The German word Geist: is there anything it can’t mean? Spirit, mind, intelligence, ethos. And, of course, ghost. But in addition to describing literal ghosts, it also describes things which are metaphorically “ghostly”: weird, eldritch, alarming, or just not quite right.
Which brings us to “ghost games”: major sporting events played without crowds. In these plague-addled times, German Bundesliga teams are now playing “ghost games”, and the experience is so odd that the German football association seems likely to simply cancel (g) the whole season.
There are many more uses of Geister, though. Someone driving the wrong way on a highway — something which seems to happen with baffling regularity in Germany — is a Geisterfahrer. A deserted city is a Geisterstadt. One of my favorite German expressions is von allen guten Geistern verlassen sein — “abandoned by all good spirits”. It’s an attractively medieval way of saying someone’s nuts.
And who knows? If Coronavirus mutates and kills us all, maybe we’ll all be wandering through our cities as Geister.
From the stern expressions and facial hair alone you know where this post is heading: Back to the 19th century. Specifically, the years 1871-1873, which are known as the Gründerzeit. It means “time of the founders”. The reference isn’t to the “founders” of Germany unity, which was finally achieved in 1871, but rather to the founders of businesses. The confident and wealthy newly-unified German Reich experienced a brief boom, from 1871 to 1873, in which the rate of business formation rose dramatically. A bust brought a halt to the dizzying rate of expansion, but Germany continued to gain rapidly in prosperity until the turn of the century and beyond.
It’s these three decades, more or less, which are now called the Gründerzeit in Germany. And why do we care? Because the Gründerzeit permanently shaped almost all German cities. The German population was expanding, and newly-wealthy industrialists and traders needed posh homes to advertise their status. Yet buying a country estate isn’t an option for a businessman who needs to keep an eye on his factories, workshops, and warehouses in the city. So German cities expanded compactly, so to speak, with new rows of townhomes rising at the edge of the city.
This fine article in Krautreporter (g) by Matthias Warkus examines what makes these buildings distinctive: elaborate decoration, large windows, and extremely high ceilings, usually between 2.8 to 3.5 meters (9 to 12 feet). Why did private construction companies build this way? Because high ceilings, large windows and stucco decorations were considered “noble” (hochherrschaftlich): they recalled actual castles and country homes from the 17th-19th centuries. These “noble” characteristics appealed to status-conscious 1880s businessmen and, thus, to banks: Since these design elements attracted prosperous tenants who could be counted on to repay their loans, the buildings could be financed at attractive rates.
As Warkus piece notes, the design elements — stucco ceiling rosettes and wainscoting, pediments above windows, high doors with internal stained-glass windows — were rarely handcrafted on the spot; they were usually simply ordered from catalogs and bolted into place. Nevertheless, they add a bit of flair and distinctiveness. This is one reason Gründerzeit-era buildings are so popular; each has its own personality. Of course, as Warkus quickly points out, Gründerzeit buildings are popular mostly among a certain social class — college-educated Germans, disproportionately media types and those in the liberal professions, who want to live in “cool” areas of larger cities, and can afford the rents in those places.
Most Germans, however, don’t want to live in an “old-building apartment” (Altbauwohnung). They don’t want to live in an apartment at all; they want to buy their own home, and when they do so, it looks like this — the “Town and Country Flair 113” model home which is the most commonly-built in Germany right now:
Another reason for their limited appeal is that apartments from the Gründerzeit have drawbacks: They’re drafty, often don’t have proper doors between rooms (if they have any doors at all), they have small tacked-on bathrooms, and inadequate electrical and data infrastructure. The wooden floors exude old-school authenticity, but can be creaky and hard to maintain. There are no elevators in them, and often no room to put an elevator.
Yet in many cases, it’s not necessarily the building itself which is attractive, but where it’s located. Gründerzeit buildings are most common near the city center, even if they were originally built on the outskirts of town. Neighborhoods with a lot of Gründerzeit buildings are filled with the type of people who want to live in such places; i.e. fellow well-educated, environmentally conscious creative types like you. And me! I live in a Gründerzeit building from 1900, and see dozens of them on walks through my neighborhood, Bilk in Düsseldorf. I like these buildings much more than anonymous cubes from the 1950s, and I’m not alone. At their best, they’re distinctive and pleasing to the eye. Not all builders ordered their decoration from catalogs, some hired artisans to create distinctive facades, with putti, Art Nouveau caryatids, sculptured lozenges, or floral decorations.
