Wedding Boxes and Bauhaus

October 1, 2009

Reality

Before I dive into any more long-winded exegesis, here are a few more fun things I’ve observed over the past few days (in digestible bullet point form!):

• Many of the musicians who play in the subway cars for money rely on some sort of pre-recorded musical back-up these days.  Case in point:  a violinist who wore a backpack with a giant hole where the speaker poked out.

• Americans are treated far better by Germans now that Obama is president.  No B.S.

• If an American walks into a German Starbucks, they put on some hits from back home… from about 2-3 years ago.  But most Germans don’t go to Starbucks because it’s too expensive and the coffee’s not that great.

• If you’re in you’re a male teenager, it’s your God-given right, even duty, to horse around dangerously close to the edge of the S-Bahn tracks.  Just observing.

I took several important steps within the past several days that make me feel more like a real citizen of Berlin rather than some weirdo pretender (though I am admittedly a weirdo).  One was to get a library account – took 3 minutes and was totally painless except for the 25 euros I shelled out for the year…  The second was to actually think about the menu for the week, make a list, and go grocery shopping at the Turkish open-air market on Großgörschenstrasse, Lidl and Netto for the things I will need to eat later on.  I will be baking myself a cake on Friday, because it happens to be my birthday, and I can’t get good donuts here.  The third was to have my semester ticket start, which means I can use the buses, S-Bahn and subway as much as I want without having to continuously count up the change in my pocket or put it on my bank card.  What a relief to be able to decide to go somewhere and not have to debate with my sore-ass legs about whether it was really within walking distance from my apartment!  Borrowing books, finding some order in one’s eating habits, and being pre-paid to travel around on a whim – I guess that’s citizenship to me, no thanks to the Ausländerbehörde!

Fulbrighter and filmmaker Luisa Greenfield was to join me at the Berlin screening of Ulrike Ottinger’s The Korean Wedding Chest at the Akademie der Künste am Hanseatenweg last night, so I showed up unreasonably early (as is my wont) and plopped down in front of the theater.  An older couple sat near me and smiled at me, which of course prompted a conversation about who I was, etc.  Then after the man had left to get her a tea, the woman asked me if, as a German film scholar, I knew a director named Hans Jürgen Pohland.  It turns out I did:  he made the jazz drummer semi-documentary/feature film Tobby (1961), which I watched in order to be remotely informed about a paper on a panel I chaired earlier this year.  Anyway, she revealed that her husband, Siegfried Hofbauer, wrote the screenplay that Pohland barely used anyway.  Hofbauer then went on to work as a production designer on Volker Schlöndorff’s Academy-Award winning The Tin Drum (1979) and still worked as a jazz musician and painter in Berlin.  I thought it was amazing that I was one of the few people from the U.S. who’d likely seen the film and was sitting across from its screenwriter!  So he came back with the tea and we talked film for awhile, particularly about how Tobby (the drummer) then got into some major-league drugs and the film was likely the high point of his career.  Then Luisa showed up and we talked more film before, during and after the screening.  Ottinger’s comments about her own film were incredibly insightful, and I’m now determined to see that which I haven’t seen of her oeuvre.  She’s way better than Herzog, and for good reason:  she took courses from the likes of Pierre Bourdieu, Louis “I Accidentally Strangled My Wife” Althusser, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.  Her films are symbolically anthropological, for lack of a better description.  More below.

Anne Hector and I met up the next morning to go to the big Bauhaus exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which was jam-packed with tourists of all ages.  Squeezing through loud tourist groups while trying not to knock over valuable pieces of early 20th Century art, Anne and I managed to have a good time looking at some of the original Walter Gropius pieces as well as Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer and the rest of the Bauhaus scene.  I’m convinced I would’ve either gotten along great at the Bauhaus academies, or I would’ve hated it the first day and thrown a fuzzy amorphous shape at their form/color studies!  My trail then led me once again to the HFF, because it was October 1st.  Why October 1st, you ask?  Well, I’ve decided in October – December to devote each month to a particular genre I’m researching for my dissertation:  October’s for westerns, November’s for science fiction, December’s for musicals (since, heck, it’s Christmas Time!).  So I easily picked up several western DVDs to take home and watch, surprised at how little of a hassle it was to do so.  I think I’m going to like it at my host institution; it seems designed around film geeks.

Fantasy

The Korean Wedding Chest (dir. Ulrike Ottinger, Germany 2009)

Ottinger’s previous films, particularly Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia and her China series, explore encounters between our so-called “modern” world and more traditional ways of life.  Her latest film (NOT her upcoming vampire comedy with Elfriede Jelinek Die Blutgräfin (2010)) does exactly that:  nestled in the mega-city of Seoul lies a wedding industry so seemingly “traditional” it boggles the mind.  Seoul quite literally opened itself up to her so she could document one family’s journey through the engagement process to the wedding.  As one would expect, there’s a lot of coaching by women who work in bridal shops, who seem to be the real keepers of this tradition.  A married man myself, I asked myself where Kat and I might’ve gotten the money together to have even a remotely “Korean” wedding (actually, I also cried part way through because of recollections of our own wedding — I’m presently a lonely husband waiting until the end of the month…)  No answers present themselves:  these events offer none of the flexible glamour of the American wedding.  Like any wedding, all of what transpires is carefully scripted to pull off exactly the right photo/video documentation of the event.  That being said, Ottinger’s film succeeds in defying this convention and instead showing all the human bits of imperfection at the seams of these highly traditional, scripted affairs.  You should see it for the colors alone.

