Monday, December 29, 2008

Cooking Polish food in Berlin

I'm feeling hungry this morning; here's a little excerpt from my novel-in-progress.

Today I found a new piece of the Valentina puzzle, tucked away inside my mother’s copy of The Jewish Cookbook which Ria gave me to take to Berlin with me “so you can cook something that tastes like home.” It’s a recipe for cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meat, raisins and rice, written in blue ink in Valentina’s loopy handwriting on a large index card. There are several cross-outs in the ingredients list, as though she were writing from memory and kept changing her mind. I remember Mom making this dish for us when I was little, but didn’t know it was Valentina’s recipe. The index card is creased and stained, you can see where oil spattered across its surface from a bubbling saucepan. Mom would wrap each leaf around its filling and then stick a toothpick into it to hold it together before nestling the little bundle carefully in the pot. Then she would bake the stuffed leaves in the oven in a bath of tomato puree and broth.

“Are you making Polish food?” Oscar asked the moment he got in the door. It was the smell of cabbage. Its sweet, oily, green odor floated through all the rooms of the apartment and slipped under the door to fill the hallway as well. Poland had come to visit, and all the neighbors must have known it.

He liked it though, and finished two plates of the pale little packages, their filling just visible through their translucent cooked skins. Their taste was pure comfort, the tang of the raisins combining beautifully with the faintly bitter sweetness of the cabbage and the earthy warmth of the meat. I felt triumphant. I had recreated a bit of my own childhood right here in our kitchen, and perhaps it was Valentina’s childhood as well. After dinner I sat down with the recipe and practiced writing like Valentina. I found one of Oscar’s old fountain pens with blue ink in it, and rehearsed the sweeping characters, the billowy swoop of the h as if it were leaping up into the sky I was just learning to call Himmel, the m like a row of Galician hillocks. If I could learn to write like her, maybe I would know what it felt like to be her. I turned the radio to a station that played dance tunes for old people and practiced moving the pen to the rhythms of the music.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Was ist ein Literaturhaus?

"House of Literature" has a vaguely Eastern Bloc ring to it, but in fact "literature houses" are an important part of the cultural landscape throughout Germany and particularly Berlin, which wound up with three of them after unification and now has four. So what is a Literaturhaus? Generally it's a staffed building devoted to literature, offering a regular reading series (or a number of them) that is open to the public, and it usually offers other sorts of services as well: many Literaturhäuser host writers-in-residence, some house the editorial offices of literary magazines, some administer literary prizes, and some even have cafés.

Here's a rundown of the Literaturhäuser currently to be found in Berlin:

1. The LCB (Literarisches Colloquium Berlin), is located in the Wannsee district on the shores of the lake of that name, just down the block from the American Academy in Berlin. The LCB is housed in an elegant old lakeside villa with a beautifully tiled "winter garden" terrace from which one can admire the view down the steeply sloping back gardens down to the lake. It was founded in 1963 by the late Walter Höllerer, whose wife, portrait photographer Renate von Mangold, still photographs visiting authors, making for an impressive display in the downstairs rooms. A large auditorium room is the site of several public readings per week (including the occasional one in English), and a number of radio shows on literature are recorded here, usually before an audience. A small bar dispenses wine, beer and juice after readings. The LCB also hosts several workshop series for young authors and for literary translators (translating both into and out of German), and regularly houses a half dozen writers in residence at a time. Its staff publishes the literary magazine Sprache im technischen Zeitalter (language in the age of technology). The LCB is located at Am Sandwerder 5, a short walk from the Wannsee S-bahn station. Don't miss their garden parties!

2. The Literaturhaus Berlin, much loved for its great cafe, is located at Fasanenstrasse 23 in Charlottenburg just off the Kurfürstendamm. It was founded in 1986 and features the most active programming of any of the Berlin literature houses, often offering a different reading every night of the week. The Literaturhaus also houses a gallery space in which it frequently hosts literature-themed exhibitions, some of which are prepared in conjunction with the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Its bookstore Kohlhaas & Company (named after the title character of a great Kleist story) specializes in quality literature, including titles commissioned by the Literaturhaus for publication in its own series.

