Friday, December 25, 2009

White Christmas

The weather has dominated the news in the US for the past week or so and the same is true for Germany. The Ruhr region doesn't get many serious snow storms as a rule, but this past week they were hit hard. I picked up on the story listening to WDR and went to some local print news sites to get more detail online. My search brought up some references to the recent snow, but I was quickly sidetracked by news about a new children's book being featured in a series of pieces in the KinderZEIT. KinderZEIT is a regular feature of the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. It has stories aimed at children and they're going to be publishing one of the tales from Ritter, Räuber, Spökenkieker by Hartmut El Kurdi each week until mid-February. Herr El Kurdi is a Jordanian born writer, who grew up in the UK and Germany. The perfect multi-kulti credentials for this book of Ruhrgebiet folk tales, given the Ruhr's reputation as Europe's ultimate melting Pott.

Like everything that happens in the Ruhrgebiet right now, the publication of the folk tales volume is timed to coincide with the Kulturhauptstadt year, 2010. The festivities will bring a lot of attention to Essen and the surrounding cities and I imagine sales for the book might be just a little stronger than would otherwise be the case.

I enjoyed the first story, but was again sidetracked as I read the profiles of loyal KinderZEIT readers in the web page sidebar. It seems kids can send in short bios and get an early fifteen minutes of fame if the newspaper chooses their bio for publication. The format is reminiscent of the "Dewar's Profiles" that used to run at the back of the New Yorker and similar magazines in the US: passport style photo in the upper right and short answers to a series of standard questions, such as, Where do you live? What do you find particularly nice about living there? What doesn't appeal to you there? What makes you sad? What word do you always misspell? I was fascinated by the questions alone, never mind the answers the kids gave.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I'm wondering, were American kids in the 1960's allowed to be sad? I don't think so. Not that we weren't ever sad, it's just that society didn't really allow for the possibility that we would ever think about it in the abstract. I think what made me most sad when I was younger were the Saturdays when my father would abruptly announce that he would be cutting hair after lunch. Not his own hair, of which there wasn't enough to bother talking about, but our hair: we the children. Those Saturdays always ended with me looking like some skinny reform school type, tried as an adult and prepped for the electric chair. I knew school on Monday would be a living hell and wondered why a parent would make his child look that bad on purpose. But by Tuesday I had already forgotten that haircuts existed and lived in a fool's paradise until the next Saturday my father would decide to make my brothers and me look like a band of youthful collaborators.

As I read the profiles in the KinderZEIT I was surprised to see that the German kids were made sad by things like fighting, war, death, or in two cases, noise. I fought constantly as a kid and don't remember being sad about it. Angry, yes, but only if I lost. And noise? I loved noise and reveled in noisy things. Reading these profiles, I wondered if maybe it's only the children of Zeit readers that get sad about noise. Probably kids whose parents read the Bild Zeitung get sad about stuff that I could relate to, like having to go to bed in the summer when it's still light out. But not all Zeit reader children are so sophisticated. One child, when asked what he particularly disliked about his home town (Marburg,) replied "Hundehaufen." In my neighborhood we called it dog doo and we didn't like it either. I couldn't have responded in any meaningful way to a question about a world free of war, but if we just could have made the front lawn safe for playing "Duck, Duck, Goose," that would have meant a lot to me.

The Hundehaufen in Essen are all safely hidden today under a glittering blanket of white snow and presumably the children, whether Zeit readers or Bild readers are looking forward to the excitement of Christmas tomorrow. The quintessential Christmas for me is still the year my brother got a toy cannon, one that shot real wooden shells. We took advantage of my parent's absence for a short time to get the range on the Christmas tree and lay waste to a number of glass ornaments. It was great fun, but for tomorrow, I'm hoping for a Christmas that would make a KinderZEIT reader happy: quiet, no fighting and everyone in Marburg gets a shiny new Pooper Scooper under the tree.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

European problems

The problems I face in Logan, Utah at this time of year tend to revolve around snow removal and idling vehicles. A walk to the store will probably involve at least one resident who thinks that the sidewalk is a good place to throw the snow as they clear their driveway. And after making the way clear for their Lincoln Navigator, they often leave it in the fire lane at a local shopping center while they run in for a few things. Sometimes I find it hard to maintain my normal buoyant and upbeat attitude. Then life sends you a video like the one below and you can't help but laugh as you realize others are suffering too.

I guess Misery really does love company.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Buried deep in the psyche of most U. S. North Americans is the concept of The Road. I don't mean to try to claim road stories just for America: Homer did a pretty good job with The Odyssey and presumably journey tales figure in many of the world's cultures. But in America, The Road is deep and significant. Sometimes, Our Hero is on the road of discovery. He's on the road to find out. But more often than not, road stories are about being pursued. My appreciation of road stories began with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and continued with books like On the Road, but my favorite road tales were quickly dominated by film. The list of road films is long and illustrious: It Happened One Night, Five Easy Pieces*, Rain Man, The Get Away, Thelma and Louise. I saw so many of these films growing up, I think I took it for granted that ultimately we'd all be on the run one time or another. It wasn't a future that I found entirely unappealing.

