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Sunday, 16 May 2010

Curzio Malaparte: Naked Men


File:Burning sauna.jpg

Burning sauna, near Mikkeli, Finland: photo by Miraceti, 2006

We drove at full speed through the deserted Rovaniemi streets that were sunk in a white sky. It could have been ten o'clock at night, or six in the morning. A pale sun was swaying above the roofs; the houses were the color of frosted glass, the river glimmered sadly through the trees.

Soon we came to a village of military barracks that were built on the edge of a silvery birch forest just beyond the town. Here were the general headquarters of the Northern Front. An officer approached Dietl, said something to him, and Dietl turned toward us and said, laughing, "Himmler is in the
sauna. Let's go and see him naked." His words were greeted by a burst of laughter. Dietl went almost on the run toward a fir-log barrack a little way off in the wood. He pushed open the door and we went inside.

File:Obersalzberg meeting - May 1939.png

Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Karl Wolff and unidentified assistant, at the Obersalzberg, May 1939: from the documentary The SS Heydrich: screenshot by CharlieRCD, 2009

The interior of the sauna, the Finnish steambath, was occupied by a large grate and a boiler from which the water, raising a cloud of steam, dripped onto white-hot stones that were piled on the scented fire of birchwood. On the benches, ranged on shelves along the walls of the sauna, were seated some ten naked men. They were so white, soft, flabby and defenseless, so extraordinarily naked that they seemed to have no skin. Their flesh looked like the flesh of lobsters, pale and rosy, exuding an acid crustacean smell. They had broad chests, their fat breasts were swollen and drooping. Their grim hard faces -- those German faces -- contrasted sharply with their white, flabby, naked limbs, and almost had the appearance of masks. Those naked men sat or lay on the benches like weary corpses. Now and then, laboriously and slowly, they raised their arms to wipe the sweat that dripped from their whitish limbs, sprinkled with yellow freckles that looked like shining scabs.

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Generaloberst Eduard Dietl, commander of German forces in Norway and northern Finland and in Eastern Europe, with liaison staff Oiva Willamo, Rovaniemi, Lapland, northern Finland, September 1943: from Mikko Uola, Maa penteva pohjolan äärillä on; image by Florival, 2009

Naked Germans are wonderfully defenseless. They are bereft of secrecy. They are no longer frightening. The secret of their strength is not in their skin or in their bones, or in their blood; it is in their uniforms. Their real skin is their uniform. If the peoples of Europe were aware of the flabby, defenseless and dead nudity concealed by the Feldgrau of the German uniforms, the German Army could not frighten even the weakest and most defenseless people. A mere boy would dare to face an entire German battalion. To see them naked is to grasp the secret meaning of their national life, of their national history. They stood naked in front of us, like shy and shameful corpses. General Dietl raised his arm and shouted in a loud voice, "Heil Hitler!"

"Heil Hitler!" replied the naked men laboriously lifting their hands that held birch switches. These switches are used for flogging, that is a traditional part of the sauna, its most sacred rite. But even the motion of those hands, holding the switches, was soft and defenseless.


German soldiers, Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland, winter 1942: photo by Josef Schmelzer, 1942 (image by Denis Barthel, 2006)

I thought I recognized one of the naked men seated on the lowest shelf. Sweat was streaming down his high-cheekboned face, in which nearsighted eyes, stripped of their glasses, glittered with a whitish, soft light, that is seen in the eyes of fish. He carried his head high with an air of arrogant insolence; from time to time he threw his head back, at which sudden, brusque movement, sweat ran out of the hollows of his eyes and from his nostrils and ears, as if his head were filled with water. He sat with his hands resting on his knees like a punished schoolboy. Between his forearms protruded a little rosy swollen drooping belly, the navel strangely in relief, so that it stood out against that tender rosiness like a delicate rosebud -- a child's navel in an old man's belly.

I had never seen such a naked and rosy belly; it was so tender that one was tempted to probe it with a fork. Large drops of sweat flowing down his chest glided over the skin of that soft belly and gathered in the hair like dew on a bush. The man seemed to be dissolving in water before our eyes; he sweated so much that I feared that in a short time there would be only a mass of empty flabby skin left of him, even his bones seemed to be softening, melting and becoming glutinous. The man looked like ice cream sitting in an oven. In a twinkling of an eye only a pool of perspiration on the floor would be left of him.


