Monday, May 21, 2012

Preoccupied Conference in Berlin

Coming up in late June 2012: an academic conference inspired by the work of the various Occupy movements around the world. It's being organized by an international consortium of university programs known as the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate. The final conference program hasn't been announced yet, but should be posted here by early June. Here's what the organizers say about their plans:
PREOCCUPIED takes as its starting point the worldwide interventions of protestors and artists, activists and the impassioned of 2011. Let us be inspired by their daring and as bold in our imaginings. The conference will be held amongst the strange and inspiring ruins of Berlin’s Kulturpark this coming June 28-29, 2012. We hope you will be as galvanized by fallen dinosaurs as we have been. What we’re talking about, what you are, is the future.
In any case, two excellent keynote speakers are already in place: Simon Critchley (who's written extensively about the politics of resistance and been involved with Occupy Wall Street in NYC) and Hito Steyerl, a filmmaker with special expertise in essayist documentary video and the global circulation of images. The exact conference location is still TBA at this point, but this one sounds interesting enough to keep an eye on.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Berlin for Little People

My friend Gaëlle de Radiguès and her friend Ocka Caremi have just published an activity book for kids based on sights in and around Berlin. Puzzles, drawing activities and more! The book is designed to appeal to kids between four and ten years of age. For now, it is available only in German, but it's basic enough (and filled with enough pictures) that it's a good way to introduce children to a small German vocabulary. If you would buy an English-language edition, leave your comments to that effect below and I'll be sure to pass them on. The book can be purchased in various bookstores in Berlin or via Amazon in either Germany or the U.S. This would also be a great way to help kids remember what they saw on their German vacation. Gaëlle and Ocka made activity books based on Munich, Hamburg, Potsdam and the North Sea as well.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Arab Spring Comes to Berlin

This Monday I dropped by Occupy Berlin (Asableas are now held daily at 5:00 p.m. on the lawn outside the Reichstag) and discovered a group of representatives from the Arab Spring - "young leaders" from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria invited to spend a week in Berlin by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Read my report on the session and on the current state of Berlin's Occupy on my blog Translationista. The only outward sign that this group of people speaking French on the Reichstag lawn was anything other than a pack of tourists was the bicycle parked beside them with this sign hanging from it. I thought the sign looked familiar; then I remembered where I'd seen it before: in a video featuring the "Asamblea Song," which I have now translated into English.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Berlin

I knew there was an Occupy Berlin even before I arrived here two days ago, because I'd seen Dina Rasor's column about it in Truthout and because I'd been greeted at Frankfurt Airport by a map of all the German "Occupies" published in the Oct. 27 issue of Die Zeit. There are lots of them, and Berlin is the biggest (followed by Frankfurt and Hamburg). Based on what I saw today, Occupy Berlin is well on its way to establishing itself as a serious Occupy movement.

Things started out slowly at the first event I attended, which had been announced for 1:00 p.m. on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate. I arrived to find only an older couple holding up a banner calling for a tax on net worth and a young man setting up cardboard signs. This turned out to be one of the main initiators of Occupy Berlin and the webmaster of one of the several currently active Occupy Berlin websites. (Other OB websites can be found here, here, here and here.) For a while the demonstration remained modest in size, with half the 50 or so participants forming a "meditation flash mob" while others went on talking around them. Since I spoke up to offer greetings from New York, I was asked to report on how things were looking there at the moment. Then the organizers explained Occupy Berlin to newcomers, announced several upcoming local events, and took questions from the crowd.

Around 2:00 p.m. things became much more lively. A large march of protesters dressed as billionaires and holding signs praising the virtues of greed and consumption arrived at the Brandenburg gate; they were initially stopped on the far side of it by a line of policemen but then (perhaps because the large masses of tourists out enjoying the late-October sunshine were being stopped by the blockade as well), allowed to pass through. They then began a (pre-arranged) shouting match with the original group of 99%ers that ended with a sort of summit: A man holding a wooden mock-up of the Pope (who complained loudly that the police had stopped him and punched a hole in the water bottle he had rigged up to allow his wooden pope to urinate) recited an excellent parody of the Lord's Prayer rewritten as an ode to profit. Then an Angela Merkel lookalike (sort of) gave a speech ("The future belongs to the rich," etc.) Then we all marched peaceably to the front of the Reichstag, where a General Assembly involving several hundred people took place; in Berlin, GAs are referred to by the Spanish word for "assembly," asamblea, in tribute to the demonstrations in Spain.

