It’s Time for More American Policies

Ed’s posts got me thinking. From them, we learn that Germans are still required to include a photograph with their job applications, and that German employers freely admit to choosing new employees based in part on their physical attractiveness. Based, of course, on the picture.

My prediction: this will be rare in Germany in 10 years. Why? Because it’s now unheard-of and (essentially) illegal in the United States.

Marx, cheekily amending Hegel, once said that all facts and personages of history appear twice; the time first as tragedy, next as farce. Let me adapt this quotation to fit American public-policy initiatives: they appear in the European media first as farce, then as policy. Fifteen years ago, most Europeans were snorting with patronizing glee over those pleasure-hating American puritans who were banning cigarettes in public gathering places. Now, most of them live in countries with identical laws.

The same thing is true of racial discrimination. Europe is years behind North America in taking strong government action against discrimination and fostering public stigma against overt racial discrimination and stereotyping. Here’s a recent post to a forum for English-speaking expats in Germany that reflects how an someone of Asian descent sees the situation in Germany:

I am Asian living in a small city in provincial southern Germany…  All over Germany…I have encountered a lot of stereotyping, good and bad, and it  gets tiring. For example, "all Chinese, Japanese, oh and Koreans study so hard and therefore you have learned German so quickly and well" — a lot of comments which make my American PC sensibilities cringe and roll my eyes. This comes from mostly university-educated people too. I do get tired of it and of playing the educator/ambassador role because I can’t always just accept that stereotypes, even if they are "positive" are good. You have to have a tough skin, take it in stride and know that it’s part of your intercultural/study abroad experience. Having come from the US and London, I would say that attitudes here are generally about 25 years behind. I see this in general attitudes towards other foreigners especially towards the Turkish, for instance, which again, I find shocking because of the overt generalising and stereotyping.

This woman sees Germany as lagging behind North America here not because Germany’s swarming with racists, but because old-fashioned attitudes still prevail, and discrimination is still not seen as a major public-policy issue.

This last point’s important: the task of eliminating open racial discrimination and stereotyping from society is still seen by many Germans as either (1) not worth undertaking (either because discrimination doesn’t exist or, much more rarely, because it’s actually a good thing); or (2) some special concern of left-wingers. The mere fact that you take exception to racist jokes or discrimination in hiring, or that they listen to non-Western music, is considered enough to place you on the left wing of the political spectrum, among the "Greens" and "multi-kultis."

Another example: I once gave a presentation on American anti-discrimination law to which a few German lawyers showed up — all white, all male. They were somewhat shocked by how extensive U.S. anti-discrimination law was. They were all of the opinion that Germany did not need similar laws, for one reason: there was no racial discrimination in Germany. Ever diplomatic (note the irony), I bit my tongue and refrained from asking them whether they’d ever asked someone of Turkish descent whether he thought there was discrimination in Germany. Nor did I ask them how they might feel about an age-discrimination law if they knew they would be fired after they reached age 55 (unemployment is 20% in this age group). These lawyers were at the very first, "crude" stage of conservative opposition to anti-discrimination laws — the stage in which they hadn’t even thought of these obvious criticisms of their position. (Here is a more sophisticated argument.)

I don’t mean to take the piss out of these poor lawyers too much; they’d just never given any serious thought to these issues. But society is changing around them. The riots in the Paris suburbs last year have led French commentators to wonder whether anonymous, picture-free job applications should be introduced. Discrimination in French society is beginning to be seen by broader sectors of the public as a matter for general concern: here (F), for example, a recent poll conducted on the French version of Monster.com listed the three most common grounds of discrimination against French job applicants: first is physical handicap, the next is age, the next skin color. Doubtless, even in France, it will not pass completely unremarked that the United States has had laws against exactly these forms of discrimination for decades: The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Germany recently passed the Allgemeine Gleichbehandlungsgesetz ("General Law Regarding Equal Treatment"), which came into effect on 18 August 2006. The law enacts EC guidelines, and significantly strengthens German law against discrimination (although the word "anti-discrimination" had to be struck from its title to secure passage!). A leading German weekly newspaper recently advised Germany to "learn from America" and adopt a program of affirmative action ("When one takes a look at German institutions, the media, public school teachers, universities, ministries, and courts, the immigration Germany has experienced in the last 50 years is invisible.").

That last article, written by two scholars who have spent time studying both in the USA and in Germany, openly acknowledges the possibility that the American experience could serve as a model: "’Affirmative Action’ in the USA is based on the assumption that there are inequalities which cannot be resolved on the basis of individual good will, but which rather require specific political solutions." They stress the American experience with affirmative action in education; the earlier people interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, the earlier they learn to discard stereotypes and react to difference in a relaxed manner. The authors wonder how attitudes might change if it became normal for German newscasters and judges to be Turkish.