Germans love road films too, as far as I can tell, and more than one German film director has abandoned his or her Heimat and landed in Hollywood to make one. Some even stay at home and give it a try. I'm thinking here about Adolf Winkelmann and his trilogy of Ruhrgebiet cult films. Die Abfahrer is a classic road movie and has a small but dedicated following. But the truth is, being on the run in Deutschland is a far cry from floating down the mighty Mississippi on a raft. As two escapees from the JVA Aachen demonstrated this past week.

The JVA is a high security prison but in spite in that, two Kumpels, Michael Heckhoff and Peter Paul Michalski, both of whom were sentenced to life without parole, walked out last week and held most of North Rhine/Westphalen in suspense for several days as they eluded capture. If they had broken out of Leavenworth, Folsom or Angola, their plan would have been clear: steal a car and make a run for the Mexican border. Along the way there would have been plenty of opportunities for mayhem, high speed chases, and a killer sound track. Mexico is too far away to be a reasonable escape plan for German escapees, but they might at least have lit out for Italy, Spain or Turkey. Instead they called a taxi after breaking out and decided to go to Mulheim. "We're going on the assumption that the presence of a taxi waiting outside the prison was not a coincidence." said the State Attorney General Robert Deller. That would be my guess too.

I would also guess that these two convicts had never seen a good road picture like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry or even The Straight Story. If they had, things might have turned out differently. As is was, the cops just went to Mulheim, former home of Heckhoff, and waited. No chase, no wrecked police cars, no nothing. Hollywood isn't likely to be negotiating for the rights to this story.

But the drama wasn't over yet. The pair split up in Kettwig and the second man, Michalski, was now "on the lam." If it were a decent screen play, he would have crossed the Dutch border on a Rhine river barge, made it to Rotterdam, and joined a swarthy crew bound for Honduras. This guy decided to go to Bielefeld. No sense of adventure. The cops picked him up by homing in on his Handy (mobile phone) and when they nabbed him, he was riding a stolen bike in a downpour. The cops took him into custody and his comment was, "I'm glad it's all over..." Yeah, I'd be glad it was over too if I was puffing along a busy highway shoulder with trucks splashing dirty water up on me.

What these guys really needed, was a 57 Chevy and four or five hundred miles of Route 66 to play around with. I'm glad the two of them are back in the slammer where they belong, but in a way, it's sad. I enjoy living in Germany and hope to be back there soon, but if I'm ever on the run, be it on a bike, motorcycle, Dodge Charger or even a rider mower, I'll want to do it in America where these things are properly understood.

* While doing the research for this post, I found some amazing stuff I can't help but share. Here's the Diner Scene from Five Easy Pieces.

And click here for a news report on Welt TV

Saturday, November 21, 2009


At Utah State University I teach students in the Art Department how to paint. For many painting instructors, that might mean primarily a focus on theory and concept. I'm talking here about the kind of people who never miss an opportunity to use the word "reference" as a verb. But in the courses I teach, I do spend a considerable amount of time actually talking about the physical activity of painting. I don't think it hurts anyone to know how to mix color or to use a system based on local values to create order in an image. But even given my willingness to deal unashamedly with the mechanics of painting, I can't always shield my students from the esoteric stuff. And the fact that I keep coming back to, is that in painting, viscosity counts for a lot. And the truth about viscosity, is that it's virtually impossible to explain it verbally. If the paint has the right viscosity, it's easy to make it do what you want. If the viscosity is wrong, you can forget it. Recently I learned, it's the same when you're making Spätzle.

About this time a year ago, I was in Essen, enjoying an expat Thanksgiving dinner at Seitenblick. I ordered, ate and later wrote about a fabulous meal of Kurbisspätzle, or Pumpkin Spaetzle, pan fried with sauerkraut. We decided to try making it at home about a week ago, but we didn't get the Zähflüssigkeit right and our noodles turned into a kind of spätzlemässig brick. It was still good sliced and fried with the sauerkraut, but I think we'll cook a turkey this Thursday just the same.

The contrast between then and now is interesting in other ways too, and the blog allows me to go back and see more or less exactly what I was doing a year ago. Then, I had just gotten started on several paintings and managed to complete at least one of the larger oils. Now, I'm working intermittently in the studio and starting to think about preparations for the exhibition I'll be doing in January. A year ago, I was spending time with Thore, a one year old German native, trying to bring him up to speed on the American blues tradition. I don't really know what's happening with Thore now. He never calls, he doesn't write... If he's like many of his countrymen, I imagine he celebrated Tag der Deutschen Einheit recently and is trying his best to avoid the Schweinegrippe. When he's a little older, I'll ask him if he can help me out with some Spätzle tips. Until then, I'll just stick to painting and try to get the viscosity right.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Neue Bilder

A Visiting Artist from Korea has mounted a beautifully executed exhibition of 20 white canvasses here on campus in Logan. The canvasses arrived direct from Utrecht Linens on our loading dock two weeks ago and went straight into the gallery. Other than a single number on each, the canvasses are unchanged from the way Utrecht sent them out. I've never been much of an art collector, but this show is so impressive, I've made arrangements to purchase the entire thing. Twenty flawless canvasses do have an eerie kind of beauty to them and I'm at least a little sad that as soon as I get my hands on them, I'll begin the process of screwing them up with a lot of painting.