It was clear from this GA that Occupy Berlin is still in its early stages: The main business of the assembly, after the explanation of the standard OWS hand signals, was inviting people to stand up and say why they had come to the assembly. A number of the things you would expect to hear (about not feeling represented by one's elected officials, etc.) were said; a man from Greece explained why the proposed bailout of his country by the EU would not help anyone, including the Greeks; a small child stood up twice and performed cuteness; someone sang a protest song translated from the Portuguese; a woman from Mexico reported on successes in achieving certain rights for indigenous peoples in her country. Some of this was inspiring. Overall I'd say that some of the sort of organizing that gives a movement its identity has yet to occur in Berlin. But things are definitely moving along. A number of working groups have already been established. A kitchen set up beneath a tree ("Occupy Imbiss") was serving its first meal. There was even a catchy Occupy Berlin song, "Asamblea weltweit," performed to lead off the march.

There are Occupy Berlin spinoffs as well. One of the announcements made today was that a second Berlin-based Occupy movement, Occupy Friedrichshain, is planning to hold a large demonstration at the Oberbaumbrücke and establish a new camp tomorrow (10/30). The neighborhood Friedrichshain is the Williamsburg of Berlin, so I'm not surprised to hear it now has its own Occupy, complete with website. This will be, as far as I know, the fourth attempt to start an Occupy camp in Berlin. Protesters at the inception of the movement on Oct. 15 - a demonstration that attracted huge numbers of Berliners - first attempted to establish a campsite in the shadow of the Reichstag, but were prevented by police, who in the end resorted to physical force to remove the tents being defended by dozens of peaceful protesters. A second camp was established on Oct. 28 on private land at Klosterstrasse 66 not far from Alexanderplatz; as I write this, it is still standing. Protesters today attempted to start a new camp at the Marx-Engels Forum beside Alexanderplatz itself, but were stopped by police. So far it appears that the same strategy working in New York (establish a camp on private property open to the public) seems to be most effective in Berlin as well.

Something I noticed today is that most of the older people I spoke to at the demonstration and assembly turned out to be East Germans, and all three of them let me know fairly soon in the conversation that they were from the East and emphasized that they had learned from experience how much can be achieved by taking peaceably to the streets. (Remember that the Berlin Wall was breached during one of a series of increasingly large protests that had been taking place weekly in Berlin and Leipzig for months.)

Another thing I noticed was that the Berlin police were both more aggressive and more restrained than the NYPD. On the one hand, members of the Polizei were right in our faces the entire time, often standing close enough to the demonstrators to be able to hear most of what was being said privately as well as via human mike; they also conducted aggressive bag searches, unapologetically profiling people (e.g. of the two women I spoke to who got searched, one had waist-long dreadlocks, and the other was Iranian). In the course of these bag searches, the police tried to force people to give up things like blankets (remember, an outdoor meditation session had been announced, so of course people had blankets). There was a great deal of discussion about this, and several of the gray-haired participants got vociferously involved, making it harder for the police to isolate and intimidate some of the younger people they were picking on. I believe they did succeed in taking a yoga mat away from one young man, but the woman with the dreads got to keep her blanket.

But apparently it is possible to talk back to the German police without getting arrested; this is very different than in New York. And in the video that shows the German police pushing their way through a crowd to take down a tent, they don't seem to be arresting the people who get in their way, they just push them firmly, but not violently, to one side - though two policemen do eventually get inappropriately violent with a pair of seated protesters near the end of the video. In short, even though the German police seemed more intimidating to me overall than the NYPD (because they kept getting right up in my business as I was simply standing on the sidewalk), I saw nothing even approaching NYPD-style transgressions like the casual use of pepper-spray, kicking and dragging handcuffed protesters or the nightstick beatings that were captured on video in NYC (not to mention the rubber bullets and tear gas employed last week in Oakland). I was also briefly part of a crowd that marched from the Brandenburg Gate back toward Alexanderplatz - walking right in the middle of the street Unter den Linden and blocking traffic there - without anyone getting arrested. I'd like to see that happen in New York.

