Das Leben der Anderen

The current German Film "Das Leben der Anderen" by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a long movie about the Stasi. It focuses on a couple, he a writer, she an actress, who are both solidly socialistic. But then the Minister of Culture decides he wants the actress for himself. He rapes her and then forces her to visit him every week, or "things will go badly for her". He has Stasi spies listening round the clock to the bugs planted in their apartment in the hopes of finding some dirt on the writer.

She finally decides not to go with the minister anymore, and sure enough: trouble. She ends up being roped in to be an "IM", an "informal colleague" (aka snitch) in order to continue her habit of taking psychopharmica. It is so horrible to see her choosing the medicines over her long-year lover, and delivering him to the Stasi.

They come to pay a visit, especially since an anonymous article about the GDR has appeared and the writer is suspected - correctly - of being behind it all. They rip apart the apartment, without finding anything.

One of the guys doing the surviellience has, however, grown close to the couple from his distance. He files false reports, and removes the evidence - a typewriter - from the apartment when the Stasi comes by for a second visit, now knowing the hiding place from the actress. The writer understands that she has betrayed him, and she runs out of the apartment in her bathrobe and into the path of a truck, getting herself killed.

When the writer reads the documents about him years later he finally understands the role of the little spy who shielded him, and writes a book about this "good person", dedicating it to his secret code without ever speaking to the man, although he actually finds him on the Berlin streets, delivering advertising to mailboxes.

The portrayal of the Stasi is cold and clinical, and you remember that we must not forget that the Stasi was not just a homeland security department, but they were responsible for much grief in the GDR.

A fascinating film, hard to take at times, very long, and very worth one's while.


As It Is In Heaven

Finally got around to seeing the lovely Swedish love story, "Så som i himmelen"! It was at the Nordic Film Festival last year, but there was some other film on in parallel that I really wanted to see. And then when it was running in Berlin in Swedish I could never make it... same thing for when the first run in German came. But luckily, the film is still going strong, so I made it at a second-run movie theater.

This is one of those films that you either love and want to see 15 times, or you positively hate. I have met people from both camps. I tend towards the former - I would definitely see it again, although there are some discontinuities and unmotivated things happening, but the love story is so tangible, that makes it so enjoyable.

The plot in a nutshell: Daniel Daréus is a famous conductor with a traumatic past. He collapses and quits his job, returning to the Northern Sweden of his boyhood. He buys the local school house (we have friends wo did that, this gives you LOTS of room!) and moves in, piano and all. Turns out, Italian shoes are not the right thing for walking in the snow. Everyone is amazed that he is there, the village organizer and busybody insists he come to choir practice. Daniel ends up taking over the choir, even though he knows nothing about conducting a choir. It is hard work, but in very few sessions, all of the women in the choir are in love with him. He does not seem to notice this. He is very gentle and tender to all the women, they all lap it up because their own men are beaters / bores / bullies. The women are all jealous of each other, quitting choir when then think one of the others is more favored by Daniel. He manages to get them all to return without sleeping with them. They attend a choir competition in Salzburg, he is greeted by press and beautiful women from his past. Lena, the pretty young thing, gets really jealous. Daniel is speaking with an old friend and says "They all love me." Then he seems to realize something. He hurries to Lena, bangs on her door to have her let him in, and then this wonderful scene occurs:

Daniel: When you like someone, how do you know that you love them?
Lena: Well, you... it makes you happy when you see him.
Daniel: Yes. And more?
Lena: You, you think about him all the time.
Daniel: Right. What else?
Lena: You're happy when you're with him.
(Now Daniel gets this look on his face like he is working hard on the logic, then his eyes light up and he looks at Lena the way women want men to look at them all the time)
Daniel: Happy when you are together... Lena... I love you.

They land in bed, he goes for a bike ride while she gets ready for the choir, he has a heart attack and does not make it to the performance, the choir does a great job without him, moving all the others to chant with them, crescendo, cut, kleenex.

Nice scenery, lots of clichés about Sweden, lots of excitement trying to guess which of the women will get him. Can music so possess you that you do not realize people are in love with you?


The Shadow of Soccer

The shadow of the Soccer World Cup 2006 in Germany is looming large. There are big, new signs everywhere "Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden" (Which would mean "The world is a guest of friends", if any of the guests could read German). TV brings constant reminders of what is going on - last night I caught the clip of the Spanish team learning German "Wir sind Weltmeister" (We are the world champions). Foods are suddenly marked as being official Soccer World Cup food. Even the public transport has suddenly started to spout English at erratic moments ("Next stop, change for Templehof Airport").

But the worst effect to date of the World Cup happened Monday when a bunch of colleagues tried to find a date for the next meeting: Oh no, that is Germany vs. England! Or: I don't want to miss Moldavia vs. Inner Mongolia. Or whatever, I don't even know which countries are playing. I complained to someone that I needed something Belgian for a prank gift and found chocolates wrapped in the English flag and the Spanish flag, etc., but no Belgian flag. I was informed that Belgium did not qualify.

