Little Women and Germans In The Media

Niina Pekantytär

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Discussion between Little Women researchers Niina Niskanen and Christina Scott.

Niina: One of the things I wanted to ask from you, we have this shared goal that we want a German actor to play professor Bhaer at some point. I have read quite a few stories from German readers and people who are German descendants who love Friedrich´s character because he represents such a wonderful German character and I am not German. I did study German in school and I have been doing this research about Louisa May Alcott´s obsession with Germany and it's on every single page in Little Women. How do you feel about that? why Hollywood doesn´t hire great German actors? 

Christina: I don´t know if it was at first because of accessibility. It sort of started in its making in the late 1910s early 1920s. Talkies were very new in the 30s. I don´t know if this is very true but this is what I can imagine is that maybe at first when they were doing them, they didn´t have lots of German actors.  They could barely get regular actors. They were pulling them from the stage and tried to show them how to perform in front of the camera. I almost want to say that they probably didn´t get German actors because during that time there was the rise of  Nazism and I feel like that stereotype has gone forward. For anyone who does not know I am of German descent. My grandmother on my dad´s side came over from Germany and she was in her early 20s or so when she came over, the story was that she, and this just I think proves that not every German was horrible, like every-time someone associates Germany they go "Nazis" and it´s like "No". They lived in East Berlin and comparatively, East Berlin was worse than West Berlin. People were trying to get into West Berlin and she and her family had to be smuggled into West Berlin because her father who would be my great-grandfather was the postmaster general and he was smuggling information between the Nazis and the Russians to the alleys and they´re like "okay we got to get you to the west to protect you".
It´s very difficult because I am German from my dad´s side, I´m few other things and on my mom´s side, it´s Italian-Armenian. I feel like whenever someone asks you and if you say like "Oh I´m Italian" they´ll go "pasta, mafia!" or do funny stereotyping with an Italian accent but as soon as you say "I´m part German" they go like "were your family like Nazis?" It does immediately go to Nazis or someone bad and I feel that most of the time when you see Germans portrayed in the media it´s Nazis or the villain/ cold unapproachable person or I try to say it the nicest way possible, like weird fetish person that maybe borderline illegal, like that kind of a weirdo and it´s like why? why all the time?

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So I really was robbed to find characters that felt were very pro-German that just were nice or normal and gave a positive image to Germany and I was like "really the only person that I could think of is Friedrich". He is really a genuinely good person and he is smart. He is respectful and it is such a shame because the things that I have read about Germany are like "wow you guys are great". There is a movie that Germans did that is from... I want to say the 1910s it´s called "Different from the others", that is way before anyone´s time being pro-gay, pro LGBT. That´s incredible. He also did another movie which was pro-abortion, where it is a woman´s choice if she wants to have a kid or not and there is nothing psychologically wrong with that like that is incredibly progressive. Unfortunately, the country has been so-overshadowed by what the Nazis have done and it´s like not every German person was a Nazi. Not everyone agreed with it. So over the years, I felt a little bit more over-protective of my German side because I feel like I lean to be more German. Friedrich for me, first of all, is like my dream man. I want to be with someone like him and the fact that he is German, why not? and it just bothers me that now, now that we have a lot more accessibility to actors from all around the world why there aren´t more German actors playing the part and I am allowed to forgive William Shatner and oh I´m forgetting his name?

Niina: Gabriel Byrne?

Christina: No, the BBC version one

Niina: Mark Stanley?

Christina: Yes. I can forgive those because even though they are American/British they are still putting on a German accent and totally not forgetting that the character is meant to be German. Whereas in the Gerwig version, you have a French man playing a German character with a very German name. It´s not even like you are trying to change it sort of to be "alright let´s try to include his nationality a bit more" but I am hearing a French accent saying that he is Friedrich Bhaer! Very German name! it´s so confusing and it just boggles my mind. On one hand, her statement, and this can go into a whole can of worms, when she was like "well, you know, why not give Jo a handsome man to fall for because I am tired of seeing these attractive girls fall for these unattractive guys" and it´s like, on one hand, you are right in some cases, but that is not the point here, because one, again you didn´t read the book, Jo is not supposed to be conventionally attractive and then neither is Friedrich. 