Yet the ornamentation doesn’t get the better of the design, as it sometimes does in the fungal profusion of Art Nouveau knickknacks bolted onto buildings in Belgium or France. You can almost hear the prim bourgeois instructing his contractor: “Yes, you may decorate the building. But don’t go overboard, chum. I paid for this building selling hail insurance. I don’t want potential clients thinking I’m some sort of socialist crackpot.” So the decoration is somewhat restrained. However, there is also a local tradition of painting Gründerzeit buildings in pastels and vibrant primary colors, which brings a much-needed splash in the gray days of winter.
Here are a few pictures from my neighborhood of Gründerzeit buildings (or convincing imitations of them):
Before committing a racist mass-shooting in Hanau, Germany, the schizophrenic killer, Tobias R., had sent a petition (g) to the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office asking them to initiate formal legal proceedings against the shadowy “intelligence service” which was tracking, stealing, and broadcasting his thoughts. This raised the issue of how, and whether, authorities should respond to official petitions and letters they receive which strongly hint at the sender’s mental illness — especially when the sender, like Tobias R., was a gun owner. People who work for German courts and government agencies soon protested, noting that they get literally hundreds of crazy letters a week, mainly from Reichsbürger (citizen of the Reich).
Which raises the question: What is a Reichsbürger?
A Reichsbürger is a German who believes the German Reich never stopped existing (g). They believe the Reich, as recognized by the Treaty of Versailles, and in its dimensions from 1937, still exists as a legal entity. They also hold that the Federal Republic of Germany, as proclaimed in 1949 with the passage of the German Basic Law (constitution), has no legitimacy. Therefore they refuse to pay taxes to it or recognize its laws. Many Reichsbürger have drawn up their own documents and even passports, which they show when asked for ID. There’s a massive overlap between Reichsbürger and right-wing groups, and Reichsbürger have killed (g) German police. Reichsbürger groups are closely monitored by the government because of their propensity for violence.
So do the Reichsbürger have any support for their cockamamie idea? Surprisingly, the answer is “sort of”. Their main support is a passage from a decision the German Federal Constitutional Court from 31 July 1973 which states, in part (g):
The German Basic Law … assumes that the German Reich survived the collapse of 1945 and did not disappear either as a result of the capitulation or the exercise of foreign authority in German by the Allied occupying powers… The German Reich continues to exist, continues to have legal capacity, but is not capable of acting on its own because, as a whole, it lacks organization and lacks institutional organs…. Responsibility for “Germany as a whole” is still shared with the four powers. The creation of the Federal Republic did not create a new West German state, but rather simply re-organized a part of the existing German state.
Now, of course, this decision was issued by the German Federal Constitutional Court, which the Reichsbürger don’t acknowledge as legitimate. But this irony is apparently lost on them.
But what is the justification for the Court’s curious wording? Part of the answer is the Court’s desire preserve the legal basis for the reunification of Germany. The passage quoted above came from the Federal Constitutional Court’s decision on the Grundlagenvertrag, the “basic treaty” on relations between West and East Germany, which was adopted in 1972. In the treaty, West Germany gave up its claim to be the only legal representative of “Germany” as a whole, in return for concessions from East Germany. The treaty led to the diplomatic recognition of West and East Germany as independent states. The countries refused to establish official embassies, but they did establish “permanent representatives” in each others’ capital cities, paving the way for better diplomatic and trade ties.
The treaty, part of liberal Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, was controversial among German conservatives, since the original West German constitution required all organs of the West German government to continuously strive toward re-unification (g) of West and East Germany. According to these critics, recognizing East Germany went in the opposite direction, since it tended to reinforce German separation, and therefore violated the constitution. From 1955 to 1970, the West German government pursued the Hallstein Doctrine, in which it argued that the West German state, not East Germany, was the only legitimate representative of the interests of the German people. The Basic Treaty represented the formal repudiation of the Hallstein Doctrine; now West Germany would not protest when other nations granted East Germany diplomatic recognition (and vice-versa).
In fact, the West German constitution itself didn’t even refer to itself as a constitution for exactly this reason. The drafters of the West German post-war constitution elected not to call it a constitution, since it would be possible for the German people to ratify a constitution only when all of them could vote freely and equally on the document, which was impossible as long as there was one part of Germany in which free and fair elections were impossible. Thus, the constitution called itself merely a “Basic Law” (Grundgesetz), and specified in its own preamble that it was intended merely as a “transitional” document.