Oh, and the demonstrators in pearls and neckties passed out handbills announcing that as of immediately a daily asamblea would be held at 5:00 p.m. in front of the Reichstag. Yep, sounds like a movement that's quickly picking up steam.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 in Berlin

I think I've mentioned before that Berliners have a long tradition of loving America and Americans. Much of this love can be traced back to the Berlin airlift that began in June 1948 after Josef Stalin announced his intention to bring West Berlin under Soviet control and blocked off all land and water routes into the city, planning to starve the Berliners into submission. Two days later, a fleet of British and American supply planes under the command of American general Lucius D. Clay began flying in food and supplies to Tempelhof airport. The Luftbrücke (air bridge) was to continue for 15 months, and the Rosinenbomber (raisin bombers) have lived on in the public imagination.

This was the historical backdrop to John F. Kennedy's celebrated visit to Berlin, where he declared himself a Berliner on the steps of the Schöneberger Rathaus or Schöneberg town hall. Each borough of Berlin has its own Rathaus, and during the academic year 2001-2002 I spent a great deal of time in the Rathaus of the Schöneberg district where I was living; the amateur string orchestra I played in that year held its weekly rehearsals in one of the upstairs rooms.

It was terrible being so far from home the day of 9/11. A friend in Berlin had heard on the 3:00 p.m. radio news (9:00 a.m. EST) that a terrible accident had taken place in New York and had called me right away, so I was watching live on CNN as the second plane struck the South Tower, and then as the South and then the North towers collapsed. The television image of the South tower vanishing in a plume of dust is the most horrifying thing I have ever seen; I can only imagine the terror of those who witnessed it in person. Hours later, when I was finally able to tear myself away from the television and venture out into the street, I found the city of Berlin in mourning. People in the subway looked as if they'd had a death in the family, and many were wearing little American flags on their clothing. Where did all those little stickpins come from? A day or two later there were new stickpins, showing the American and German flags intertwined. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared Germany's "unconditional solidarity" with the United States. And when I showed up to orchestra rehearsal two days later, I found the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg completely blanketed with flowers: hundreds and hundreds of small individual bouquets left by individual Berliners who wanted to express their feelings of sympathy and solidarity. The American embassy was ringed with flowers too.

Three days later, a massive demonstration was held at the Brandenburg Gate, which had been draped with an enormous black banner reading "Wir trauern [we mourn] - our deepest sympathy." Two hundred thousand Berliners showed up for it. The point of the demonstration was to emphasize German solidarity with the United States and pay tribute to a long friendship between nations, but I noticed a new tenor in the placards I saw a number of Berliners holding up. People were starting to remember that America was a major military power and worrying about what a reprisal for the attacks might look like. Might it look like a new world war? German President Johannes Rau officially called on the United States to practice "Besonnenheit," a word that goes back to Herder and Kant and can be translated as "sober-minded reflection." German hearts were bleeding for America - both in the government and on the street - but no one wanted to see the United States go to war. And while initially there was support for U.S. military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq two years later on obviously flimsy grounds cost the United States much of the love and respect it had enjoyed in Europe, even in Berlin.

Ten years after the tragedy, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, so it is hard to imagine the day when Berliners thinking of America will once more think first of the airlift and only after of these wars. I hope that day will come.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Threepenny Opera Travels from Berlin to NYC

Ever since seeing (and reviewing) Robert Wilson's wonderful production of Bertolt Brecht's classic The Threepenny Opera in Berlin back in 2008, I've been waiting for it to travel to New York, and finally it's on its way. The Brooklyn Academy of Music has just announced its Fall 2011 lineup, and the Dreigroschenoper will be on the program between Oct. 4 and Oct. 8, performed by the original cast from the Berliner Ensemble (one of Berlin's very best theaters, founded by Brecht himself) with English surtitles. If you're based in New York, don't miss this one! Season tickets are on sale now, and tix for individual shows can be purchased at the end of the summer. For more information, see the BAM website.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Maria Braun Gets Married All Over Again

The Schaubühne's Thomas Ostermeier is no slouch when it comes to restaging plays that have been famously staged over and over again (Hamlet, for instance), but what happens when he sets himself the task of staging a work whose author turned it into one of the most iconic monuments of post-war German cinema? Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun is a stunning piece of filmmaking, and the script (also by Fassbinder) is powerful in its own right, telling the story of the eponymous "self-made woman" who rises from wartime squalor to post-war industrial fortune using only her good looks and above all her canny intelligence. Fassbinder's film is pretty much untrumpable. So Ostermeier, in setting himself the task of translating the script to the stage, turned radically away from the film—he says he didn't even look at it when he was planning his own production—to produce a performance that both works on its own terms and puts Fassbinder's story in the context of post-war and contemporary German theater.

