March 6, 2010
This week has been structured by two parallel visits with DEFA personalities involved in the creation of the studio’s genre films, namely: star Gojko Mitic (pictured at right) and cinematographer Otto Hanisch.
On Tuesday March 2, I attended Mitic’s reading/q&a at the Urania cinema near Nollendorfplatz. The event was in part blatant advertising for the recent DEFA-Stiftung fan book Gesichter der DEFA, and in part a kind of nostalgic service (in the religious sense) for the fans. I was easily the youngest person in the theater, for example, whereas most of the people present were likely from the target demographic of Mitic’s Indianerfilme in the 1960s and 70s: GDR children aged 6-16.
The Serbian star narrated his life for the audience, repeating interview material from the newspapers with almost knife-like precision. The man is a true professional. Nevertheless, the legend proved moving: the moderator confessed that he always wanted to become an Indian while he was growing up (whereas Mitic always wanted to be a sea captain) and Mitic claimed that he always stayed in the GDR out of the tremendous love his fans expressed for him. He continuously returned to the kind of “spiritual socialism” (socialist spiritualism?) expressed in his films, namely utopian thoughts of correcting injustice around the world through culture and combating the greed of capitalism by re-writing history. But the audience was truly moved. Mitic’s speeches were greeted by spontaneous applause, approving laughter and enthusiastic questions. After the lecture was over, the 70-year old actor was mobbed by 40 and 50 year-olds for autographs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Mitic was perhaps the GDR’s only real star after all.
On Thursday, screenwriter Stefan Kolditz (Atkins, Burning Life) was so generous as to bring me to the Berlin apt. of Otto Hanisch, his father’s top cameraman. I had done my homework for the interview, so I knew that Hanisch was a WWII veteran who had survived a sinking submarine and had spent three years in Soviet gulags, before becoming a painter and a cinematographer under the GDR’s genre film directors. I knew he had apprenticed under UFA legends Bruno Mondi (Jud Süß, Das kalte Herz) and Robert Baberske (M, Der Untertan), and had to improvise a great deal to get the DEFA-Indianerfilm to “work” filmically in comparison with international westerns in the 60s. Frankly, I had no idea what he would be like.
It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon. Hanisch and his wife warmly greeted us and invited us to coffee and cake. “What do you want to talk about?” Hanisch asked me. I explained my interest in DEFA genre films and broke out the digital recorder. “Put that away,” he said. “And I’ll show you all my production materials for Spur des Falken and Signale.” Well, I couldn’t pass that deal up, so for the next 3 hours we pored over photos of stuntmen falling off horses and talked about his difficulties in getting the DEFA Indianerfilm genre off the ground, etc. Hanisch openly bore great respect for Gottfried Kolditz (okay, his son was present, but still…), always referring to him as “The Doctor,” and they clearly saw themselves as “Fachmänner” of a sort — expertly trained filmmakers who overcame grave difficulties to create some of the most popular genre entertainment in the GDR, despite little recognition for their work from the government. He complained of the “thin” scripts he received from Dr. Günter Karl, that they then had to convert into compelling stories on a limited budget. He detailed production difficulties in Georgia and Mongolia, but reminded us constantly that his encounters with film professionals from those countries were always cordial. “We all spoke the same language: film.” he remarked. Only interactions with politics and political ramifications in the Cold War seemed in hindsight to be challenges he could’ve done without. “But then at least we got to make films,” he said. “Not like today where it’s very difficult to get work outside of specific networks.” His point is well-taken, especially with what my colleagues at the HFF have said to this effect.
Both Mitic and Hanisch were seen as true experts at what they did, existing in some sphere outside of politics where all that matters is stunts performed and stunts recorded. Is the “stunt” necessarily an apolitical act? I’ll have to muse on this.
Chingachgook, the Great Snake (dir. Richard Groschopp, 1967)
The Last of the Mohicans, except with a happy socialist ending.
President (dir. C.T. Dreyer, 1919)
A masterpiece of silent storytelling by Dreyer, following many of his usual motifs, namely persecution, guilt, and religion. A local judge seeks to do penitence for not marrying his childhood love because he promised his father he would not wed out of the nobility. Even though the improvised piano soundtrack was lacking this time around, there is little damage it could do to a gorgeous print of a compelling film.