White Wolves (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1969)

A proper Gojko Mitic Indianerfilm, White Wolves is a fantastic mess of celluloid best watched by either a crowd of very cynical people or 5 year-olds.  Here’s the plot:  the Dakotas have been driven from their lands by General Mining Industries run by the evil capitalist Mr. Harrington.  Harrington’s so evil that he hires bandits to steal his own money from himself so he doesn’t have to pay his miners, and then continuously blames the attacks on the renegade Dakotas.  Mitic’s happy Dakota wife is, of course, melodramatically killed by the bandits, and so he takes merciless revenge on the bandits.  Now on to the important aspects like…

The Cool Gojko Mitic Shtick: At one point, he gets a hold of a box full of dynamite sticks, which he uses in combat by throwing them at people and shooting them in the air with his rifle.

The Strong Woman Scene: Most of these Indianerfilme have at least one scene to show they’re not totally misogynistic, and White Wolves is no exception.  The sheriff’s wife manages to trick a guard holding her captive into going into the saloon, at which point she steals his wagon.

The Heavy-Handed Communist Scene: The workers flat-out don’t believe the Dakotas stealing their money nonsense – in fact, no one but the villains believe it throughout the film – and demand their fair wages.  When the villain tries to ply them with cheap liquor, they turn it down outright.

The Bedeviled Medium

September 29, 2009

Reality

Saturday brought a stormy conclusion to the Kamera als Waffe conference, which might have been expected given the topic of Nazi propaganda cinema within a larger historical context.  But first the uncontroversial papers:  Kay Hoffmann (University of Stuttgart) presented Roel Vande Winkel’s paper on the Nazi newsreels made to export, and how foreign audiences wouldn’t just accept the German newsreel dubbed into their language (ironically like the Germans’ present means of consuming the world’s TV/film culture), but required new perspectives on propaganda events.  Rainer Rutz presented on the fascinating magazine “Signal” that the Nazis produced for European sales, combining images of well-groomed soldiers taking some hot-bodied time off and blonde beauties bathing on captured French beaches.  Martina Werth-Mühl from the Bundesarchiv told us not to use YouTube to watch these newsreels, but received resounding applause when she suggested a reduction of price per newsreel at the Bundesarchiv might be to everyone’s benefit.  Judith Keilbach argued that the use of propaganda footage in television documentaries generally reproduce the same effects of their original intended purpose:  to demonstrate Nazi dynamism and power in elaborately staged war spectacles.

Then the moment of controversy struck when Michael Kloft, the main historical film producer for the ZDF (Das Goebbels Experiment and 29 others), took the podium and said, effectively, that he uses Nazi newsreel footage because it was the footage taken at the time, and it educates the children visually about a time period that is fast losing all of its eyewitnesses.  His talk produced visible tension in a room where the medium of television had clearly already been consigned to the 11th circle of Hell.  Thus once Kloft was done with his speech, several very eloquent arguments about the “Gleichwertigkeit” toward Nazi footage since the introduction of television in the 50s were posed against Kloft’s flippant remarks.  You could tell that among these history professors, a kind of ferocious anger concerning all of the facts they had to make their students unlearn every year thanks to television was promptly unleashed.  We ended up staying past the end of the conference to conclude the very intensive discussion with the question of whether television can be allowed to become an “open” medium like film, where the eyes and ears are permitted to wander in a space and evaluate the “rough edges” of history on their own terms.

On Sunday morning, I had breakfast at the famous Café Bilderbuch – my third visit since I’ve arrived – on Akazienstrasse.  The café has a reputation thanks to its Viennese style décor, classy music selection, newsletter-styled menus and, of course, excellent coffee and meals named after storybook characters.  There I sat and wrote most of what is to be the next chapter in the Peppersmoke Players series.  It gives me something to do with my hands, after all.

After the usual laundry and dishes labor befitting Sunday, I found some time to attend Kino Arsenal yet again for a series of underground 8mm films made in eastern bloc countries.  Claus Löser – journalist, film historian and curator of the exhibit – was present to introduce the films, as was one of the filmmakers Ramona Köppel-Welsh.  The crowd itself was interesting:  a mostly silent bunch of maybe half-a-dozen Poles, two Russians, two Germans and myself.  I think the language barrier was significant enough that only the Germans and I had a conversation after the film.  The nice thing about the Kino Arsenal, of course, is that they give you free wine and pretzels afterwards, so Claus, Ramona, the Germans and I stood around for a time and chit-chatted about the GDR and the United States.  Ramona, it turns out, was invited to Los Angeles in 1993… during the L.A. riots.  That gave her a lasting impression of the States I maybe wouldn’t envy but, hey!, it was probably a more accurate picture of our divisions than most visitors get.

