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Typisch Deutsch? with Rolf Sachs

Insurance, order, objectivity

Rolf Sachs 1“When I organize a bobsleigh race in Switzerland,” he says, “the English tend to throw themselves down the bob run with howls of delight. The Germans meanwhile want to know whether or not they’re insured!” The man talking really does organize bob races in Switzerland: he is, after all, the president of the St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club. He’s also an expert on the fine distinctions between English and German culture. What’s more, Rolf Sachs is a very accomplished artist and designer – and my latest guest on Talking Germany.

Rolf Sachs 2Rolf Sachs is fun, he’s fizzy, he’s thoughtful and philosophical. He’s multicultural and multilingual. He has houses in London, Bavaria and Switzerland as well as a “pied-à-terre” in Berlin. He’s well connected and well dressed. He has a generous spirit and a lovely sense of humour. He’s also made the very, very best of what I imagine to be one of the toughest roles in life: being a “son of” – because this gifted and original man is the son of one of the most easily identifiable figures in post-war Germany: the flamboyant Gunter Sachs.

Rolf Sachs 3Rolf Sachs notes that “Germany’s standing has increased immensely in recent years. The old resentment was of course justified. But now it’s beginning to fade.” It’s one reason why he’s currently staging a “Typisch deutsch?” exhibition: typically German, question mark. Nevertheless, he warns that despite Germany’s surging status, “Germans are still prone to a certain Engstirnigkeit (narrow-mindedness) and Spießigkeit.” But, he wonders: “How on earth do you translate Spießigkeit?” Petty bourgeois is what the dictionary says. Blinkered maybe. Or “square”? One thing is for sure: all of these things Rolf Sachs is not.

Rolf Sachs 4In fact he’s something of a grand seigneur. “London is my base,” he tells me. “The only real metropolis in Europe. London has hundreds of thousands of Poles. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis. It’s the whole world. Berlin is wonderful – but no comparison. It’s a German city.” He might live in one of the biggest and most colourful of big cities. He might design many fine (an often expensive) things. But he cherishes order, discipline, linearity, precision. And when I tell him that two of my favourite German words are Sachlichkeit (untranslatable: the radical opposite of ornamentation) and Schlichtheit (radical simplicity), he nods vigorously: “That’s good. That’s very good!”


April 14, 2014