Yes, I Am Busy

December 6, 2009

Reality

I figured a blog after a month was sufficient suspense for the world.  Summarized below are some of my experiences, assembled from the hazy recesses of my memory.

November 9, 2009: The 20th anniversary of socialism’s unexpected collapse saw Kat and I standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the rainy cold from about 5:30 p.m. until about 9:30 p.m., during which time most of what we could see was umbrellas.  Much of the crowd consisted of slightly drunk tourists. The orchestra played a handful of depressing modernist tunes and then the Berliner Luft song, which some people really liked. Then all the world leaders got up and gave trite speeches that amounted to more-or-less the same thing. Lech Walesa got up and struck down part of the “domino wall” they built, but got injured a split second later.  By that point, Kat was wet and freezing, so we tried to go home – to no avail! They had blocked off our subway exit, and they had barricades on every street.  Freedom without walls, my behind!  So we carefully wound our way to Friedrichstrasse to take the S-Bahn home.  The next day, I asked the Berliners at my school what their evening was like: they stayed at home and watched the events on television.

Far less mediocre was the retreat for the HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg retreat to Eberswalde.  The purpose of the retreat was ostensibly to party hard and plan sehsüchte, our student film festival in Potsdam-Babelsberg and the largest of its kind in Europe.  Needless to say, I think we did more of the former than the latter, which gave me a serious headache complex on Saturday.  Despite the aching pains from between my ears, I managed to see the absolutely stunning Brandenburg countryside, which reminded of me of Adventures of Werner Holt or I Was 19 (always DEFA films with me).

The following Friday, our sehsüchte team met at the Kino Arsenal for four hours with, oh, none other than the top figures of the Berlinale.  This seems like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity for me, so I feel like a thorough description is in order.  We first spoke with Dieter Kosslick, director of the entire festival, about financing the Berlinale via the KVB (Kulturveranstaltung des Bundes Berlin) and how one must maintain financial control to survive as an institution.  He then described the Berlinale under Moritz de Hadeln (1980-2001) as organized like a “Stalinist hierarchy” (ouch!) and bid that we spread responsibility for our festival evenly amongst ourselves.  Some fun facts about the Berlinale I learned:  from about 5,700 films submitted, only 350 are accepted for the festival (and the submission fee is non-refundable, naturally); no films between 30 and 60 minutes in length are eligible; there are over 800 official festival guests, but 21,000 accreditations given out … including those for over 4,000 journalists; the Berlinale will be converting to a full HD festival, meaning everything will be projected within 3-4 years as JPEG2000.  Then we spoke with Thomas Hailer (Program Manager), Karin Hoffinger (Program/International Relations), André Stever (Film Materials), Maryanne Redpath (Generation – kids program), Christina Szápáry (Event Management), Susanne Willadt (Accreditation) and Frauke Greiner (Press), all one after the other and regarding what their job looks like, etc.  The chief concern that they seem to have in dealing with the Hollywood majors – but also independents – these days is with piracy, namely that the festival screening copy doesn’t fall onto the Internet somehow.  These days, they have orange, satellite-controlled hard-drives that control when movies can be projected from the data held within.  Crazy stuff.

From the Berlinale meeting, I ran over to Kino Babylon on Rosa Luxembourg Platz to attend the DEFA-Stiftung Award Ceremony as the representative of the DEFA Film Library.  There, I saw everybody from the Who’s Who of GDR cinema there – Erika Richter, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Andreas Voigt, Ralf Schenk – the list just keeps going.  The awards ceremony itself was rather dry – though the great German-language film journal Revolver deservedly won an award – but included a never-before-seen hilarious short about robbers breaking into a symphony orchestra house using the timing of the music being played in the hall itself.  Afterward, I got a chance to have a long conversation with Stefan Kolditz about his father Gottfried, and other topics, and then hit an excellent Vietnamese restaurant down the street with Kat.

On Saturday morning (11/21), we had brunch in Prenzlauer Berg with screenplay author Katharina Reschke and her partner Oliver Schuette, both of whom taught at Grinnell College for a stint.  The weather was so nice that the whole population of Prenzlauer Berg seemed to be outside to enjoy the sun.  Then we followed the brunch with preparations for a dinner with Luisa Greenfield and Ming Tsao, which was both tasty and highly polemic.

The following Tuesday was the release party of HFF teaching assistant Tobias Ebbrecht’s book DDR erinnern – vergessen.  Okay, so it wasn’t so much a party as it was a roundtable discussion between Tobias, Ralf Forster, Peter Badel and Helke Misselwitz about making documentaries in the GDR.  I think the takeaway points were that they missed the kind of cohesive teamwork one found in film production under socialism, and that whatever anyone says about their work, they made films and those films are well-archived for future generations.