The Scout (dir. Konrad Petzold, 1983)
Ever wanted to see a movie about Native American cowboys? Gojko Mitic plays one here: a Nez Perce sent to lead the white men and their horses astray. Shot in Mongolia, this was the film that nearly killed Gojko in a stampede and only made after its original director Gottfried Kolditz died while location scouting in Yugoslavia. No wonder this was the last DEFA Indianerfilm.
Come Drink with Me (dir. King Hu, 1966)
One of the early, pre-Bruce Lee kung fu films that left their mark on action-film posterity. A general’s daughter is sent disguised as a man to rescue her brother from evil bandits, only to be helped by a beggar-kung-fu-master along the way. The constellation of characters and narrative are simple, but effective.
October 22, 2009
(Kat is coming Sunday afternoon! The excitement had to be noted.)
Saturday proved an intensely social time for the solitary little me. My first engagement was helping my friend Jan F. (from my Grinnell years) paint his old apartment in Friedrichshain. Most people might’ve said “Spend an afternoon in Berlin painting? No way!” I see it differently: activities that make me feel like a real person within a larger community are always welcome to me, and what better activity than applying white paint to not-so-white-anymore walls accomplishes this? Our chief concern was actually the fact that I hadn’t brought any “old clothes” to Germany (would you – seriously – bring along your painting clothes as part of your luggage?), so we rigged together an outfit out of a garbage bag for the day, which worked rather well in the end.
After whitifying ~1.5 rooms in Jan’s apartment, my arm grew tired and I departed for the Yellow Sunshine Diner, an excellent and affordable Berlin eating experience for the vegetarian and vegan-inclined among us, to meet Beverly and Kira. Our food was delicious – I had the Lappland Burger – and then we migrated to Café Bilderbuch in Schöneberg for drinks and dessert. A fine day overall!
Monday marked our second day of shooting for the HFF Konrad Wolf film. Again we experienced no problems (our final cut of the film is already turned in, in fact), and were even able to eat/imbibe some of the props… I will conduct a thorough analysis of our own film after its initial release on Friday, given that its premature summary jeopardizes its humor value.
(In between reality and fantasy, there’s interpretation. Here are a couple of academic books I’ve read in full and can discuss in brief):
Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race
This was a highly engrossing book, complicated in its argumentation but simple enough in premise: the world’s problem isn’t racism, but race as a construct, and it is specifically a product of whiteness, a Lacanian master signifier that organizes the paradoxical forces of identity (heritage: where you come from) and visibility (what do you look like, and what’s non-white about it). Using the Lacanian logic of gender difference to explore the interaction of whiteness as master signifier with non-whiteness as a closed-system of pre-determined (and stereotyped) meanings, Seshadri manages to philosophically clarify what the heck do we mean by race and how we signify it. Then she heads into her discipline – English literature – for a plethora of philosophical examples to illustrate her points. A great work of scholarship, if a bit biased toward issues primarily concerning English departments nowadays.
Mark Cronlund Anderson, Cowboy Imperialism and Hollywood Film
Anderson’s book is what I would consider a historian’s academically fueled rant against the right-wing politics of frontier westerns and their pernicious legacy across other genres. Replete with swear words and hard-line diatribes, his argument basically contends that Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History has provided an academic justification for the American imperialism of the 20th and 21st Centuries, best sugar-coated through the cinema presence of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and others. Some of his film selections proved rather interesting: he prompted me to watch Howard Hawks’ classic Red River (1948) in full and consider Mario van Peebles’ Posse (1993) an extension of the frontier myth through the semblance of re-writing the race rules of the western genre – all useful for the dissertation. I just wouldn’t recommend the work for those who want an academically disciplined, post-colonial genre discourse analysis across a broad range of national cinemas.