This is not to say that the United States is not the paradise of racial harmony that America-boosters make it out to be. Segregation and discrimination are, of course, still serious problems in the U.S., and racial minorities are disproportionately represented among society’s lower depths. And those lower depths, in turn, are much nastier and more dangerous in the U.S. than they are in Germany. And yes, anti-discrimination laws and the unspoken boundaries of public discourse on race issues give rise to petty hypocrisies and excesses. However, most Americans agree these small hypocrisies are an acceptable sacrifice to prevent the far worse ugliness of open discrimination (G).

My point is this: no society will be able to completely eliminate discrimination, especially against visible minorities. About the most that can be accomplished is to acknowledge the problem, take concrete and effective government action to counter it, and to establish a strong set of social norms that discourage the open expression of racist sentiments. The U.S. has achieved some notable advances here that deserve to be evaluated without condescension.

Getting Hired (or fired) in Germany Part IV

The long-promised end to the series on looking for jobs in Germany, kindly provided by sometime GJ contributor Ed Philp (who, by the way, is gainfully employed):

In this last addition to a small series on differences between applying for jobs in Germany and North America (my apologies for the intermediate delay – work actually got in the way) I take a look at the highly formalized German system of providing departing employees with a Zeugnis. Zeugnis can be translated as “letter of reference”; tellingly, it also means “testimony” (law) and “report card” or “evaluation” (academic). The German employment context is less a simple “letter of reference” and much more of a broad evaluation of your performance, deportment and character.

For German readers: departing employees in North America can ask for letters of reference from their previous employers. There are few hard and fast rules about these letters; generally, it is preferable to obtain them from an immediate supervisor who is able to judge your work performance, as opposed to the head of a department, who may have only met you once when you joined a company. An immediate supervisor may not be well-versed in the phrasing of the letter, so results and style can vary considerably; indeed, it is not uncommon for a supervisor to request that the employee draft the letter herself. The supervisor may then modify the suggested draft.

The best North American reference letters describe specific situations you encountered and your outstanding performance in these, ideally emphasizing pragmatic, innovative solutions and dedication to getting a job done. North American reference letters also almost always invite the reader to contact the author directly if they wish to discuss "the contents of the letter" (i.e the candidate subject) personally. Employers very frequently do just this before hiring someone, and it is not at all uncommon for them to ask very specific questions, such as “did employee X independently seek out assignments? Why did she leave the company?” A previous employer who had misgivings about the employee will likely be fairly candid in such an informal call, if asked the right questions. A departing employee therefore has to judge carefully whether it is truly in their interest to ask specific supervisors for a letter of reference and the resulting invitation to call that supervisor. Usually employees have no right to a “well-meaning” letter of reference; the letter simply has to be truthful. And yes, employees in North America do go to court to contest the judgements passed on them by previous employers.

In Germany, since a Federal Labour Court decision in 1963, employees apparently have a legal right to a “well-meaning” Zeugnis; they certainly do go to court to ensure that a Zeugnis appropriately reflects their performance. A Zeugnis is a sophisticated and rigidly structured document that is typically only signed by the HR department or a high-ranking company official. It is final – there is no invitation to contact the employee’s supervisors. It is comprehensive, meaning that not only is strict work performance described, but also relationships between the employee and his or her superiors or staff. And every word or absence thereof can have a special meaning that tells a potential employer exactly what the previous employer thought of the employee, much like Andrew’s post on academic reference letters (extraordinarily sophisticated ones at that). I find this stuff fascinating.

Each aspect of performance is precisely graded, from vollster Zufriedenheit (most complete satisfaction, meaning A+ with a cherry on top and sprinkles) to er hat sich bemüht, die ihm übertragenen Aufgaben zu erledigen (he made efforts to complete the tasks assigned to him – but failed miserably). These phrases usually correspond to number grades. There are dozens of online (G) and print lists and guides to assist employees to decipher their Zeugnis, and to help employers find the appropriately “well-meaning” phrases that express good performance or which serve as a red flag to future potential employers with regard to undesirable traits. A few more or less reasonable examples:

“He knew how to present and sell himself, particularly to his supervisors” = he isn’t cooperative with fellow workers and sucks up to his boss

“He approached all of his tasks with great enthusiasm” = but he wasn’t particularly effective in any of them

“She completed all of her tasks with proper diligence and care” = and only these tasks. No independent initiative; a bureaucrat

A host of further code phrases reflect on the employee’s deportment or leadership style: “He practiced cooperative leadership and was well-liked by his staff” can mean that he sought consensus and couldn’t assert himself. The absence of specific words or phrases can also be perilous: “He completed his tasks to our most complete satisfaction” sounds great, but may imply that he didn’t always do this, since the sentence doesn’t mention that. “She offered many constructive suggestions for improving the team’s performance” probably implies that none of these suggestions were practicable or implemented, since this also isn’t mentioned.