3. The literaturWERKstatt berlin was founded in 1991 and initially housed in the building that was formerly the site of the Literaturhaus Pankow am Majakowskiring in the Pankow district of East Berlin. Like many East German cultural institutions, the Literaturhaus Pankow was derailed by the loss of its GDR government funding after 1989, but the new literaturWERKstatt soon became an established part of the city's literary scene. The name literaturWERKstatt is full of puns - Werk is a (literary) work, a Werkstatt is a workshop, and a Literaturwerk-Statt is a site (Statt or Stätte) where the/a work of literature is accomplished, with a pinch of irony thrown in, since the preposition "statt" also means "instead of," as in "literature instead of works." Right from the start, this Literaturhaus distinguished itself as a home for hip new cutting-edge work and innovation, a point driven home by its relocation, in 2004, to an über-hip site in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The Kulturbrauerei (culture brewery) at Knaackstraße 97 really is a former brewery whose grounds have been renovated to house a number of cultural institutions. The literaturWERKstatt offers readings, contests, open mike events, poetry festivals and more. Of all the Literaturhäuser in Berlin, this is the one that best succeeds in creating a party atmosphere around literature to appeal to a younger audience.

4. The Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus is the smallest of the Berlin Literaturhäuser but still offers a varied program. It was established in 1992 in the apartment house at Chausseestrasse 125 in Berlin-Mitte where Bertolt Brecht lived until his death in 1956 (he's buried in the cemetery next door); before 1989, the building had been known as the Brecht-Zentrum Berlin, institutionally supported by the GDR Ministry of Culture. In the early 1990s, the Literaturforum featured a program defined by its relevance to Brecht's work, but it's since branched out to offer a wide range of readings and screenings of contemporary literature and theater. The restaurant in the basement, with additional tables in the garden courtyard during the warmer months of the year, serves up Viennese specialities that are said to be based on the recipes of Brecht's second wife, legendary stage actress Helene Weigel.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Goethe the Redeemer

I happen to be spending the month in Marfa, Texas, a town said to be named after a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov, and in my borrowed house (thank you, Lannan Foundation!) I find a six-volume edition of Goethe’s works published in Berlin in 1949. This hardback edition, printed on cheap paper that is already turning brown and crumbling, is an early product of the newly founded post-war publishing house Aufbau-Verlag, which was eventually to become the largest and most influential publisher of literature in East Germany. The publishing house (whose name translates as “building” as in “rebuilding”) continued to play a prominent role in the German literary scene after 1989, but went bankrupt earlier this year under circumstances whose complexity would require a blog entry of their own to report; it’s now been sold and will resume operations next week.

From its beginnings (and until 1989 at least) Aufbau was associated with a communist and then socialist worldview, having been a product of the Kulturbund zur demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands (Cultural association for the democratic renewal of Germany) established in June 1945 by the Soviet Military Administration. And so, amid the ruins of the bombed-out city of Berlin, the powers that had vanquished Germany now dictated that literary culture should be reborn there as part of the city’s and country’s new identity as a humanistic, democratic society. To this end, the Soviet military provided Aufbau with an operating budget as well as printing supplies, which by this time were difficult to come by.

Some of the first books published by Aufbau were written by authors who been forced to flee Nazi Germany, including Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Oskar Maria Graf, Lion Feuchtwanger, Anna Seghers and Wieland Herzfelde. Readers were hungry for the literature of this new era. Seghers’s novel Das siebte Kreuz (The seventh cross) sold over 100,000 copies, and a book by Alexander Abusch about the wrong turn taken by German society sold 130,000.

The Goethe edition, Goethes Werke in Auswahl (selected works), printed in the old Fraktur typeface, edited by Paul Wiegler and with a moving foreword by Abusch, marked the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s birth. The Marfa copy bears the gift inscription "To his dear children on Christmas 1949. Their Papa"; did one of these children
eventually emigrate to Texas? Abusch’s foreword argues passionately for why Goethe was the author Germans urgently needed to be reading, because of the constitutive humanism of his work. The German middle class went astray in the middle of the 19th century, Abusch writes, becoming indentured to a capitalism whose logical consequence was imperialism. Goethe’s “Edel sei der Mensch, hilfreich und gut” (Man should be noble, helpful and good) had given way to Nietzsche’s Herrenmoral (morality of the masters). The intent of the Volks-Goethe (Goethe for the people) collected in these volumes was to infuse the nascent German post-war society with a love not only for one’s neighbor, but also for foreigners and strangers—a love markedly lacking during the reign of National Socialism. It was time for Goethe’s Weltliteratur (world literature - a key concept in his work) to serve as a signpost for a new morality.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Robert Wilson does The Threepenny Opera