The Power of Nightmares (dir. Adam Curtis, UK 2004)
I remember watching Century of the Self a year ago and thinking it was a fairly decent intellectual history of public relations and the Freudian basis of modern advertising (not to mention commercial narrative, in general). The Power of Nightmares is kind of like that documentary mixed together with Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), the recap of what Vietnam was really about. Three hours of comparing neo-conservatives (as if they were different from neo-liberals, but I digress) to the radical Islamists in the Middle East actually proves quite interesting, since Curtis managed to snag crucial interviews from both sides, delivering a very even-handed and sober account of the web of fear and lies concocted by either party to support their political agendas. Maybe in ten years we’ll get a documentary about all the domestic damage the neo-cons have wrought too.
The Piano (dir. Jane Campion, UK/New Zealand 1993)
A heavy work of post-colonial, Freudian melodrama, complete with primal scenes, sado-masochism, and conflicts over the power over sexuality and the means of self-expression. I thought Anna Paquin’s character really held this film together, though all the actors – including Harvey Keitel in his standard “I’m naked!” scene – contributed to the high quality of this film. And Michael Nyman’s soundtrack is still one of the best modern piano scores out there. ‘Twas overall better than Forrest Gump (1994), but was probably too haunting (and too “directed by a woman”) to win the Oscar that year.
Lovers on the Road (dir. Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan, China 2008)
There’s an Asian Women’s Film Festival happening at the Kino Arsenal, so I figured I should go take a look at the offerings. It turned out the filmmaker was present for the screening, which was a short feature about a relationship on the rocks after the couple moves from Hong Kong to Beijing for the boyfriend’s graphic design career. Our female protagonist leads us through the ambivalence of passionless life transitions, which ultimately leads her to have an affair with an itinerant Japanese barista and then decide perhaps to do something else with her life (we don’t know for sure). One particularly great portion of the film involves audio interviews conducted with various (one presumes) real people who have recently come to Beijing for assorted purposes. This documentary realism provides a welcome diversion to an otherwise introverted and claustrophobic (one might say “angsty”) portrayal of relations between two fictional characters. Ah, alienation.
Apaches (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR/Romania/Poland 1973)
This was/is, bar none, the most popular GDR Indianerfilm, and there are many good reasons for this. Reason #1: Gojko Mitic actually co-wrote this one, which means there are lots of scenes of him doing neat things and kicking ass. Reason #2: All the moralizing of the earlier Indianerfilme was stripped away for a basic good vs. evil scenario: evil capitalists mass-murder the Apaches because they could, and then the Apaches exact bloody revenge. Sergio Leone would’ve been proud. Reason #3: The cool thing Gojko does is firing a flaming arrow at a covered wagon, which then explodes. If I were 10 years-old and watching this thing (sort of like the logic that drove the recent G.I. Joe movie, in fact), I would’ve been mesmerized.
October 17, 2009
This week marked the beginning of our film projects at the HFF Konrad Wolf. The assignment: The approximately 100 incoming students are arbitrarily divided into 10 groups of 10 to shoot a 3-minute feature with only a DV camera + accessories at their disposal. In addition, the students must work in an area that’s different from their Studiengang – cinematography students can’t do camera, acting student can’t act, etc. We were all collectively given the topic for this year’s project of “Was bisher geschah” (“What happened before now”), which understandably gave us a lot of leeway to come up with ideas. Most of the time, creative projects assembled arbitrarily seem to lead to artistic tension and inefficient action. Ours has been quite the opposite: we decided on a great idea within an hour of brainstorming (which I will disclose once the film is completed), everyone kind of naturally settled into their assorted changed-up roles, and production details were quickly arranged. Even the first day of shooting went precisely according to plan and gave us some great starting footage. I’d like to personally thank Alex, Anna, Laura, Maurice, Nick, Burkhart, Cate, Claudio and Veit for such a smooth and entertaining student film experience. If only all productive endeavors ran like this!