Finnish vihta, made of birch, used in traditional sauna-bathing for massage and stimulation of the skin: photo by kaliema, 2010

When Dietl raised his arm and said "Heil Hitler!" the man rose, and I recognized him. He was the man I had met in the elevator -- it was Himmler. He stood before us, the big toes on his flat feet oddly thrust upward, his short arms dangling. Little streams of perspiration gushed like little fountains from the tips of his fingers. Around his flabby breasts grew two little circles of hair, two halos of blond hair; perspiration gushed like milk from his nipples.

He leaned against the wall so as not to slip upon the wet, slimy floor and as he turned, he exposed protruding rotundities on which the grain of the wooden bench was imprinted like a tattoo. At last he succeeded in recovering his balance, turned, raised his arm and opened his mouth, but the sweat, streaming down his face and filling his mouth, prevented him from saying, "Heil Hitler!" And his gesture was mistaken for the signal for flogging. The other men raised their birch switches and began hitting each other first; then, by common consent, with ever-increasing energy, they applied their switches to Himmler's shoulders and back.

The birch twigs left the white imprints of their leaves on the tender flesh that turned red at once, and then disappeared. A fleeting forest of birch leaves appeared and disappeared on Himmler's skin. The naked men raised and lowered their switches with raging energy; their breath came in short hisses from their swollen lips. At first Himmler tried to fend them off, shielding his face with his arms, and laughed, but it was forced laughter revealing rage and fear. Later, as the switches began biting his hips, he began twisting this way and that, covering his belly with his elbows, turning about on his toes and drawing his neck into his shoulders; he laughed with hysterical laughter while being whipped, as if he suffered more from tickling than from birching. Finally Himmler saw the door of the sauna open behind us, stretched out his arms to push his way through and ran out the door, pursued by the naked men who never ceasing to hit him, fled toward the river into which he dived.

File:Rovaniemi burned.jpg

Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland, burned by German forces during the Lapland War, 1944-1945
: photo by Ensio Siilasvuo (image by Ppntori, 2007)

from Kaputt: Curzio Malaparte, 1944 (translated from the Italian by Cesare Foligno)


TC said...

For those who are interested in Malaparte, there's a bit of background to be found here.

Curtis Roberts said...

I knew nothing about Malaparte before yesterday, although I was aware of, and occasionally haunted by (who isn’t who has seen it?), that incredible house in Capri.

The excerpt from Kaputt unfolds as the most horrible, frightening movie scene. The images (Finland sauna bracketing famous Nazi actors/protagonists) add a lot, but Malaparte’s words would be tragically sufficient for any day.

Paired with the two other poems and their images, these make the most usual triptych and remind me of an alterpiece with detachable wings. If they somehow got separated, as often happens, they would wander through history telling their own individual stories. Then when an intrepid historian reunited them, they’d be seen differently and people would say, “Oh, I get it”.

Curtis Roberts said...

In the final paragraph of my post, I obviously meant to say "the most unusual triptych". I also think that the final image of Rovaniemi after its destruction brings this part of the story to its logical conclusion. It was interesting to learn this morning about what goes on in Rovaniemi now, its claim to be Santa Claus's residence and that it's home to the northernmost McDonald's outpost in the world.



Wow, didn't see this yesterday -- left in the dark to drive to Marin Headlands to do a reading of complete Remarks on Color / Sound (1,000 pages, 6AM - 8PM [sunrise to sunset]) in the old gymnasium, a building as COLD in the fog as that Finnish sauna was cooking. Something about those Nazis running out door that seems coincidentally to connect w/ something here ---


grey blackness of fog against invisible
ridge, motionless black leaves in right
foreground, no sound of wave in channel

those such as to assimilate
past, original nature

still, interiors in waiting
doorway, next to that

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
line of pelicans flapping toward point

TC said...


Malaparte -- amazing life, amazing work. And yes, amazing house.

Pretty great place to be interned under house arrest, when you think of it.

As you probably know, Godard's "Contempt" was filmed there.

(For that matter, Jack Palance might have made an interesting Malaparte).

By the way, Malaparte wrote and directed a film called "The Prohibited Christ". It's a bit melodramatic, but serious on Italian politics, and VERY Malaparte (a bit over the top).

This passage about the generals in the sauna, and Himmler being flogged, is of course a fantasia upon history, informed by observation, yet also very much a fictional creation. (Nabokov's remarks in the post below titled "Crying Wolf" would be apropos here.)

And yes, Curtis, I believe Santa Claus DOES dwell in Rovaniemi.


All through yesterday we imagined your marathon -- the Iditarod of poetry readings!

And today: speaking of weather, could it possibly be any colder in Lapland right now than it is here this morning?

doorway, next to that

grey-white of fog

Curtis Roberts said...