It's easy to forget, but fundamentally, I am a painter. And now that I've been back in Utah for about 15 weeks or so, I'm actually getting some work done too. My studio here in Logan is less than a fifth the size of where I was working in Essen, and my employer here seems to think I have nothing better to do than teach classes and write an unending stream of "mission statements," but in spite of everything, I have managed to get back to work. I'm busy now finishing a series of paintings I began this Spring in Germany and left more or less intentionally incomplete. The work is going far better than I expected and I'm already making plans for new paintings.

And with my soon to be accomplished purchase of the decidedly "conceptual" exhibition now up in the Twain Tippetts Exhibition Hall in the Fine Arts building, I shall not want for surfaces to paint on. If everything continues to go well in the studio, I'm planning a trip to San Francisco in the early Spring that will lead eventually to an exhibition there in the coming year(s.) I can only hope that any exhibitions I wind up doing will be as successful in the sales department as the one currently on view here in Logan.

Friday, October 23, 2009


I watched Fritz Lang's M the other day. It's a great film. Visionary, innovative: a masterpiece. But what really amazed me about the film, was how much smoking was going on in Germany between the wars. Nearly every character in the film smokes incessantly and at times it seems as though the set must be on fire as clouds of the dense white fog drift across the screen, often totally obscuring characters and action. Many characters smoke cigars, some pipes, others cigarettes and lots are smoking with bizarre equipment I can't even identify. I saw funny little pipes with tiny cigars sticking out the top, cigarettes in holders that might double as a monkey wrench in a pinch, cigars that looked like gentleman's hosiery wrapped loosely around a fistful of oak leaves. I'm glad I don't smoke, but if I lived in Berlin during the Weimar years, I don't think I could have resisted.

The Germans are, of course, still dedicated smokers. The first time I lived there in the early 90's, smoking was permitted everywhere with the welcome exception of specific train cars. Lunchtime at the university cafeteria put me in mind of an iron smelting plant I visited once as a kid in Pittsburgh. Dinner out had to be planned for a place with outdoor dining and forecasted winds of at least 7 on the Beaufort Scale.

Since those days, the European Union has dragged Germany kicking and screaming into the modern anti-smoking world. During my most recent year there in 2008-09, new laws were passed by each of the German Länder that outlawed smoking in many public places such as restaurants. Each State has its own laws but as soon as they were passed, a variety of interest groups began negotiating for exceptions. We were initially delighted by the ability to dine out smoke-free, but the reality was, that in most restaurants, there was always someone smoking. Usually it was wafting out from the kitchen, where the waiters and cooks were lighting up. Sometimes it was a diner at the table next to yours, which, the waiter patiently explained, was the "smoking area." But more often than not, it was just people ignoring the ban. Few people, pro or con, seemed to know what the law really said about banning smoking and fewer people cared. Normally very law-abiding, this was an aspect of German behavior that I wasn't ready for.

Over time, we identified a few places where the ban was enforced and avoided the rest. On the train platforms, smokers were relegated to small areas marked by a painted box and mostly smokers seemed happy to restrict themselves to those areas. Ultimately, I forgot about the issue entirely. Entirely, that is, until I watched M again this week. Could it be that the smoke was Fritz Lang's clever symbol for man's inhumanity to man, or maybe a veiled thumbing of the socialist nose at a growing fascist movement during the 30's? Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were, after all, each outspoken about their opposition to smoking. I'll have to give Metropolis another viewing and see if the filming there was equally smoke filled. Until then, smoke 'em if you've got 'em.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hände hoch!

Will I write a post about the German artist who is doing an installation featuring 1000's of garden gnomes giving the Hitlergrüß? No, it's just too easy. Go to and read about it yourself. I'm weary of all this "former times" stuff.

Instead, I watched a real American movie this weekend and want to comment on that. It was a movie from the 90's, a relatively innocent time in America, and starred a bunch of people who haven't done many films since then, but it also featured Charlie Sheen in a starring role. It was called something like, Navy Sea Lions and was all about the dedication of a select group of guys who work hard, recreate hard and smoke terrorists when they're not busy playing hilarious pranks on one another. The film begins with a wedding: one of the Navy Sea Otters is planning to marry. He feels guilty that he's abandoning the team, even if only in spirit, but his commanding officer tells him that commitment is the highest goal. Two things are made clear by this opener. One, this character will be the "sensitive one." Two, he'll die in reel three.