Tuesday was something of a “play-date” – we were let loose inside the Studio Babelsberg Filmpark and given tours of the Babelsberg facilities. This was a mixed experience for me. I’ve been working with the legacy of the Babelsberg Studios starting from their genesis under Guido Seeber in 1912 to their Weimar artistic glory to their UFA Nazi heritage to the “totalizing workshop” of the DEFA in East Germany to their purchase by Vivendi and conversion into an international filmmaking prestige location. So on the one hand, I was visiting very sacred ground for me: the origin point of what we consider to be major-league German studio cinema. This is where Murnau developed those fantastic tracking shots in The Last Laugh (1924), Heinz Rühmann flitted about in Feuerzangenbowle (1944), Alfred Hirschmeier developed sets for Silent Star (1960), Herwig Kipping tore apart what remained of the GDR in Land Beyond the Rainbow (1991), and Roman Polanski depicted Nazi-occupied Warsaw in The Pianist (2002). On the other hand, this was all very banal: here’s the building where they keep the props, there’s the television studios, here’s the fake street for some scenes from Sonnenallee (1999), there’s some retired junk from our stunt show, here’s a few Universal Studios-esque rides, there’s some paraphernalia from assorted terrible German co-productions, here’s the wall where they shot part of the Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), there’s a set of tourists who actually paid the 18 euros to see this stuff. In many ways, the Museum für Film und Fernsehen was far more enticing. Then again, my lack of enchantment might have stemmed from the itinerant hail landing on our heads as we meandered around outside.
On Wednesday night, I had a very nice evening with Sylvia Fischer, a prospective Ph.D. student who must have visited at least half-a-dozen U.S. schools in an effort to literally change her present way of life for the (intellectually) better. We ate at a restaurant in Friedrichshain, a place with which I’m becoming more familiar by the day, and swapped tips about Berlin and U.S. graduate school respectively. I’m always happy to meet up with assorted people in Berlin, and the city fortunately makes it quite easy to do so.
Some more observations:
• The consensus among both German nationals and foreign students is that the StaBi (the Berlin city library) kind of sucks and could be greatly improved in a myriad different ways. Someone oughta form a committee…
• In terms of causing human discomfort, the moist cold of Berlin kicks the butt of the semi-dry cold in Massachusetts hands down, but Iowa in October is still worse than either.
• German waiters are very quick mathematicians (due to their regular dealings with split checks), and probably use much more of their brains than American waiters, whose job is nevertheless much more aggressively about both pleasing the customer and forcing them to leave the establishment.
• Dogs are people here.
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (dir. Eric Brevig, USA 2008)
Thanks to the formidable resources the HFF Konrad Wolf has placed at our disposal so that we might produce and consume films, I saw this Brendan Fraser adventure flick for free and in glorious 3D. Now our blogs are not yet 3D-image capable, but in this case I wish they were, because this film can only be described in 3D terms. In effect, Eric Brevig (of Xena: Warrior Princess fame) created an almost encyclopedic homage to every major 3D trick in the book, from the “yo-yo in your face” to the “flying water droplets” to the “roller coaster” to the “suspend a floating object against a dramatic backdrop.” Rather than evolving a “new” 3D vocabulary, Brevig seems content to offer a carnivalesque array of 3D attractions nestled in a skeletal, cliché-driven plot designed to get us from one effects sequence to another. In this respect, the movie thoroughly succeeds from an effects angle, and Fraser proves himself as the sympathetic human to whom special-FX-related events always seem to happen.
I am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence, USA 2007)
This post-apocalyptic film was quite spectacularly bad, but instructively so. The Last Man on Earth (1964) brought us Vincent Price as the doomed hero who would discover he is the villain. The Omega Man (1971) brought us Charlton Heston in a similar idiom, except less adept at the task of acting. But I Am Legend (2007) spins an elaborate escapist post-apocalyptic fantasy in which Will Smith becomes a Christ figure and unequivocally saves humanity with his selfless actions – more analogous to Byron Haskin’s 1953 Christian re-interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds than to either of I Am Legend‘s two predecessor adaptations of the Richard Matheson text. All of the movie’s foregrounding of a decimated Manhattan isle aside, the chief focus is just how virtuous albeit lonely Will Smith is with his dog. I don’t know what to make of it, other than as Hollywood dumping a pile of syrup on an otherwise perfectly serviceable parable about human decadence and then expecting an introspective piano score, edgy mise-èn-scene, and post-Bourne hand-held camera action sequences to convince us this is a serious work espousing something constructive. It isn’t.
