Germany is certainly a land of cultural surprises; you learn to expect strange connections and differences and you can usually piece together some kind of logical series of circumstances that might have led … where they have led. But, other times, such things can really seem to come out of left field.
Germans (and Austrians) have this strange relationship with David Hasselhoff. I wouldn’t call it an unhealthy relationship … as such. And I wouldn’t call it hero-worship … as such. And I wouldn’t call it outright ridicule … as such. But it’s probably a combination of all three. And something else I will probably never quite identify.
As a thirteen year old boy, my favourite American TV shows were ‘A-Team’ and ‘Knight Rider’, so I did split my hero-worship at the time between B.A. Baracus and Michael Knight, but thirty-seven years later, I have moved on. And, like most others (not to mention Americans I have spoken to on the topic) the actors that played these roles still retain a kind of awkward nostalgia about them, tinged with a sense of vague embarrassment.
I don’t know about Mr. T., but Mr Hasselhoff certainly means a lot more than that here in Germany; and as a singer, not an actor. But, it’s complicated…
The semi-mythical rise of the Germanic Hoff starts in Austria in 1985. Hasselhoff released a debut album called ‘Night Rocker’ (ha!) and it became a number one hit in the country. Perhaps the idea of a super-powered talking car in the car-mad German-nations managed to transfer into music sales? Who knows? Hasselhoff certainly doesn’t; he still jokes today that it sold only seven copies in the USA, and he bought five and his mother bought two.
Three years or so later, the Berlin Wall was down, Knight Rider had been cancelled, but was only now being shown on German television, just at a time when everything American was really in German vogue. Hasselhoff was smart enough to see an opportunity, and took an old 70s song and reworked it into something called ‘Looking For Freedom’ and it sold like hot bratwurst. He managed to get a spot on a very popular New Year’s Eve TV show called ‘The Sylvester Show’ [‘New Years Eve’ = ‘Sylvester’ in German]. He performed from a cherry-picker crane above the now breached Berlin Wall wearing a piano-keyboard scarf and a jacket covered in red flashing Christmas-style lights … and over one million Germans were there to witness it in person, with countless others on television.
When you go to Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, there’s a picture of this event next to pictures of the Wall coming down, and the JFK visit, and George W Bush and numerous other major world leaders. It’s all led to this myth that Germans like to pretend is true: that The Hoff actually had something to do with the Wall coming down in the first place. When they tell you this, they laugh, and you know that they don’t really believe it … but, there’s a kind of wish at the back of their minds that he did have something to do with it, and sometimes the wish might be so strong that you think they might believe it anyway, just because it should be true.
During the last thirty years, Hasselhoff has released many albums in Germany and Austria and had many more hit songs. He regularly tours the countries, both as support for larger acts like Green Day and Iron Maiden, but also sometimes in solo shows, and he packs out decent-sized venues. He has even interviewed ex-East Germans about their experience with the Berlin Wall in a documentary called “Hasselhoff vs. The Berlin Wall”.
If JFK once said ‘I am a Berliner’ in order for the American leader to identify with the German people, perhaps they could all return the compliment now—in kind—and reply, ‘I am the Hoff.’
Written by Jeremy Davis