I’ll finish the “Reality” section of this blog with a brief summary of Monday, when I visited a personal Mecca:  the Filmmuseum Potsdam.  Located in a beautiful building with horse statues leaping from the walls near the train station, the Filmmuseum Potsdam is a repository for, well, all things DEFA (with a spot of UFA and Pro-Babelsberg here and there).  Seriously, though:  every major film and a good chunk of the minor ones had some sort of artifact or remnant on display in the museum, from the concentration camp outfit used in Jacob the Liar to the bow Gojko Mitic fought the white Americans with in Falcon’s Trail.  Even the counterfeiting kit from the Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters was there in all its faux-1940s glory.  At the end of the tour, I went to sign the guest book and noticed a lot of people complaining about the overflowing presence of DEFA materials over UFA and other materials.  “Bah!” I said, and wrote a proper defense of the East German studios right there in the guest book.

Blog entries to come:

• A poem on my surreal and awful experience at the Ausländerbehörde

• Several short reviews of academic books I’m reading for my dissertation

• Peppersmoke Players Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die

Fantasy

Naked Lunch (dir. David Cronenberg, USA 1991)

Boy, what a trip!  Similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1993) as a kind of tribute to a whole surrealist author’s body of work, Naked Lunch is a film about the destabilization of the armored male subject through the psychic/psychotic transformative experience of writing.  This time around I noticed several things:  the rampant homoeroticism (complete with talking anuses), the Orientalism (kind of done Madman style:  a stereotyped “chinaman” and Moroccan “exoticism” are both foregrounded at different points), the utter fakeness of the sets, Peter Weller’s droll mumbling as Bill Lee (see Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s Spider for the same), and the dissonant soundtrack created by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman.  Now I kind of see the Naked Lunch story as kind of a cross between Camus’ L’etranger and Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle:  the former due to the narrator’s utter lack of Self becoming grounds for a murderous act, and the latter because there’s a sort of extraordinary sexual journey that Bill Lee goes through without actually having sex with anybody (e.g., Fridolin and his night wanderings).

Vivre sa vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France 1962)

Twelve scenes that show Godard’s contempt for conventional Hollywood narrative that’ll leave you breathless.  The movie was rather dull this time around, but maybe it’s because I’ve worked extensively with One Plus One, Tout va bien and Alphaville, which I find to be much better executed films (and don’t all revolve around Anne Karina’s visage).

The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, UK 1949)

Speaking of well-executed films, Carol Reed’s nihilistic classic put its hooks back into me after I watched The True Glory for the first time on Friday.  An incessant zither soundtrack backs this film noir story set in the dark streets of Vienna, where sharp lines such as “death is at the bottom of all things” are delivered so non-chalantly that they make this sort of filmmaking look easy.  My theory is that Reed, along with Billy Wilder, did his time during the war with the allied propaganda, thereby earning the right to be totally sarcastic about the peace afterward.  Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and, more to the point, Sunset  Boulevard (1950) both peel back the post-war consumer society to reveal a disturbed undertone of fractured identities and incoherent culture.

Ein-Blick (dir. Gerd Conradt, FRG 1986)

Conradt set up a camera to take 1 frame per second for 12 hours, and then recorded East Berlin from West Berlin.  Every time anyone looks at the camera, he freezes frame for just a moment.  The film gives you a good overall impression as to what a day in the life of a security camera might be like, except with more exciting motion and lighting.

Z mojego okna (dir. Józef Robakovski, Poland 1978-2000)

Another stationary camera set-up, this film is translated to roughly “Outside My Window.”  Indeed, Robakovski basically took footage from outside his window for 22 years, recording people running errands, assorted state parades and ultimately a five-star hotel being built that cut off his magnificent window view.  What struck me about this film was that, unlike Conradt’s, it wasn’t anonymous surveillance.  The filmmaker expresses in a voice-over the story of every person whom he spies on, revealing an urban environment that’s actually more like a community than most U.S. cities.

Trabantomania (dir. János Vetö, Hungary 1982)

A music video for a Hungarian band Trabant, Trabantomania is not so much about the East German car – the Trabant – as it is about showing us silly footage of dolphins and seals, and of the band sitting around in a messy apartment.  You still get a definite impression of the interdisciplinarity and intertextuality that underlie such experimental films.

Zestokaja bolezu musicia (dir. Igor and Gleb Aleyinkov, USSR 1987)

This abrasive picture is about this guy who gets on a subway car, two security officials proceed to sodomize him, then leave.  I liked the high-contrast film filters used.  It looked a little bit like Aronovsky’s π (1998).

Lesorub (dir. Yevgeny Yufit, USSR 1985)

This amusing film is about bodies against snow, mostly wrestling with each other, but sometimes doing perverse things with a dummy.  This one’s probably my favorite of the short films.

Sanctus, Sanctus (dir. Thomas Werner, GDR 1988)

In 1988, Thomas Werner and a lot of the East German 8mm scene walked in a May 1st parade, passing Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz and all the party cronies at the time.  The soundtrack is a beautiful church hymn that at once mocks and commemorates the GDR within a single musical line.

Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (dir. Ramona Koeppel-Welsh, GDR 1989)

An anxious picture if I’ve ever seen one, Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (ich gehe weg und du bleibst da! – Struwwelpeter) has been released on our Counter-Images DVD at the DEFA Film Library, but it was much better on the big screen.  Disturbing images of little children weren’t what almost got Koeppel-Welsh thrown in jail over this picture, but rather a little footage of the Berlin Wall shot from a hospital window.  The realm of the politically/culturally forbidden past 1961 usually centered around the thematization of the Wall, and this film proved to be no exception.

Night of the Nazis

September 25, 2009

Reality

I decided it might be a good idea to get out of the apartment and do something remotely academic before my brain shrinks with age (my birthday’s six days away… and I have no plans yet).  The Deutsche Kinemathek was having a symposium called “Kamera als Waffe” (“Camera as Weapon”) on the propaganda films of World War II, so I cast in my lot and registered for it, thinking I might meet some interesting people there.  Turns out I was right.

The first day (Thursday), I grabbed a coffee at the beginning of the conference and stood near another gentleman, who asked me in which room it was to take place.  We struck up a conversation and we were nearly inseparable for the rest of the night.  He was Herr Göres, a former GDR customs-agent-turned-journalist who had worked for Den Tagesspiegel among other newspapers.  He was also one of the most outspoken people in the audience, who’d make loud comments to people sitting next to them (i.e., me) during other people’s academic talks… as if it were a press conference or something.  The summary of the papers were as follows:   Rainer Rother, director of the Berlinale, introduced the whole shebang.  Klaus Kreimeier depicted war propaganda newsreels as a kind of sensory-motor means of warfare, inciting people toward war activities through the creation of a coherent fantasy world with all the clichés.  According to Kreimeier, the films were shot with a “secret screenplay” in mind, not as documentation.  Miriam Arani showed us some gruesome pictures and told us about how the Germans pretended dead Poles whom they killed were dead ethnic Germans (kind of like The Gleiwitz Case).  Klaus Hesse, a big guy at the Topographie des Terrors, showed us some private photos of propaganda photographer Arthur Grimm that illustrated German occupation in Poland as a kind of civilized police activity – all staged for the cameras.  There’s a kind of collapse between public and private sphere there.  Then Karl Prümm introduced Feldzug in Polen as a symphonic newsreel designed to make the invasion of Poland itself seem like a work of art.

On the second day (today/Friday) Ralf Forster from the Filmmuseum Potsdam demonstrated how the newsreel production process was a well-oiled, highly modern machine that, well, more or less delivers on the “camera as weapon” thesis.  Matthias Struch provided an array of clips to show how authorship and individual directorial signatures could be found in the films of Walter Frentz, Hans Ertl and Heinz von Jaworsky.  Dirk Alt highlighted a few newsreels fragmentarily shot in color and why WWII wasn’t generally shot in color.  Hans-Peter Fuhrmann elaborated on the acoustic dimension of the newsreels and how music and/or sound effects frame the works’ sense of realism.  Brian Winston introduced The True Glory as a very effective piece of indirect propaganda:  acknowledging the negative and cynical sides of reality before turning to its myth-making, collectivist project.

After tonight’s screening, I had the pleasure of having a beer with Mr. Winston, Kay Hoffmann and another very nice woman who worked heavily with documentary film.  It turns out that this is THE Brian Winston who wrote Misunderstanding Media as well as Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, and who produced this classic Paper Tiger analysis of TV news.  So now that I understood that I was gossiping with one of the luminaries of documentary ethics and Communication Studies, I realized that when he talked about “Ricky” needing to get his autobiography out, he meant Richard Leacock, and when he referred to “Bobby” or “Stuart,” he meant Robert Flaherty and Stuart Hall respectively.  He’s currently working on the documentary on Flaherty, which caused a lot of discussion about Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948).  I learned maybe more in that one hour than in several Kamera als Waffe conferences, but so it goes.

Naturally, I remain without a student U-bahn pass and I’m cheap so I hoofed it back to my apartment from Potsdamer Platz after the beer.  My 30-minute nighttime journey on foot revealed the following items of note:

• A row of aggressive prostitutes near the Bülowstrasse U-Bahn station (but I was on the other side of the street)
• A hookah bar covered in a pale haze that was sucked outside as soon as someone opened the door.
• An older man with an open bottle of Baileys who nearly wandered into traffic.
• A local barber shop has a lot of activity behind its steel doors at night, meaning I think it’s a front for something else

Ah, the City of Sand.

Fantasy

Feldzug in Polen (1939/40, dir. Fritz Hippler)

Fritz Hippler, that lovely cutting-room documentarist who later put together the anti-Semitic montage The Eternal Jew (1940), worked together with Herbert Windt, composer of the score for Triumph of the Will (1935), on the first major documentary about the German blitzkrieg victory in Poland.  With enthusiastic marches, maps with big arrows on them, and exciting house-to-house fighting footage that may or may not have been staged, the film shows us how the Wehrmacht kicked the living tar out of the Polish army.  The general dynamic revolves around A) the continuous victory of the advancing German army and B) the continuous retreat of the cowardly-but-threatening Polish army, conspicuously eliding the presence of both German casualties and the nuances of Polish defeat (something about concentration camps?).  In my humble opinion, it reminded me of a music video:  structured more around its own self-gratifyingly simplistic narrative and the foregrounded symphonic music than around documentation of an event or the commemoration of something significant in detail.