The Federal Constitutional Court upheld the Basic Treaty of 1972, holding that it did not violate the Basic Law’s mandate to pursue German re-unification. However, to satisfy conservatives, the Court repeatedly stressed that the Basic Law’s focus on re-unification remained as valid as ever. The passage the Reichsbürger rely on is part of the Court’s attempt to split the baby: The Court is stressing that although West Germany has now taken over the functions of the previous German state entity, the Reich, this doesn’t mean that the German people, as a whole, have given up their claims to territory formerly included in the Reich. To put it more simply, the Court is saying that even though Germany was then currently split into two sovereign entities (West and East), the underlying aspiration of the German people as a whole was to exercise unified control over all of the territory traditionally considered to be part of Germany.
So the Court’s language was intended as a compromise: On the one hand, the Court recognized that the government of West Germany could recognize and trade with East Germany without violating the Basic Law’s command to pursue reunification. On the other hand, though, the Court interpreted the treaty as not giving up on West Germany’s claim to be the ultimate true representative of the German people. Yet there is also an interesting sub-text to the treaty, and the court decision. Throughout the post-war years, West Germany had been bedeviled by the question of war reparations. The Third Reich had caused unimaginable human suffering and material losses across Europe, especially in countries which were parts of the former Eastern Bloc. But should West Germany bear the cost of reparations alone, or should East Germany bear some of the blame? East Germany, for its part, claimed that since it had adopted an “anti-fascist” mode of government and was now allied with Eastern European countries in socialist brotherhood, it was no longer obliged to pay reparations to those outside East Germany.
After the Federal Republic gave up its claim to be the sole representative of the German people in the 1972 German-German Basic Treaty, it became even more firmly committed to the position that it was no longer solely responsible for the obligations of the “Third Reich”, and thus forwarded demands from compensation from Eastern Bloc states to East Germany. West Germany behaved ambivalently: On the one hand, it condemned to the rest of the world East Germany’s denial of reparations to Jews living outside East Germany. On the other hand, the West German finance ministry secretly approved East Germany’s position, since otherwise other East Bloc countries could be encouraged to file claims for reparations from West Germany.
The part (g) of the Federal Constitutional Court’s opinion referring to the continued existence of the German Reich was also an attempt to avoid saddling only West Germany with the responsibility for reparations payments. The Court wanted to emphasize that West Germany was not the official “legal successor” to the German Reich, since that would imply West Germany would “step into the shoes” of the Reich, as lawyers say — i.e., that West Germany would now be automatically 100% responsible for all legal obligations incurred by the German Reich. So the Court reasoned that the German Reich — including parts which were now East Germany — still existed, but was no longer “capable of acting”. This meant, in turn, that neither of the two new German states would be automatically liable for the legal obligations of the German Reich. It doesn’t make all that much sense, but legal fictions rarely do.
So this is the story of Reichsbürger. They’ve misinterpreted a few passages of highly complex legal decisions and come to bizarre conclusions which serve their ideological obsessions. Something that happens not infrequently in modern Western societies.
Everyone has an opinion about the fact that Peter Handke spoke at Slobodan Milošević’s funeral, but as far as I know, nobody has yet translated what he said there into English. Milošević died in 2006, during his trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Handke provided handwritten copies of his speech to the German magazine Focus in response to a reporter’s questions. This is all documented online at the online archive of his work (g).
In an accompanying letter, Handke also explains his decision to attend the funeral. Handke said that he was not invited by any political party, but rather by Milošević’s family. Even after receiving the invitation, he wrote, he did not plan to attend. What made him change his mind was the language used by journalists and prosecutors at the Hague responding to Milošević’s death. As Handke pointed out, they called him a dictator and butcher, and expressed regret that his early death had “stolen” the court’s opportunity to pass judgment. It was this coarsely judgmental and self-satisfied reaction (in Handke’s view) which prompted him to attend the funeral:
It was this language which prompted my mini-speech [at the funeral] — firstly and lastly this language. It prompted me to allow another — no, the other language to be heard, not from loyalty to Slobodan Milošević, but rather precisely from loyalty to this other, non-journalistic, non-domineering (nicht herrschenden) language.
