The cold German: The thermo-aesthetics of Kraftwerk. On the Obituaries on Florian Schneider

Florian Schneider Robot

Nothing is more German than Kraftwerk, not even Germans themselves. Kraftwerk has long since risen to national myth, with significant help from English-speaking writers with a certain affinity for everything German. The obituaries that appeared after the recent death of founding member Florian Schneider resemble the usual pieces written about the group. All emphasize the numerous popular references to the band and the influence their sounds, beats and melodies have had on the music world: from David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and “V2 Schneider” (1977) to the Kraftwerk samples in the early hip hop and techno tracks of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (1982) and Cybotron’s “Clear” (1983) and the work of Daft Punk and Coldplay. What they do not mention, however, is that Florian Schneider, together with his long-time partner Ralf Hütter, managed to create an image that would prove to be Germany’s most internationally successful pop export: the cold German.

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Emotionless and humorless, precise and disciplined, more machine than man. The stereotypical images hardly need explaining, so firmly anchored are they in the minds of people around the world. Before Kraftwerk, coldness in pop was non-existent. Whether the classic love ballads and tales of heartache in schlager and mainstream pop music, the sexually charged and sweaty performances and songs in soul, rock ‘n’ roll and disco, or the furious and aggressive attacks of punk and metal, music’s temperature fluctuated somewhere between warm and scalding.

The origins of Kraftwerk’s image arose from two converging strands: German art and transnational pop. Although American “cool” certainly played a role, it was images of the body in the Constructivism and New Objectivity of the 1920s and 30s that primarily shaped German “coldness.” Other determining factors in the construction of the group’s image were Kraftwerk’s international reception and existing stereotypes about Germans. Together, they formed the basis for the emotionally cold German that Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW) reflected back from abroad. Kraftwerk’s coldness relied on three strategies: de-emotionalisation, dehumanisation and affirmation through tokens of the technological age, which were generally seen as threatening. The band never produced love songs or protests against war or international politics; it never embraced the warmth of the hippie left; it avoided the angry screeds against society of political rock and punk.

Instead, computers, robots, technological progress, machines and industry – associated with processes of dehumanisation – featured prominently in Kraftwerk’s music, especially in their concept albums Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man∙Machine (1978) and Computer World (1981). These stood at the end of a long development. Already in 1975 Florian Schneider complained to the youth magazine Bravo: “Computers and technology are increasingly determining our daily lives. …In 20 years, in our opinion, there will hardly be any groups with guitars and drums left. For us these instruments are already a thing of the past. Everything in life has changed. Technically, enormous progress has been made. But in terms of music, we still stand in the Middle Ages.”[1] Two years later, Schneider went even further when he criticized what he saw as the pseudo-religious, anti-modernist technophobia of the hippies by proclaiming the tape recorder to be “the new god.”[2]

It is therefore no surprise that the band propagated machine aesthetics on stage, even if their props consisted entirely of wired consoles, keyboards and neon tubes. Hütter and Schneider understood Kraftwerk as a conceptual counter-movement to the “authenticity” of the rock music and counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. Offensive artificiality became their guiding principle. Using a voice-distorting vocoder, as in “The Robots” (1978), or a computer-generated voice, as in “Numbers” (1981), Kraftwerk solidified their widespread image as cold engineers of sound. Moreover, the band’s continuous, sequencer-generated sounds and minimalist, machine-like beats were recorded on specially constructed electronic drum pads. Here, too, the band linked the “cold” performance of physical functionality and discipline with the mechanical body through, say, repetitive sequencer rhythms. Hütter and Schneider despised the body-centric staging of contemporary rock stars, the way they exerted themselves on stage. In an interview for the British music magazine Sounds in 1977, Schneider said it was the prospect of a sweaty drummer – typically the band member who must work the hardest – that prompted the group to use electronic beats.[3]

Hütter and Schneider on the frontpage of Sounds magazine (UK), 26-11-1977.

The front cover of the same issue of Sounds combined two aspects that were extraordinarily important for the emergence of the image of the cold German and its association with Kraftwerk. The photo shows Hütter and Schneider posing on the barren banks of the Rhine in their customary garb – completely out of sync with contemporary and counter-cultural trends – against the backdrop of the famous steel and concrete Rheinkniebrücke half-concealed in fog. Trim haircut, black and white clothing, buttoned-up shirt and tie, face absent of emotional expression – this would come to constitute the Kraftwerk uniform (though Schneider had already adopted it in the early 1970s).  Moreover, around the release of their 1977 album Trans-Europe Express and the 1978 The Man∙Machine, they started to employ robot-like movements in their performances; later they used puppets and real robots in place of musicians. What could better represent Kraftwerk’s image than inanimate objects? The other aspect of the cover that contributed to the “cold German” image was the English subheading: “The Cold Wave.” While Kraftwerk themselves never used the word “cold” to describe their music or performance, the term began to be regularly attached to the band in German and international magazines since the early seventies.