I demand equal treatment for the Handball World Cup 2007, also in Germany! I want to see Germany vs. Denmark and Kuwait vs. Katar!

Oh yeah: congratulations, THW Kiel, on your 12th championship


A visit in the countryside

I spent the weekend touring the northern German countryside visiting friends and families.

Friday was the kick-off in Rendsburg, a little town of about 30.000 in Schleswig-Holstein, at the 50th birthday party of a friend. Germans love to celebrate "round" birthdays. Saturday continued in a village just outside of Lübeck, the second-largest town in Schleswig-Holstein
at around 250.000 people, visiting with relatives and Sunday was spent in Dinklage in Lower Saxony, where there are 12500 inhabitants not counting the dogs and horses, at a 60th birthday party.

This is not to be a diary entry, but I want to note down some thoughts and observations and comparisons that I made driving the 1000 km. Here they are, as yet unsorted:

  • The local Aldi and Lidl markets have replaced the churches as the focal points of the towns. They are larger, have more parking, and many more visitors.
  • Italian food is popular at the moment, both parties had an Italian buffet, with people oohing and aahing "Oh, I love Italian food!".
  • Even if you ask if there is pork in the dishes in Lower Saxony, they won't tell you. Since the major ingredient is chicken (the area is famous for its chickens, still free of bird flu, thank God), they said it was chicken. It was, of course, stuffed with ham... The noodles were in ham sauce, the meat was pork medallions, the fish lasagne tasted like it had bacon in it. Pork is a major food group in Lower Saxony.
  • You have to be fast to get some of the tiramisu.
  • Berlin is so far away in the minds of the Western Germans, it might as well be behind a wall.
  • Academics compose their own songs for embarrassing the birthday girls, non-academics use stuff they find in a book at the library or on the Internet. But both are presented with love and energy, and the recipients end up blushing a lot.
  • In Lower Saxony you have to drink a lot of schnapps. And they have very interesting types of Schnapps, not to be found in the stores on Kudamm or Friedrichstrasse (actually, I don't think there are any alcohol stores on either of these two streets....). I counted wild strawberry liquor, windmill schnapps, grappa and Ramazotti (never tried it before, just heard the advertising).
  • There is some sort of entertainment at a party that does not involve the people you are sitting next to. We had a live folk music concert and a visit to the Schweger Windmill.
  • So many people out of work, on early retirement, doing an "internship" (euphemism for real work for little or no pay).
  • So many people sick and angry at the German medical system which is falling apart at the seams as I write with doctors on strike for weeks, payment schemes changed monthly and people being denied medicine and/or medical routines they think they need.
  • I don't know where the impression comes from that the Germans are dying out. Lots of kids and youth everywhere.
  • People don't open their presents at the party! This is a shame, as I want to see their faces when they unpack something silly or outrageous or gorgeous.
  • The prize for the best way of giving money (something I don't really approve of) goes to the group who borrowed the collection box for the "Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffsbrüchigen" from the office (removing the money collected there) and stuffing it with lots of 1-Euro-coins and a pair of silk stockings (to keep it from rattling). The collection box in the shape of a ship has to be returned by Monday, but the idea was great, and the kids had fun counting the coins.
  • I don't understand much Plattdeutsch anymore.
Even in the rain, northern Germany is wonderful in Mai with the fields of green and yellow (rape seed) and the lakes. I do rather miss the place.


Plagiarism for Professors

For some reason, there is suddenly enhanced interest in my courses and talks on plagiarism. It is getting to the point where I am refusing some speaking engagements, either on the grounds of them not even paying me trainfare, let alone a modest fee, or because I already have one out-of-town engagement that month. This is my new rule: only leave town on business once a month.

But I do, of course, give courses in Berlin on the topic. I've had some with just a few people, suddenly I have a full house! There were 12 professors from 3 other schools in Berlin at my school on Friday, taking my course.

It was quite a different course than normal! 12 professors have 14 differing opinions on any subject, and they were not shy about asking questions or making statements. It turned into a wonderful debate on questions of scientific ethics, teaching responsibilities and our cultural understanding of plagiarism. It turns out that different fields of study have different views on the necessity and use of footnotes, for example. In law people use footnotes to demonstrate what authorities they are calling on. Historians use footnotes to record where they find stuff. Computer people tend to use foot notes for recording URLs.

Our exercise session seemed to be more of a Google-use session, but that was okay, because that is something they all need to learn!

I'm looking forward to the next course - nice, wenn I myself learn something in a course I give.


Gypsy Grillparty

The first of May is the start of the grilling season in Berlin. The parks become dotted with groups on weekends, usually consisting of large families, setting up grills in their outdoor living rooms in parks all over town. I had observed this many times, and sometimes been bothered by the smoke and the garbage. We had had some picnics with friends, but never on this scale.

