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.

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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.