What ultimately cemented Kraftwerk’s image abroad was their tour of the United States and Great Britain that followed a year after the commercial success of “Autobahn” in 1974. The tour was so important not only because Anglo audiences could see them perform live for the first time; it also secured Kraftwerk an interview with the eminent pop journalist Lester Bangs, which appeared in both the U.S. magazine Creem and the British New Musical Express. Bangs associated the statements of Hütter and Schneider with the stereotypical images of the emotionless, calculating German and included references to the Nazis and the effects of amphetamines (whose invention Bangs attributed to German scientists).[4] While Hütter believed that “German mentality,” German machines and the mechanical sound of the German language could account for Kraftwerk’s uniqueness, Schneider, for his part, responded to Bangs’s interpretation of their music as “anti-emotional” by saying that there is a “cold emotion” and another (though he did not elaborate on it). Bangs observed that Schneider looked like someone who “could build a computer or push a button and blow up half the world with the same amount of emotion.” The remark completed the image of the “cold German” and forever linked it with Kraftwerk.

In fact, the band’s image was not only showmanship. Behind the scenes, an ethos of careful calculation pervaded their work. Since the early 1970s, they had strictly managed their own studio production, label, and distribution rights. The long-time band members Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, with whom Hütter and Schneider produced their most important albums: employees on a fixed salary. Even joint disco visits were coordinated, the Kraftwerk members appeared in black suits and leather gloves while disco, punk and NDW raged around them. Surprisingly, Kraftwerk never joined forces with NDW. Kraftwerk was the cultural bridge linking NDW to Krautrock, and like Kraftwerk, the pioneers of NDW were strongly shaped by local art scenes and art academies. What is more, NDW bands experienced an array of “cold” motifs and a renaissance of the “Cool Conduct” of Weimar Republic Helmut Lethen has observed. But Kraftwerk’s futuristic vision of the man-machine differed from the “cold” motifs of NDW, which relied primarily on dark romantic images of ice and cold (Ideal’s “Eiszeit,” 1981; Grauzone’s “Eisbär,” 1980), on hot-cold machine bodies (DAF, Die Krupps), on apocalyptic incantations (Einstürzende Neubauten), and on the apparent affirmation of a Ja zur Modernen Welt and to atomized urbanites (FSK). However, two aspects of Kraftwerk’s recipe for success have been retained in large parts of NDW: “the cold” and “the German”.

After the German “cold wave” subsided around 1982, the “cold German” did not reappear until the mid-1990s in the form of Neue Deutsche Härte (New German Hardness) and its most successful representative, Rammstein. Whereas Kraftwerk’s staging was strictly unemotional and free of sexuality, Rammstein’s performances builds on displays of hardness and masculinity. Grim faces, metallic staccato sounds, rolled Rs – it is the perfect image for audiences abroad, who thrill to the “cold” Germanic atmospherics and the hard-sounding (if incomprehensible) lyrics. It was impossible to recreate Kraftwerk’s stagecraft in foreign bands because of their close ties to Germany. The English singer Gary Numan for example managed to imitate Kraftwerk’s aesthetic but he lacked their attitude. Whereas Numan’s lyrics were full of fears about alienation in a technological world, Kraftwerk remained cold in the truest sense of the word. Never expressing protest or fear, they described reality in entirely objective terms. This made Kraftwerk stand out, and its extreme vision of the Germanic proved powerful enough to make a significant impression on Anglo-American pop culture. The most popular examples are probably the fictional band Autobahn in the movie The Big Lebowski (1998) and the comedy sketch Sprockets (1989–1997) developed by Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, Austin Powers) for Saturday Night Live. Myers played “Dieter,” the über-serious host of a fictional German TV talk show that always ended with the stiff movements of Dieter and identical-looking crew members dancing to a loop of Kraftwerk’s “Electric Café” played at high speed.

Though German music critics have taken every opportunity to emphasize the pivotal role of Kraftwerk in developing electronic pop music, they fail to note the lasting effect of the “cold German” developed by Schneider and Hütter. Kraftwerk’s (and also Rammstein’s) image of the emotionless Teuton is difficult to reconcile with Germany’s widespread “we-are-somebody-important-again” narrative, especially when appended with “you better not mess with.” For the latter evokes the very historical associations from which German music culture sought to escape through pop. But Schneider and Hütter approached German stereotypes both artfully and playfully, all while insisting that their own identity was “European.”[5] And it is this unique approach that has made Kraftwerk’s mark in pop history so enduring.


[1] Quoted in Bald singt bei uns ein Computer, BRAVO No. 42, 09.10.1975, p. 10. [Translated by author.]

[2] Quoted in Hal Synthetic: New Musick, Sounds (UK), 26.11.1977, p. 33.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lester Bangs: Kraftwerk: The Final Solution To The Music Problem?, New Musical Express, 06.09.1975.

[5] Schneider quoted in Kraftwerk Interview, Triad Free-Form Radio on WXFM-FM, Chicago, 20.04.1975.

Florian Völker

Assoziierter Doktorand des Leibniz-Zentrums für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam (ZZF). Promotionsprojekt: "Eiszeit. Der 'Kälte-Einbruch' in der deutschen Pop-Musik seit dem Ende der siebziger Jahre" ___ Associated PhD project: "Ice Age. The 'cold snap' in German (pop-)music since the end of the seventies"

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