There was a lot not to like in the movie, but it was oddly satisfying as well. Watching the Navy Walruses on R&R for example was a real embarrassment. Driving wildly in golf carts, beating up innocent citizens, littering: these guys have a carbon footprint as big as all outdoors. But when stirring music plays as they all leap from an airplane somewhere over the eastern Mediterranean, it's enough to make even William Penn find some minor mid-east nation and liberate stuffing out of it.

It's a paradox to me that today people seem to fret constantly about violence on television and in film. And God help anyone who would buy his or her child a toy gun. When I was a kid, I never left the house without being properly armed and our "toybox" was a former military footlocker, chock full of paraphernalia my dad brought home from WWII. What kid in 1962 didn't have a combat helmet? I had several and received in addition, a full Zorro outfit complete with cape and Zorro shotgun for Christmas one year. Zorro never used a gun of any kind, but I never let that dampen my enthusiasm and chanted "The fox so cunning and free!" as I carved a large "Z" in our family's bathroom door.

The thing is, we were comfortable with violence, but knew that in a situation in which our lives were threatened, we would only need to shoot the gun out of the other guy's hand. On one favorite TV show of the day, Seahunt, Lloyd Bridges never fought with a gun, since all encounters had to take place underwater. It wasn't possible to shoot guns out of hands on that program, but it was understood that the knives one brandished in the underwater fight scenes could only be used to cut air hoses. There was the obligatory "underwater struggle for the knife" scene in Navy Manatees too, but the Charlie Sheen character uses the knife to cut his assailant's throat. I thought these guys were supposed to be trained in underwater combat?

There seems to be a cycle of ever increasing violence in America today and it's affecting Germany as well. It seems hardly a month goes by that I don't hear a story about some nitwit shooting as many people as he can in a public space. The death counts are lower in Germany, where the perpetrators are denied automatic weapons, but I read recently about one dedicated would-be mass murderer there who went at it with a knife. So I was relieved and gratified when I visited a local store yesterday to pick up a new pair of work pants and saw the sign pictured below. It may lead to a boycott of the store by people who see it as a violation of their Second Amendment rights, but I for one think it's time we draw a line in the sand on this issue.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Update: Die Winkelständer

Loyal Forschungsjahr readers will remember a post I did just under a year ago about clothing racks in the shape of swastikas that were proliferating in Kik outlets all over Germany. What's up with that story? Have the racks remained in place, slowly but inexorably converting all shoppers to a form of paramilitary fascism the free world abhors, or did the German High Court outlaw the asozial racks? I was curious and did a few searches earlier this evening. Using a variety of search terms, such as Kik, Nazi, Winkelständer, I searched on Google for updates. Each search led me right back to this blog. Apparently there is no new information about the controversy. I am the final word on Nazi-influenced clothing display.

I'll continue to seek out closure on the issue, but for the time being, we have to be satisfied with another shocking and insidious neo-nazi plot to win the hearts and minds of unsuspecting Germans through discount clothing. I'm referring to the infamous "NS-Style" hoodies that, until recently, were being sold at Real. I first learned of the threat through a blog called Störungsmelder. A recent post there describes the hooded sweat shirts on sale at a large German chain called Real. The hoodies are brown (!!!) and have the phrase "NS-STYLE" and "Advanced Man" across the chest. For American readers without the background to understand the difficulty, NS could stand for National Socialism, the formal name for the Nazi party. And "Advanced Man?" Might it not be a reference to the wearer as an Übermench, or superior person? Yeah, I guess so, and while we're at it, let's not forget that Santa is an anagram of Satan.

The Störungsmelder writer approached the Real manager and the issue reached the highest levels of Real administration. After a few days the Press Spokesman for Real, Albrecht von Truchseß, called the reporter back and said he found the situation "Extremely irritating." When asked about where the blame might lie, von Truchseß excused the manufacturer who was "probably some guy from Bangladesh, without a clue about National Socialism." Instead, he said Real took responsibility and that the slip up was simply human error. About 1000 sweat shirts were pulled from the shelves and young, fashion conscious neo-nazis will simply have to go elsewhere for their fascist outfits.

My attitude toward this event was one of mild amusement until further reading led me to the difficulties faced by the English sports clothing brand Lonsdale. According to information I read at a variety of sites, Lonsdale is a favorite of neo-nazis throughout Europe. With the Lonsdale logo on your chest, it's possible to wear a jacket that covers the beginning and ending letters of the brand logo yielding the following:


NSDAP was the abbreviation for the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and apparently that's close enough for the skinheads. Lonsdale has done a lot to combat this association with the radical right, including refusing to deliver clothing to known right wing retailers and creating the "Lonsdale Loves All Colours" ad campaign. Who knew?

Lonsdale has been fairly effective in discouraging this negative association with their brand, but neo-nazis are not deterred. A new brand, Consdaple, was founded by a German far right politician in imitation of Lonsdale, to supply neo-nazis with clothing that displays the full "NSDAP" acronym. It's a kind of determination I can easily identify with, having used the batik process to create my own "FRODO LIVES" T-shirt when I was in junior high, but I can't condone the content. And clearly I was way too cavalier in my amusement with the original Kik Winkelständer story. Bad people may in fact really try to communicate with specially shaped clothing racks and it's up to us to stop them.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mud Heart

This past weekend I spent some time in southern Utah: Capitol Reef country. After a year in the Ruhrgebiet, there's a lot to be said for the red rock landscape. As much as I enjoy Germany, the frequent rain, overcast skies and urban "betonscape" can have a long term effect on my mood, and it's not a positive one. More than once I found myself in the position of trying to explain to a German citizen I met at a dance class, or in a local Kneipe, why I was spending a year in Essen and invariably their reaction was confusion. I came from where? And I had decided freiwillig to come to Germany for a year? Und warum?

Travel in the other direction is far easier to understand and I saw plenty of it in Capitol Reef. At times it seemed I was visiting Düsseldorf an der Fremont as I passed people on the trail or heard visitors pulling up in the motel parking lot. To be sure, German wasn't the only language being spoken, but French was more common than English and Italian ran a close fourth. I was delighted to see that not everyone has been scared off by the draconian visa process we put the rest of the world through and was happy to hear familiar expressions like, "Verdammte Scheiße!" sprinkled in with the ubiquitous "Oh my heck!"

We were doing our part to build the tourist economy, since we were in Capitol Reef to meet two friends from Essen who were making a grand tour of the American West. They arrived directly from the Grand Canyon in a massive black Dodge rental that looked as though it had been designed for a pair of professional hit men. They were delighted with the auto, so I didn't ask about gas mileage or if it came with an integral gun rack. The vehicle wasn't exactly my style, but I could see that it would be a good choice for cruising Route 66.

We spent time in the Pleasant Creek area discovering new petroglyphs and also hiked the Sulphur Creek canyon. The latter begins as a broad, open drainage but quickly narrows to a dramatic slot canyon that requires some climbing. No ropes or technical gear are required and it's an ideal hike for the last warm weekend of the summer season. As we walked to the creek from the trail head, we passed areas of drying mud that were cracking in familiar patterns with the exception I photographed above. It seemed a fitting valentine image and expressed our feelings about the weekend eloquently. Now we get ready for snow.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


On a recent trip to Seattle I learned that a Capitol Hill landmark, Vivace, had been knocked down and the lot paved over. It's being done in the name of light rail mass transit, so I can't complain too much. I'm facing similar changes in Logan, where building seems to go on at a furious pace, in spite of what I'm told is a pretty serious recession. There's a MONSTER new Walmart in Cache Valley now on the south end of town. It's easily the ugliest building I've ever seen, with the other monster Walmart a few miles to the north running a close second. There's no light rail planned for Logan but at least it's good to know that everyone's consumer needs are being met here in the Intermountain West.

But the loss of Vivace was a blow. The coffee there was outstanding and it had a tradition and a vibe that the new place a few blocks further up Broadway just can't replace. The old location wasn't perfect. For one thing, the restroom hadn't been cleaned since the King Dome was demolished. If you anticipated a call of nature, it was best to bring a hazmat suit. A little inconvenient, but it just added to the legend. Legendary or not, many buildings along Broadway were knocked down during the year I was in Germany. By contrast, during the year I'm in the US, I anticipate that no buildings in Essen will be razed. Even with the current renovation of the Bahnhof and other preparations for the 2010 Kulturhauptstadt celebration there's just very little demolition. Germany is stable. People stay put. For the most part, the new must accommodate the existing, and where it doesn't, such as the new Limbecker Platz development in Essen, most people are not pleased. There are some people in Logan who are not pleased by our second Walmart store, but mostly it's just me and a few other malcontents out on the fringe.

On the road back to Logan from Seattle I unknowingly stopped at what is apparently another Washington coffee monument. It was very early on Sunday morning and I had pulled off I-82 in Yakima to find some breakfast. Nothing seemed to be open along the main street and I was ready to get back on the highway when I noticed a little hut in a parking lot with cars idling in front of it. It was an espresso drive-thru called Dreamgirls, according to the Yakima Herald, one of several businesses springing up that people are calling "Sexpresso stands." The concept is simple: your coffee is served to you by a young woman in her underwear.

I think this may be a bonus for some, but I found it just a little disconcerting. When you give your order, where are you supposed to look? Is it impolite not to leer? Should you hand the payment for your purchase directly to the barista, or just tuck it into her waistband? Is it appropriate to make casual conversation, such as "Isn't it hard to walk with your underpants all wedged up in your butt crack like that?" I teach life drawing from time to time and have no particular problem with naked people. But then, they're usually not making me a double latte. The bottom line (no pun intended) is that Dreamgirls was open and the coffee was excellent: what's to complain about?

When I returned to Logan I was curious about the Dreamgirls and gave them a quick google. There were news stories and blog postings listed. Lots of photos and they have a MySpace page. I visited the page and was suitably underwhelmed, but they do have their fans and some even leave them comments. Here's an example of a recent one:


I guess that just about sums it up for me too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Titles Translated


In his book, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet claimed that Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock's best film. I watched it again this past week and I'm ready to agree. From the opening scenes of Newark with the Pulaski Skyway looming overhead to the gee-whiz innocence of Santa Rosa, California, I was completely captured by Hitchcock's meticulous control of each image and the economy with which he drives the story. Filmed during the war years, I was curious to see if the film was released in Germany and looked it up in the IMDb (Internet Movie Database.) Yes, it was shown in Germany, but only after 1947 when it was released as Im Schatten des Zweifels, a sensible title and essentially a direct translation of the original. That kind of common sense is more often the exception than the rule.

About a year ago I wrote a post about another film, Krabat. It's based on a wonderful children's book written by Ottfried Preußler that's a classic in its original German, but virtually unknown in the English speaking world. I wondered why, until I heard the title of the English version: The Satanic Mill. My guess is, the books were probably brought directly to the landfill, still hot from the presses. The original title, Krabat, is simply the name of the main character. What was wrong with that? Were they trying to appeal to some previously untapped diabolical niche market?

Titles often suffer in the other direction too. The German market seems to prefer titles that explain and clarify as opposed to the American preference for the laconic. So, while on this side of the Atlantic movies are trending more and more toward one word titles,  in Germany those titles are often given a little boost.  The 1989 James Belushi film, K9, becomes Mein Partner mit der kalten Schnauze in the German speaking world.  Hitchcock's 1948 film,  Rope, became Cocktail für eine Leiche in German.  And the 1980 comedy Airplane was translated as Die unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug. A translation like that doesn't do anything to dispel the stereotype that Germans have no sense of humor.

Sometimes it seems as though translated titles are a reasonable response to the expectations and conventions of the target culture, but often they're just a mystery to me. When Disney made Erich Kästner's German classic, Das doppelte Löttchen, into the Parent Trap in 1961, the name change probably made a lot of sense. After all, would the average American know that Lotte or the diminutive, Löttchen, is a standard girl's name in German? The Parent Trap is a snappy update and makes the title accessible in English. Then the film was dubbed into German and released under what may be the
clumsiest title I ever heard: Die Vermählung ihrer Eltern geben bekannt. Does the passive voice really set the tone we want for a children's comedy? When Disney remade the Parent Trap in 2002, German translators had a chance to get it right and title the film Das doppelte Löttchen, but instead they opted for Ein Zwilling kommt selten allein. OK, I'll admit, it's an improvement over the first attempt (it was a pretty low bar) but does, "A Twin Comes Seldom Alone", really hit the nail on the head? Ich don't think so.

Mostly I enjoy the translation of concepts from one language to another. I looked up the English expression "dumb down" today in an Eng/Deutsch on-line dictionary and discovered the wonderful expression, "das geistige Niveau herunterschrauben." I can't wait to use it in a sentence.  But bad titles always bring out my inner curmudgeon. The American title, Vanilla Sky, for the Spanish film, Abre los ojos, just seems dumb to me. Also, bad titles often reveal too much about a film. The German title for Hitchcock's  Vertigo: Vertigo - Aus dem Reich der Toten, is a good
example. The viewer needs to be puzzled by the events of Hitchcock's story and the German additional subtitle, "from the empire of Death," changes the viewer's experience of the film for the worse. Ultimately, I think we can lay the blame for all these bad titles at the door of marketers that don't trust their consumers.  Hitchcock had faith in his audience and his audience rose to his expectations. With too many titles, marketers try to "dumb down" the content  and almost always to the detriment of the film or book being translated. Luckily, the making of bad titles seems to have its own built in punishment and is therefore probably self limiting. Just ask the English language publisher of Ottfried Preußler's Krabat as they sit on 100,000 unsold copies of The Satanic Mill. Sie haben die geistige Niveau des Titels herunterzuschrauben versucht und sind selber schuld.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I've been working on a new website since last January that would offer an overview of my work as a painter. My first website was developed back in the mid 1990's: the dark ages of the Internet, and I needed the services of specialized technicians to update it. The new site is flexible. I can configure it and customize it myself and, most importantly, keep it up to date with my newest work. The site is ready to go live now and includes some of the work I did in Germany this past academic year. I'm currently re-stretching the paintings from the sabbatical for an upcoming show and as I get them stretched, I'll be photographing any that were overlooked in the confusion of the move. As those images are ready, I'll be posting them too. Please visit and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When words fail

I still enjoy keeping up with events in Germany even though I'm living back in Utah now. In previous years that could be a little tricky, but the miracle of high speed Internet has made it almost too easy. I can remember years ago, sitting in front of a tinny short-wave radio trying to raise something interesting on Deutsche Welle and having to settle for a listing of ship sailings out of Bremerhaven. Now WDR offers all of their audio content free on their web page. I enjoy the music on Funkhaus Europa, but I also like listening to the news on WDR 2. Sometimes I have trouble choosing among all the great options and it doesn't make much sense to try to listen to them both at the same time. WDR 5 offers a lot of their content as podcasts and so I don't always have to choose. Today, for example, I listened to a good piece that was broadcast yesterday as a part of their Auf Ein Wort feature.

Today, September 1, is the 70th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland and the Polish/German relationship was the subject of yesterday's Auf Ein Wort. In the Ruhrgebiet it's common to meet people with Polish surnames. Mostly, their grandfathers or great grandfathers came in the past to work the coal mines or in heavy industry. I know Poles who visit Germany regularly and Germans with Polish friends and in-laws. So on the surface, it might appear that the relationship is an easy and friendly one, but then again, it's hard to forget the speed and efficiency with which the German Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Poland. And no other victim of Nazi aggression has a stronger reason to complain. Fully ten percent of the Polish population died in the war. It's not a thing many are likely to quickly to forget, nor would we expect them too.

Most of what I know about the invasion of Poland comes from my multiple readings of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus. I read it first in German as a part of, what in my house, we call the "comic book method" of language study. I only got about 40% of the text that first time through, but the pictures helped a lot. As a rule I don't usually read books that are written in English in translation but this book is probably a good exception to that rule. The main character is Vladek, Spiegelman's father, and his difficulty with German syntax comes across as more genuine in German. Plus, the Nazi/cat soldiers are scarier auf deutsch.

German Chancellor Willy Brandt made a famous gesture of reconciliation with Poland in 1970 when he fell to his knees after placing a wreath at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, but it wasn't well received by everyone at home. According to a survey done by Der Spiegel after the event, 48% of West Germans felt the gesture was over done. His opposition tried to use the symbolic action against him in a vote of no confidence held by the Bundestag in 1972 and Brandt survived by only two votes. If Poles want to see that as a fresh affront though, they should also remember that a short time later Brandt won re-election by a landslide: the best showing ever by his party (SPD) in a national election.

According to Wolf Scheller, the author of the Auf ein Wort piece I listened to, we shouldn't have any over ambitious expectations for friendly relations between this current generation of Germans and Poles. German and Polish catholic bishops celebrated a mass together today to commemorate the 1939 invasion, but the wounds are deep. Scheller suggests that it will take a new generation of citizens and that Germans and Poles need to get to know one another better for true reconciliation to take place. But gestures like Willy Brandt's certainly can't hurt. He was asked often about his actions and explained them this way:

Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people.

After reading Maus again this past year for the third time, I'd say his actions were justified and courageous.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


I'm looking at old photos again in my role as family archivist. I've discovered lots of interesting stuff, but I was puzzled for a while by images like these:

The mystery was cleared up as I realized that these were pictures of the famous Hudson River Crossing. My father worked for Consolidated Edison in New York and as near as I can figure, he spent most of his working life on the several transmission towers that cross the Hudson River for ConEd. According to a contemporary press release from Henkels & McCoy, one of the contractors on the job, "This wire crossing is the longest and heaviest crossing yet attempted in the East, demanding technical expertise and ingenuity to link Orange and Rockland utilities with Con Edison." My father may, or may not, have provided some of the ingenuity to accomplish the job. I'm not sure about that. But one thing is certain: no Con Ed employee ate more lunches at Lüchows in support of the project than my Dad. He tested, evaluated and ultimately purchased insulators, cable and other hardware for the crossings and salesmen attempted to sway his decision by plying him with the excellent German food and drink served at Lüchow's, a Manhattan legend since 1882.

Lüchow's was just two short blocks south of Irving Place where the big Con Ed building was. An easy walk for Con Ed employees and even easier when someone else was picking up the check. During the 1960's Lüchow's was owned by Jan Mitchell, a Swede who bought the place from the original owner, Herr August Lüchow. His only change to the landmark eatery was to install air conditioning. The original oil paintings, including a Van Dyke and a Goya, remained in place and the kitchen continued to serve the excellent Wienerschnitzel, Sauerbraten, pigs knuckles and Schlemmerschnitte that made the place famous. In the 1970's, Lüchow's moved uptown to the Broadway area and it closed for good in 1982, one hundred years after it's opening.

I imagine interest in heavy German food must have waned in the face of a lot of nonsense about cholesterol and so forth. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a quiet renaissance in traditional cuisine is taking place today. When I first lived in Germany in 1994, I asked my downstairs neighbor if he could recommend a nice German place in the area. He turned his head in thought and after a while said tentatively, "There's a good pizza place on the corner..." I asked if maybe there was a place that served German food, as opposed to Italian food prepared in Germany, but ultimately he couldn't help me. I came to find that he wasn't alone in his ignorance about his own national cuisine. German food had a bad rep in those days. It was the butt of insider jokes at parties. People under 30 were surprised to learn it even existed.

On my most recent trip, that situation had changed. At homes where in the early 90's the talk was only of the finest olive oil, roasted egg plant and sun dried tomatoes, suddenly I was being served Rouladen and Schweinebraten. These were foods that for many years, people associated with the Nazi past and they were avoided. Now, it turns out, German food is good, and you don't have to be a Fascist to appreciate it. Social Democrats, Greens, members of the of the Christian Union; they can all sit down to a plate of Salzkartoffeln mit Spargel und Schinken and enjoy it.

Lüchow's is gone, an NYU dormitory stands on the site at 112 East 14th Street. As far as I know, the only place you can buy German food in America is Wienerwald, a fast food joint where the food isn't necessarily authentic. I'm glad I got to eat in Lüchow's in the old days and I'm looking forward to learning more about the secrets of Knödel next time I'm back in Germany. Until then, I'll focus on the roasted egg plant and have to be satisfied with an occasional German pilsner from our state liquor store.

Friday, August 21, 2009

From Bauhaus to my house

Every year I teach a course at Utah State University about the Bauhaus. It's a pretty idiosyncratic course since it's based on my own personal interests. I'm not an art historian, so I can't claim the course has any real academic rigor. What it does have going for it is that I teach it as a part of a study abroad experience and have access to all kinds of primary sources that would be out of the question for an on-campus course. There are some readings for the course and I do require written assignments as well, but the bulk of the class happens in casual conversations in museums, over dinner or traveling on the Straßenbahn. I try to relate the artifacts of the Bauhaus to political history, to the particularities of German culture and to our own current attitudes about design. A best case scenario for how the course works: while under way to a museum somewhere in the Ruhrgebiet, I tell the student group that I need to stop into a bank for a minute and they should wait for me in the lobby. I leave them for a while and inevitably a sharp eyed student notices that the lobby furniture is vaguely familiar and says, "Hey, isn't that like... a Marcel Breuer chair?" When I return, discussion is underway and they have a million questions for me. There's no better way to drive home the point that the Bauhaus was about developing products for mass production, not painting and drawing.

This year is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar and cities around Germany are celebrating with some fabulous exhibitions. I find the situation ironic, since after a full year in Germany with lots of travel and museum experiences, I didn't see even one of the exhibitions that are getting so much press now. Now that I'm back in the US, I'm trying to figure out how that happened.

It's really not so very surprising when I think it through. I've been to the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin 10 or 20 times. Likewise the Albers Museum in Bottrop and the Museum Für Angewandte Kunst in Berlin. I've visited the Gropius building in Dessau and seen countless works by artists that worked as "Masters of Form" during the Bauhaus 14 year run. I may be a little over saturated by Bauhaus stuff.

I also find it a little paradoxical that my own house in Logan is so much not in keeping with the Bauhaus aesthetic. One could maybe make an argument that it fits into the William Morris "Arts & Crafts" thinking, but honestly, it's just a farm shack with a series of not very well thought out lean-tos. If there's a foundation under that part of the a house that serves as a kitchen, I can't find any real evidence for it. Walls, floors and ceilings meet at something approximating 90 degrees but follow Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle more often than not. Still, I like my house and admire the vernacular wisdom that went into building it. On days when the temperature breaks 100, my house is cool. The ground floor walls are lined with mud-brick and it's oriented in a way that minimizes heat gain in summer.

The "desirable" homes in Logan, built in the last ten years, tend to be in the neighborhoods up on the hillsides. Many are 5000 square foot barns that feature a three story wall of windows facing southwest. Heat gain? No problem, there's a central air conditioner in the back yard. Out in front there's probably a Sport Utility Vehicle with a bumper sticker exhorting readers to reduce their carbon footprint. These kinds of houses win awards from architectural journals, but if I were in charge, their designers would win different kinds of awards. The kind that would involve jail time.

Coincidentally, that's exactly what happened to the students that were still around when the Nazis showed up at the Berlin factory building that housed the Bauhaus on 11 April, 1933. It was just a few weeks after the Reichstag fire and Hitler had been Chancellor for only about three months. The school had been on the decline for several years already but the Berlin police† made it official by arresting about 32 students and searching the school for Bolshevik propaganda and evidence of decadency. As I gaze out at the McMansions from my own back yard, I ask myself, where are the Nazi paramilitary units when you really need them? And I'm comforted to know, that regardless of what some people might think about my house, no one would ever be likely to see it as decadent.

†There was tension between the regular Berlin police and the NSDAP jackboot types and it's the subject of an interesting series of novels by Philip Kerr. I haven't actually read any of them all the way through yet, but I think they're pretty good. They were the subject of a recent NPR piece you can read/listen to here.