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.
September 23, 2009
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.
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…
September 17, 2009
The last few days I spent in Göttingen for the Fulbright Orientation. Highlights included a city tour conducted in German that emphasized the city’s literary history, as it was the kind of epicenter of early German romanticism, and many opportunities to get to know my fellow Fulbrighters. Unlike the American programs I have dealt with in the past, I know that Fulbright has effectively selected some of the best projects that exist today in German Studies, so the students who have these projects tend to be fully developed scholars. Thus it was a pleasure to spend an extended time with them in Best Western am Papenberg, and I feel that we will serve as an appropriate support network for each other (rather than as a cluster of Amis afraid of those pesky Germans, like in past years).
That being said, we were confronted with a lot of bureaucracy, much of which I still need to settle today: residence permit, visa, bank account and other pesky details need to be resolved quickly, but the German system moves characteristically slow. Patience and persistence will get me through, though it still puts a small obstacle in my explorations as I seek these different Ämter. Thanks to the Meldeamt in the Rathaus Schöneberg closing early, however, I got to wander all over Schöneberg and see the endless cafés, ethnic restaurants and small shops that make up this vibrant Stadtteil. Some things I spotted yesterday included a delicious-looking Indian restaurant YogiHaus, a café with a bunch of ex-pats outside of it called the DoubleEye, and a café for women only called Café Pink. That being said, I hope to actually make it to Potsdam today, though, and see where I’ll be spending a lot of my time.
This weekend, there’s a Berlin electronic music festival BerMuDa that I plan on attending. Maybe then I’ll get to see what this esteemed Berlin club scene is all about…
(Note: I recently became obsessed with this role-playing game called Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies and began writing a bit of cliché-driven adventure fiction set in its story universe, which is analogous to that of Skies of Arcadia or Last Exile. This will be updated every week or every other week, I imagine.)
The Peppersmoke Players across the Seven Skies
by Evan Torner, Fulbright Berlin 2009-2010
Chapter 1 – An Authorless Play
Fatima couldn’t remember her damn lines. Rubbing her eyes from the wisps of irritating smoke that occasionally wafted in from the city, she pulled the well-worn play manuscript from her coat-pocket and paged through the delicate paper to the problem passage. “’Til the dark of that very day,” she read aloud in a wooden voice. “When no one another one doth pay, shall ye ne’er cross this way.” What stilted poetry! Her thoughts betrayed a firm indignation to her role in this whole production. She was, after all, a skysailor and a musician, not an actor.
Captain Misra Naftaly was all too blame, of course. At their last port, the hitherto insignificant isle of Therem, a courier had given her a neat package containing seven copies of a play. Naftaly had taken the material into her room that night and emerged the next morning – their day of departure – woefully sleep-deprived. She confided in Fatima, her own first mate, that her blatant irresponsibility to her crew was well-warranted, for this play was a top-notch piece of work that merited a performance at the Peppersmoke Players’ next play date. Fatima had then reminder her that Mr. Duchamps was in control of the troupe’s repertoire, and that she was under the impression the Agua Azul schedule had already been finalized and put to ink. The captain had turned to Fatima at that moment, hefted a copy of the play with vigor and exclaimed: “Duchamps not only finalizes the schedule, but he owns the opera house, meaning I need only persuade one man. And the play will do all the persuading for me.”
Indeed, Duchamps was overwhelmed by the work, deeming it in his pompous baritone to be the “greatest piece I’ve ever perused over lunch” – a high compliment, given how many lunches he himself took. He immediately set about preparations for a grand premiere in Agua Azul and inquired about the whereabouts of its playwright, as he most certainly should be invited. Yet no author’s name stood on its cover, neither stamp nor seal on its binding and not even a set of initials that marked from whence it had come. This turn of events so perplexed Misra that she released one of her two rare, precious messenger pigeons back to the now significant isle of Therem in the hope that the courier who gave her the manuscripts might release the location of his client, if indeed he were still on the isle at all. Misra did not ordinarily waste pigeon trips on frivolous affairs, out of fear of losing them to their own desires or those of others.
