lindemann explained: "I'm always supposed to analyze my texts, but I actually don't think about them all that much."
Rammstein and German clichés
Culture scholar Melanie Schiller is convinced that Rammstein represents cliches that cling to Germany as seen from outside the country: "Their depiction of masculinity is stereotypical, as are their extremely 'steeled' and 'idealized' bodies, male power, comradery and maybe also a fascination with evil and violence. The concepts of guilt, suffering, alienation and the issue of victims and perpetrators repeatedly turn up in the lyrics and the videos."
Schiller, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen, has researched Rammstein's relationship to the homeland and compared it to that of Heino, a well-known Schlager star since the 1970s. She also recently authored the book Soundtracking Germany: Popular Music and National Identity.
Defusing totalitarian ideologies with irony?
"You could say that Rammstein not only exploit German stereotypes. They are a kind of German caricature, a grotesquely over-drawn representation of what it means to be German," explains Schiller.
Rammstein's exaggerations are so extreme that the band parades totalitarian ideologies in general, she says: "Rather than celebrating these ideologies, Rammstein shows how ridiculous they are."
After all, the band has its roots in the 1980s East German punk movement, who were dissidents of a politically repressive regime.
German history as told by Rammstein
The trauma of a country divided into two states and the building of a wall to separate them can clearly be heard in Rammstein, says Schiller — particularly in the song "Mein Land" (My Country) from the best-of album, Made in Germany (2011).
"This song is an explicit search for identity. It's about always being locked out, about an impossible identification with a country or a homeland, about being inwardly torn, even about a kind of schizophrenia," is how Schiller explains the lyrics:
Where are you going? Where?
I'm going with myself from East to West.
Where are you going? Where?
I'm going from land to land, alone.
And nothing and no one invites me to stay.
The eternal search and the feeling of alienation, restlessness and insecurity, says Schiller, are the exact opposites of everything that resonates in that iconic German word "Heimat" (Homeland).
Rammstein: open to interpretation
Schiller adds that this is not the only view expressed by the band: "Rammstein's music and the episodes in the videos are very open to interpretation. You can also read an idealized celebration of proto-German, national identity into them. And that's why Rammstein are popular across a broad spectrum of political philosophies. How they are judged has to do with where you come from, what you want to see and how you interpret it. Both readings are possible."
It's known that the gunmen in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 were Rammstein fans. In the weeks after the shooting, several US and British radio stations removed the band's songs from their playlists.
Yet from the US to Russia, Rammstein is an extremely successful band. The concerts on their ongoing tour that began in May in Gelsenkirchen are sold out. Do audiences in stadiums understand Rammstein's complexity?
"According to my experience, Rammstein's excesses and irony are perceived much more directly outside Germany. Those stereotypes originate there, and accordingly, that's where they are more easily understood and recognized. And most importantly, from that perspective, they are less painful," says cultural scholar Melanie Schiller, admitting that seen from the outside, many nuances, references and contexts are also lost.
But some of Rammstein's symbolism is easier to understand, such as the kiss on the lips shared by Rammstein guitarists Richard Kruspe and Paul Landers onstage in Moscow's Luschniki Stadium. In Russia, such gestures of "Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" are prohibited by law.
"Rammstein's music is a snapshot of society. And the political situation in Germany has undergone major changes in the past, let's say, five years," says Melanie Schiller, pointing to the debate over migration and flight in Europe and the resurgence of right-wing populism in Germany; the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany has been represented in all 16 state legislatures since 2018.
On tour, Rammstein has used inflatable boats — an image familiar from refugees crossing the Mediterranean — in combination with a "Welcome" sign.
Schiller sees societal change directly reflected by Rammstein: "The themes of a search for truth and critical thinking have grown more explicit. Rammstein has really grown more unambiguous without sacrificing their nuanced messages."