This is the speech he gave at the funeral, as recorded in his own handwriting, and with his own editorial insertion:
I would have preferred not to be alone here as a writer in Požarevac, but rather at the side of another writer, for instance Harold Pinter. He would have needed strong words. I need weak words. But weakness should be right, here, now. It is a day not only for strong, but also for weak words. [From this point I spoke Serbo-Croatian — which I wrote myself –, and later re-translated:] The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Slobodan Milošević. The so-called world knows the truth. And for this reason the so-called world is absent, and not just today, and not just here. The so-called world is not the world. I know that I don’t know. I don’t know the truth. But I look. I hear. I feel. I remember. I question. That is why I am present today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.
Even in my journeyman translation, we see this is classic Handke, gnomic and elliptical.
Thus, according to Handke’s own account, his speech was not intended to express support for Milošević’s policies, but rather to counter what he perceived as arrogant, one-sided, and simple-mindedly moralizing assessments of his legacy and reactions to his death.
Peter Handke has questionable political judgment, which is something he shares with most artists and writers. This post isn’t meant to defend his stance on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, although, as a German reader, I can state that it is much more nuanced than is being reported in the English-language press.
But one of the most-repeated and most-tweeted charges in the indictment against Handke is false. The charge is that, when confronted about Serb atrocities in Bosnia, Handke said: “You can shove your corpses up your ass.” Even the New York Times published this false quotation.
German-language outlets have established this quote is fake. As far as I know, no English-language source has yet done so. So let me be the first.
Here is what Handke actually said, live and in-person:
This was a recording of a talk Handke gave at the Akademietheater in Vienna in 1996. A member of the audience asks Handke why he never visited Bosnia, only Serbia. Handke says everyone else was already visiting Bosnia, and he wanted to be on the “wrong” side. This comment is obviously meant ironically, and the audience laughs.
The questioner then asks whether “journalists who were trapped in Sarajevo” might have been more “affected” (betroffen) by the war than Handke.
Handke then interrupts and says “‘Betroffenheit’ — das kann ich schon überhaupt nicht hören…” — “I can’t stand this word ‘Betroffenheit’. Go home with your ‘Betroffenheit’, stick it up your ass.”
To understand what Handke was saying, we need to unpack this word Betroffenheit. The verb betroffen means to be affected by something. Betroffen has a standard, neutral meaning in the sense of being literally affected: i.e., this law does not apply to you, you are not betroffen by it; they changed the test, but I graduated before that, so I was not betroffen by the change.
But betroffen also has an emotional meaning: something has affected your emotions, has touched you, has caused you anguish, etc. Usually it’s used in response to negative events: I was betroffen to hear of your mother’s death; he was betroffen by images of starving children on the television.
Betroffenheit is simply the noun version of the adjective betroffen — it means the state of being emotionally affected by something. Whenever a disaster or terrorist attack hits Germany, politicians always tweet about their Betroffenheit: they want to say they are deeply affected by whatever happened.
It’s kind of like the secular German equivalent of an American politicians saying their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims after a mass shooting. And this analogy is spot-on. Just as “thoughts and prayers” is a cliché in English, Betroffenheit is a cliché in German. It’s mocked as an platitude which politicians trot out just so they won’t be called insensitive, and which doesn’t require them to take a stand. In German-speaking media, people of all political stripes mock politicians for calling attention to their Betroffenheit all the time.
This is the point Handke is making. As someone who lives by language, he finds the words “betroffen” and “Betroffenheit” offensively unoriginal. And on another level, he is calling expressions of sympathy and concern by Western journalists and commentators are hypocritical, because these commentators focus exclusively on the suffering of Bosniaks and Muslims, while downplaying or ignoring the suffering of Serbs.
So he’s not saying “shove the corpses up your ass”. He is saying “shove your Betroffenheit [one-sided and hypocritical expressions of dismay] up your ass”.
Again, I am not here to defend all of Handke’s views. But this is a major error which, to my knowledge, has yet to be corrected and acknowledged in the English-speaking press.
German conservatives accuse the publicly-funded German TV networks ARD and ZDF (and radio stations) of liberal bias. Which is a problem, since the mandate of these license-fee funded networks is to provide a fair and balanced representation (g) of the spectrum of opinion in Germany. The public has no choice but to support these networks — the most expensive public-broadcasting system in Europe — so they should represent the entire spectrum of mainstream public opinion.