Now we were invited as guests of a gypsy family from Bosnia to attend the May 1st party. The two young men of the family were out early with a borrowed car and drove the living room table and an enormous amout of food, drink and charcol to the spot where the family always celebrates, a good ways into the Görlitzer Park. There was a parade of finely dressed women, children, baby carriages, and the grandfather on crutchwheels heading out, but Grandpa gave up soon and decided to go back.

The rest slowly made their way to the chosen spot. Blankets were opened up, cushions spread out, and the grill fired up. A horde of children "helped", throwing paper into the fire to get it to start. Soon meat was cooking away. The neighbors had an entire lamb on a spit, turning on Y-supports driven into the ground. There was a bit of sauerkraut salad and some roast peppers, other than that, this was meat-and-white-bread-with-cola only. And onions. My husband made some garlic bread, everyone was amazed that a) it tasted so good, b) was easy to make and c) was made by a man. The gender roles are quite traditional in this society.

As honored guests we had the first meat off the grill. Eco-consious folk that we are, we always grill on aluminum foil, use only top-grade meat and marinate well before grillin. But in this case I tried to make an exception, trying hard to block out the images from all those documentaries about how the cheap chain stores obtain their meat. At least they had lamb and chicken and fish.

The kids played soccer, came up for food, ran through the bushes (which were also used as toilets, as there were no facilities around - I just praised my American iron kidneys and tried not to drink too much liquid), screamed, smoked (I pulled a cigarette from a 6-year-old, his 12-year-old brother was too strong for me, though), talked, teased, kissed, and just generally had themselves a wonderful time.

The matriarch took me on a walk and explained that she knew all these families - they had grown up together in a part of Bosnia and now partied here together. Many were somehow related to her. Her daughter remarked that she did not know half of the people, and had once gone out with a guy only to discover that they were cousins. Germany's problem with too few children could easily be fixed by giving the gypsies all German citizenship and schooling the lot. Seems every woman has 6-8 kids.

One of the daughters-in-law (you marry by Gypsy custom by having a kid together) is a mother of a 1-year-old son at 17. She confided in me that she is bored to tears. She cleans constantly to have something to do. She dreams of finishing school and learning to be a nurse or a hairdresser. But her husband is jealous of her and keeps her home. Veil or no veil, the pressure on the women is intense.

The step-daughter of a cousin is pregnant at 17 - with no husband to present. She sat sullenly during the entire party, speaking with no one. I've met the girl many times before. Her goal was to get married and out of the family. She quit school, has no desire to learn a trade, her only interests being television and the disco. The plan backfired, and now she is facing being a mother and putting up with the scorn of the family.

Another daughter is pregnant with her 7th or 8th child, they have lost count. Two of her children are growing up with her mother, she shows no motherly feelings towards them. One child died when it fell out of the window, playing in the apartment. At least one more is in a foster home. Two children are at home, a very bright young boy who asks lots of questions and is an insufferable pascha, dropping paper on the ground expecting the girls to run and pick it up for him - and they do, without a word. The other, a girl, only has black stumps for teeth. She likes sweets, but appears never to have seen a dentist or a kindergarten. Next year she will start school. Her German could use a little polishing. The father of the baby is a German - so this is the ticket to a German "green card", growing in her stomach, as the baby will have German citizenship. His dog, as can plainly be seen, is a real German dog, all ready for the World Cup in soccer this summer.

The son of the matriarch had just gotten out of prison - according to his story, which had a lot of details that did not quite fit. He lectured the young boys to straighten up, not do anything stupid, and avoid prison. Good advice, at least. He is 24 and has 4 kids with 2 wives, but does not live with either family. He quit school and does "jobs" for friends.

There are so many sad and troubled stories - lost homelands, dead relatives, husbands gone, children dead or in prison. Yet when I reviewed the pictures I took during the day, everyone is happy! They smiled, laughed, told stories, sang, danced - life was wonderful, the sun was out, it was not raining like last year. Being a gypsy seems to mean learning to cope with life's problems and not losing your humor.

I wish I could somehow capture some of that joy and bottle it up for myself.



Yes, the Oscars seem to have been distributed right this year. Just saw Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman. What a genius! He plays the dandy to perfection, every twitch of every muscle in his face or his little finger speaks volumes. Capote, the egoist, becomes so enmeshed with one of the people he is writing about that he is torn between being just the reporter - eager for fame - and being a friend for one of the killers.

And after "Dancer in the Dark" yet another damnation of the death penalty in the US. The killers were tried, convicted and executed on first-degree murder. It was not, however, completely clear that it was premeditated. They should have been given life sentences on second-degree murder charges. The state does not have the right to take a life. But that is another rant.

The movie gets n out of n stars.