You might note that often I use the words “can” and “may” in the above paragraph. While German reference letters are more of a science than an art, unsophisticated letter providers may think they are giving a glowing endorsement, but a slight misunderstanding can easily give rise to confusion at the other end.

Finally, there are a series of optimistic-sounding phrases – few of which are still used – that can spell instant application death for a candidate with these on their Zeugnis. A few of my favourite examples, roughly translated:

“He demonstrated sensitivity to the needs of the workforce” = he sexually harassed or slept with his coworkers (if he demonstrated comprehensive sensitivity, he was – of course – homosexually involved with colleagues)

“She was active in furthering the interests of workers both within and outside of the company” = she’s an active union member

“He achieved all of his objectives in his own and the company’s interest” = he stole company property

“She contributed to the workplace environment with her sociable temperament” = she drank on the job

“He always stood fully behind the team” = voll (‘full’), is a euphemism for “drunk”

Rumour has it that if the signature of the supervisor signing the Zeugnis makes a pronounced downstroke to the left or right, this warns that the employee was a member of a respectively left or right wing party or organization. A Zeugnis that is dated after the employee left the company can imply that the employee took the company to court to demand a better Zeugnis. These are probably just rumours though, in today’s more sophisticated work environments.

Problems, of course, can arise when a German employer is confronted with a glowing North American letter of reference that sets off all sorts of unintended alarm bells with its euphoric descriptions of an employee’s ‘interest in their work’ or their ‘commitment to improving sales’, which to a German, means that no actual improvement was achieved. The same problems arise when a North American proffers a German understatement Zeugnis that comments that the employee “always completed his tasks to our most complete satisfaction”. To a North American employer, that sounds like the employee barely managed to breathe on his own during working hours. I’ve advised friends of mine to include a short description of the prevailing reference modalities in cross-border applications to employers that may not be familiar with the different contexts.

I suppose in both languages, a letter of reference that simply stresses the employee’s most basic expectations is always a negative. “She was a model of punctuality” is a kiss of death, implying that once at work on time, the employee did nothing at all of value. In that spirit, I am going to stop posting and make sure that I at least get to work on time today. I do think, however, that it would be a remarkable achievement to obtain a Zeugnis that mentioned one’s comprehensive sensitivity to and efforts on behalf of workers both within the company and without, always keeping one’s own – and the company’s interest in mind – as well as one’s sociable temperament during all of these endeavours. Especially where this was dated after the employee left the company!

Deeply ‘Shocking’ Skull-Photos

Good heavens, German soldiers serving in Afghanistan took photos of themselves, in 2003, posing with a human skull! There’s only one word that comes close to describing my reaction to this headline-grabbing revelation: boredom.

Now, I comment less and less on current affairs on this blog, for one simple reason: I came to Germany because so little happens here. You can really live without distractions in a country where the unauthorized sale of elderly meat (which doesn’t even make anyone sick) passes for a huge scandal.

But skullgate is just too rich to let pass without comment.

First, some background. German soldiers are — how can I put this diplomatically? — not renowned for being relentless killing machines. (Nobody wants them to be, obviously.) They’re good at respecting the local culture, helping out with building projects, settling disputes, and the like. Whenever they are sent somewhere (usually reluctantly, after extensive debate), they are kept well away from combat. They’ll be patrolling the coast off Lebanon, not mixing it up with Hamas. In Afghanistan, they’ve been sent well up to the peaceful north, far away from combat. Two-thirds of the 18 German deaths in Afghanistan have been from accidents.

So these soldiers were probably bored out of their skulls, so to speak. Yes, posing with the bones of some hapless Afghan was in poor taste. But it’s not as if German forces killed the guy whom they posed with, which happened in Abu Ghraib (the man in the photo was killed by the CIA, not by the soldier posing with the body, according to the linked story).

Now, of course, German politicians are doing (G) what they do best — stepping in front of microphones to register their "shock", "disappointment", and "concern" over this "outrageous" incident. The reporters, no doubt bored stiff themselves, dutifully transcribe the politicians’ promises: The soldiers involved will be severely punished! Troop training will be reviewed! Parliamentary sub-committees will be summoned into action!