But do they? A new study offers ammunition to the critics. The Reuters Institute and Oxford University recently conducted a comparative study of public broadcasters in eight European countries. The study was designed to determine who the audience for public broadcasters were, what sorts of programs they watch or listen to, and how the Internet was affecting news consumption. The study found that in almost all European countries, the audience for public service media (PSM) was older and more educated than the audience for competing private channels, which comes as no real surprise.
The study also decided to test whether audiences perceived a political bias in public programming. It found (pdf) that German public broadcasters had a more liberal audience, and were more distrusted by conservatives, than almost all other European public broadcasters:
Only in Greece was there a bigger left-right gap in trust in public service media. The BBC gets noticeably better marks across the board.
The study is confirmed by observation: German public television has an evident center-left bias. Nobody who watched it for any significant length of time doubts this. The bias emerges from two factors which interact with each other. First, most journalists travel within an educated urban center-left filter bubble. Second, they are driven by a conception of the journalist’s role as activist for the underdog.
The long hangover from National Socialism has infused every aspect of polite German society with a “never again” morality, which is not a bad thing in many respects. But in journalism, it fosters overt bias and sloppy reporting. Before reporting about controversial issues, the typical center-left German journalist decides who the underdog and who the oppressor is, then structures the story to ensure that even the dullest viewer knows which moral judgments the reporter wants them to make. The underdog’s story is presented without any critical questioning and, as often as not, with a big wet sloppy kiss of sentimentality.
This is why conservative, or even just independent-minded viewers, quickly give up on German public media news reporting on certain issues. It’s not just that the bias is grating, it also makes for dead boring journalism. As soon as you hear “nuclear”, “McDonald’s”, “capitalism”, “refugee”, “EU”, “climate”, “Trump”, “USA”, “death penalty”, “Africa”, “police”, “Saxony” or other trigger-words, you know exactly what’s coming. There are never any surprises. It’s not so much that the reporting is inaccurate — although it often is — or that the bias is morally suspect. It’s just tedious and condescending to the viewer.
Let me provide a concrete example of what German journalism does wrong, and the BBC does right. Recently, two controversial public figures were charged with breaking the law for political reasons. One of them is the German ship captain Carola Rackete, who violated an order from the Italian foreign ministry to keep out of Italian waters, and brought migrants whom she had rescued at sea to the Italian port of Lampedusa. She was charged with numerous crimes for doing so. Rackete, free on bond, went on a German public-television talk show to be interviewed by Dunya Hayali. This was the result:
For those of you not yet German-powered, I’ll summarize. The moderator asks Rackete why she brought the migrants to Italy, why she didn’t choose another port, what the situation was like on board, what she thinks drives people to leave Africa, and how she felt during the crisis. Rackete is permitted to go on and on and on justifying her actions and setting forth her point of view, often to bursts of applause from the audience. The only hint of critical questioning is when the interviewer asks Rackete whether she can understand Europeans who think accepting millions of Africans might be too much, to which Rackete replies: “No, actually not.”
Rackete’s views are extremely left-wing, far to the left of the average German, but she’s allowed to spin them in a crowd-pleasing way, without being asked about the consequences of her favored policies. (The idea that German public media would grant an extreme right figure so much uncontested airtime is unthinkable.) The interview is one softball after another. Seldom has a controversial public figure with extreme political views been given such a sensuous tongue-bath, at least in public.
Now let’s turn to another controversial public figure who broke the law for political reasons: Roger Hallam, leader of Extinction Rebellion, the group which goes around blocking streets and chaining themselves to buildings to protest climate change. (Rackete wore an Extinction Rebellion T-Shirt during her interview). Here he is being interviewed for BBC’s Hard Talk by Stephen Sackur:
Now that’s what I call journalism. Hallam is allowed to state his point of view, but is challenged by Sackur at every turn with relevant questions backed by independent research. The result is an informative exploration of the climate crisis, and of circumstances which do and do not justify civil disobedience. It makes the German interview look like a celebrity puff-piece, which it basically was. And a conservative or independent-minded BBC viewer could also enjoy the Hallam interview, because Sackur, unlike the German journalist, actually asks the questions that would immediately occur to viewers who were skeptical of, or disagreed with, Hallam’s political views.