Destricted (dir. various, UK 2006)
I watched some of this with Steve Wilson before I left, but the HFF just so happened to have a copy on their shelf so I got to watch the rest. Advertised as “the most controversial and sexually explicit film ever to receive an 18 certificate from the BBFC,” Destricted is a collection of seven short films from acclaimed art-film directors directly exploring pornography and sex in our times. Larry Clark (Kids, Ken Park) provides us with interviews of young men about how they grew up with pornography, and then proceeds to cast a young man paired with a porn-star for some on-camera action. Clark’s film highlights the indexical as well as the audience-performance aspects of pornography. Gaspar Noé’s film (I Stand Alone, Irreversible) is a strobe-heavy exploration of a man sexually assaulting a blow-up doll in his room. Sam Taylor-Wood’s film “Death Valley” is an actor candidly masturbating against the backdrop of, well, Death Valley. Matthew Barney strapped himself naked inside some massive machine and shaped some pottery with his member. Richard Prince distances the audience from a cliché porn flick with Boards of Canada-style ambient music and the fuzzy color distortion that one gets when one crosses film and digital video. Marco Brambilla has a brilliant 2-minute clip of thousands of images from romance and pornography cut together to overload one’s senses with the conventions of the porn industry. Marina Abramovic uses a combination of live action and animation to portray assorted Balkan superstitions involving the genitalia. All in all a worthwhile view, but only if you’ve got the stomach for both the ugly bits and the strobe effects.
Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, USA 1948)
Whoever thinks Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) is the first gay cowboy movie has obviously never set eyes on this classic. In the era when movies seemed to possess a cinematic subconsciousness and deep social subtext (Gilda, Fury, Casablanca, Some Like It Hot all spring to mind), Red River explores the macho manly activities of cattle-herding and trail-blazing from Texas to Missouri, as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift meanwhile develop one of the most bizarre, sexually repressed man-on-man relationships ever to hit the silver screen. I watched it for the clear justifications for American imperialism, but it turned out to be far more entertaining in its subtext than its principle plot.
October 5, 2009
I have titled this blog entry based not only on Keanu Reeves’ favorite expression, but also on my sudden feeling of being stunned in the middle of the action.
A re-cap of my weekend: I celebrated my 27th birthday on Friday, first by going over to Luisa and Ming’s place in Kreuzberg for a nice lunch where we discussed a future mini-film festival that we’ll hold in their apartment. It was extremely wonderful to be engaged in an intense discussion about film, politics and what have you with several earnest professionals who know what they’re talking about. I then made myself a cake and then went to Hilary Bown’s apartment with Kira to play classic Monopoly. Now I categorically hate Monopoly – we might as well record 30 of our dice rolls on a chart and see who wins – but coupling it with late-night drinking made it alright. On Saturday and Sunday, I got out to La Foccaceria in Mitte – a great, cheap pizza place – and to the Brandenburg Gate to watch the “Riesen” (“Giants”) get dressed by about 20 puppeteers for their march through Berlin. (Since there were way too many people there for the puppets, I left after they crossed through the Brandenburg Gate… which was itself a spectacle, since I didn’t know if the guy in the diving suit would make it).
Now for the “whoa” part: our orientation program at the HFF Potsdam today. Ever since I arrived in Berlin, I’ve been given a handful of unstructured weeks in which to A) get settled in my apartment, B) waste time at the LABO trying to get a visa, C) write some fiction and D) structure my dissertation research. As of today, that unstructured time is officially gone. For the next three weeks, I belong to the HFF, which means I’m now “sneaking in” my research at night. Our orientation program began with a stunning “country boy” rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” performed by one of the students, followed by a pep talk from Stefan Arndt (Run Lola Run, Goodbye Lenin!) in which he basically said “I never went to film school – I just made films. Use this film school opportunity to watch and make films!” Then we were all introduced in our different fields – film direction, production, film and media studies (my area), cinematography, acting, music composition, etc. – and handed these nifty tote bags. After we met with our respective faculties, we then returned to the auditorium to be divided up into 10 groups – irrespective of our respective fields – that in 3 weeks time will each complete a “introductory film.” I’m only slightly nervous about the fact that our group primarily contains people from film direction, production, screenwriting and film studies, and nobody from cinematography, editing, sound, or film music. This may influence what film we wind up producing. We were given a tour today of the facilities and of all the state-of-the-art film technology that the HFF now has to offer, so only tomorrow do we have to think about the film we’re going to make. But still: it was quite funny to suddenly show up and be asked to make a film in three weeks with a group of complete strangers.