When Robert Wilson stages a play, you immediately know it’s him: harsh lighting, garish colors, fairgrounds sensibility. As often as not, his characters wind up looking like sideshow freaks; this approach can fall flat, but sometimes it shows us something about a play we hadn’t before noticed, as was the case with his 2000 staging of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck with the Betty Nansen Theater of Copenhagen, which traveled first to the Berliner Ensemble and then internationally, including a stop at BAM. The production also features a stunning original soundtrack of songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Certainly it was obvious all along that Büchner’s play was showing us how society and its villainous forces (in this case, amoral scientific experimentation and a concupiscent, power-drunk military) can push a fragile soul over the edge. But Wilson’s flashy, Broadway-lit production really brought this point home, even more so than Werner Herzog’s film, in which Klaus Kinski’s deranged portrait of the title character emphasized his own personal grappling with demons. One is all about interiority; the other, internalization. Herzog’s Woyzeck is a muttering, murderous nut; in Wilson’s version, it’s our fault he’s that way.

Now Wilson has taken on Bertolt Brecht’s signature musical The Threepenny Opera, and has done so at the very same theater which premiered Brecht’s own production of the play in 1928. Until Christmas 1995, the Berliner Ensemble was known as the artistic home of Heiner Müller, who staged many memorable productions there, including many Brecht plays; since 1999 it has been run by Claus Peymann, formerly of Vienna’s Burgtheater, who operates in a quite different theatrical tradition (his signature playwright is Thomas Bernhard). So when Wilson stages a play at the BE, it marks a temporary return to the theater’s traditional Brechtian-Müllerian mode.

What does Wilson do with Brecht? For one thing, his heavily powdered and painted characters all wind up looking like creatures straight out of Otto Dix, an effect heightened by the fact that the lighting often makes them look two-dimensional—the final scene winds up looking like a diorama of faces cut out of news- papers. (This photo courtesy of Colya Kärcher.) Many also wear costumes that give them distinctive silhouettes (Mrs. Peachum’s heavy hip padding, Polly’s triangular dress), and are performed according to the principles of Brecht’s gestic theater, with exaggerated gestures indicating emotion rather than expressing felt emotion. When Mrs. Peachum is supposed to look astonished, actress Traute Hoess opens her lipsticked mouth into an enormous O and frames it with hands splayed to either side. Christina Drechsler’s Polly, the dopey bride of gangster Macheath, speaks in a mincing little-girl voice punctuated by a silly little “boo!” Mac himself (Stefan Kurt) is oddly androgynous with his lipstick, lacquered hair and the corset beneath his suit jacket—he winds up looking like a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Joel Gray as the Emcee in Cabaret, a fair-enough point of reference (as is Otto Dix) for this late-Weimar play. The only character whose interpretation flat-out confused me is Jürgen Holtz’s Peachum, whom Wilson has dressed up with a stoop and yarmulke as a caricature of the money-grubbing Jewish merchant (like the pawnbroker who sells Woyzeck his knife). Certainly this is a stock comic character that would have gotten a laugh in Brecht’s own time, but in a post-WWII cultural context it jars. Perhaps Wilson means to draw our attention to the way in which socially acceptable stereotypes like these, even among the left, both in Germany and elsewhere, helped pave the way for the ascendance of National Socialism. If so, it’s a valid point, but since the production signals it with only a single costume choice and provides no specific point of view from which this figure is being perceived, it's hard to see exactly what Wilson is looking to achieve here.

In the world of Die Dreigroschenoper, you never get away from “It’s the economy, stupid!” The opening scene in Peachum’s shop is regularly punctuated by the cartoon sound effect of jangling coins which is repeated throughout the play, even in odd contexts, as when the jailor Macheath’s just bribed not to handcuff him drops the rope signifying the cuffs. Money is shown to be the principal motivation for most of the characters in the play, with the notable exception of Polly, who, we're shown, is just a ninny.