The BBC is far from perfect, but it’s a far sight better than ARD and ZDF. Because it treats its viewers as competent adults who can make up their own minds.
The German newsweekly Die Zeit created a website (g) in which you can search for the frequency of every word spoken during debates in the German Bundestag since 1949. Naturally, I immediately began exploiting this tool to generate penetrating insights into German democracy:
A few days ago a friend and I, in a state of complete sobriety, were comparing television sitcoms from the 1970s and the present day. The biggest contrast is the frenetic pace of modern sitcoms. The chart above shows how much faster-paced The Simpsons became during its early years. Nowadays, in any reasonably well-written sitcom (I’d cite Archer, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, The Office, Rick & Morty, Brooklyn 9-9, but of course YMMV)*, nary a minute goes by without 10-15 rapid-fire separate jokes. They can’t all be zingers, of course, but as long as the average quality is high enough, it hardly matters: you’re a deer in the headlights of comedy, dazzled and delighted by a remorseless cavalcade of whimsy!
I consider this progress: Using bleeding-edge humor techniques, TV writers now give us 3 times the laughter for the same amount of money and time. And believe it or not, German has a word for exactly this: Pointendichte. You pronounce the first half of the word Frenchified: “Pwanten”; the second half is the German word for “density”. Pointe(g), obviously a loan-word from French (let’s hope they don’t ask for it back, baDUM-tss), doesn’t mean joke, strictly speaking, more like a witty observation or clever jab. But that’s splitting hairs. So Pointendichte literally translates as “joke-density”. But sounds much classier.
English should consider adopting this word. It will be a hard sell because it’s not easy to pronounce. But still, it’s a crisp, efficient, and stylish way of describing something that doesn’t have a word in English.
And to end this post, my favorite joke — or Pointe, if you will (and you will) — from The Simpsons:
An intimacy of long unfolding fails to be apprehended, and the story concludes in familiar solitudes, human exceptionalism and lithic indifference. Withdrawal and remoteness are inevitable themes within any romance of stone, since rock outlasts that which it draws close, that which draws it close, that to which it is strangely bound. Humans respire, reproduce, invent, desire and dream. The lithic inhabits the secret interiors of the earth. What could be more cloistered? Inorganic, nothing like the familiar animals we conditionally welcome into community, an everyday material that surfaces blunt rebuke to assimilation, stone remains aloof. Yet a mutuality is always possible, some narrative of companionship and concurrency. This essay maps geophilia, a pull, a movement, and a conjoint creativity that breaches ontological distance. Even if born of a general principle of matter, geophilia’s mobility and clasp possess their own rocky effects, in the quadruple sense “effects” carries of aftermath, agency, production, and belongings. An elemental geophilia surely exists outside human experience. Yet to us nonlithics, its force will be most evident in the relations that enmesh us over long scales of time and in the “storied matter” these confederations of the human and inhuman divulge.
Monstrous child of the meeting of incompatible scales, queer progeny of impossible taxonomic breach, geophilia is the lithic in the creaturely and the lively in the stone. Humans walk upright over earth because the mineral long ago infiltrated animal life to become a partner in mobility. Vertebral bone is the architect of motion, the stone around which the flesh arranges itself to slither, run, swim and fly. Had the organic not craved durable calcium as shield and conveyor, numerous types of sedimentary rock would never have arrived. A common mode of petrogenesis (creation of stone) unfolds when tiny ocean dwellers settle in their mortuary billions to the subsea muck. Limestone is a thick cemetery of mineral that had become animal now become rock again. Propelled by slow tectonic force upward into cliff and mountainside, limestone might be quarried to build a radiant carapace under which humans pray, govern and make purchases. The whorls and coils of unfamiliar sea life such stone divulges have fascinated masons since at least Neolithic times. We create art with stone because we recognize the art that stone discloses: fossils, a museum of strata, lustrous veins and faceted radiance. We think and reckon with stone, primordial invitation to extended cognition (calculus is the Latin word for small stone, an essential component of an abacus). With its keen heft we compose and kill. From rock we construct graves, memorials, and dwelling places to endure long after we become earth again. In its aeonic endurance we discern something ardently desired, something ours only through alliance. Stone is devoid of neither life nor love, even if it questions what we mean when we use those terms to enclose a small world.
