Archive for October, 2009

October 30, 2009

“Metropolis” lives! The return of a cinematic masterpiece


EVERYBODY HAS SEEN THE images, but how many have sat through the whole thing? In 1927, Fritz Lang first unleashed his 204 minute-long studio-busting sci-fi flick Metropolis on the public, the answer is “precious few.” It bombed at its opening in Berlin on January 10 of that year and it did little better in a somewhat shortened version that premiered in Stuttgart and Munich on August 25. It was not until Paramount Pictures took mercy on this beached whale of a would-be epic, hired scriptwriter Channing Pollock to cut it way down to a form that at least Americans could swallow, that the film finally started to attract an audience. “Metropolis knew no boundaries and had no logic,” Pollock later explained. “I gave it my own meaning.” This version, running to around an hour and a half, became the one the world would proceed to call Metropolis, a movie that everyone knew about but hardly anyone actually liked.

Sure, the visuals were always stunning – visionary even (director Luis Bunuel called it “the most wonderful picture book you could imagine”) – but good visuals do not a good movie make. The generally poor film quality we usually got to see on late-night public TV was one stroke against it, and the even worse (and widely divergent) soundtracks were another. But most of all, the egregiously dysfunctional story of Freder Fredersen, the naïve but courageous son of the great city’s lord and master, and the Christ-like figure of Maria, the prophet of Metropolis’s vast proletarian underground population, whose implausible love for each other brings the two seemingly irreconcilable classes together, seemed both cloying and downright insulting. As one critic wrote in the Berliner Börsen-Courier the morning after the 1927 premiere, “[Screenwriter] Thea von Harbou has invented a preposterous plot whose motifs are stuffed to the gills. (…) She continually works with hollow feelings. Horrible. A serious topic is transformed into gruesome kitsch. [It is filled with] special effects, not because ideologies themselves cause explosions, but because the film wants to show off its tricks. The conclusion – the tearful reconciliation of employer and employee – [is] appalling.” …


October 29, 2009

A sexual revolution: Dr. Sommer’s advice column turns forty

Goldstein 3

THE TERM “SEXUAL REVOLUTION” has become such a cliché in recent decades that it is hard to imagine that it ever had a tangible meaning. And yet, the transformation of global sexual mores that picked up steam in the 1960s really did transform society in ways we are still trying to understand. But how did it get started? Despite the theoretical writings of Sigmund Freud and the prophets of free love, this social and cultural earthquake frequently had humble beginnings. In Central Europe, for example, the true sexual revolution was touched off by the teenage sex advice column of Dr. Sommer, which is marking its fortieth anniversary this month.

When Europe was “moral”

Today it is difficult to conceive that the hedonistic Europe consistently denounced by the American Right – who delight in pointing their fingers at the excesses of the likes of Roman Polanski or at the “green” brothels of Berlin – was once as straight-laced as the Oral Roberts University campus, at least in the way it brought up its youth…


October 21, 2009

The world’s silliest place names

puke albania

CHANCES ARE THAT IF you come from a small town you are sick and tired of always having to describe to people where it is located. But if you’re lucky, you won’t have to explain why it ended up having one of these silly names!

This list is far from complete, and I have restricted myself to names where I could track down a sign and, wherever possible, a story to go with it. (I have also left a few out for reasons of taste.) If you know another one, and perhaps have a picture to illustrate it, I’d love to add it to this collection. …


October 19, 2009

Berlin’s “New Museum” reopens its doors after a seventy year sleep

Home at last:
The Bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s New Museum
(14th century BCE)

IT TOOK ONLY A few hours to obliterate Berlin’s New Museum, the brightest jewel in the capital’s proud crown of cultural heritage sites. British bombs blasted holes through its roof on the night of November 22/23, 1943 and then the flames took over the job. A further bombing in February, 1945 finished off the last undamaged wing. Pitched battles by SS and Red Army forces in the last days of the war destroyed what little had been preserved from the flames, leaving only blackened walls and shattered exhibition rooms behind.

The museum itself had already closed at the oubreak of war in 1939. This means that its more mobile treasures were hidden away in mine shafts and other protected sites, preserving most of them for later  generations to view in a hodge-podge of museums scattered across Berlin. But these seventy years of improvisation are finally over, because on October 17, 2009 the New Museum finally reopened its doors, allowing visitors to admire some of the world’s greatest historical art collections at their original site.

Sleeping Beauty awakes

The New Museum was commissioned by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841…


October 12, 2009

“We are the people!” How Leipzig launched a revolution

70,000 march in Leipzig's Monday Demonstration on October 9, 1989

70,000 march in Leipzig's Monday Demonstration on October 9, 1989

IT WAS ALEXIS DE Tocqueville who wrote that “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.” While this observation clearly applied to Eastern Europe’s doomed communist governments in 1989, it was not entirely true in the German Democratic Republic in October of that astonishing year. Instead, “the second German state” decided its own destiny the moment it refused to reform while it still had the chance. That was the moment when the people of Leipzig took the cause of reform into their own hands.

“Those who come too late”

Please note that I said “reform” and not “revolution,” let alone “reunification with the Federal Republic.” These were still pipe dreams in October of 1989, and not even particularly attractive ones for most people. The majority would still have been satisfied with a few democratic reforms at home and an open border with the Federal Republic. A new “socialism with a human face” was as much as most people expected to see in their lifetimes. But the fraudulent election in May had energized the tiny underground opposition movement. Internment camps were going up across the country, and the communist government’s repeated threats of a “Chinese solution” à la Tiananmen Square gave dissidents a cause to fight for, namely sheer survival in the face of a potentially genocidal government. 