In any case, once Duchamps had decided on performing the accursed play, he then broke the less-than-gratifying news that the play required a cast of seven players on-stage most of the time. An impossible task, since the entire Peppersmoke Players consisted of only four regular actors, one stage technician, one musician and three skysailors who usually did little. Nell Sturfield and Magnus Firedancer (likely a pseudonym) were both trained in the classic Kroyese acting model on Viridia and always swapped the chief protagonists between them. Aesop Southwind Duchamps, an ex-law enforcement officer long associated with the theater scene on Crail, usually donned the roles of the avuncular type or the lecherous scoundrels, while the Ilwuzi ruffian Chatterbox Chang was stuck with whatever roles there were left over, often playing four different bit-parts over the course of three acts. Rembrandt Silver, an enterprising koldun from Barathi, plied his magical abilities in the lighting and special effects trades, and Fatima the Fearless provided background music when called for, as the Zultanista skysailor had learned many song hooks over her shipping assignments. Captain Misra Naftaly the Refined was a connoisseur with little practical showbiz experience who sometimes played Archduke Tyrol in “The Ballad of Shellwick” or a warrior woman in “Origins of Barathi,” but generally avoided an on-stage presence in favor of a faux impresario role. And the two remaining skysailors Abraham and Dustin were contractors earning their pay – they stayed away from the Peppersmoke plays, even the troupe’s profits determined their wages.
But Seven Goddesses for Seven Gods, the name Duchamps had given the play, which also had no title, required all the active human-power in the troupe. Dustin and Abraham even grudgingly agreed to usher for some drinking money. In the piece, seven goddesses bar their husbands from entering their collective palace until the situation among the humans in the Seven Skies is fixed – that everyone be rendered equal and even justifiably so. The seven gods then turn to the World to try and effect change to woo their wives. This basic plot structure, of course, had been employed before in dozens of other works, which usually amounted to the husbands attempting to cheat their way to sexual reunion with their wives. Yet this particular play took a more nuanced approach: each god approaches some fundamental truth about the radical redistribution of wealth and power and eloquently explores its paradoxical qualities. This was a play superficially about uxorious lust, but more precisely leveled against a society floating in the Seven Skies that did not value each newborn child equally, nor provided for all when all were needy. “A radical work like this,” Duchamps explained with wine droplets hanging from his moustache, “requires special treatment from its interpreters. Since there are seven gods or goddesses on-stage at any given time – but never all fourteen at once – we must at least remain faithful to the original vision of the work and include all the actors on-stage when arranged.”
Fatima had refused to participate resolutely at first, instead offering to shave his wine-soaked moustache with her prodigiously sharp cutlass and produced said blade during the heightened course of the conversation. Duchamps’ training with the Crailese Falcons of Agua Azul had kicked in, however, and she immediately found her brandished blade expertly trapped by the handle of a simple truncheon he kept on his person for just such occasions. A stalemate reached in the physical confrontation, Fatima pushed back in the contest of wills, declaring herself ex officio as first mate of the Peppersmoke if forced to act in the work. Naftaly gently suggested a possible bonus based on the opening weekend’s revenue to help assuage Fatima’s creditors at Agua Azul’s famous Diamant Casino, to which she guiltily acquiesced.
Now she was standing on the primary dock of Agua Azul’s harbor on the sky isle of Crail keeping watch on the cargo ramp with smoke stinging her eyes and force-feeding bits of rhymed “god-speak” into her head. Her resentment might have blossomed strange mental growths and engulfed her senses had not a figure approached the ramp precisely as she looked down at what evidently was her next preposterous line. Rare book be damned, she threw the play to the dock wood, grabbed the nearest long object – a long hook used to pull small boats in and catch the occasional ill-fated fish – and struck the ship’s plank with it so as to bar the figure’s next footstep upwards.
Suspended in mid-step like in a slapstick comedy, the man’s foot abruptly dropped and his face turned widdershins with an obviously forced smile. He had bushy black hair extending to his chin in a thin line, framing his dimples. He sported a velvety mauve frock coat, white cloth pants and a pair of boots so expensive-looking that he had to be a Colronan Royalist: sensuously laced up the side, tastefully flared at the calf and assertively pointy in the toe. A Colronan saber hung jauntily at his side, meaning he’d either fleeced a Musketeer or had at least some working knowledge of Nangatrad fencing technique. His gaze fell back on his obstructor.
Fatima came from the other edge of the Colronan isle, the Colronan Zultanate. Above all things, this meant her hat was her most impressive article of clothing. It was a fancy tri-corner with tiny silver beads that reflected the moonlight, held in place at a canted angle by her star-studded head-wrap. The rest of her garb hung loosely off her body for better movement: a long off-white skysailor’s shirt, baggy cerulean pants and padded sailor slippers good for gripping deck and line alike. Lashed across her body, a substantial musket belt and bandoleer sported no less than four short muskets, a light shamshir and a parrying dagger. The weight of all this weaponry was what forced her loose clothing firmly to her skin, still maintaining a degree of modesty in the face of total strangers such as this man.
“Pardon,” he politely stated in an exaggerated Royalist accent. “But is this perhaps the Peppersmoke?”
“Perhaps,” Fatima replied coolly. Her smuggler days had given her an easy diffidence to potential clients. “What’s your trade?”
