Archive for December, 2009

December 28, 2009

Horror film of the decade: “The White Ribbon”

AS EVERY CONNOISSEUR OF horror films knows, the scariest monsters aren’t the ones you see but the ones you don’t. In his latest film, The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes and Germany’s Oscar submission for 2010, director Michael Haneke presents his audience with the creepiest film of the decade without showing a single creepy monster. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he does indeed show an entire village filled with creepy beings, leaving us to figure out which among them are even more monstrous than the rest.

It is the year 1913 in the fictitious northern German village of Eichwald – an innocuous enough name in itself (“Oakwood”) that nevertheless leaves a creepy taste in the viewer’s mouth due to its associations with Eichmann and Buchenwald. Everything should be just fine here, because these are, after all, Germany’s good old days. The First World War has yet to erupt (it will before the film is over), Wilhelm is still wearing the crown of the German Empire, and the Nazi Party is not even a sparkle in the eye of a young Munich painter called Adolf Hitler. And yet all is not well in this picture book quasi-feudal community. Three men reign supreme: the feckless baron (played by Ulrich Tukur) in his manor house, who owns all the means of production for miles around (assisted by his violent and lecherous administrator, played by Joseph Bierbichler), the tyrannical Lutheran pastor (Burghart Klaussner), and the incestuous and seemingly psychopathic village doctor (Rainer Bock). The regime they maintain is characterized by violence, misogyny, stupidity, systematic hypocrisy, and “God-given” authority. As the narrator (the empathetic village schoolteacher, played by Christian Friedel) says retrospectively at the start of the film, what happens in Eichwald “may cast light on other events in this country.”…

Continued…

December 18, 2009

Iconic sign stolen from Auschwitz death camp memorial

THE THIEVES CAME BETWEEN 3:30 and 5:00 this morning. Somehow they cut a gap through the fence and circumvented the guards without being seen or heard. The four meter long sign was impossible to miss – it spelled out the words Arbeit macht frei and could be seen from a considerable distance. Working fast, they unscrewed it from above the gate where it had hung for nearly seventy years, loaded it onto a waiting vehicle and made off with it before anyone knew what had hit them. Now the theft of a sign is always trouble, but it becomes an international incident when the place from which it was stolen is called Oswiecim – better known to the outside world as Auschwitz.

World reaction has been fierce. Poland’s deputy foreign minister Andrzej Kremer spoke of a “shocking act,” since the sign “is the key symbol of this concentration camp.” Israel’s vice prime minister Silvan Schalom spoke of “an appalling deed” that represented a “desecration” of this historic site. Avner Schalev, president of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, called the theft an attack on memory and “an escalation of those elements that would like to lead us back to darker days.” However, former president Lech Walesa has suggested that the theft is “a criminal act” rather than a political action. But so far, the police have no leads. The Polish state has posted a reward of 5,000 Zloty (1,200 Euros) for information that could lead to the apprehension of the perpetrators.

But why did the Nazis install such a bizarre sign in the first place instead of a more honest statement, such as “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”? In fact, the sign’s striking irony drives home both the horror and the perverted idealism of the Nazis’ reign of terror in Europe from 1933 to 1945…

Continued…

December 9, 2009

The tomato that launched a women’s revolution

A RECENT PRESS REPORT about a tomato that was inexpertly tossed in the direction of former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin in the Mall of America recalls a similar incident that occurred in Frankfurt forty-one years ago. That time the thrower not only had a better aim, but her historic toss also helped launch a revolution in the way women and men would see one another in Central Europe for the next four decades and beyond.

A whiff of revolution

Temperatures were rising on West German campuses in the late 1960s. Disgusted at what they perceived as a repressive conservative society wrapped around a loathsome Nazi past, a new generation of university students took to the streets, demanding a revolution in social relations. The movement they created has gone down in history as the “Extraparliamentary Opposition.”

But society fought back. In 1967 a West Berlin policeman shot student Benno Ohnesorg dead during a demonstration against a state visit by the “fascist” Shah of Iran. The following spring, a young neonazi put a bullet through the skull of the young Marxist revolutionary Rudi Dutschke. Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao had by this time supplanted John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King as progressive role models. A range of new organisations sprang up, ranging from gentle pacifist groups dedicated to “free love” all the way to the blooththirsty, bomb-throwing Red Army Faction. Those groups hovering in between, collectively known as Spontis (from the word “spontaneous”), skillfully captured headlines by occupying university buildings and publicly humiliating authority figures from the bourgeois “Establishment” – preferably by lobbing rotten fruit and vegetables at them. But despite their diversity, there is one thing all of these organisations shared in common: they were dominated by men…

Continued…

December 7, 2009

Berlin newspaper erects provocative new artwork

Peter Lenk's sculpture "Friede sei mit dir"

IT’S STORIES LIKE THIS that drive home just how different Europe and America can be from one another. On 15 November, 2009 the left-wing German newspaper Die Tageszeitung (“taz” for short) unveiled a provocative artwork by sculptor Peter Lenk on the wall of its Kreuzberg headquarters featuring a naked man with a five-story, fifty-two foot tall porcelain male member that narrows into a cobra head at the tip. And the man depicted in the installation is not just any man, but Kai Diekmann, chief editor of the right-wing Bildzeitung, whose highrise headquarters is within spitting distance – with an unobstructed view of the artwork.

To understand what could motivate such such a bizarrely counterintuitive image you first need to know something about the German press. Diekmann’s Bildzeitung, founded by publishing tycoon Axel Springer in  1952, is Europe’s largest-circulation newspaper, selling three millions copies daily across forty-four countries. The Bild tabloid is to German newspapers what Fox News is to American TV. Decades before anyone in the US had ever heard of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, Bild was already out there rousing the rabble with anti-communist horror stories, faux populist outrage about the latest public sex or finance scandal, lurid celebrity gossip, a lavish full-color sports section and, its most popular feature, a daily topless photo of a buxom blonde model on the back page. While it has gained a lot of competition in recent years through cable TV and the Internet, its role in fomenting anti-student outrage in the late 1960s and early 1970s remains legendary…

Continued…

December 4, 2009

Happy 106th birthday, Johannes Heesters!

Johannes Heesters, 1903-

WHILE IT IS NOT exactly what the Germans call a “round birthday,” by the time you turn 106 every birthday is something to celebrate. This time it is the turn of the Dutch-Austrian singer and actor Johannes Heesters. He is not only the world’s oldest active stage performer, he is also one of Europe’s most controversial.

Heesters was born in Amersfoort, Netherlands on December 5, 1903. As a child he dreamed of becoming a priest. He later embarked on a banking apprencticeship before discovering his true vocation as a performer. At the age of sixteen he began to study music and acting, appearing on the stage for the first time in 1921. His film debut followed in 1924 as a supporting actor in the Dutch movie Cirque Hollandais. But silent movies could not satisfy the young tenor’s ambitions and Heesters continued to seek stage roles. In 1927 he auditioned for the German band leader Harry Frommermann, who would subsequently found the fabled “Comedian Harmonists,” but refused to sign a contract when Frommermann told him that he would not receive a wage for the first several months. Heesters landed his first major role on stage in 1930 and went on to become an accomplished operetta singer, debuting at the Vienna Volksoper in 1934…

Continued…