The Battle to Reside

September 29, 2009

In the darkness before the darkness before dawn

In the isle of desolation amidst a city of color

A few figures, shadows and backpacks, congregate

A few form a haphazard line extending back from the gate

This gate of the LABO is the absolute border of the country

This gate demarcates our courteous selves

From their mechanism of human reduction and

From our stampeding hive selves, desperate

But all is now quiet as the sky re-casts itself from black to gray

But all is silent, though we all know a little broken English

More vehicles drop off more shadows, the line grows

More vehicles drive by their early shifts, perplexed drivers

Wonder about the line, its curvature along the industrial river bank

Wonder about the Ausländer, Fremden, Farbigen, Amis

No reasonable person save s/he who needs a living

No reasonable anonymous group should be up at this hour

Lights flicker on behind the gate; the dawn is drowned

Lights flicker on to slip silhouettes on forgotten shadows

All are of one mind – the page with the stamp is needed

All are well-informed – only here, only now, only when first

And the gates open

And the flood patters forth

At least 30 meters down the cement walkway to the door

At least 100 desperate shadows suddenly illuminated

Trampling desperately, cattle running to feed

Trampling desperately, the line’s composition changes

Now it’s a smashed amoeba up against a tower of cement and glass

Now it’s time for the shadows to hurry up and wait

The sun’s time has come, its beauty covered by a train

The sun’s arrival is heralded by few anymore, let alone by the shadows

More conversation – civilization resumes its “civil” root

More conversation – mutual vipers flick tongues in ignorance

Rumors fly:  some have been standing there since 3 a.m., you need to get your visa before you can register for classes, only 50 people were given numbers last time, this is the 4th time I’ve been here, when they open the doors you have to squeeze in, they’re denying Egyptians for some reason, Americans have it easy, Americans have it hard, our late friend’s Irene’s going to join the line, this is ridiculous, this is stupid, I thought the Germans were supposed to be efficient, what kind of visa do you need to stay?  we ran out of days three days ago, I have a child – coming through, you should see the bathrooms in there, are we even in front of the right door?

Cantankerous, an official warns us to back away – they need to get in

Cantankerous, a surly Polish woman scoffs at this absurdity

“The ones who’ve been working are us!” she barks

“The ones who are making it worse – that’s all of you!”

Pronouncing his German very slowly and loudly makes him understood

Pronouncing his syllables for the 25% who know the language

The rest look around for broken English translations

The rest mock and jeer and call and mob; the only right they have now

We are to be let in a few at a time, so we don’t crush our way in

We are to let those lucky few with appointments through, the ones with papers

So many stones have been laid in the basket of our visas, yet

So many blasted hopes have been laid at the LABO’s threshold

7:00! Yet another surge, the waves like in concerts crashing against security

7:00! Yet more shouting from the German official, letting a few in

A guard with his back to us puts his arms across the door

A guard lets those few who ran first to get their prize

Hatred swells in the mass:  against them, the guards, the officials inside

Hatred swells in the guards: against the unruly students, some of them scientists

Half-an-hour later, the crush subsides, hope shoved to another dark morning

Half-an-hour later, guards mop the sweat from their brow, cursing the hordes and their
Inconsiderate outright forthright savage uncouth unprecedented impolite forceful
Impudent adolescent murderous screaming bloodthirsty thrashing crushing breaking

Dark skin American clothing headscarves shifty eyes hairy ears bushy eyebrows

Greasy hair unwashed faces grabbing hands strange accents broken English

It isn’t their fault – talk to the boss, get him to hire everyone back, make extra hours

It isn’t their fault – people need visas to eat and the visas eat the people

This is what Ordnung looks like.

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.