That Wednesday night, Moderat (Modeselektor + Apparat + Pfadfinderei) were throwing their last concert ever in the Astra Kulturhaus in Berlin … and I had to go!  I managed to get my ticket at a discount thanks to some generous scalpers, and then joined the 2,000+ throng of excited Berliners willing to sweat their way through the evening.  What a concert too – they played three encores, even though they’d run out of material!

On Saturday, the Medienwissenschaft students and I were charged with the interesting task of standing by the 3D cinema in the Zoo Palast and ask the incoming patrons why they chose to pay more for the 3D version of A Christmas Carol than simply see the 2D version.  Confronting random Germans with a questionnaire as a foreigner was certainly awkward, but somehow enjoyable.

For Thanksgiving, Kat and I actually decided to take the night off from cooking (which we do with great frequency) and went to the Ypsilon, a Greek restaurant around the corner.  We had fried cheese and mussels to our heart’s content, and it was a lovely time overall.  On Black Friday, we headed to Ming and Luisa’s for a film night – Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo (1980) and Jean-Luc Godard’s France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) – about children.  It seemed appropriate to depart said film screening and head to the 80s Night/Terror wave Party held near Jannowitz Brücke.  Awesome music (Soft Cell, New Order and all those folks) swept us away, though we were rather impressed by the fact that Germans tend to dance as if they were in their own isolated bubble/little world… as opposed to the American “bump n’ grind” style that plagues us all.

To counteract the Goth and Terror of the previous evening, we attended the Thanksgiving at the American Church in Berlin.  Even if given the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn’t.  The event was logistically poorly organized (over 1.5 hours waited to get our food… and they ran out of many things), expensive and not at all filled with English-speakers, as it turned out.  The weekend was much improved by a visit to the Jewish Museum the following day:  the exhibits were extensively researched and completely fascinating in every way.  One might say that the architecture of the building itself speaks volumes.

I saw Volker Koepp, another DEFA documentarist, at a Humboldt University talk.  Students tried to tell him his films were obscure and needed to be better advertised, to which he responded that he was both a prolific and internationally recognized filmmaker.  It made all the work on his and others’ behalf at the DEFA Film Library seem worth it right there and then.

One side effect of the awful Thanksgiving was that it alerted us to a FREE opportunity to see the inside of the Berliner Dom:  an English/German Christmas service, complete with singing.  The Berliner Dom is certainly a monument to Protestantism if I’d ever seen one, with statues of Protestant resisters such as Luther looking patriarchally down upon the parishioners.

My first visit to the Filmmuseum Potsdam Sammlungen department yielded a wealth of information on Gottfried Kolditz – so much that I had to make another trip there the following week.  Creepily enough, I think I read his last diary entry before he died, and he died a few months before I was born. Hm?

The Berliner Staatsoper became an agenda item, so we found ourselves watching a thoroughly modern performance of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus from the 4th row after paying very little.  I was glad for this fact, because I felt like the modern staging screwed with the fantasy elements inherent in the masquerade ball, though I liked (as always) the jail guard Frosch in the third Act, especially as a former GDR flunkie.

That Friday night saw Kat and I attending the weekly shindig held at the Another Country bookstore in Kreuzberg, an English-language bookstore known by every English-speaking expatriate in the city.  We spent an embarrassingly long time glued to the projector screen, watching the second season of The Restaurant, a “coaching” genre reality show from the UK where Raymond Blanc and other judges evaluate pairs of amateur restauranteurs making a go of it.  Beautifully shot and definitely intended for foodies, there were enough characters to sustain long-term interest.

And this week it rained a lot, we held a baking party on Thursday, and Kat and I ordered our tickets to go to Prague for Christmas.

Summary finished, folks.  Was it digestible?  Can I be “digested?”  Yum!

Fantasy

Let me preface this by saying I’ve seen far more movies than this over the past month, but too many titles are swirling around in my head to thoroughly document it in this forum.  THIS is a small selection of some notables:

Dreams that Money Can Buy (dir. Hans Richter, USA 1948)

Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Ferdinand Léger, Hans Richter … the great modernists of the early 20th Century went ahead and made a film.  A work of surrealism that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, Dreams that Money Can Buy is about a guy who can sell people dreams out of this dark apartment.  Hilarity and trippy sequences ensue.

Red Cliff (dir. John Woo, China 2009)

The best film of the year, hands-down.  A condensed 138 minute version of the four-hour epic based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms literature, Red Cliff is (despite any cuts) John Woo’s finest cinematic achievement.  Ask me more and I’ll tell you.

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.