In general, Wilson’s version of Brecht’s play is heavy on the ideas and light on emotion; this is certainly in keeping with Brecht’s own stated intentions, though we’ve since learned that his plays appear at their best when pure epic theater is cut with psychological complexity, as in Martin Wuttke’s brilliant portrayal of Arturo Ui under Heiner Müller’s direction. But at moments a bit of character psychology does in fact slip in, particularly in my favorite scene in this production, the moment of Mac’s return to the bordello after escaping from prison, where he sings the Zuhälterballade (Ballad of the Pimp) in a duet with Jenny, the whore who betrayed him to the police, brilliantly played by Angela Winkler. While it’s clear in the context of the play she turned him in for the money, the song offers a psychological explanation (it details his abusive treatment of her under the guise of nostalgia), and Kurt and Winkler bring such depth of feeling to their performance of this powerful pas de deux that the play does start to feel as though it truly is about human beings—which goes a long way toward giving life to a production that exults in its own artifice.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bookstore of my dreams

The bookstore landscape in Berlin has changed a lot over the past decade, with a number of smaller local shops closing unless they cater to a specific neighborhood clientele, most often children. By far the city's most happening bookstore is the massive Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus (culture department store) on Friedrichstraße just a block from the S-bahn/U-bahn station. Dussmann is huge (75,000 sq. ft. according to its website) and stays open delightfully late—10 a.m. to midnight every day but Sunday. This massive bookstore sports remainder tables, CDs, foreign-language books, gift trinkets, and all the chain-y charm of a Barnes & Noble. What it doesn't have is a particularly good selection of literary books. If what you want is poetry, fiction beyond the mainstream, and a good selection of books on philosophy, sociology and other "academic" fields, the best place to go is clearly the Autorenbuchhandlung at Carmerstraße 10 just off Savignyplatz. They have the largest selection of poetry I've seen anywhere in Berlin—shelves and shelves of it—and the staff is well-read and happy to chat books with you.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Silliest Holocaust memorial; loveliest

Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe was preceded by over a decade of controversy. From the beginning it was clear that whatever got built on the tract of land reserved for the purpose just a block away from the Brandenburg Gate would become the highest-profile memorial in the country. (Originally a less prominent site had been chosen, but the government was soon shamed into upgrading the location by accusations that it wished to tuck the memorial away out of sight.) Many artists and architects competed for the honor of designing the memorial, but in the end so many different interest groups and political factions had a say in choosing the final design that it came as no surprise that the winning model was bland, a compromise. No one I know ever liked the sound of Eisenman’s proposal; but it was only when it was standing there as a fact on the ground that it became clear how utterly awful a plan it was. Basically, this block of dark-gray rectangular poured-concrete “Stelen” or pillars arranged on a grid crisscrossed by walkways is just a big fake-stone playground where you inevitably wind up playing hide-and-seek with people you’ve never seen before. Eisenman’s idea was that visitors to the memorial would get lost among its tall pillars and suffer the feelings of isolation and cut-off-ness
experienced by those interned in concentration camps. He wanted, he said in an interview in 2005 when the memorial was unveiled, for people “to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they had never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling.” Nothing of the sort is the case. Walking among these pillars, you are surrounded by the multilingual chatter of other visitors, and the constant danger of bumping head-on into someone else (there are intersections every meter or two) makes people walk with comical caution, peeping around each corner as they arrive. At least on a sunny day, it’s all a bit jolly, and anyone who manages to remember those who died in Bergen-Belson or Auschwitz while playing peek-a-boo like this does so only by an impressive act of will. In fact, it’s so difficult to preserve an air of solemnity while navigating this labyrinth that the government created a Besucherordnung—visiting regulations—to govern people’s behavior: no running, no singing, no climbing, as a somber plaque set into the ground instructs us. Last time I visited, the policemen guarding the memorial were making no attempt to enforce these rules. Just imagine what that would look like: German policemen attempting to impose discipline on frolicking children at a Holocaust memorial.

There was some grumbling when the plan for Eisenman’s memorial was unveiled that his design was a rip-off of the “Garden of Exile” that stands in the back courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Berlin designed by Daniel Libeskind. These accusations are quite correct, the borrowing is obvious. And the original is infinitely more effective as a memorial. Liebeskind’s field of pillars is far more difficult to navigate than Eisenman’s: they’re taller, the foliage planted at their tops blocks out a fair bit of the sunlight (it’s a shrub chosen because it resembles olive branches but is hardy enough to weather a Berlin winter); it feels subterranean; and since you don’t have a clear view of the horizon from within the maze, the fact that the ground beneath your feet keeps slanting in unpredictable directions creates dizziness, disorientation. It can get hard to keep your balance, and by this effect Libeskind is asking us to imagine the disorientation of Jews who, fleeing the Nazis, went into exile, where they had to struggle to make lives for themselves while mourning the loss of their lost homes and worlds, loved ones and language.