Niina: She is not giving me a good enough reason, for not hiring a German actor. 

Christina: Right!

Christina: How in the hell do you sit there and go I need to find an attractive German actor...hmm...they don´t exist but Daniel Brühl is right there! He has been right there for so many years. How do you not see him? I just, I can´t believe it and there are other great German actors. He is the first one that comes to mind. How? Why? that is the thing that boggles me the most. As someone pointed out, they were like "well, as much as I do want them to be Friedrich, the way the Gerwig story comes out I would not have wanted them into that one".

Niina: Yes

Christina: And I think that´s fair because that would have been a total disservice to him and the character. 

Niina: We need a long series, with Daniel Brühl as professor Bhaer or a movie with sequels. 

Christina: I´ll take it whether it is time period canon or modern-day because I am just one of those people, that I like to daydream and think what would I do if I was ever given the chance to make my own version. I have it all planned out and he would definitely be one of the actors and in my version, it would be like a miniseries and set into the modern-day but pretty much the section with him would be all just German Friedrich. It would be practically nothing else. I think it is a shame, that you know in general Hollywood doesn´t do much with foreign actors because there are so many wonderful foreign actors and so underutilized I feel. I get it when some people are asking "what would a German be doing in America at this time? or "how could you make me believe this?" and I´m like well, that is the magic of movies. You can stretch your belief for a little bit or writes can be a little bit smarter and make it work but yeah it´s such a shame. In some movies, I am like "Oh this actor is going to be in it. I remember them from this movie" and it´s like "Oh they are only in it for like 5 minutes, that´s hmm..that´s a shame". They sit there and stay and America is supposed to be the land of everybody where immigrants can come over and it´s like, it seems just ..unamerican. Why there can´t be a German living in New York City? what´s wrong with that?  I know quite a few British actors who are living in LA like Ben Barnes and Dan Stevens. They've made a home in America and few other actors in other places. It would work! it would make sense. It is not totally crazy. I had gotten into the "Alienist" with Daniel Brühl obviously, and it makes sense, you know if someone was like "how could they be born in America but still have an accent?" well his character is raised in a home, where his parents are German-Hungarian and he was raised with being taught German and if that was pretty much what you spoke for most of the time, you would grow to have that accent. I think there are ways to utilize foreign actors in American media. I just don´t think that they are smart enough how to use it outside of German = Nazi. Italian = Mafia. Let´s be a little bit smarter and better about that.

Niina: There are so many stereotypes about different European nationalities that are so outdated and old fashioned. It´s really a shame. If I think about a Finnish character in a Hollywood film, they just hire us to be Vikings. When I lived in Germany many years ago, I do remember thinking that Germans are very family-oriented and very welcoming and I always connected that to Friedrich´s character. Louisa May Alcott travelled in Germany and she was a full-hearten germanophile. This would really horrify her because she loved Germany and then we get stuff like "Emily in Paris" where you are not honouring the French culture, you are making fun of it. It is so disrespectful. I hope that somebody out there is going to listen to our rants and that we will get more sophisticated versions of Little Women, hopefully with Daniel Brühl or other great German actors.  

Christina: I think between him and Amy they are the most poorly interpreted characters in media because I feel like they are the most hated. All the time I hear "how could Amy do that? that was so awful?" like thinking of the burning of the manuscript and it´s like, for one thing, again I blame this on most of the media. You have like the 21-year-old actress playing the part that should be a 12-year-old, so it comes across as more mean-spirited. Especially with Gerwig´s version, when she very calmly says "what was I supposed to do" "I didn´t have anything else that would make you upset?" I´m sorry but that is too sophisticated of an answer for a 12-year-old to say and again coming from a mouth of a 20-something-year-old. I can´t believe it. It is poorly interpretive, again when you have versions that try to be more Jo and Laurie oriented and yet, add Friedrich in. It almost feels like they are trying to make it "he is stealing Jo away" or "Amy stole Laurie away". I don´t think most people know that the book when it was first published it came out in two separate parts. There wasn´t going to be a second part but it was supposed to end when Meg gets married but people always seem like "but they made her have Jo being married, like the publisher made her do it".