“I am but a performing artist, like many on your ship,” he replied with a slight, unconscious bow. “An artist disposed to speak with the captain about her new play.” Fatima’s hand eased on the hook as she considered all at once the possibility of having an understudy lift this accursed role from her shoulders. But the man’s obvious impatience together with his Colronan Royalist egotism kept her hook in his way.
“She’s in rehearsal preparations at the moment – an unusual occurrence, to be fair. Shall I pass on your message?” The man’s nose lifted almost imperceptibly.
“No, you shan’t. I am Tellebrandt Maurison of Sir Edoard Duvalson’s Grand Opera Company and I insist on speaking with your captain.”
“And I counter-insist that she’s in rehearsal,” she said, then added: “What common purpose do we have with your troupe anyway?”
“Company,” he corrected. “The purpose of an … erroneous date. A scheduling oversight. You see, Sir Edoard has chosen the third Windsday of Stones to hold a gripping performance of Menonuaque’s glorious Perish Noble Kroy! in which I play the part of the pacifist Quinlan and one of the First Orl’s ill-fated goats. I’m sure you know the story.”
“I don’t.” Fatima found being obstinate entertaining with this guy around.
“You don’t? Anyway, your captain’s troupe’s performance of this 7 Gods play or whatever: it opens the same night and Sir Edoard fears our beloved public might unevenly distribute themselves twixt the two acts.”
“Our date is not in error,” Fatima stated hastily. “And Edoard would have done better to come here in person to make such demands on our schedule.”
“He sends his deepest regrets, but is preoccupied with…” Fatima cut his statement short with a gesture.
“My captain’s preoccupied with similar tasks, I assure you,” she replied sternly. “But I vouchsafe she won’t change the date on such flimsy pretenses as those you seem to extend.”
“If you’ll allow me to… ”
“You? Under no circumstances.” Tellebrandt Maurison’s hand was now fully covering his saber hilt. Fatima’s eyes narrowed.
“Then, good madam,” he spat sardonically. “On behalf of my employer Sir Edoard, I challenge thee to a duel beyond that of our wits.”
With that vague-but-somewhat-threatening remark, he applied a firm tug on his saber to loose if from its sheath for combat. A deafening pop and a sudden pain stopped his arm in its tracks. He gawked as it fell limp to his side. Without letting go of the hook, Fatima had drawn one of her pistols, cocked the hammer and shot his dueling arm square on the bone in one fluid motion. No further fight would be seen, as Tellebrandt clutched his bleeding arm and opened his mouth slowly as if to scream. Satisfied with her technique of persuasion, Fatima spun the empty pistol back toward her and pushed it back into its place on her bandoleer. She’d been practicing that quickdraw maneuver for many years, but this time it was an existential work of art: a perfect act conceived and executed. She waved away the remaining smoke from the pistol.
“In this state,” Fatima declared triumphantly. “You’re quite obviously less than duel-worthy. If your Sir Edoard still has such trifling business with the captain after this incident, he will show up in person and take it up first with me!” Accompanying the dusty stench of gunpowder was a wet hint of human blood, and now Tellebrandt’s silent maw began to usher noises of pain and complaint. “Don’t attempt to summon the Falcons: the ones portside are only interested in settling stolen cargo cases, since goods and tariffs are their ducat-flows. Personal disputes between two non-residents of Crail like us rank next to those of treehuggers and monkeysquids – a curiosity more than a case.” Tellebrandt doubled over onto his knees.
“This is an injury most foul, you…” he said through clenched teeth. Fatima drew a fresh pistol with the same hand with which she shot him.
“I hear such injuries are thrice as painful when shot twice. You’d best be hence.” Though wounded and angered, Tellebrandt rose to his feet and walked away rather calmly, a drizzle of escaped blood drops staining the harbor. When she raised the hook again, her hand began involuntarily shaking from the excess adrenaline. She heard her name called. It was Magnus.
“What’s the trouble worth all the noise?” he shouted down from the shipdeck, his long blond hair hanging lazily overboard.
“I just turned away a bad actor, ‘tis all.”
“Waking up some of us, that’s what you’re doing.” Magnus said with a yawn. He’d clearly been napping when not needed at today’s rehearsal. “An actor, you say? Too bad – we could’ve used a few extra hands on this production overall. Well, at least you only winged him, or else we’d have to use Duchamps to pull some strings with the Falcons to look the other way.”
“Never you mind,” she said, changing the subject. “When’s your plank-watch begin again?”
“Quarter of an hour, which is when Nell and the captain need you for rehearsal. How are those lines coming?”
“Perfectly fine,” Fatima said, but as she looked down at the dock she immediately knew this was an outright lie. Her book was gone. Now she really couldn’t remember her lines.