Visiting Arnie Without Breaking a Sweat

Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, Thal, Austria. Photograph courtesy of the author.

I’ve never cared for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not about his muscles nor about his films, his political career, or his motivational speeches. Until recently I thought this lack of interest stemmed from generational affiliation. While my father, like so many growing up in the Americanized West Germany of the 1970s and ’80s, adored the shirtless poster boys of Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood, I’ve always preferred the more broken intellectual heroes of a cinema that looked critically at the American Dream. I remember how my parents sold me Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976) as a film about what love and dedication means, and The Terminator (1984) as a display of desirable masculinity. During my childhood, in the 1990s, Schwarzenegger’s films used to be broadcast on German television all the time, especially during holiday season, and I grew up watching titles like Last Action Hero (1993) and Jingle All the Way (1996) multiple times. I guess I must have enjoyed them as a child, but I can’t remember much about them now.

What I can remember is the mixture of admiration and distance in my father’s eyes when he watched Schwarzenegger perform. My dad comes from a working-class background and believes very much that if you try hard enough you can become someone in this world. He loves to keep in shape and build muscles, and sometimes he would delightfully imitate Schwarzenegger’s voice and gait. His impersonation is knowingly ludicrous, and acknowledges the absurdity of its source, but my father understands such absurdity to be a legitimate path to success. His admiration is at once ironic and sincere. My parents’ generation in Germany, so easily seduced by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, was blessed by constant economic growth and the relatively carefree idea that you can be anything in life. How wrong they were!

When I moved to Austria more than a decade ago, I had almost forgotten about growing up with Arnie. The first time I visited Graz, I sent my father a photo of a huge mural of Schwarzenegger painted on the walls of a house. It was a commercial for a local newspaper. He texted me the flexed biceps emoji, and that was that. Today he doesn’t care for Arnie. The politician and climate activist is of no interest to my dad, but if one of his films is showing on television my father will watch it and declare, “Finally, a real film.” Maybe early memories of my dad saying “I’ll be back” before turning off the lights in my room are the only real reason I can give you for why I visited the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum in his birthplace, the very, very small village of Thal, near Graz, in Styria, southern Austria. But when can we really give a satisfying explanation for the things we decide to write about?

It’s also possible that I was inspired by a newspaper article about a German perfume influencer, dubbing him the “Schwarzenegger of scents.” The influencer states that his goal in life is to advise people on how they could smell. Schwarzenegger advises them on how they could get in shape. More than anything else, he is an influencer, and I feel stupid for just realizing it. Before I found myself standing next to two young men with upper arms the size of my whole body, listening to their enthusiastic talk about Schwarzenegger’s first dumbbell or his house exercise machine from 1963, I thought of him as someone who had made several popular films. Now I know that he is someone who tells you what to eat and how to move if you want to be as successful as he is. And the more I learned about him, the less I wanted to be in shape.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, Thal, Austria. Photograph courtesy of the author.

I expected the museum to have a certain sense of humor since I couldn’t imagine people earnestly visiting a place to contemplate posters of a beefcake on skis wearing sunglasses promoting whatnot, but the other museum visitors looked at such images as if he was some Styrian god. The museum’s message is: if you want to be like Arnie you have to live like Arnie. It’s strange to look at all the documents and instruments of inspiration on display if you don’t want to be like Arnie at all, or are just interested in cinema. Skimming through the museum guestbook, I found nothing but sincere declarations of love: Thank you for inspiring me to be a better person or Because of you I’m still alive. I don’t want to ridicule those experiences; it’s just that I felt a little bit like an atheist at a canonization. The body is a religion to which I don’t belong, and an enlarged bicep is something I neither have nor aspire to.

Immediately upon arriving at the old-farmhouse-turned-museum with a supersize statue of Arnie in his bodybuilding posture in front, I understood I didn’t belong there. The museum was founded in 2011 by Schwarzenegger’s childhood friend, Peter Urdl, a former mayor of Thal. I stared at an American flag proudly waving next to a dried-out meadow. A huge metallic sculpture of some robot from The Terminator with its gun aiming at the surrounding hills and trees graced the garden while a crow took a shit on its head. Desperately, I looked for Arnie’s donkey, Lulu, who is famous on social media, the subject of numerous videos and images sent by friends mere minutes after I told them I was coming to this forsaken place. Disappointingly, particularly to my inquiring friends, there wasn’t a donkey in sight. Instead, sluggishly emerging from a considerable collection of over-priced paraphernalia—T-shirts, magnets, frisbees, and pens, all carrying Arnie’s likeness, most often with his Terminator sunglasses on—a teenager greeted me with utter disinterest. I resolved not to buy a souvenir for my father, as I had originally planned, and instead returned the teen’s sentiment and extended it to the whole place he was supposed to represent.

As I toured the exhibits, I noticed the house smelled like an Alpine cabin stuffed with cheap merchandise, which in fact it is. The first room I entered was dedicated to Schwarzenegger’s political career, and it seemed to me that it hadn’t been touched since 2008. In a video message on an old tube television monitor, Arnie welcomes the guests to the house with the clumsy American-Austrian accent that has always been his trademark. Austrian linguist Lisa Kornder wrote her dissertation on Schwarzeneggers’s unique blend of American English and Austrian German, examining such topics as his articulation of plosives. Austrians do not differ very strongly between p and b sounds in spoken language, and Schwarzenegger continued to do so when speaking English. Later in life, this son of Gustav Schwarzenegger, a police chief and Sturmabteilung member (a Nazi, in case you were wondering), needed to relearn German as he had forgotten it while living in the USA. We know that Hollywood likes foreigners to sound foreign so that they can be typecast. In Schwarzenegger’s case, the Austrians also liked their hero to sound American since every sentence he uttered reminded them that he had made it in the States. Needless to say, no such studies of the man are to be found at the museum. Why think about philology when you can have abs?