Then, as escapes westward via Hungary and West Germany’s Prague embassy grew from a trickle to a flood, East Germans began to realize that their government was hardly the all-powerful monolith they had been brought up to fear. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin on October 6 in connection with the GDR’s fortieth anniversary –  in the course of which he publicly told communist boss Erich Honecker through an interpreter that “those who come too late [i.e. who don’t introduce reforms in time] will be punished by life itself” …


October 9, 2009

German shepherd pie, anyone?

hot marxism

WHEN YOU’RE IN THE language biz, there usually isn’t much to laugh about. Sure, your colleagues may tell you the odd joke about various bizarre interpreting and translating situations they’ve encountered, but mostly you simply spend your days processing other people’s words. So on a day when you are faced with translating, say, a fifty-page brochure on local public transport in France, you can use all the laughs you can get. That’s when translators start exchanging images of amusing examples of their trade collected all over the world. These gems not only console us that there is still plenty of demand for competent translators around the world, but also that our foreign colleagues regularly face challenges that go far beyond anything we ever enounter in our working lives. I’ve included several examples below, in case anyone else feels the need for a moment’s comic relief on a slow Friday afternoon. Of course, weirdly translated signs can be found in any country, although the Chinese with their “Chinglish” inscriptions are undoutedly the world’s leader – probably due to sheer volume.

But now, sadly, word has reached me from China that the authorities there are sending thousands of language students into the nation’s cities to purge and replace embarrassing translations. Personally, I believe this represents a devastating loss of cultural diversity, not to mention a targeted attack on practically the only humor people like me are exposed to on any given day. Anyone care to join me in a “Save the Chinglish”? campaign? Maybe we can get UNESCO on board…


October 5, 2009

Gracias a la vida! Celebrating Mercedes Sosa, 1935-2009

Mercedes Sosa in 1980

Mercedes Sosa in 1980

 THE PEOPLE OF HER native Argentina called her “the voice of the voiceless ones.” For the rest of the world, she will always be known as the voice of South America.

The singer Mercedes Sosa was born in the northwestern Argentine town of San Miguel de Tucumán, the birthplace of the Argentine declaration of independence, to working class parents in 1935. Her mother was of French descent and her father traced his family back to Quechua Indian roots. Sosa already began performing traditional tunes as a child and won a radio talent contest at the age of fifteen. She recorded her first folklore album in 1959. After performing in a national folklore festival in 1965 she became a household name in her own country.

Sosa and her parents had been fervent supporters of the populist Peronist movement and particularly revered its charismatic symbol, Evita. From then on she moved increasingly to the left. In the mid-1960s, Sosa and her first husband, Manuel Oscar Matus, helped found the Nuevo Cancionero movement, which first began in Argentina and Uruguay and gradually worked its way up the continent into Central America. Sosa and her fellow musicians idealistically believed that social and political transformation could come about through the message of song. Their music combined folk tunes and pop themes and frequently contained a progressive political message. By 1967 the couple were touring North America and Europe and playing to sell-out crowds.

In 1976 the political tide turned in Argentina, when the junta of Jorge Videla seized power. …


October 2, 2009

Condom Kaiser: The tragic fate of inventor Julius Fromm

Fromms Act - The world's first brand-name latex condom

Fromms Act - The world's first brand-name latex condom

VIRTUALLY EVERYBODY USES THEM from time to time, but few people are aware of the uplifting and ultimately heart-breaking story that lies behind the world’s most widespread – if not always most loved – contraceptive device: the seamless latex condom.

A new book is about to correct this shortcoming in the English-speaking world. Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis by historian Götz Aly and Spiegel editor Michael Sontheimer is scheduled to appear in American bookshops later this month (the original German-language version appeared in 2007). Aly and Sontheimer have written not just a biography of a man and his revolutionary creation, but also of an era: the rise of a new Jewish middle class in central Europe around 1900 and its subsequent “Aryanization” and extermination at the hands of the Nazi Party.

Humble beginnings

Julius Fromm was born in 1883 as Israel From to a poor eastern Jewish family in the Polish shtetl of Konin, which at that time belonged to the Russian Empire. A decade later the family of eight fled the poverty and hopelessness of anti-Semitic Russia to Germany’s boomtown capital, Berlin. There the family settled in the “Scheunenviertel,” the city’s predominantly Jewish immigrant slum near Alexanderplatz, where they eked out an existence rolling cigarettes at home and selling them in local bars. …


October 1, 2009

Think globally, dance locally: Youssou N’Dour turns fifty

Youssou N'Dour
Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour

THE ARTIST WHOM ROLLING Stone Magazine has called “perhaps the most famous singer alive” is celebrating his fiftieth birthday today. Youssou N’Dour was born in Dakar, Senegal to pious Sufi Muslim parents on October 1, 1959. He got his start performing at local gatherings in the capital’s rough-and-tumble Medina area, sometimes playing pirate gigs on the parking lots outside Dakar night clubs. At age twelve he was already performing on stage and on radio with the popular Star Band. In 1979 N’Dour set up his own group, which he called Étoile de Dakar, the later Super Étoile, which soon became the best-known band in all of Africa.

N’Dour is a pioneer of Afrobeat and a genre of Senegalese music called Mbalax, which combines jazz, Latin, soul, rock, and traditional West African rhythms and is sung in Wolof. His unique version of African fusion also contains a vital spiritual element. N’Dour is descended from a long line of griots – the traditional Sufi bards of Western Africa – on his mother’s side of the family and he has made a lifelong study of Sufi music and literature. …