Meanwhile, one of the most beautiful memorials I’ve ever seen can be found on Berlin’s Bebelplatz, next to the Staatsoper and across the avenue Unter den Linden from the Humboldt University. This 2005 memorial created by Israeli artist Micha Ullman to bear witness to the infamous book burning orchestrated there by Joseph Goebbels in 1933 consists of a subterranean library buried beneath the square and visible through a thick pane of plexiglass. The many empty white shelves gleam at night and are half-obscured during the daytime by the reflections on the viewing window. A plaque sunk into the pavement nearby bears a quote from the great 19th century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose books were banned in 1835: “This was merely a prelude. Where books are burned, in the end human beings will be burned as well.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Alicja Kwade at Hamburger Bahnhof

The Hamburger Bahnhof, a 19th century train station that has been brought back to life as Museum for Contemporary Art, is one of the most interesting places to see art in Berlin. Its permanent collection boasts rooms of beautiful work by Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd and Andy Warhol, and its temporary exhibits tend to be memorable. The floor of the main hall of the museum houses two large sculptures by Kiefer, one a patchwork airplane made of lead sheets with large sprigs of dried poppy pods fastened atop its wings (the title “Mohn und Gedächtnis” [Poppy and Memory] is taken from Paul Celan); the other, Volkszählung (Census) takes the shape of an enormous freestanding library, some fifteen feet tall, whose huge books, made of lead, are pocked with hundreds of dried peas in reference to the bean counters (“Erbsenzähler”) responsible for the project of counting human beings that reduces them to numbers and thus, in Kiefer’s universe, makes them readily dispensible. The lead library is huge, you feel tiny standing amid its weighty volumes.
Currently the Hamburger Bahnhof is showing the work of a fascinating young sculptor who lives in Berlin, Alicja Kwade (born in Poland in 1979), winner of the 2008 Piepenbrock Förderpreis für Skulptur. Kwade specializes in turning ordinary materials and objects into beautiful, precious images. Her show features several “precious stones” made of non-precious materials, such as an outsized “diamond” made of coal which, the label informs us, dates back over 300,000,000 years; after all, diamonds are made of carbon too. A huge stone diamond the size of an armchair fills the center of a space at the far end of the exhibition defined by a quartet of speakers endlessly playing what sound like engagement scenes from a medley of movies. And she has also created a work called “Berliner Bordsteinjuwelen” (Berlin Curbside Jewels), an assortment of 100 stones found on the Berlin streets that have been polished and cut to resemble gemstones.
One of my favorite pieces in the show is a cone-shaped heap of what appears to be sand on the floor ornamented with some green sprinkles and crushed dried flowers. The cone shape mirrors the shape of the cut "gemstones" found elsewhere in the show; it's like a diamond buried in the floor. The work’s label, which offers the title “412 Empty Liters Until the Start,” also provides the surprising information that the work is made of 555 kilograms of champagne bottles including the labels. So on the one hand this work is made of valuable material (champagne); but wait, no, it's just the empty bottles; but then the green sprinkles atop the sand sparkle like precious stones; and what happened to all that champagne anyhow?
The show also features a reflective silver tray lying shattered on the ground as if it were a mirror, and several mysterious
clocks, including a sort of cuckoo clock with a convex mirror where its face should be and a series of audibly clicking antique clocks covered with mirroring metal with doors obscuring their faces, lined up like a row of toasters.
Kwade has made another punning piece out of coal, playing on the fact that “Kohle” is German slang for money: She covered a set of 666 coal briquettes with gold leaf and stacked them up like bars of gold. Of course, coal too can be precious, especially if one lives in an apartment in which a coal-burning stove is the only source of heat (there were still lots of these left in East Berlin in particular as recently as 15 years ago, though they are becoming increasingly rare); burning gold bars would hardly keep one warm in winter.
My favorite piece in the show, “Hier und dort blind und machtlos (Parallelwelt 1)” (here and there blind and powerless [parallel world 1]), consists of a row of eight
desk lamps arranged two by two with double-sided mirrors between them. No matter what angle you look from, you have the illusion that you are seeing the lamp furthest from you through transparent glass. The light from the lamps appears to be a sphere of light trapped between the two lamp shades as if between the halves of a bivalve’s shell. The project is beautifully simple, and yet oddly mysterious.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Got D-marks? Get euros!