The True Glory (1945, dir. Carol Reed)

An epic piece of propaganda filmmaking that kicks the living tar out of Feldzug in Polen, The True Glory provides a picture of the WWII battle on the western front toward victory told entirely through voice-over by real troops and General Eisenhower.  It is, in a word, gripping.  Ken Burns’ The War (2007) shows the message hasn’t changed a bit from when the U.S. and the UK hadn’t even defeated Japan yet:  the war was hard and fought by regular people called to do a great, global act of goodness requiring epic bravery, etc., etc.  The point is that, after this film, you feel both educated about the basic military history of the UK/American/Russian victory and certainly feel very good that all those Nazis are conquered, even though the Nazi Germans are not necessarily portrayed in a negative light.  Another key difference from Feldzug in Polen:  the bodies of American and British soldiers are depicted, which forces how “hard” the war was.  See this to see from where Saving Private Ryan (1998) effectively culled its most powerful material for the first 20 minutes.

Film Binge

September 23, 2009

Reality

On Saturday, I visited the Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdamer Platz.  It is now a place with which I am thoroughly familiar:  after 5.5 hours of me poring over every inch of every exhibit, they had to kick me out since they were closing.  Of certain interest beyond original documents associated with films I know and love such as Joe May’s Asphalt, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, etc., was a giant wall with nothing but TV screens containing post-war German directors and buttons one could push to see a sampling of their work.  I loved it – I was able to get to know one or two new directors and their work in such a short time span!  It’s quite clear, however, that the museum is primarily concerned with Marlene Dietrich, her legacy and her estate.  They even had the Negerpuppe and the Chinesenpuppe that were featured in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel which she brought around with her for good luck.  That’s going into my dissertation somewhere…

On Monday morning, I took a trip down to Potsdam-Babelsberg just to see what it was like.  The film school itself blew me away:  a giant four building structure encased in a cocoon of glass and bound together with assorted stairwells and catwalks.  Of course, I was looking for a bureaucrat in that labyrinth, so I suddenly felt like I was in Brazil or something (don’t you know we imagine in movies now?).  I would go up a stairwell and only reach half the offices on a floor, because the others were on the other side of the catwalk.  In addition, you can check out films from the library and watch them in these weird little space-age pods that slide around in the lobby…

The only downside to the earlier part of this week?  No Fulbright money yet to speak of, no good opportunity to get a Visa until after I register for classes (which I need a Visa to do ironically…), and with no money, little travel in and around the city.  This should all change within a week or so, one hopes.

Fantasy

Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970, dir. Gottfried Kolditz)

I watched this East German stylistic riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey late at night in the States, and I don’t remember finishing it then.  Since it forms a core part of my dissertation research, I sat through it again and probably will do so once more in the future.  Though I am a fan of Gottfried Kolditz and have seen most of his oeuvre, this film is one of his least successful productions by far.  The plotline is this:  the Ikarus spaceship is hit by an asteroid cluster and his badly damaged, such that the Laika has to mount a rescue mission to save the ship’s crew.  I remember East German critics bashing this picture on account of it being a “space adventure without excitement,” and now I fully agree with them.  The editing of the film is outright terrible, such that one has little orientation between assorted effects shots and where characters are positioned.  And speaking of effects shots – these largely consist of the camera spinning like in 2001 and leaving it to our imagination that we’re in OUTER SPACE.  For my dissertation though, the multicultural starship crew is a prime example of what I’m talking about in terms of the establishment of race hierarchies amidst an “equal” set of crew members.  It is also interesting that the African-American expatriate Aubrey Pankey turns up as he did in Osceola: The Right Hand of Vengeance, again in a strange bit part.

Whisky mit Wodka (2009, dir. Andreas Dresen)

A thoroughly delightful film that also thoroughly references film history as well as the exigencies of filmmaking.  Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s script is elegant in its simplicity:  an alcoholic, aging film star Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen) proves unreliable in the eyes of the producer, so another actor Arno Runge (Markus Hering) is brought in on the set to shoot all of Kullberg’s scenes right after him in case the celebrity flakes out.  Using a similar formula to Grill Point (Halbe Treppe, 2002) or Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon, 2005), Dresen latches onto the complicated interpersonal relationships between not two but five main characters (the two actors, two actresses and the director) and explores those relationships to their logical conclusion.  It does not matter what film material is used in the final cut – a question posed by the film and never answered – nor should the audience care.  There are also some special moments for us East German film scholars in there, as Dresen cites Solo Sunny in a piano riff played by none other than the DEFA composer Günther Fischer, and there are several moments where Runge is asked about being from the East – even though he’s one of the few main actors NOT originally from the East.  I felt fortunate to be one of four people in the theater to take it in, since the film isn’t that popular at Potsdamer Platz, apparently.