All this blue-ribbon outrage, just because some bored soldiers had a bit of disgusting fun, and were dumb enough to capture it on their camera-phones? I’d be willing to bet there are thousands of much more unpleasant photos on hard disks and CDs all over Afghanistan. People do senseless things when they’re sent to foreign countries to do boring, stressful jobs, and I can think of much worse that these soldiers could have gotten up to. Much, much, much worse.

Unless this involves something more than stupid photos, I don’t see why these should get anything more than a good talking-to and mild punishment. Except for the soldier who posed with the skull next to his exposed penis (G). That man obviously doesn’t belong in any army.

He should be directing operas.*

* I know, that was cheap. But I couldn’t resist. If the soldiers are brought up on charges, though, I would recommend an artistic freedom defense (German Basic Law, Article 5(3)) This was no corpse-desecration, it was an impromptu performance-art happening in which the soldiers made use of a traditional memento mori motif.

Here Come the Testicle-Biting Optimists!

Urban density — lots of people living stacked on top of and right next to each other in lively little neighborhoods. You don’t get much of it in most U.S. cities, but you do in Germany.

Urban density means there are hundreds of people from all income levels and walks of life living within, say, 300 metres of your home. When you live in a nice, dense neighborhood, excitement comes to you; every time you leave your front door, something fun has happened.  In my neighborhood, the "German-Iranian Cultural Center" just inserted a marble plaque into the sidewalk commemorating Goethe’s praise of the Persian poet Hafiz.

Dike_geschaeftAnother recent addition to the neighborhood is a "store" called diesistkeineuebung.de (=thisisnotadrill.com). The cardboard man in the window is smiling and holding a sign saying "I’ve got a good feeling!"

What can you buy here? Hard to say. The website offers no products (or if it does, they’re well concealed), and describes its "motivation" thus:

This is not an drill, but instead an attempt to lead a more exciting, genuine, braver, better, life. We want to feel more joy, thoughtfulness, honesty, and courageous behavior again.

This is not a drill, becuase we are striving to do exactly what it is we always wanted to do. We’re trying, by thinking about what we do, to create new patterns of thought and achieve our own real, positive experiences.

This is not a drill, because we want to live this life actively and without fear. We are not a religious community and we don’t pretend to know the correct way forward. In the best case, we want to give others the courage to find their own lives.

The website offers advice on jazzing up your life, movies of art happenings by the "This is not a Drill" collective, and various odd, life-affirming texts.

They even offer "orgies", although you’re advised that sexual contact will only take place "with mutual consent" and isn’t really a "part of the happening." To sign up, you have to pay them 30 euro and tell them "what makes you sad" and "what you always wanted to do once inDu_wirst_eben_genaudike_aktion life", among other things.

Just across the street from their store, they’ve created a huge graffito (r) on the rear wall of a shuttered used-car dealership (nice symbolism). It reads Dike_kein_einbruch_schild"You’ll achieve exactly that which other people don’t believe you can achieve."

The icing on the cake is the warning sign (l) near the shop’s front door. It reads

"There’s no point in breaking in. If we’re not here, then neither are the computers. The guy who rents this place crashes next door, has nothing to lose, and will bite you in the balls! Don’t even think about it…"

German Joys Review: Camera Buff

Polish director Krzyzstof Kieslowksi (known internationally mainly for the Trois Couleurs (G) trilogy he directed in the 1990s) made Camera Buff in 1979, long before his reputation had crossed the Polish border in a serious way.

We meet Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr), an unassuming thirty-year-old who works as a purchasing manager for a factory in Wielice, a nothing town whose residents live in gray, pre-fabricated rent-barracks. As the movie begins, Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) gives birth to their first child, a daughter. At the time, Polish men were kept away from their wives during childbirth, and instead downed congratulatory vodka with friends. After sleeping off his hangover, Jerzy buys a Russian 8mm camera to record his new daughter’s first steps and words.

Cameras were rare in Poland then – Filip’s cost 2 months of his salary. When the factory director learns Philip has a camera, he orders him to film the company’s 25th anniversary celebration (speeches, visits by dignitaries, a cheesy band). This assignment sparks a fascination with moviemaking; Filip begins to imagine his daily environment filmed, and begins to frame shots with his hands. He forms a film club with the factory’s "cultural" subsidy. He’s the director, and his wiry young friend Witek and a "crew" of other enthusiasts helps him. He submits the resulting movies to the local amateur film federation, headed by the sultry Anna (Ewa Pokas).