Nevertheless – and I think this is the larger point – these people soon grew (over the course of one day!) to be more than just strangers. I think there’s just under 100 people in our entering class in total, which means our departments aren’t that big and everybody is very collegial with one another. Add to that the fact that I’m like an exotic animal, being an American who speaks very good German and has a hyper-acute knowledge of East/West German film history, and Bam! I found myself in conversations with people the entire day. I shared some music with one student, bantered with the media studies professors about recent films, and gave a group of my peers a crash course on the historical significance of Konrad Wolf’s I Was 19. That is to say, I am suddenly academically at home as well. BUT being academically at home is exhausting to say the least, so I’d better hit the sack for the next day of intensive introduction to the top film school in Germany…
Never Drive A Car While You’re Dead (dir. Gregor Dashuber, Germany 2009)
Possibly the greatest animated short I’ve seen in a long time, Never Drive a Car While You’re Dead should be up for an Academy Award – except those only exist to praise Pixar these days. The premise? A guy in a crappy apartment – vaguely resembling Cahit’s from Gegen die Wand (2004) – tries to commit suicide, but feels compelled instead to play his piano. This piano quite literally drives him into the nightmarish hellhole neighborhood he lives in, which has been shaped by neo-liberal capitalism and Baudrillard’s “apocalypse of the Real,” resplendent with violent penguins, Siamese twin prostitutes, and assorted suffering people. A group of like-minded people follow him to his own grave, at which point he wakes up, tries to commit suicide and (I’m giving away the twist) poetically fails. This film had an understated, well-executed soundtrack, an animation style drawing from both classic Thames cartoons (e.g. Count Duckula) as well as MTV, and a fiercely sarcastic message that it manages to maintain throughout the piece. I think it’s amazing that they showed us such a bleak product as an introduction to the HFF, but it’s bold, aggressive and has a clear message. Bravo!
The Falcon’s Trail (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR 1968)
Well, it turns out I watched White Wolves too early, as it’s the sequel to this film. White men find gold in the Black Hills, and so the evil capitalists maneuver to try and take the land away from the Dakotas. Kolditz’s first foray into Indianerfilm territory only sort of succeeds: he doesn’t include as many stunts with Gojko Mitic as Konrad Petzold but, man, does he go out of his way to depict an outright massacre of the Dakotas by the white men! This is a recurring trope throughout the DEFA Indianerfilme that we always find ourselves somehow vicariously experiencing some massacre of one tribe or another. This reminds me of Quinn Slobodian’s article on “corpse polemics” and the fascination among the West German tabloids for the grotesquely murdered and mutilated African bodies.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Mount and ride a bareback horse.
The other major detail is also the crazy war dances performed which harken back to Kolditz’s musical training and serve as a precursor to the crazy alien dances in In the Dust of the Stars (1976).
Fatal Error (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1970)
Okay, instead of gold, this time the white men find oil on the Shoshone’s land and conspire to take it away. The Shoshone are bribed with, of all things, alcohol to make them weak (the same trope is used in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Bouncer Vol. 6 The Black Widow) so they can simply be cheated and murdered.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Actually, this is more Armin Mueller-Stahl’s movie (good thing his cowboy grew up with the Shoshone), but Gojko does take on drunk Shoshones armed with flaming torches who want to set fire to the oil tower on their property.
I Was 19 (dir. Konrad Wolf, GDR 1968)
Of all things, the HFF Konrad Wolf spends the first day – ta da! – showing us a film by Konrad Wolf. This was good, because I’ve seen the film plenty of times earlier and was able to see it through new eyes on a 35mm print of middling quality. I was most impressed this time with the way in which Konrad Wolf’s autobiography and his unified film vision sometimes come into conflict. He toys with details that he remembers from his past, but such details intrude on otherwise more seamless cuts and more transparent characters. Still, there are few better films to use to discuss the Russian invasion of Germany ca. late April 1945.
October 1, 2009
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.
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.