Read or Die OVAs (2001, dir. Kouji Masunari)

A recklessly paced set of three anime episodes if I ever saw one.  Read or Die is part James Bond-style thriller, part superhero film, and part sci-fi: A secret organization associated with the British Library is charged with retrieving a lost Beethoven score before it is used to destroy the world.  Fast-paced and drawing a great debt from the grandiose silly action foregrounded in my favorite anime of all, Giant Robo, the Read or Die OVAs are very cleverly staged and executed, with paper-manipulating hero The Paper performing dozens of neat superhero feats on her quest to save the world.  My major criticism is, as I said earlier, in the pacing.  The first two episodes establish a kind of pattern for what one thinks is a longer series, and then the plot is ramped into overdrive to resolve in the third episode.  I’m thinking it was budget-related…

City Breathing Children

September 18, 2009

Reality

“Sei bewegt / Sei belebt / Sei Berlin,” (roughly: “Be deeply moved, be active/bustling, be Berlin.”) were the words on a flag waving outside of the Rathaus Schöneberg as I waited for 2.5 hours in the stale, bureaucratic Bürgeramt.  Smug propaganda for a city that knows it has a lot of artists and movers-and-shakers all clustered together across a mess of parks, cafés and plazas.  Then again, I am continuously surprised at the cross-section of an active society that this city offers me.  In the United States, for example, people tend not to see children except in specific contexts:  accompanied by an adult while said adult is shopping, hanging out at the mall, and near a school.  Children are sheltered from random strangers and/or spirited around to various events in cars.  In Berlin, you can absolutely tell when school is or isn’t in session.  When it’s in-session, all the old people rush out to get their errands done, so one finds them everywhere on public transit and on the streets.  When it’s out, however, the children take over and everywhere (because there are schools every couple of blocks) there are groups of kids hanging out, playing soccer, goofing off and listening to music.  The schools are like lungs, the schools like breath – in and out, in and out comes the vibrant future of the City of Sand.

Today, a colleague of mine Anne and I met up by the Brandenburg Gate to attend a photo exhibit at the Akademie der Künste.  The exhibit was called “Übergangsgesellschaft: Porträts und Szenen 1980 bis 1990” and provided what was (to me) a nuanced panorama of people and their experiences in primarily East Berlin during the slow death of the East German State.  I found a giant three-picture series by Matthias Leupold entitled “Kino I-III” most captivating, in which a man is standing up in a movie theater otherwise filled with people wearing 3-D glasses and mesmerized by the glowing silver screen.  In a kind of mockery of the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” visual cliché, he is clamping his hands over his eyes in the first photo, silently screaming in the second and holding a gun to his own head in the third.  Other parts of the exhibit included arrays of faces on the wall, contrasting photographs of faces with the interior spaces of their former workplaces, comparative photos taken of mothers and sons in the nude near 1989 and again in 2005, and a 1989 photo-collage narrated with stories of post-war struggle by Gudrun Schulze-Eldowy.  There was also a room devoted to Thomas Heise’s work, a friend of the DEFA Film Library, but it was so cacophonous that few of the films could be appreciated on their own terms.  What was also stunning was the film series happening simultaneously at the Akademie, which included Andreas Dresen’s Jenseits von Klein-Wanzleben (which I subtitled as part of the Silent Country DVD), Helke Misselwitz’s Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann? (which was part of our 2005 MoMA Retrospective) and Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer, which we’d been selling for a while.  6 years after my last residence in Germany, all these artists whom I’d never heard of then and whom I got in touch with in the interim period were now in center-stage.  20 years after the fall of the wall, the East Germans finally get a significant voice.  Must it always take 20 years?

In other news, I decided as a film student to splurge on a DVD player for our apartment, because I’ve got a pile of movies to go through and my laptop DVD players both don’t really work.  On my way home with the DVD player, a dude was just lying on the floor of the S-Bahn, mumbling something about needing money for an apartment.  Stellar urban citizen that I am, I immediately did the ethical thing and pretended not to see him, shuffling to my seat and minding my own business.  This actually turned out to be less malicious than the giggling high-school students at my end of the car, who took copious cell-phone pictures of the man, and the old German couple across the aisle, who seemed to think he was mentally retarded.  The situation became more interesting as a vile-smelling man with a cane arrived at our section of the train with a speech about living on the streets and needing some money, etc.  The man on the floor, who had been totally despondent, suddenly sat up and essentially told the man with the cane to piss off:  “Da gibt’s schon andere Wagen im Zug!”  This, of course, reminded me of Peachum the Beggar King’s speech in The Threepenny Opera about the various flavors of fake misery.  Ultimately, what I saw was a mild territory dispute.

Fantasy

Uncle Yanco (Agns Varda, 1967)

A short essay film on 35mm about Varda’s strange Greek-American uncle who speaks perfect French and lives as a painter on a houseboat outside of San Francisco with a bunch of hippies.  A terrific meditation on identity and where film as a medium is able to portray its asymptotic qualities.  The jarring cuts characteristic of the French New Wave show Yanco and people wearing buttons saying “Long Live Varda!” merge documentary with a kind of existentialist propaganda:  that individuals script their lives, but derive an essential power from this script, just as an independent filmmaker has raw control over his/her film.