After getting some advice from some of the of bald, turtleneck-clad auteurs in the Film Federation, Filip begins coming up with his own ideas for short documentary films, among them a feature about a midget who works in the factory. A brief, hesitant flirtation sparks between Filip and Anna, and shortly after, the midget documentary is shown on Polish television. Filip attends a lecture by an established Polish feature-film director, Krzyzstof Zanussi, and persuades Zanussi to visit drab old Wielice to screen his new movie Camouflage and answer questions afterward. (Zanussi, a contemporary and friend of Kieslowski, plays himself in the film).

Where are Irka and the child while the factory clerk swans off to Warsaw to meet with television producers, or wanders Wielice filming footage, or pursues his chaste little flirtation with Anna the Film Federation chief? Waiting at home in the family’s Spartan apartment. "How could my husband lose just lose interest in me and his own child?" she muses bitterly. She accuses Filip of abandoning her at what was supposed to be the most intense and joyful time of her life. With disarming frankness, he admits guilt. He thought he wanted the “tranquility” family represents, but just cannot suppress the urge to create. Irka moves out.

Conflict is also brewing outside the family. Seemingly innocent scenes in Filip’s documentaries showed skittish functionaries who didn’t want the be filmed, or half-finished public-works projects that the central authorities were told had been successfully completed. This causes problems. Now, Polish censors did tolerate mild social critique at this time, both in the movie and in the real Poland. Thus, the consequences, within the film, aren’t drastic. Filip is forgiven because he’s young and foolish and talented; but his immediate boss, the philosophical stamp-collector Osuch (Jerzy Nowak), is forced into early retirement for giving Filip the funding that led to the embarrassing movies.

Camera Buff has everything we expect from Kieslowski: understated, deep-grooved performances; contemplative pacing that doesn’t drag; moral generosity that never strays into sentimentality. Jerzy Stuhr’s performance as Filip (he is also given co-credit for the script) is a wonder. He goes from ordinary worker to film addict to increasingly confident director without losing his essential schlubbiness. It’s this direct unpretentiousness, combined with his genuine enthusiasm for film-making, which keep the viewer’s sympathy, even as he abandons his young family. Osuch, who loses his job because of Filip’s films, recognizes that Filip’s obsession with film springs from genuine passion, and forgives him in an affecting scene. Osuch warns Filip that the drive to create, once awakened, cannot be choked off. By leaving his life as a purchasing manager behind, Filip enters a a life of struggle and conflict. A quintessentially Kieslowskian scene, framed closely and intensely, as if it were taking place in a confessional.

The DVD features many splendid extras, including a moving interview with the real Zanussi about his long friendship with Kieslowski (who had died before the DVD was prepared). Zanussi gives us a lively, poignant sketch of Kieslowski’s character: Although he could be bitingly anti-clerical, he was deeply hurt when a Jesuit reviewer criticized one of his movies (No End) as being metaphysically un-Christian. Kieslowski turned to feature films from documentaries in part because of the guilt he felt at robbing the subjects of their anonymity. He doubted anyone had the right to film genuine human tears. He stayed in touch with many former documentary subjects and tried to help them, out of the belief that filming someone creates a bond of obligation with them. Kieslowski also fought with the censors (Camera Buff has unmistakable political overtones), and generally despised premieres, festivals, and other film-word frippery.

There are also interviews with the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, and a sprightly American film professor named Annette Insdorf who’s written a book about Kieslowski’s films (oddly enough, she speaks in French, even though the DVD is an American release, and subtitles on the DVD are only in English). If that weren’t enough, thre’s also a 16-minute black-and-white documentary from 1980 called “Talking Heads,” in which Kieslowski asking dozens of ordinary Poles how they would describe themselves, and what they most wish for in life. It’s regular humans, talking about their lives, and it’s just lovely.

Now the bad news. This DVD, apparently, has not been released in Germany. I bought it in the U.S. from the art-house firm Kino Video as part of lovingly-produced 6-DVD set. It’s apparently also available as an English import (check out the ludicrous all-caps summary on the Amazon website!), but not from Kino Video, so it probably won’t have the extras which add so much to the DVD.

Germany, why are you keeping these outstanding movies from your people? Who’s afraid of Krzyzstof Kieslowski?

German Joys Review: Camera Buff

Polish director Krzyzstof Kieslowksi (known internationally mainly for the Trois Couleurs (G) trilogy he directed in the 1990s) made Camera Buff in 1979, long before his reputation had crossed the Polish border in a serious way.