To describe Ostermeier's strategy in a nutshell: He cranks up the volume on the Brechtian slant already present in Fassbinder's play. Forget realism. This production uses only five actors (four men and the glorious Brigitte Hobmeier) to fill the play's 25 roles, which means, among other things, men playing various female roles while wearing wigs and speaking in masculine voices; they aren't so much disguised as women as displaying markers of feminine identity. One wig even serves double-duty (one actor wears it as nature intended, the other back-to-front, and they sometimes hand it off mid-scene). Ostermeier makes heavy use of gestural techniques, e.g. having the character of the doctor (whose costume is a woman's coat, too small for him, worn with the front open to the back) stand repeatedly in a characteristic semaphore shrug of helplessness—after all, it's his job to issue women certificates of health so they can engage in prostitution and then return to him for treatment once they've contracted STDs or gotten knocked up. Ostermeier handles his props epic-theater-style as well: All those big mismatched 1950s padded armchairs that turn the stage into a sort of big waiting room (the play is set in the Waiting Room of History) get shoved into many different configurations, signifying an apartment, then a train, a car, a restaurant. And a character driving a car pantomimes not only the steering and shifting but also the windshield wipers.

All the Brechtian gestures in Ostermeier's staging come together at a key juncture in Maria Braun's trajectory: the moment when she has just sealed her first triumphant business deal after her boss has failed and then—in a perhaps even more significant victory—won over her former adversary, the firm's cautious accountant Senkenberg. Both coups bear witness to Maria's extraordinary psychological astuteness; she intuits not only what people want but how to give it to them, or more specifically: how to herself embody their desires. She is, in her own words, "the Mata Hari of the economic miracle." And at this moment in the play it is clear that she is destined for a successful career. Ostermeier marks the moment with a projected slide-show montage of commercially produced objects of desire accompanied by a loud cacophonous din, but not before offering us a brilliant bit of theatrical intertextuality: He has two actors approach the microphones at the front of the stage to accompany Maria's triumphant celebration with a chorus of loud panting. For those familiar with the Berlin theater scene, this is an obvious citation of the opening gambit in Heiner Müller's iconic 1995 staging of Bertolt Brecht's play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for the Berliner Ensemble. By equating Maria Braun's story with Arturo Ui's, Ostermeier provides a cynically subversive reading of Fassbinder's play that both Brecht and Fassbinder would have heartily approved of: Maria Braun's riding the waves of capitalism to wealth and power in the aftermath of war is just like Arturo Ui's (i.e. Adolf Hitler's) rise to power in the wake of economic crisis. After all, Fassbinder named her "Braun," the official color of the Nazi party—as Maria herself points out when she remarks apropos of her new lover, an African-American GI: "Better black than brown." Better indeed.

Overall, Ostermeier's Maria Braun is less striking and stunning than, say, the Hamlet he staged several years ago. He recycles from that play various techniques that have meanwhile become familiar to us from other stages as well: using video cameras on stage to project the faces of actors on parts of the set, even using their clothing as screens to project snippets of film. In this case, the use of film on stage is counterproductive because it just reminds us of Fassbinder's own (richer) images. Given the heartbreaking explosiveness of Fassbinder's final scene, it is perhaps unfair to carp that Ostermeier's staging of the play ends less with a bang than with a whimper. But where Fassbinder used to powerful effect the hysterically ecstatic voice of a radio announcer proclaiming Germany's victory in the 1954 World Cup, Ostermeier instead emphasizes a different pair of radio addresses, both by post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—in the first, Adenauer declares himself vehemently opposed to the constitution of any sort of German army, and in the second, several years later, he announces his intention to create a new army for a new Germany. As Ostermeier sees it, commerce and militarization are two sides of a single coin. The career of his Maria Braun is merely a continuation of the war by other means.

Photos © Arno Declair and Sara Krulwich