Black Panthers (Agnés Varda, 1968)

This is a film we kept meaning to see in Barton’s “1968 and Film” course in Fall 2008, but I’m not sure we actually got around to seeing.  Again, it was fabulous to see it in 35mm and particularly illustrative of the film trends in 1968:  use of documentary material coupled with shock edits and decoupled sound and narrative.  Nevertheless, Varda plays it pretty straight with this documentary (unlike that of Uncle Yanco above), which politically situates her in the camp of Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and the rest.  I’m sure she wouldn’t have disagreed then and now.

The Question of God (Catherine Tatge, 2004)

A 4-hour PBS documentary concerning the lives of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis – representing atheism and deism respectively – of which I watched the first hour.  Basically, Walden Media had this as a Lewis side project while they worked their way through the dull cinema of The Lion, the Witch  and the Wardrobe (2005) – or perhaps they felt a twinge of guilt about creating the same – and used it to address the serious issues of spirituality at the core of Lewis’ work.  There are historical re-enactments of Lewis and Freud’s lives, actors reading their texts around, and a reality-television style group discussion hosted by eminent Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi  filled with a bunch of white American academics and a token black filmmaker Louis Massiah, who helped create the infinitely better PBS documentary series on African Americans Eyes on the Prize, about basic (i.e. tired) questions of theology.  There are so many cues in the soundtrack and editing that heavy-handedly state “Hey, we’re having a deep conversation about meaning here!” that I grew steadily disillusioned with the ability of Tatge’s project to convince me of anything.  It comes up often enough that our spiritual lives are totally relational (I’d go so far as to say socially constructed), in that we project God through figures we know such as mother/father, as Freud projects his atheistic philosophy through the same.  I’d say that this film is totally relational as well, demonstrating the limits of white people’s understanding of religion, science and the critique thereof when they talk among themselves.

Reality

I might be still experiencing jet lag, but I’ll only be able to tell once my head stops spinning.  Thanks to the recent S-Bahn Chaos, my train got about halfway to the Hauptbahnhof before I had to get off Friedrichstraße to a closed track.  So I hoofed it over in the nice weather and took in some sights, seeing as Bertolt-Brecht-Platz, the Berliner Ensemble, the Bundestag, and the scenic Spree River lie between Friedrichstraße and the Hauptbahnhof.  Of all these buildings, the one that impressed me the most was actually the Hauptbahnhof, which embodied a similar grandeur as Grand Central Station in New York.  So much shiny glass at assorted angles (though the same could be said of much of Berlin)!  From there, I couldn’t find a decent S-Bahn line that’d take me back to Yorckstrasse that didn’t cross a closed line, so my feet took me all the way back – through Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz, and Schöneberg past Kleistpark.  Loud speeches and cheers attracted me to Potsdamer Platz, which was surrounded by traffic cops and security guards with berets.  It turns out it was this Freedom Not Fear 2009 Rally, an event jointly organized by Die Linke, die Grüne Partei and the international anti-copyright Piratenpartei.  I saw union leader Frank Bsirske deliver this speech, and noticed that there were a lot of computer-geek-type people in the crowd demonstrating against corporate and state privacy-violations.  My sympathies against the surveillance state, which is a giant problem in the States as well, earned me a free copy of the TAZ Junge Welt.  The issue contained more Marx than I would think relevant to today’s young people, but maybe the texts of young Marx will galvanize another generation of Germans like they did in the 1960s.

Though visiting this rally was pretty cool, I generally felt an ennui settle in about my first weekend.  I had intended to come here and finish up a few projects before heading to the Fulbright meeting in Göttingen on Monday, but I thought that as a new resident of Berlin, I should wander around and get to know it better.  It turns out that – emotionally speaking – I probably should just stay in tomorrow and work on those projects.  See, in Berlin, there are two types of people out and about:  people who walk efficiently and seem to have important goals… and groups of friends/acquaintances walking inefficiently and hanging out.  There is no middle ground, and woe to he who has neither goals nor friends like – to be frank – me at this point.  This will all change once A) I begin to head down to Potsdam regularly for classes,  B) Kat moves out here, and C) I become embedded in some social networks, so that I can join the inefficient groups of acquaintances.  But as a cultured flaneur, I pretty much get a big “F” for now.

Fantasy

Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

It’s 1936: Sada Abe falls madly in love with Kichi and, well, vice versa.  Hopelessly addicted to each other, their relationship spirals into madness and into a historically documented violent act.  This was my second time with Oshima’s ode to Eros’ destructive relationship with Thanatos, with the first being a bad VHS copy viewed during my phase of watching every controversial/banned art film I could lay my hands on.  Even more sensuous on 35mm than it was on VHS, the film offers us a strange dilemma:  we must choose between being more disturbed by the unblinkingly graphic sex scenes and the looks on the actors’ faces while they’re performing them.  A movie that plays with your empathic instinct like putty in the director’s hand, In the Realm of the Senses remains an absolute masterpiece of modernist pornography, drawing a line of continuity between incongruous films such as Last Tango in Paris, Deep Throat, The Legend of Paul and Paula, The Night Porter, and Satan’s Brew.