We meet Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr), an unassuming thirty-year-old who works as a purchasing manager for a factory in Wielice, a nothing town whose residents live in gray, pre-fabricated rent-barracks. As the movie begins, Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) gives birth to their first child, a daughter. At the time, Polish men were kept away from their wives during childbirth, and instead downed congratulatory vodka with friends. After sleeping off his hangover, Jerzy buys a Russian 8mm camera to record his new daughter’s first steps and words.

Cameras were rare in Poland then – Filip’s cost 2 months of his salary. When the factory director learns Philip has a camera, he orders him to film the company’s 25th anniversary celebration (speeches, visits by dignitaries, a cheesy band). This assignment sparks a fascination with moviemaking; Filip begins to imagine his daily environment filmed, and begins to frame shots with his hands. He forms a film club with the factory’s "cultural" subsidy. He’s the director, and his wiry young friend Witek and a "crew" of other enthusiasts helps him. He submits the resulting movies to the local amateur film federation, headed by the sultry Anna (Ewa Pokas).

After getting some advice from some of the of bald, turtleneck-clad auteurs in the Film Federation, Filip begins coming up with his own ideas for short documentary films, among them a feature about a midget who works in the factory. A brief, hesitant flirtation sparks between Filip and Anna, and shortly after, the midget documentary is shown on Polish television. Filip attends a lecture by an established Polish feature-film director, Krzyzstof Zanussi, and persuades Zanussi to visit drab old Wielice to screen his new movie Camouflage and answer questions afterward. (Zanussi, a contemporary and friend of Kieslowski, plays himself in the film).

Where are Irka and the child while the factory clerk swans off to Warsaw to meet with television producers, or wanders Wielice filming footage, or pursues his chaste little flirtation with Anna the Film Federation chief? Waiting at home in the family’s Spartan apartment. "How could my husband lose just lose interest in me and his own child?" she muses bitterly. She accuses Filip of abandoning her at what was supposed to be the most intense and joyful time of her life. With disarming frankness, he admits guilt. He thought he wanted the “tranquility” family represents, but just cannot suppress the urge to create. Irka moves out.

Conflict is also brewing outside the family. Seemingly innocent scenes in Filip’s documentaries showed skittish functionaries who didn’t want the be filmed, or half-finished public-works projects that the central authorities were told had been successfully completed. This causes problems. Now, Polish censors did tolerate mild social critique at this time, both in the movie and in the real Poland. Thus, the consequences, within the film, aren’t drastic. Filip is forgiven because he’s young and foolish and talented; but his immediate boss, the philosophical stamp-collector Osuch (Jerzy Nowak), is forced into early retirement for giving Filip the funding that led to the embarrassing movies.

Camera Buff has everything we expect from Kieslowski: understated, deep-grooved performances; contemplative pacing that doesn’t drag; moral generosity that never strays into sentimentality. Jerzy Stuhr’s performance as Filip (he is also given co-credit for the script) is a wonder. He goes from ordinary worker to film addict to increasingly confident director without losing his essential schlubbiness. It’s this direct unpretentiousness, combined with his genuine enthusiasm for film-making, which keep the viewer’s sympathy, even as he abandons his young family. Osuch, who loses his job because of Filip’s films, recognizes that Filip’s obsession with film springs from genuine passion, and forgives him in an affecting scene. Osuch warns Filip that the drive to create, once awakened, cannot be choked off. By leaving his life as a purchasing manager behind, Filip enters a a life of struggle and conflict. A quintessentially Kieslowskian scene, framed closely and intensely, as if it were taking place in a confessional.

The DVD features many splendid extras, including a moving interview with the real Zanussi about his long friendship with Kieslowski (who had died before the DVD was prepared). Zanussi gives us a lively, poignant sketch of Kieslowski’s character: Although he could be bitingly anti-clerical, he was deeply hurt when a Jesuit reviewer criticized one of his movies (No End) as being metaphysically un-Christian. Kieslowski turned to feature films from documentaries in part because of the guilt he felt at robbing the subjects of their anonymity. He doubted anyone had the right to film genuine human tears. He stayed in touch with many former documentary subjects and tried to help them, out of the belief that filming someone creates a bond of obligation with them. Kieslowski also fought with the censors (Camera Buff has unmistakable political overtones), and generally despised premieres, festivals, and other film-word frippery.

There are also interviews with the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, and a sprightly American film professor named Annette Insdorf who’s written a book about Kieslowski’s films (oddly enough, she speaks in French, even though the DVD is an American release, and subtitles on the DVD are only in English). If that weren’t enough, thre’s also a 16-minute black-and-white documentary from 1980 called “Talking Heads,” in which Kieslowski asking dozens of ordinary Poles how they would describe themselves, and what they most wish for in life. It’s regular humans, talking about their lives, and it’s just lovely.

