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.

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.