Niina: Which is actually not true. 

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Christina: Right. Some fans may have written to Alcott saying like "Can´t Jo marry Laurie" but there was no pressure to get Jo in general, married and I love that Alcott was like "I will not marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody" and it´s like, yes, you go girl! and they act as if Friedrich was a last-minute addition. Again I think that because people don´t know its publishing history, that they think "Oh it was just one book" and then the publisher was like "well you need to have Jo marrying off someone" and then "alright this guy". No! and again I feel like it is a disservice to Alcott to say that she just threw Jo with this guy and it´s like "No!" she just didn´t throw Jo to this guy. It is not like he appeared in the last 10 pages and is like "Oh yeah then love and marriage" No! she develops a good and a full-long relationship between these two characters and it rose to become love in which is how the novel ends but it is amazing how people just tear that and I think it´s because they see something on the internet that someone writes an article that says "oh what a shame that Jo couldn´t be the independent writer like Alcott originally wanted". That is not the full picture and people just kind of ledge on onto that. You got to dig a little deeper or at least have someone that is willing to go a little bit deeper such as you and me that will put it out there for everyone to be like "Oh I didn´t know that. Now all that makes sense". When people say stuff like that, you really don´t seem to have respect for the characters but not for its author either.

Niina: I think it has a lot to do with what you said earlier about Jo´s loneliness or that she feels that she is going to be weaker when she wants romance or love or family for herself. She is afraid that it is going to make her look weaker in the eyes of others. This is actually mentioned in Little Women in the "Under the umbrella" chapter. The narrator says that Jo was afraid that she is going to lose her reputation if she reveals to the world that she is like the other girls. That she wants to have family and marriage and she wants to fall in love. What I have studied Louisa´s life, she was incredibly lonely, especially after Henry died and then she had this fling with Laddie Wisniewski, he was one of the real-life Laurie´s. That didn´t turn out very well but then she could not tell that to the public, because she was afraid that people were going to see her weaker. She was always really annoyed when people pitied her because she was a spinster. That has a lot to do with the way the story in Little Women goes because she wrote Jo´s and Friedrich´s relationship to be wish fulfilment when you read her diaries and she writes how lonely she is and how she envies her sisters marriages and I think it was actually quite nasty for Louisa to say that her publisher forced her to marry Jo because Louisa and her publisher Thomas Niles were very good friends and he never asked her to marry her characters and he didn´t give her instructions about the characters. So it was actually Louisa trying to protect her own reputation. 

Christina: I do definitely agree with you on that idea of wish fulfilment. You know they always say it´s better to be alone than to be with someone and feel lonely. So I can see why she would be like "don´t pity me because I am a spinster. I´d rather be alone than be with someone who would make me feel lonely", but yeah like you said, it is a wish-fulfilment and I think it takes a whole other level of understanding of Jo´s and Friedrich´s relationship when you know that. Not until hearing and seeing your work that I realized "Oh there was a real-life Friedrich and Oh my goodness, there is an age gap that is the same as Alcott and Thoreau and Jo and Friedrich and so much of the description of Friedrich is based on Thoreau". I never knew those things but now that I know I´m like oh it really is, like you said, it was her way of being with someone she wants to be with and I think for most writers, I personally feel this way, some of the things that I write it´s like, I wish I could do those things. I wish I could meet someone like that or be that type of person. So it is really not surprising when I hear that for someone like Alcott who has been told by people that she is not conventionally attractive. 

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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