Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I watched another film from Tom Tykwer last night: Der Krieger und die Kaiserin or The Princess and the Warrior, as it was released in the US. Tykwer is probably best known as the director of Run, Lola, Run, one of the few European films that has played to a financial success in the US market, and I'm sure the distribution companies were hoping to score again with The Princess and the Warrior. If you read the description at Netflix, they bill it as a "heist" film. It's a heist film in the way that the Old Man and the Sea is a book about deep sea sport fishing. Promoting the film in this way is just one of the reasons that so many European films flop at the US box office.

I enjoyed the film and especially the sets. A lot of the action takes place in a psychiatric hospital where the main character, Sissi, played by Franka Potente, works as a nurse. The exterior shots of the hospital are fabulous and the interior made me want to develop a minor psychosis so I could spend some time there. Initially, I was very impressed with the level of psychiatric care in Germany, but then discovered that the set was built for the film. I guess that doesn't mean that German psychiatric care is lousy, but it took the edge off my desire to experience it first hand.

But the best set was the city of Wuppertal itself. Tom Tykwer grew up in Wuppertal, and I've visited it a number of times. It had its heyday at the opening of the nineteenth century as an industrial center, primarily producing textiles. The geography of the region, a long, narrow and steep river valley, hampered continued development and eventually the industry moved north to the Ruhrgebiet. But it left in its wake some beautiful old houses and a linear city, built along the banks of the Wupper and the Schwebebahn line that was constructed over the river. Tykwer uses the Schwebebahn and the steep hills the city grew up on to create some beautiful imagery and distinctive locations throughout the film.

Schwebebahn means something like "suspended pathway" and it's the name for the monorail train that Wuppertal built during its golden age, presumably to give up as little valuable land as possible for public transit. Many Americans are familiar with it because of its most famous image: Tuffi the elephant falling out of a car into the Wupper River in 1950. The Wuppertal zoo director at the time thought it would be a good publicity stunt to take the elephant, a three year old female, for a ride on the famous Schwebebahn. As you (or anyone who gave it more than five seconds thought) would imagine, Tuffi didn't take well to riding in a car that travels suspended from a monorail over a river valley. She ran through the car, smashing windows and injuring passengers. Eventually, she fell out of the car and was captured on film in an image that I can only describe as skuril. I think a good translation for that might be "bizarre" or "fantastic," but neither really seems to do the photo justice.

The Princess and the Warrior has a more or less "happy" ending for the two misfits the title refers to and I'm happy to report that Tuffi's story also comes out OK in the end. The zoo director was sacked as well as the blockhead transit official who approved the ride. Tuffi landed in the water and swan to shore, uninjured but for some minor cuts and scrapes. The accident location is still remembered with a painted image of Tuffi on a neighboring building and city ordinances forbid the transit of elephants on the Schwebebahn today.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


On February 12, 2010, a restored copy of the legendary silent film classic, Metropolis, by Fritz Lang was shown as a part of the Berlin Film Festival. Metropolis is a remarkable film, and has influenced several generations of film makers since its 1926 premiere. Star Wars, Blade Runner and Batman were all shaped by Lang's distinct vision of a futuristic cityscape. Originally over two hours long, Metropolis was cut substantially after its premiere in an effort to make it more profitable. Over the decades, much of the original footage was lost and until recently, no one dreamed that the film could ever be restored to its former glory. Then, in July 2008, a negative of the original premiere cut of the film, including all the lost scenes, was discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. The negative was a mess and required considerable restoration before it could be shown again, but I assume that it will be available to all of us again soon.

The restored film was shown at the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin, but was also shown simultaneously on a screen at the Brandenburg Gate in what is known in Germany as a "Public Viewing." The phenomenon of a free public viewing is a tradition I enjoy in Germany but have never experienced in the US. I live in a relatively small city, one where a gathering of more than fifty people who are neither watching a football game nor singing hymns would be eyed with suspicion. So I don't wonder that public viewings are rare here. But do they take place in larger American cities? In Essen in 2006, I had the pleasure of watching many of the Soccer World Cup games in open air settings, but I doubt if anyone can publicly televise similar events in the US. I confess to almost total ignorance of the Super Bowl, but I doubt if the people in New Orleans or elsewhere were able to watch the recent game in a public setting. There is just too much money at stake to show games for free in a public place.

But in Germany the concept of Public Viewing has a long tradition, dating back even to the Summer Olympics of 1936 when public Fernsehstuben (=TV lounges) were made available for people to watch the games. The events weren't called Public Viewings then, that's another Denglisch word, but they enabled the average German citizen to feel a participant in the events and take pride in them. It's what we in America call Socialism. And it's not just a casual socialism, where the German equivalent of Andy Hardy says, "Hey, we can put on a Public Viewing in the old barn!" Public Viewing is a trademark protected name, owned by a company in Magdeburg with a logo and everything. How does a company make money by showing films and sporting events to the public for free? That's a question a guy raised in a free market economy just can't answer. Maybe they get a cut of all the Würstchen sold.