Now the bad news. This DVD, apparently, has not been released in Germany. I bought it in the U.S. from the art-house firm Kino Video as part of lovingly-produced 6-DVD set. It’s apparently also available as an English import (check out the ludicrous all-caps summary on the Amazon website!), but not from Kino Video, so it probably won’t have the extras which add so much to the DVD.

Germany, why are you keeping these outstanding movies from your people? Who’s afraid of Krzyzstof Kieslowski?

Someone Help Susan Wenzel find Heintje Records

Heintje Over a year ago, I posted about Heintje, a German singer. When he was a child star in the late 1960s, Heintje sang a lot of songs about how much he loved his mother.

I said some rather unkind things about Heintje. I called his voice a ‘spine-cracking metallic falsetto’ and compared it to ‘colony of enraged wasps stinging the listener’s eardrum into pulp.’ I stand by those characterizations.

However, others seem to have a more nuanced view. Against all expectations, this post has attracted more comments than almost anyother. There are, apparently, hordes of people who remember Heintje fondly, and are eager to relive golden moments they spent listening to his records. The comments come from as far away as Canada, China and New Zealand!

The latest is Susan Wenzel, who writes (you’ll have to forgive the all-caps):

SEEMS AS THOUGH ONLY OUR FAMILY KNOWS OF HIM BECAUSE WE GREW UP LISTENING TO HIS WONDERFUL ALBUM "MAMA" (ENGLISH VERSION) YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS VERY LITTLE MY FATHER HEARD HIM ON HIS RADIO STATION (WGN-CHICAGO,IL) HE SEARCHED FOR HIS ALBUM FOUND IT, PLAYED IT OVER AND OVER. I STILL REMEMBER THE LYRICS… JUST BEAUTIFUL!

Go read her touching comment, if you can TOLERATE THE FACT THAT IT’S ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Ms. Wenzel is desperate for a CD of Heintje singing in English. Why don’t you write her and tell her how to find one? Something tells me we’re not dealing with an Internet connoisseur here, so maybe you should just send an email to MITZEE@AOL.COM.

Biting a Bishop’s Head Off

WeckmannChristmas must be just around the corner, because my local bakery has Weckmaenner. These are wheat-flour pastries in the shape of a fat, bulbous man. He always holds a clay pipe, and may have raisins for eyes. My favorite kind of Weckmann is covered head-to-toe in marzipan paste and almond slivers, which makes him look like an albino porcupine having an orgasm. The combination of the serious, daddy’s-office taste of roast almonds, the gooey sweetness of the marzipan paste, and the slightly sour-tasting fluffy wheat dough can’t be beat. (When he’s covered with nuts, you have to make sure not to accidentally bite into his pipe. So to speak.)

Whenever I encounter something edible in the shape of a living creature, I eat the head first. I figure if anyone were to eat me, I would request the same treatment. I may think twice about that, though, now that I find out the baking of the Weckmann during Advent is a centuries-old custom, and the Weckmann was originally meant to represent a bishop.

I learned that from the following webpage (G), which was written by a real theologian named Dr. theol. Manfred Becker-Huberti. My translation follows:

In the early days of the church, it was common, on Sundays and Church holidays, to give blessed, but not consecrated, bread to people who had not received the Eucharist, were not entitled to receive it (=penitents, catechumens) or were unable to receive it (=sick people staying at home). In the Greek and Russian Orthodox liturgy, this custom, which goes back to the early Christian Agape Meal (Feast of Christian Love) after religious services, has been maintained. Jews maintain this custom to this day: After the Kabbalah-Sabbath, the religious service on Friday evening at the beginning of Sabbath, all who took part in the service gather for a communal meal. Over the course of time, the pastry used during this meal took on a particular form relating to the celebration. It was called “image bread.“ The Weckmann (which is called Stutenkerl or Piepenkerl in Westphalia, Hefekerl in Switzerland, and also Printenmann, Hanselmann, Klasenmann) , which was common originally only on St. Nicholas’ day, but then later also for St. Martin’s Day and now during all of Advent is an “image bread;” that is a pastry formed into a figure made out of wheat flour or dough. It is supposed to represent a Bishop! The clay pipe one usually sees today is an error: If you turn it around so the end of the pipe faces the top, you can see even today that instead of the clay pipe, a Bishop’s crozier was originally attached to the pastry.

Critical, Satisfied, Threatened German Voters

The Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung ("Friedrich Ebert Foundation") is a German think-tank closely identified with the mainstream-left German Social Democratic Party. They recently released a report called Society in the Process of Reform (G-pdf) in which they indexed the political opinions and worldviews of a large, representative sample of German citizens.