Arrival / Ankunft

September 11, 2009

As the first post of the blog, this document will serve to establish a few precedents as well as chronicle what I’ve been experiencing.  One precedent is that each blog post will be divided up into two sections:  Reality and Fantasy.  Now I know that’s a little heavy-handed, but I like to think of “Reality” as describing things I go out in the world and do, as opposed to “Fantasy,” which covers the vast quantity of media I tend to digest.  Since I’m a film student, that section’s likely to fill up with a lot of film reviews, which’ll be as much notes to myself as they are for the world to read.  The other precedent I will establish right now is a total lack of photos on the blog for the first month before my wife Kat comes out here and brings her digital camera.

Pre-Reality

I must say that I was mentally ready to go to Germany as of last month, but I was only physically transported here today.  By this phenomenon, I mean that since I began applying for the DAAD and Fulbright around this time last year, people around me were already hearing my elevator narrative: “I’m going to Berlin so I can do my dissertation research on Cold War genre cinema at the HFF-Potsdam-Babelsberg, the prominent film school of the East German film cycle.  There, I imagine I’ll be watching movies, but I hope to (and did) get a Fulbright so I don’t have any major presentation stipulations that get in the way of my work.”  Okay, so I modified it for text, but after having delivered this spiel about 4 or 5 times a day to all those around me, including those social-networked to me, I eventually became sick of my own great plan – imagine that!  To add to this was the pat response by everyone I knew claiming Berlin was such an idyllic place and I’d have a wonderful time there.  So I basically have been having more-or-less the same conversation on a loop for the past year (which, from what I hear, is actually good dissertation training).  You can imagine I was eager to get past the talking and move to the living here and “doing things” bit.

Reality

So I can now reference Berlin with the illocutive signifier “here,” because that’s where I am now.  My flight was a calm, uneventful experience made all the more harrowing by the over-the-top, violently nihilistic German drama I was reading (see Fantasy below) to force my brain back into “German mode.”  The reason why I have any mastery of the language at all is because of this kind of discipline, so you might not be shocked to discover these are some of the few English words I’ve written all day.  “German mode kick-starting” mitigates any culture shock that may arise from linguistic sources and also may satisfy a deep-seated, nerdly urge felt by all Germanists worthy of the name to be immersed in the German language.  That being said – all German-language nonsense aside – I was notably the only person reading a book in my section of the airplane.  Everyone else was watching The Hangover, the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Angels and Demons.  The relevance of film to our culture re-entrenched itself in my mind.

I arrived at my apartment earlier this afternoon, and suffice to say I will need to use a new blog post to describe it in detail.  After screwing around with the router to get some Internet and taking a short nap instead of setting up my bank account and purchasing my train tickets to Göttingen (my original goals of the afternoon), I decided to take a stroll north of Schöneberg to Potsdamer Platz.

Some observations before I collapse:

• Many Berliners travel on bikes. Few wear helmets.
• The number of Americans one encounters is directly proportional to one’s distance to either Potsdamer Platz, Kreuzberg or Mitte.
• Old German apartment buildings have loud staircases.
• I still can’t remember what recycling items go in what colored bin.
• They’re holding both an Agnés Varda and a “Winter Adé” film festival at Kino Arsenal, which is filled with movies I want to see.

Needless to say, instead of ending my long day with food or sleep, I ended with watching a movie.

Fantasy

Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s Herzog Theodor von Gothland

This work is so totally incoherent that it almost inspires me to hold a panel entitled “When the Medium Isn’t the Message” about works of German film, literature and theater that literally cannot function as works within that medium, but are instead homages to the fact that we can imagine plays as films, movies as books, etc.  A king is convinced by an evil, Satan-worshipping Moor to kill all of his brothers in a fit of revenge, and then take over the army of the Swedes and Finns to become an unstoppable tyrant, only to be beaten by a spot of intrigue that passes for a “tragic flaw.”

Sans toit ni loi (Agnés Varda, 1985)

A film about a female drifter who quite literally does not want to do much with her life and, as a result, winds up dead in a field.  Like Dudow/Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe, the film removes all suspense by showing her body in the first minutes, and then exploring her as a cantankerous, chain-smoking figure who nonetheless touched the lives of so many people.  I found Varda’s use of sound bridges of well-selected music pieces and ambient car noises between shots to effectively maintain a veneer of “realism” without dredging into the jerky camera of reality TV domain.  In fact, Varda produces many sweeping tracking shots of landscapes and people going about their purposeless lives in the midst of them.  The drifter, Mona, turns out to be neither a particularly nice human being, nor a monster, and thus the film turns into a meditation on what an impact any human being – particularly the insignificant ones – can have on their fellow humans.  See it if you like the works of Andreas Dresen and Robert Bresson, which may seem an odd combo until you watch the film.