Expansive, dilatory, recursive, semicyclical from a long perspective, full of residuum, temporal intimacies, intermixed strata, geophilia entwines the modern and the ancient, the contemporary and the medieval, the primordial with expansive futurity.
This is both a German and and English word of the week. Here’s the English Wikipedia entry:
Witzelsucht (German: “jokingaddiction“) is a set of pure and rare neurological symptoms characterized by a tendency to make puns, or tell inappropriate jokes or pointless stories in socially inappropriate situations. It makes one unable to read sarcasm. A less common symptom is hypersexuality, the tendency to make sexual comments at inappropriate times or situations. Patients do not understand that their behavior is abnormal, therefore are nonresponsive to others’ reactions. This disorder is most commonly seen in patients with frontal lobe damage, particularly right frontal lobe tumors or trauma.
The Wikipedia article goes on forever, even including case studies:
Case #1: A 30-year-old, right-handed man was admitted to the department of neurology for irritability, inappropriate behavior, and morbid hyperphagia with obesity. His inappropriate laughter and persistent pun and joke telling was a sharp contrast to his personality as an intellectual theological scholar, known for his exceptional memory as opposed to his sense of humor. This behavior was generally prompted by environmental stimuli such as physician’s rounds or blood sampling. To the patient, his behavior seemed normal, which explains why he remained nondiscriminating toward his jokes, their context, and their impression on those around him.
I scoured the Internets for clips of people actually suffering from witzelsucht (no capitalization in English), but I found only sarcasm and mockery:
Apparently, people seem to have a problem taking joking addiction … wait for it … seriously.
For an example of an even rarer condition, see this heartbreaking case study, dramatized by English actors:
hubbelrath valley trail thin sun filtering through dead trees
hubbelrath valley trail decrepit house 1
hubbelrath valley trail decrepit house 2
hubbelrath valley trail sprouts emerging from decaying log
hubbelrath valley trail sprouts massive fallen beech
hubbelrath valley trail sprouts birdhouse no 24
hubbelrath valley trail isolated rusting fences
hubbelrath valley trail rusted gate among weeds
hubbelrath valley trail stand of loosestrife
hubbelrath valley trail ancient control box next to hubbelrath creek
stand of alders near hubbelrath creek
hubbelrath valley leaf in sunlight
hubbelrath valley stand of horsetail plants
hubbelrath valley marshy trail near Höltgen
hubbelrath valley Höltgen sign
unpaved road and gardens near gink
gardens near gink
A few days ago I took Tapio, my mountain bike, out for a ride through Düsseldorf’s most neglected nature preserve: Hubbelrath Valley Creek.
This is a narrow valley around Hubbelrath Creek, a narrow, slow-moving creek originating in the hilly Bergisches Land about 10 km northwest of Düsseldorf. The valley was formed by erosion and has fairly steep sides called ‘Siepen‘ (g) in the local dialect. The valley’s rich loess soil made it an ideal place for farms, and several large estates still survive.
The valley itself, and the trail within it, are pretty neglected. The main reason for this, as an account by a local nature group (g) attests, was the placement of a large landfill for household trash on one side of the valley. The landfill was found to be seeping chemicals into the valley, so it was excavated, and the household trash was removed and incinerated. The landfill was later used for construction waste, but is now in the process of being sealed and reforested. Ironically, though, the nearby landfill probably helped the valley regain its natural characteristics, since it kept people away.
The trail proper starts next to a huge country house and stable complex called Mydlinghoven Farm:
The oldest parts of the historically-protected complex date to 1460, and it was most recently expanded into a stable in 1915. After the stables closed, the area was transformed into a restaurant, then into a seniors’ home. After those closed, the future of the complex was uncertain until 2016, when a cooperative bought and removated it. It’s now a mixed-use “alternative living” community called “Wir vom Gut“, (“Us from the Farm”) which combines senior residence with apartments for young families and for people who just want to get somewhat (but not completely) away from it all. It’s sort of like a semi-commune, in which people share tasks and hang out a lot. They seem to enjoy living there.
To reach the trail, you ride past this estate into a meadow behind it. There are no signs for the trail, the trail-head is nothing more than a slight gap in the vegetation. I tried to enter it last year, but it was closed off with red-and-white tape. This time, I vowed to ride it no matter what. And lo and behold, no tape.