Austria, of course, is not the only European country celebrating their men and women in Hollywood. Some might be surprised to learn about the torch Germany carries for a supporting actor like Thomas Kretschman (or Leonardo DiCaprio’s grandmother), or the love Croatia nurtures for Goran Višnjić. Christoph Waltz, also Austrian, Mads Mikkelsen, from Denmark, or Penélope Cruz, from Spain, have provided reasons for their respective countries’ admiration, but how does recognition turn into national sentiment? (It’s a bit like in 2005, when the biggest German newspaper reacted to Benedict XVI becoming the new pope with the headline “We are pope!” No, we are not.)  Speaking to my Austrian friends, it soon becomes clear to me that Arnie’s origin plays a significant role in the way they perceive him. My friends who spend their free time in the gym in Vienna, seem to have a special relationship with Arnie. The other muscle stars of Hollywood—Dwayne Johnson, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Lee—don’t play such a big role in their lives. It’s Arnie they turn to for advice; it’s Arnie whose quotes they know by heart; it’s Arnie whose image graces the walls of Vienna’s finest gym, where clips from Pumping Iron (1977) play while you’re on the john, where flatscreen monitors are mounted to the walls. 

In the video in the first room of the museum Arnie invites visitors to have a look at his childhood bed on the second story, the place where he dreamed about his future success. In my mind, though not in the actual video, the waving American flag is superimposed under these words. I think there is nothing more misplaced than the American dream in remote European villages. Yet certainly I am wrong because the power of the American Dream is strongest in the most remote places. Nevertheless, the idyllic quietness and relaxed isolation of Thal doesn’t exactly scream of self-important ambition. Today the village seems to be a pastoral retreat for some and a way to pursue a traditional life in farming for others. For many people living in the Styrian countryside, money is not something you have to dream about; it’s something you already have.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, Thal, Austria. Photograph courtesy of the author.

One meter from the tube TV, a showcase presents images of Republican presidents up to George W. Bush and a sign asking “What’s next?” I went upstairs, looked at the recommended bed, and felt nothing. I struggle to imagine Schwarzenegger dreaming at all. Looking at the photos, and specifically at Arnie’s neck muscles, I remember Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In one of many passages on big noses, Sterne argues that there’s a limit to how big a nose can become due to the rules of anatomy. You cannot breathe in more than your lungs can take. He concludes that “the nose must either fall off from the man, or the man inevitably fall off from his nose.” Looking at Schwarzenegger’s body I wonder if there is still a person there, or if the man behind the muscles has fallen off long ago. One strength of Arnie’s screen persona has always been his kindheartedness. The sense of a male hero teetering between violence and tenderness made him a fit for the role of the protector that was in such demand in Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood. But what is its status today?    

It’s not only the fact that the museum hasn’t changed much since 2008 (although somebody seems to occasionally and clumsily glue scraps of papers with the titles of his latest films onto a board displaying his filmography) that gives the space an air of oblivion. It’s also how the rooms on display don’t differentiate between personal objects, cheap memorabilia, and icons of idolatry. The kitchen where Schwarzenegger ate his first meals melts into his jacket from The Terminator, which melts into a photo with Tom Cruise and another one showing him as a teenager in front of the house, which melts into his old privy, which melts into a video clip from Pumping Iron (certainly one of the most popular exhibits with the visitors), which melts into a life-size statue, naked from the waist up, displaying muscles I didn’t know existed, which melts into a birdhouse with “Hasta La Vista, Baby!” written on it. The glue connecting this rather tasteless smorgasbord is a double-sided message, one that embraces the American Dream as well as the Austrian man living it. The resulting mélange of local history and waxlike images of fame, reminiscent of Madame Tussauds, is as appalling as it is telling when it comes to relating the manifold ways reactionary societies try to define success: it’s all about being materialistic, taking good care of your health, and never forgetting where you come from.   

This whole myth of the self-made man finally seems to crumble for me at the Schwarzenegger Museum. Seeing these photos and documents in the rooms where Arnie grew up gave me the sensation of looking at the last of a species about to die out. On the other hand, Schwarzenegger, despite being 76 years of age and not having had a hit film in many years, is still hugely popular. I suspect this has to do with a shift in the perception of celebrity. In the age of social media, stars are not made; they make themselves. Instead of enclosing themselves within unreachable glamor, they strive to seem down to earth and close to people. Arnie anticipated this tendency. His muscles are otherworldly, but his demeanor is eminently relatable. 

I talked to some of the visitors at the museum. Most of them came from neighboring countries such as the Czech Republic or Hungary. Many were dressed in their athletic training outfits, and some enthusiastically worked out on the exercise machine that is placed in the phone booth in front of the museum. They smelled of sunscreen, aftershave, and horse ointment, the typical scents of gyms and dressing rooms, the real scent of Schwarzenegger. They told me about Arnie’s Instagram account and newsletters. Nobody talked about his films; they passed quickly through the room where the posters and props are exhibited. Arnie shows them how to stay fit in old age, and they support his commitment to climate-friendly politics. Self-improvement, they communicated to me, is the key to life. It’s a neoliberal nightmare, and this Austrian star fits right into it. He is not the remnant of the 1980s that I thought he was—instead, he redefines the image of a star as a politician, that is, a star as someone who adapts his message to whatever people will like. Before leaving the place, I sent a photo of Arnie’s statue to my dad. He replied with the flexed biceps emoji, and that was that.