Günter Grass and the free speech moment

A travel ban is still censorship.

Over the past few days, a "free speech moment" has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League.  Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the "free speech moment" has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism.  Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author.  In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here.  The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship.  Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event.  A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of "work". English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a "chilling effect" on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These "free speech moments" are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem.  But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

Robert Sharp is head of campaigns & communications at English PEN

Silenced? Günter Grass Photo: Getty Images
Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam. Getty
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Rumbles in the jungle: highlights from the Berlin Film Festival

Upcoming releases include drama about a trans woman and an adventure in south America.

It was blisteringly cold for the first few days of the Berlin Film Festival but there was plenty of heat coming off the cinema screens, not least from Call Me by Your Name. This rapturous, intensely sensual and high-spirited love story is set in northern Italy in the early 1980s. The perky and precocious 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is drawn to Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older, American doctoral student who’s arrived for the summer to assist the boy’s father, an esteemed professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their friendship passes through stages sceptical, fraternal, flirtatious and hostile before arriving at the erotic.

Movies which insist that life was never the same again after that summer are a pet peeve of mine but this one is as ripe and juicy as the peach Elio snatches from a tree and puts to a most unusual and intimate use. (Think American Pie with fruit.) Luca Guadagnino has form as a chronicler of the holidaying rich, but his best-known films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) discovered trouble in paradise. In Call Me by Your Name, it’s all pleasure. A distant sense of sadness is signalled by the use of a few plaintive songs by Sufjan Stevens but what defines the picture is its vitality, personified in a star-making performance by Chalamet which combines petulance, balletic physicality and a new kind of goofball naturalism.

The clammy heat of the jungle, with all its danger and mystery, are strongly evoked in The Lost City of Z, a stirring adventure based on fact, which catapults its writer-director, James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night), out of his usual sooty cityscapes and into uncharted South America in the early 20th century. Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a colonel who grudgingly agrees to referee the mapping of borders between ­Bolivia and Brazil on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, only to be seduced by the legend of a city populated by a sophisticated civilisation. The film, which I will review in more detail next month, felt deeply satisfying – even more so than correcting American colleagues on the pronunciation of the title.

There was a less effective expedition movie in the main competition. Joaquim dramatises the journey of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (aka Tiradentes) from colonialist stooge and hunter of gold smugglers to revolutionary icon. There is an impressive level of detail about 18th-century Brazilian life: rudimentary dentistry, a haircut undertaken with a machete. Joaquim’s severed head provides a posthumous introductory narration, presumably in tribute to the ultimate expedition film, Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, which featured a noggin that continued talking after decapitation. Yet the hero’s conversion to the cause of the exploited Brazilians is confusingly brisk, and the film feels both inordinately long and too short to have sufficient impact.

We remain in scorching heat for Viceroy’s House, in which the director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) chronicles the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947. Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are Lord and Lady Mountbatten, pottering around being frightfully nice to the locals. Polite, lukewarm and almost entirely without flavour, the film closes with an uplifting romantic reunion that is somewhat eclipsed by the killing of an estimated two million people during Partition.

Away from the on-screen sun, it was still possible to feel warmed by two splendidly humane films. A Fantastic Woman is a stylish, Almodóvar-type drama about a trans woman, Marina (played by the captivating transgender actor Daniela Vega), who is subjected to prejudice and violence by her late partner’s family. Its Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, made a splash in Berlin four years ago with Gloria, his comedy about a Santiago divorcee, but this new picture puts him in a whole other class.

The Other Side of Hope, from the deadpan Finnish genius Aki Kaurismäki, follows a bright-eyed Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) and the poker-faced Helsinki restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) who takes him under his wing. Kaurismäki’s mixture of absurdity and altruism feels even more nourishing in these troubled times. On Saturday the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to On Body and Soul, a Hungarian comedy-drama about two lonely slaughterhouse workers. Still, Kaurismäki was named Best Director, while Lelio and his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, won the Best Screenplay prize. Not too shabby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit