BERLIN — Frank Underwood is a cult figure to those besotted by politics. The House of Cards protagonist is willing to walk over dead bodies to achieve absolute power. As the third season begins, we are obliged to ask ourselves why Germans have such a deep love for this American villain played by Kevin Spacey.
The trauma caused by the most minor political scandals shows just how thoroughly decent Germans are. Helmut Kohl, one of the leading statesmen of the 20th century, retired from politics amid a rather tame donation scandal. As German Green Party politician Claudia Roth says, German politicians value decency, and that's exactly why they love and have become such loyal fans of this cult series about the heights of political indecency.
House of Cards, whose third season started in Germany last week, analyzes and holds up a mirror to politics and its democratic workings. It does it in such a way that even insiders are fascinated and inspired by it, although fortunately not necessarily inspired to follow its example.
Murder, lies and intrigue
The storyline follows the unstoppable rise to power of the Democratic Party's ambitious congressional leader. And it's packed full of murder, lies, intrigue, manipulation, blackmail and kidnapping. Democratic Party leader Frank Underwood, the inscrutable series protagonist, personifies Machiavellian methods to become the most virtuoso power player of them all.
Washington's political apparatus, at the center of the last remaining world power, is his instrument, and he knows how to play it. He collects the strengths and weaknesses of his enemies and friends like other people collect books, all to advance his own cause.
His will is simply monstrous to behold. Underwood is unbelievably efficient — while others talk, he acts. Where others hesitate, he pounces. When others only start to think, he has already solved the problem to his own satisfaction.
Alpha male's absolute solitude
Underwood fights his way up from the bottom of the heap with hard work, shrewdness and ruthlessness. He marries a beautiful woman of high standing drawn by his erotic aura of the alpha male. She is the last confidante of the man who otherwise lives in absolute solitude.
As an interesting aside, actor Kevin Spacey is actually a good friend of the Clintons. The genius writer of the series, Beau Willimon, worked for Democratic Party election campaigns even as a teenager, Hillary Clinton's included. He later served a stint for the Estonian government in Tallinn before deciding to follow his dreams of becoming a writer.
Willimon's script for the film drama The Ides of March was filled with disillusioned observations of politicians who stand for the good, the true and the beautiful. And it is because of that disappointment, Underwood is a Democrat and not a caricature of a Tea Party clown or a Bush acolyte.
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Spacey revealed in an interview that insiders told him House of Cards was 99% accurate. The inaccurately portrayed 1% is the supposed efficiency of the U.S. Congress, which is only added to drive the narrative forward. Underwood is interested only in results, not in the immoral means to reach them. He doesn't spare himself or others, may they be friend or enemy or spouse.
Nearly everything about him seems radical. He discovers people and their talents and drops them as soon as they disappoint him or lose their value.
Echoing the world's traumas
The national and international stage of power is presented in a cool and elegant light in this series. Caustic punch lines, not sentiment, are the order of the day. The success of Underwood's fictional character, with legions of fans, may also be an echo of the world's traumas in the early 21st century — Islamist terror, Russia's alienation from the rest of the world, the failure of nation building, the global financial crisis, and signs of fatigue among the West's democracies.
It's against this backdrop that the cruel, mentally disturbed Underwood appears to be the silver lining on the horizon rather than a side effect of decadence. He is virile enough to disentangle the most complex incompatibilities of dialogue through brutality or intrigue. Underwood loves democracy, America, social mobility and the dynamics of human nature. He wants to create a better America but despises those who are too naïve or sentimental in their approach. He very nearly sacrifices everything for this one true, but broken, love.
The trailers for the third season, shared by thousands of fans, have made followers of the series nervous because they seem to imply that Underwood may lose Claire, the love of his life. At the end of the second season, something comes to life in Claire that Underwood has long since lost: a conscience. It is looking dark for Underwood indeed.