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.