They came up with the following typology, which I’ve translated for you.

The Performance-Oriented Individualists (11% share of the voting public) are opponents of state intervention in the economy and desire a society which primarily rewards individual accomplishment. Two-thirds of these are men. Politically, they prefer the conservative camp and are more likely than average voters to vote for the [free-market oriented] Free Democrat Party.

The Established High-Performers (15%) represent primarily the upper-middle class free-market conservative milieu from smaller towns.  They are strongly oriented towards performance and accomplishment, and have a stronger-than-average connection to the [mainstream conservative] Christian Democratic Union party.

The Critical Educated Elite (9%) represent the youngest, best-qualified, and most left-wing group. This part of society has the largest component of people who are active in society and in party politics. Over four-fifths of them vote for one of the three left-wing parties that are currently represented in the German Parliament.

The Engaged Bourgeoisie (10%) is also a red-green political grouping, but more bourgeois-oriented.  Women, as well as highly-qualified public employees, as well as people who work in social or cultural professions, are especially likely to be represented here. Out of all the social groupings studied here, the engaged bourgeoisie views the [mainstream left] Social Democratic Party most positively.

The Satisfied Social Climbers (13%) represent a performance-oriented sector of modern middle-class workers.  They come primarily from simple social backgrounds, but have achieved a position in the middle-class of society by virtue of their ability to advance. Politically, they tend to vote for the Christian Democratic Union, but may also vote Social Democratic.

The Threatened Middle-Class Worker (16%) represent the sector of the workforce that tends to come from smaller cities and whose work is primarily industrial. In view of their party preference, a strong tendency to vote Social Democratic can be observed, but they are also open to voting for the Christian Democrats and increasingly (out of disappointment in the Social Democrats) for the Left Party.

The Self-Sufficient Traditionalists (11%) are, out of all the groups, the most oriented to the two major mainstream political parties. They are strongly oriented toward convention and wish the State to regulate society. They have little trust for politics, in part because they no longer understand many political processes.

The Authority-Oriented Minimally-Qualified (7%) are the most authoritarian and ethnocentric group. They have mostly emerged from a simple social background, and have managed to “climb up”  to a small-scale lower-middle-class career. Their above-average identification with the Social Democratic Party is closely allied to a fundamental rejection of the Green Party and the Green Party’s political ideas.

The Socially-Detached Precariate (8%) is marked by social exclusion and the experience of declining social standing. This group has a large component of working-age people, has the highest unemployment rate, and is strongly dominated by males and East Germans. They are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the performance of the Grand Coalition. Non-voters are disproportionately represented here, as are those who vote for the Left Party and right-wing extremist parties.

Two explanatory notes: the use of the term bürgerlich (bourgeois) here isn’t mean to have the negative connotation it would have in English. It’s a sociological terms of long-standing that roughly overlaps with what English-speakers would call middle class.

The last grouping is called in German Abgehängte Prekariat, which is just as weird-sounding in German as my translation, "socially-detached precariate." It is basically a circumlocution the study’s authors used so they wouldn’t have to use the word "underclass." Social Democratic politician Kurt Beck, however, went ahead and began speaking of a German underclass, and all hell (and an interesting debate) then broke loose.

I’ll have more to say about this in a while, but for now I’ll just tell you where I stand. I consider myself a critically-engaged, high-performing, self-sufficient, socially-detached member of the bourgeoisie. What are you?

Force-Feeding Chickens Orange Dye?

From Axel Boldt’s endlessly readable website comparing the customs and culture of the USA and Germany:

Germans think that natural yellow egg yolk looks "unhealthy" and pale and prefer their egg yolk orange, which is why German farmers feed their chickens organge [sic] pigments.

Can this possibly be true, in a country almost obsessed by the perceived dangers of genetically modified food?

On another page, you can find all of Mr. Boldt’s political opinions, succinctly stated and logically organized. Here’s one picked at random:

The Inevitability of Socialism

What is the point of technological progress? Why do we keep building faster computers, better robots, more efficient factories? There is only one point to all of this: reducing the workload that has to be done by humans.

There is no question that these projects will become more and more successful: eventually, most people will be dispensible and their work won’t be needed anymore. At that point, socialism will have become inevitable: the means of production need to be owned by the whole of society, or else how are the dispensible people going to eat and how are the products going to be distributed?

The logical endpoint of capitalism would be a number of multi-national corporations which own everything, can produce anything, trade only among themselves, and don’t need any workers. In such a society, people wouldn’t be able to buy things, nor would they be able to make money.