Because he's a Stone Roses superfan, Shane Meadows's chronicle of the band's comeback feels like a dereliction of duty

The Stone Roses are back, whether you like it or not. Two new films, Spike Island by Mat Whitecross and Shane Meadow's Made of Stone, boast of the band's greatness, without offering much of a reason for it.

Good luck escaping from the Stone Roses at the moment. Last week they played vast shows in London and Glasgow. This Friday brings the release of the pleasant but scarcely earth-shattering Spike Island, the (fictional) story of five ticketless Mancunian schoolmates making their way to the band’s 1990 show on the Mersey Estuary. Already in cinemas is The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, a documentary by Shane Meadows (This Is England) in which the circumstances of the band’s recent reunion are contrasted with a brief history of their brief career. And now there’s this blog post on the NS website of all places.

I wasn’t at this month’s live shows—having attended a gig on their lacklustre 1995 tour to promote The Second Coming, and seen them (accidentally) at their infamously poor Reading Festival appearance the following year, I feel I have given the extreme sport known as Stone Rosing a more-than-reasonable go. But I was a casual admirer of the band the first time around, and I have seen Spike Island and The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, so I feel fairly confident in claiming that they are truly the band that helped devalue the phrase “the band that helped define a generation.”

If I had to pick a side in the musical mishmash that was Madchester, I was always more of a Happy Mondays boy first time around. Sure, the Stone Roses’ first album was intoxicating. It seemed briefly that they could get away with anything, even a perverse failure to reproduce their magic on stage: a mere ten seconds of live singing by their frontman Ian Brown could force one to revise upwards even the lowest musical opinion of Linda McCartney. But the Mondays’ music was infused with humour as well as soulfulness; they were clearly dotty over music. The Stone Roses’ first love was always themselves.

It wasn’t specifically the messianic bent of their self-mythologising that irked me—the religious imagery of titles like “I Am the Resurrection” and The Second Coming. Most rock’n’roll has that swagger and arrogance; that’s why rock musicians are rarely confused with watercolour artists. But there seemed such a shortfall between the bragging and the music. Clearly hundreds of thousands of fans feel differently. But while Meadows’s film reminded me of the euphoria, it didn’t correct the impression that this was a group of talented men who, for reasons not entirely under their control (such as the legal wrangles with their former record company which put them out of action for several years), stretched a small amount of music and goodwill an awfully long way.

Perhaps a more persuasive and less starstruck filmmaker could have built an argument for the band’s greatness. Meadows is not that man. He admits from the outset that he turned into an over-excitable two-year-old when the Stone Roses’ singer Ian Brown commissioned him to make a documentary about the band’s reunion. Putting aside the key telling detail in that statement—that this is an officially sanctioned movie in which the musicians rather than Meadows presumably had power of veto—that’s an endearing admission, though it does make one ask: Who really wants to see a film directed by an over-excitable two-year-old? Predictably, discernment and analysis prove not to be on the cards.

The historical footage is nicely assembled and intermittently revealing. It’s easy to forget that Brown was quite the scamp; in a rather agonising interview with a TV journalist in the late 1980s, he glows with attitude, but is careful to temper any bolshiness with flashes of that inviting smile and those twinkling eyes. I had completely forgotten that he even had that seductive side; it’s one that was missing later on from, say, Liam Gallagher, who could ape the arrogance well enough but always came up short on charm.

But it’s in the latter-day material, the bulk of the film in other words, where there’s a distinct lack of nourishment. The choice of Meadows as director makes sense when it comes to finding idiosyncratic characters to interview outside concert venues, or during the mad dash to a free Stone Roses gig in Warrington, but in all other respects he seems to have been chosen merely because, as a self-declared fan, he can be the band’s lapdog. Nowhere is this more evident than when the band almost breaks up for the second time after its drummer, Reni, storms off stage after a gig. Not only does Meadows steer his camera away from the fracas, he never even addresses the rift once the band has reconvened for its homecoming shows in Manchester’s Heaton Park. The first elision is the more understandable one—if he can’t get access to the band in the aftermath of their troubles, there’s not much he can do about that. Using drably-shot concert footage as concealer, though, is no kind of answer. It feels closer to a dereliction of duty.

What Meadows has produced in effect is the cinematic version of those glossy brochures that go on sale at high-end concert venues—your Earls Courts, your Wembley Arenas. You can spill your jumbo cola or the ketchup from your hot dog on them and the mess comes straight off. That’s The Stone Roses: Made of Stone. There’s precious little context about Manchester or the environment from which the band emerged; no attempt to get under the skin of the group or between the notes of the music. In Warrington, one fan talks to Meadows on the subject of what makes the Stone Roses special. “You know and I know but you can’t explain it, can you?” Maybe not. But no one would hate you for trying.

The Stone Roses: Made of Stone is on release. Spike Island opens Friday

Ian Brown of The Stone Roses performs at the Isle of Wight Festival, 2013. (Getty)

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.

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis