Sunday, January 17, 2010


The official World Cultural Capital celebration opening took place a few days ago in Essen at the Zeche Zollverein and here am I, stuck in Utah. Luckily, there's no lack of information about the event, and from what I can see it was a blow out Essen will be talking about for years to come. Americans often have a romantic picture of Germany, in which a layer of crisp new snow lies on all the pretty cottages. The truth is, as I've mentioned in previous blog posts, snow is fairly rare in the Ruhrgebiet. So an opening night celebration in an open air arena at the heart of the Zollverein campus mustn't have seemed like a particularly risky enterprise. But on the night of the ninth of January, the snow was flying. Far from ruining the event, it seems to have heightened the drama.

Grönemeyer was there, the Minister President, Helge Schneider, Dietmar Bär and Klaus J. Behrendt (the Tatort Kommissare from Köln,) the former Minister President... it seems only I couldn't make it. I'll include some pictures I borrowed from Spiegel below, but the most exciting images I saw were included in WDR's video presentation, which you can view here: 200.000 feiern Ruhr 2010. I thought in the new, digital world, everything would be free, but it turns out WDR doesn't allow me to embed their videos in my blog. Mist! So, click on the link, watch the video, enjoy the pictures. I need to get busy booking my flight for a visit at the end of this semester.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Schimanski beim Frühstück

I continue to give a great deal of thought to the figure of Horst Schimanski, the legendary Duisburg ARD Kommissar in the TV Serien, Tatort. The more I think about him, the more I'm convinced that he is essentially like a kind of anti-hero that I recognize as distinctly American. It could, of course, be that there is a European tradition for a similar kind of anti-hero. But one of the benefits of writing a blog, is that one needn't cloud the issue with a lot of facts.

To follow my line of thought, first watch the video I've embedded below. It represents the German TV public's very first encounter with Schimanski and shows him waking up in his Duisburg Wohnung:

The scene brings me back immediately to the opening of the classic 1966 Paul Newman detective film, Harper. I haven't seen the film in many years, and the Internet, normally so obliging in providing me with almost any image, text or information that I could want, lacks a YouTube clip of the scene. But the scene made a strong impression on me and I can remember it well even after 30 years. The Newman character, Lew Harper, wakes during the opening credits in a pile of rumpled clothing on the couch. Behind him we see the snowy B&W test pattern of a local station flickering on the TV set.

Just as Horst wanders around his kitchen looking for a relatively clean pan to cook an egg, Lew searches for the makings of a cup of coffee, finally realizing that the coffee can is empty. He hangs his head in exasperation and then suddenly looks to his right at something outside the frame of the screen. To people like me who are knowledgeable in the ways of scrounging, the next step is obvious. He walks to the trash can, steps on the foot pedal opening the can and reveals yesterday's filter with the damp, rancid grounds spilling out over a brownish banana peel. It's the equivalent of Schimanski downing the raw egg.

The figure of Lew Harper, like Horst Schimanski and a long line of other anti-hero detectives , culminating perhaps in a figure like Jim Rockford, share many characteristics. They are thoroughly fallible, (usually demonstrated by the chaos of their personal lives) rock hard, but ultimately vulnerable. They aspire to Sam Spade but can't follow through as he does with the line "You killed Miles and you're going over for it." They are often manipulated by the Mädels in spite of their tough guy persona. Nor can they give up, even when faced with a legion of goons who tell them they should forget the whole thing, if they know what's good for them.

I feel a strong resonance with the Ruhrgebiet culture that has elevated Horst Schimanski to the status of a kind of folk hero. My heart goes out to the poor people of Hannover who have to make do with Charlotte Lindholm, a pitiful excuse for a decent Kommissarin. And please don't think this is a gender thing: as a very young child, I can remember rushing around the house with my mother in a chaos similar to that experienced by Schimanski. My mom always seemed to be five minutes late for something and with a mess of kids living in a small house, she rarely had any more free counter space than Schimanski to put down a pan. More than once I watched her crack an egg in a mug and down it raw while buttoning her coat to rush out the door. She would certainly have had a soft spot in her heart for Schimanski too. Kommissarin Lindholm has a dedicated following of passionate viewers who can relate to her thoughtful, politically correct style of investigation and it must be admitted, she always wraps up her Fälle in the required sixty minutes. I guess I just don't like the way she eats her breakfast.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Politically Korrekt

Germans love our president. If President Obama took it into his head to run for German Chancellor after he's through in the White House, I have no doubt he'd win hands down. But Germans have come up with some rather odd ways of showing their appreciation for Mr. Obama. Take the "Obama-Fingers" shown above, for example. What's that all about? Even if Mr. Obama were actually going to eat junk like this, I can't believe he would dip it in curry sauce. Some people (I'm talking about German people here. American people are largely unaware of the Obama-Fingers product, excepting those 100-200 loyal readers of Forschungjahr) have responded very negatively to Obama-Fingers. They feel that the product is racially insensitive. "Fried chicken has long been associated with African-Americans in the US..." they say. I can't really see the problem myself, and don't find the product to be a racial slur. Stupid, yes, but not racist. In fact, I question the possibility that any frozen food could be racist, but that's just me.

But how about a doll? Could a doll be racially insensitive? Here I think German doll maker Marcel Offermann has shown that the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Offermann is famous for his dolls representing figures such as Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama and Lady Diana. But as he turned his hand to Barak Obama, he decided to just use a generic dark skinned doll head. He admits that the physical resemblance to Obama could have been closer. "The doll works more on a symbolic level," he said. "It's a symbiosis of the clothing and the fact it's a black doll." Although "90 percent" of the feedback so far has been positive, he admits that "10 percent of people said the doll doesn't look like Obama." I figure that means 90 % of the people asked must be blind. Just for the record, let me state here that all black people do not look alike. Not that Herr Offermann is too concerned. The Barack Obama doll is available in a limited edition of 999 and as Offermann points out, "The pope doll sold out in two-and-a-half weeks." Alle Achtung!

But my favorite example of Obamamania is the cover of the Berlin-based daily Die Tageszeitung: normally considered a bastion of political correctness. Founded in 1978, it has always been seen as a left-leaning alternative to the mainstream press and is outspoken in its attack on xenophobia in Germany. In a cover story about Obama's run for the presidency back in May of 2008, the paper referred to the White House as "Uncle Barak's cabin." "The headline is intended to be satirical," said deputy editor-in-chief Reiner Metzger as he defended the paper against critics. Well, that's a relief.

I'm just happy that our president is so popular and that I can retire the red maple leaf I always kept handy while traveling in Europe, at least for a little while. I'm not very touchy when it comes to racial insensitivity and I don't see the point to getting all worked up about an Obama doll that could easily double as a Muhhamad Ali doll in a pinch. There are hate crimes enough to go around without looking for offense where none is intended. At 139€ a piece, the Obama doll is out of my price range. But I'll be on the lookout for other German Obama memorabilia on my next trip. And with any luck I can get on his campaign staff for the 2017 Kanzelerwahl.