It’s been over six years now since the German mark was replaced by the Euro. The year of the currency reform, you could walk into any bank with your stash and walk out with a handful of shiny new euro coins and brightly colored banknotes. That’s all over now, but it turns out there are still a lot of German marks lying around in private households, and people don’t always know what to do with them. A survey this spring carried out by the Association of German Banks suggested that one out of three Germans misses the mark and would prefer to be using it instead of the euro, which in the popular imagination is widely associated with inflation and price gouging. The C&A department store chain—pretty much the equivalent of Sears in the U.S.—has responded to this nostalgia by offering to allow customers to pay in marks at any of their stores in Germany. But for those ready to face the fact that the euro is in all likelihood here to stay, there’s a relatively simple solution: the Deutsche Bundesbank, which has branch offices in all larger German towns, will convert D-marks to euros weekdays between the hours of 8:30 and 12:00. You might have to stand in line a bit. When recently I visited the rather elegant Deutsche Bundesbank building in Berlin, I found over a dozen people crammed into a waiting area in front of a row of four doors, each of which had a red light shining beside it. A rumor was circulating among the people waiting here, emanating in particular from an elderly gentleman with a large suitcase who appeared to be a regular, that the machine that counts the cash is prone to breakdowns because the money people bring in to have counted and exchanged is "too dusty." Be that as it may, we stood there for a good half hour without anyone from the bank coming out to tell us what was going on even after I waxed impatient enough to start pressing the button on the call box helpfully located right in the center of the waiting area (no response). But eventually the red lights changed to green, and each of us bid farewell to his little stash.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Deep-Storage Archives

Recently I came across some little texts I wrote while living in Berlin during the academic year 2001-2002—far before I'd ever heard of a blog or blogging. But these little texts clearly are proto-blogs, and so I've decided to import them, post-dating them to January 2002, the approximate date of their composition. Thus you can find them at the bottom of this blog. I'm pleased to be expanding this body of texts in both directions at once. Let boys & girls with these old songs have holiday / If they feel like it (sez John Berryman, speaking of his own youthful sonnets).
As you will no doubt recall as if it were yesterday, January 1, 2002 is the date when the DM (Deutschmark, German Mark) went out of circulation and the Euro came in. This moment is duly recorded in these old texts.
I wrote these little essays while living in a furnished sublet on Kulmerstraße in Schöneberg, just two blocks west of the Yorck-Straße S-Bahn station. Kulmerstraße in those days (and probably still now) was a modest little street with a Turkish men's club at either end. This meant that at any hour of the day or night you would find little groups of men standing around outside smoking cigarettes, which kept the street quite safe. Directly across the street from the apartment was Café Savarin, believed by many Berliners to have the best cake in town. After watching enormous stacks of cake boxes being carted out of the place each morning for delivery to various restaurants, I'm inclined to believe it. In any case, their cakes really were delicious: I pretty much ate my way through their entire confectionary repertoire in the course of the year. Now, I hear, the café has become a haven for the smokers now excluded from most cafés and restaurants in Germany. I wonder whether the cake tastes smoky. If anyone passes by that way, check it out and let me know.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Walking and Blogging

Polish-Canadian artist Kinga Araya, who's been living in Berlin, has just completed her latest project: walking the entire 160-kilometer course of the former Berlin Wall to commemorate her own defection from Poland (which took place on foot) twenty years ago while on an art students' field trip to Poland. Araya's art often concerns itself with walking and its many modes and implications. Sometimes she straps on a prosthetic leg (for her performance piece "Grounded", 1999); sometimes she dances in shoes made of ice ("Cold Feet", 2003). In a different mode, I particularly like her 2004 series of self-portraits, "Domestic Exiles", in which she responds photographically to the work of Walter Benjamin, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Simone Weil, Judith Butler, Martin Jay and Edward Said.
A very basic account of Kinga Araya's Berlin Wall project can be found on her Blogger site Performing Exile; I'm looking forward to the appearance of the full documentation on her main website.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Obama's Love Parade

By most reports the turnout for Barack Obama's speech yesterday was 200,000 people, packing the broad avenue in front of the Siegessäule (Victory Column). This is the same stretch of asphalt that was often the site of the huge annual open-air techno party called Love Parade. And as this Reuters photo suggests, there was plenty of love to go around:

The Tagesschau daily news website posted a poll today asking whether people thought all the fuss surrounding Obama's visit was justified; more than two out of three who responded said no, the implication being that most Germans found his speech uncontroversial if not inspirational. Reporter Corinna Emundts declared that "The senator from Illinois came, spoke and conquered" (, and Michael Schlieben, writing for Die Zeit, calls Obama "a modern hero who meets with approval everywhere from the taz [strongly left-leaning] to the FAZ [conservative]. Not that there weren't other responses. Stefan Kornelius snarks in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that four years after winning an election would have been better timing for a "mass spectacle" of these proportions - though he does also point out that Obama succeeded in making the point, for the benefit of Americans at home, that it might indeed be possible for people in other countries to love the United States again, the past decades' warmongering notwithstanding. The Obama supporters trolling the crowd passed out not Obama banners but American flags, which did indeed get waved - something that would have been unthinkable in Berlin even half a year ago.

In Germany, the notion 'mass spectacle' calls to mind, even now, the Nuremberg rallies and the crowds who flocked to cheer their charismatic Führer. One friend from Berlin wrote to me yesterday that the sight of all those hands ecstatically raised to hold digicams aloft reminded her of the old films of crowds making the Nazi salute. This isn't so much a comment on Obama and his speech as a basic discomfort with the very concept 'charismatic politician.' Looking at old films, it may be hard for us to understand how it was that Hitler was able to summon the charisma to galvanize large crowds, but clearly that was his specialty. It would be hard to imagine a less Hitler-like figure than Barack Obama, but some Germans seem to be made nervous by the very fact that they like him so much.

By the way, it turns out that Obama had a German great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama ante portas

Barack Obama's scheduled appearance in Berlin later today got me thinking about the history of Berliners as audiences for and commentators on Americans, American culture and American politics.

Berliners have a special feeling for America and Americans that can be explained only by going back to 1948-1949, the year of the “Luftbrücke” or “air bridge.” After the Soviet Union cut off supplies to West Berlin in an attempt to force the city to become part of the Eastern Bloc, the American government flew in a steady stream of food on airplanes affectionately referred to by locals as “raisin bombers.” The Airlift lives on in the hearts and minds of Berliners. So does John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, held at the Schöneberg district town hall to reiterate America’s support for a democratic West Germany after the construction of the Berlin wall. A few days after September 11, the broad steps leading up to this very building had vanished beneath a sea of flowers—not wreaths deposited symbolically by some government agency, but many thousands of small individual bouquets brought by neighbors who wished to express their sorrow over the tragedy that had befallen their American friends.

The Berliners love us like brothers and sisters: They not only wish for us to prosper and flourish but feel pained by our flaws. Germany has its own problems with racial violence and xenophobia, not to mention the legacy of murderous anti-Semitism that is a source of trauma and grief for most Germans today. But Berliners are simply shocked at the existence of racism in America, particularly given their positive experience of the American military as a multi-racial institution in the years following WWII. African-American soldiers liberated concentration camps and were among the “friendly” occupiers of West Berlin, a far cry from the grim military presence in the city’s Soviet sector.

This sisterly-brotherly love was very much in evidence before the Brandenburg Gate on September 14, 2001, when 200,000 Berliners gathered to express their support for the United States in its hour of need. The Gate itself and the stage mounted before it were draped in banners printed with condolences and reaffirmations of Gerhard Schröder’s initial response to the catastrophe: a promise of “unconditional solidarity.” But now—as the first drumbeats of war were being sounded in Washington three days after 9/11—the message was augmented by a second one, a call for “Besonnenheit” or sober-minded reflection. This word, spoken by German Federal President Johannes Rau, was echoed by hundreds of hand-made signs held aloft by Berliners wishing to convey a more complex message: America, our hearts bleed for you, but please don’t go to war!

The Berliners I know see in Barack Obama’s dramatic success as a presidential candidate a hopeful sign that our country is turning over a new leaf, even at a moment that finds us embroiled in what most Germans are quick to condemn as a tragically misguided military intervention in Iraq. Finally, we seem on the point of choosing something that will make our brothers and sisters in Berlin proud of us: an American presidential candidate who stands for an end to militarism and racial injustice.

By choosing to speak not just to German politicians but to the people of Berlin, Obama is wisely tapping into a deep current of German-American goodwill and fellow-feeling: the same sort of grassroots appeal that has served him so well on American soil.