The plot of Metropolis is just another example of the pink tinge that colors many things European. In the film, society is divided into two classes: the wealthy, who live high above the Earth in luxurious skyscrapers, and the workers, who live and toil underground. Naturally, the workers are salt of the earth types and the son of wealthy Johann Fredersen, founder and ruler of Metropolis, falls for Maria, daughter of the worker class and a sort of ultra Polly Purebred character. OK, it's not the most original story, but not many people praise Metropolis for its plot. Excepting maybe Berlin Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels. According to Siegfried Kracauer in his book, Von Calagari bis Hitler, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des deutschen Films, Lang related the following about his connection to the famous National Socialist propaganda minister, "(Goebbels) told me that years before, he and Hitler had seen my film Metropolis in some small town and that at that time Hitler declared that he would like me to make Nazi films." The legend is, Lang took the next train out of Berlin, not stopping to pack a suitcase. He lived in Paris for a short time, but ultimately wound up in Hollywood where he continued a long and illustrious directing career.

I'm currently planning my own return to Berlin and the timing couldn't be better. I'll be there during the 2010 World Cup and I'm looking forward to watching the action on a big screen at one of what I'm sure will be several Public Viewing opportunities. I'll be sure to watch the restored Metropolis beforehand to get in a properly Socialist mood. Capitalists will have to wait a while to purchase the DVD version, but until then, we can all enjoy the restored trailer below.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Guns of Essen

When there's a lot of snow on the ground, I lose my enthusiasm for riding my bike around town. The cold doesn't improve the situation, but mostly I object to the shrinking road shoulder. Banks of snow and ice push out into the street in places and a relatively pleasant morning commute becomes that much trickier. Then there's the air quality: worst in the US when we're under an inversion and cycling just increases my exposure. Still, I can't really bring myself to drive, so most days I walk to work. It's still cold, the air is still dirty and the average Logan sidewalk looks like a section of the Chilkoot Trail. But when I walk, I can listen to a book on tape and that makes it all worth while.

Last week I was "reading" The Guns of August again, Barbara Tuchman's classic book about the first month of World War I. It's a fabulous book and outrageously entertaining. I know hindsight is 20/20, but there is hardly a general or statesman in the whole 544 pages (or 14 disks) that doesn't come out looking like a complete ass. Field Marshall Sir John French, leader of the British Expeditionary Forces, landed in France only to execute a series of brilliant retreats. His troops could only make contact with the enemy when he made a mistake and forgot to retreat fast enough. The French, under Joffre, felt any battle could be won with proper Gallic élan, thereby neglecting to provide troops with items such as weapons and ammunition. The Germans seemed to have every advantage, but had an incomplete understanding of the value of diplomacy. After a gratuitous violation of Belgian neutrality to open the war, they felt the best way to win back world public opinion would be to execute woman and children in villages along the way to Paris. Mostly the Americans escape the worst of the stupidity by remaining neutral themselves, but the American ambassador to France reinforces the European view of American naïveté by suggesting that when the Germans arrive at the gates of Paris, he'll go out and "talk" to them.

I'm probably being too critical here. Albert I, King of the Belgians, shown here walking with the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel II, acted admirably. He was also very tall and sat a horse well. And Joseph Gallieni, French retired territorial General, whose intelligence, strength of will and resourcefulness saved the French from defeat, certainly deserves our respect. The Germans, under Moltke, had transport figured out to the timing of every axle of rolling stock and the second it would cross the French border, but Gallieni delivered his troops in a fleet of taxi cabs and stopped Moltke cold.

A big part in the first month of the war was played by German arms manufacturer Friedrich Krupp AG of Essen, Germany. It was their siege guns that allowed the Germans to overrun Belgian forts so rapidly. So imagine my surprise as I crested Old Main Hill on campus last week and spotted a ThyssenKrupp delivery truck in the parking lot behind our administration building, just as Ludendorff surrounded Liege in my headphones. It turned out to be nothing more serious than a routine elevator inspection. But it made me wonder about the resemblance of certain Utah State University administrators to General Erich Ludendorff.

Krupp AG merged with Thyssen, another Ruhrgebiet industrial giant, in 2000 and their new world headquarters is nearing completion in the Altendorf neighborhood in Essen. It's the sort of development that makes me really think the world might be getting better. Instead of invading one another's countries, almost everyone in Europe is busy now planning to sell bratwurst or some other local specialty in Essen as a part of the World Cultural Capital celebration. Krupp isn't building siege guns, but is instead insuring my safe transportation to the dean's office on the third floor of Old Main and back. The "Krupp Belt" that wraps around downtown Essen to the west, a phalanx of belching smoke stacks in WWI, and a heap of rubble at the end of WWII, is now a beautiful park with a new north/south boulevard and public transit line. The transformation has taken over one hundred years and I try to keep the long view myself as I walk the frozen trails of Logan, an urban planning waste land in the air pollution capital of Utah. If Europe survived the foolishness of their leaders, there must be hope for Cache Valley too.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Folkwang Eröffnung

I'm busy in Utah completing a report that assesses my department at the state university. It's an an important document and will soon be lining wastepaper bins in offices all over campus. While I look for more places to insert vital buzzwords such as "diversity" or "disaggregate," Forschungsjahr readers will have to make do with this exciting video about the newly renovated (and expanded!) Folkwang Museum building in Essen. My favorite part is the neu-Deutsch phrase, Besucher Facilities. I wish I had THAT guy's help with my report.