Tom and Steve: Sorry it's so cold there. It's cold again in Philadelphia also after the balmiest weekend. Jack Palance as Malaparte sounds very cool. Based on what I've read, I suspect someone will get around to making the movie. It sounds irresistible for a number of reasons. I wonder who they'll cast?

TC said...


The inhouse scenarist says that once upon a time she could have seen Donald Pleasance as Himmler.

(I ceased with the casting suggestions myself after being asked by Peter Bogdanovich for a "Damon Runyon" casting suggestion to pitch to Michael Douglas: I suggested Scott Glenn, and from the chilly response it felt as though I'd proposed dropping a neutron bomb on Hollywood.)

Curtis Roberts said...

Donald Pleasance as Himmler WORKS. (I know there are perceived impediments due to his current apparent absence from the scene, but small thinking is for small people.) What on earth would be the problem with Scott Glenn? I guess you never go wrong these days suggesting Johnny Depp or Leonardo di Caprio for anything (for a couple of years, the phrase "Johnny Depp IS Julian Maclaren-Ross in.......", has been going through my mind when I think about the JM-R biography that should be made), but there are often more interesting and appropriate choices. This has been enjoyable. I feel the horror of Curzio Malaparte: Naked Men lifting from me, but I am reconfirmed in my intention to go on a diet after reading those descriptions.

TC said...


Alas, from me the horror has not lifted. The horror of the physical, like the word "hippopotamus", is at times almost impossible to keep out of one's mind for the next five seconds.

About Scott Glenn: dunno, but it seems to have been the magic wrong word.

I am put in mind of another mega-scalar waste of spec time on a long movie leash, following the proposal of Klaus Kinski to play Céline in exile. That curious development was followed in turn by an infusion into the hypothetical "project" of Avant Euro/art "talent"; before all of which, in assembly, I auditioned my filmscore choice: Aarvo Pärt, the most Rovaniemiesque of composers.

Well, the story was supposed to be set in Denmark in winter, after all.

Long faces all round, nobody saying a word until after about five minutes of bleak flatline Arctic Circle minimalism, the producer mercifully got up and stopped the music.

At that point Klaus resumed poring over "the book".

(I had not known there is a casting book of all high-end European actresses in "artistic" topless shots, but I suppose that's again just a basic lack of grasp of Old World sophistication.)



Yes, "the Iditarod of poetry"! It went on and on (and on), until the end — 8:17 or so, almost right on ‘schedule’ (sunset at 8:14 yesterday according to the Tidelog — but no one saw the sun in that cold-as-Lapland building!). As one of the people who witnessed the whole thing wrote me yesterday, “this piece really addressed everything I've come to know, and perhaps importantly pretended to know, about ephemeral art, time-based art, literary art, durational and conceptual work. It was at once monumental and at every instant... instant, ready, a discrete moment, or the moment or so it took to read that particular poem. Then: x 1,000.” . . . .

Curtis Roberts said...

The final Klaus Kinski observation, after years of thinking about Kinski and general "Kinsky awareness", put it all very very naturalistic showbiz perspective for me.

TC said...

Yes, Klaus was bent on being Céline. The fact, for example, that the story was to be set in a frigid Baltic clime did not deter his imaginings of a lead actress (as chosen from "the book") who would be playing the part of the somewhat austere Lucette (Céline's dancer wife) without much on.

His conception of the role of Céline naturally was completely over the top.

Once the project fizzled -- the ultimate blow was Reagan's witless adorning with wreath the grave of a Waffen SS at Bitburg, an event that created many cold feet, re. related historical matter, on the part of those who would have had to provide funds for the project in Europe -- he turned his attentions to developing his own screenplay for the life of Paganini.

The script was astonishing.

Paganini plays a transcendent passage.

Cut to woman in audience in transports of joy.

Paganini fiddles on furiously, achieving new heights.

Cut to woman in audience, in a terminal lather of excitement.

Paganini bows up a storm of further brilliance.

Cut to woman in audience having orgasm.

Really it's wonderful, every movie to him was a B-movie, it was Venom all over again, time after time.

KK was born to show business, had been to bed with Ursula Andress and played onstage with Sarah Bernhardt, it was all always going to be larger than life with him.

TC said...

Okay, so Sarah Bernhardt was over the top. (The ghost of Klaus forced me to say that.)

Ursula Andress however the bonafide truth according to KK. And the list of course was endless.

This site has a clip from Paganini.

It is a film that beggars description.

(This is perhaps the only catastrophic project I have ever had the good sense, upon invitation, to decline involvement with.)

Curtis Roberts said...

Oh my God. That's really something.