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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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.