The trail is narrow single-track lined with stinging nettle and thorny bushes and creepers, including blackberries. I wish I’d brought a machete. The trail is also crossed by roots and fallen branches which create tripping hazards. I didn’t even think of trying to bike it — thorny branches and stinging nettle flaying my eyeballs isn’t my idea of fun, although I won’t kink-shame you if it’s yours. The first part of the trail, heading due south from Mydlinghoven Farm, is also interrupted by fallen trees seemingly about every 100 meters on average. Some of them have been chainsawed to free the trail, but most have just been left as they are, with their massive root-clusters sticking up into the air. The final problem with the trail is that you can’t see the creek from it. The creek runs off to one side, screened by vegetation. Parts of the creek-bed are actually fenced-off to prevent the organic Galloway cattle who graze nearby from trampling it. But the attraction is not really the creek, as such, but the marshy lowland surrounding it.
So, the trail’s poorly-maintained, muddy, blocked by fallen trees, runs by the side of a former landfill, and isn’t even a proper creek-side trail. So much for the downsides. There are plenty of upsides, though. First, alder, fir, and birch trees provide plenty of shade. There’s an amazing density of birdsong. The tall grass, the marshy patches, the standing and fallen trees, the bird and bat boxes, and the lack of humans or dogs make for an ideal avian retreat — 55 species have been spotted here, including black woodpeckers, red kites, kingfishers, herons, and sandpipers. There are also plenty of somewhat exotic plants which thrive in marshy conditions, such as loosestrife, great horsetail, and meadowsweet. Rich, pungent odors (most of them pleasant, all of them interesting) abound — every few steps brings a fresh olfactory bonanza.
About 400 meters south of Mydlinghoven Farm there’s an abandoned house in a small clearing that’s decaying most picturesquely. A bit further south is a large meadow with two rusty fence-gates standing in isolation. There are also a few metal measuring-station tubes in the meadow, presumably from the time when the landfill was in operation. Given that there are no humans around for kilometers, the traces of former use lend the trail a pleasantly spooky, slightly post-apocalyptic flair. Next time I’m going to wear hiking boots, bring a machete, and do some more exploring.
Long-time readers know I approach contemporary German movies with a bit of trepidation. So I was amazed by Victoria, an gem of a German film from 2015.
The plot could hardly be simpler: Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish music student who’s living in Berlin and working as a waitress. She goes clubbing one night, and meets a group of four young German guys who charm her with their broken high-school English, frisky late-night hi-jinks, and friendly, non-threatening manner. Sparks fly, in particular, between one of them, nicknamed ‘Sonne’ (Sun, played by Frederick Lau). Victoria decides to hang around with them after they all leave the nightclub together at around 4:30 AM. As she gets to know them, it turns out they’re a bit sleazier than she originally thought — one hints at a criminal record, another gets blackout drunk — but that’s all part of the no-strings-attached, exchange-student experience. Then one of four gets a fateful call from an old prison buddy, and things turn rather dark. That’s all I’ll say; avoid spoilers at all costs.
Victoria is one of the very few movies made in one continuous take. And what a take it is! We follow them through the club, out on the streets of Kreuzberg and Mitte, up to building roofs, down to parking garages, into banks, into apartments, and through courtyards. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and lots is in English (which disqualified the film for the Oscar foreign-language category). Of course, the one-take movie is a bit of a gimmick, but done well, it can ratchet up the tension and drama in an organic way. Which is precisely what happens here. Further, Victoria has none of the ‘choreographed’ look of some one-take movies. The action is seamless, fluid and convincing; you never doubt for a second that you’re ‘in the moment’ with the characters. And as the movie progresses, the fact that it was all done in one take became ever more jaw-droppingly astounding.
The performances are intense, believable and moving. Costa and Lau received German film prize awards, and deservedly so. Some people have called the plot a bit hare-brained, but I didn’t: The main event is a robbery by a bunch of hopped-up amateurs which goes horribly wrong. Most robberies are done by hopped-up amateurs, and most do go horribly wrong. The chaotic, violent final scenes are the sort of thing that’s becoming all too familiar on German streets.
Victoria’s a bit overlong, but just a bit. Other than that, it’s a minor cinematic masterpiece. It avoids all the weaknesses of German movies (sermonizing, heavy-handed symbolism, lack of drama), and draws on all the strengths (outstanding set design, awesomely talented actors, convincing improvisation drawn from extensive stage experience). I can’t recommend it strongly enough.