The New York Times Profiles Cindy aus Marzahn

The New York Time profiles Ilka Bessin, the obese former welfare recipient from East Germany who created a stage persona called 'Cindy aus Marzahn' and has parlayed it into massive success. 'Cindy', by the way, is a typical lower-class German name, as you can tell from its American provenance. Other names that instantly evoke the German (not Turkish) Lumpenproletariat are Kevin, Dakota, Darryl, Montana, Jasmin, and a few others. Although lots of these stereotypes are increasingly outdated, since I've had plenty of high-achieving Jasmins and Kevins in my classes. Here's a bit of the profile: 

Out of the crucible of humiliation emerged Cindy, crass and cagey, driven by appetites. She hides a bratwurst in a banana peel and asks the audience for chocolate, then eats what they throw onstage. “I have Alzheimer’s bulimia,” Cindy likes to say, stomach bulging under her pink sweatshirt, tiara perched atop her wig. “I eat everything in sight and then forget to throw up.”

Critics call her act offensive, lowbrow and worse, mixing high-minded attacks on her with patronizing depictions of her supposedly benighted fans. Those fans answer by buying her concert videos and turning out to her shows in droves, where they scream and applaud like mad, many wearing their own tiaras and pink sweatshirts emblazoned with the words “Alzheimer’s bulimia” on the front.

Cindy regales them with tales of her time as a member of the Socialist Children’s Television Ballet or her efforts to get adopted by Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt. Her performances are marathons with musical numbers. Fans often bring her presents and handmade cards. She is a star but also a hero, one of them, one who made it.

“I win,” Cindy sings in one of her songs, “although I’m not a winner.”

I've watched her, and Cindy is actually pretty funny. She knows that some of the people watching her show are proper bourgeois urbanites who are laughing at not with, but she doesn't give a flying fuck. In fact she gives as good as she gets, mocking organic food and viola lessons and hybrid cars and multi-kulti tolerance and other shibboleths of the educated urban bourgeoisie. It's one of the things I find honest and refreshing about German culture: everyone knows that classes exist and always will, and that they're always going to be in conflict. Yet merely acknowledging that fact doesn't doom society to centrifugal self-destruction. This means you can speak openly, even vulgarly about social classes without employing all the enervating euphemisms Americans often resort to (example here).

By the way, the fact that Cindy aus Marzahn was profiled in the New York Times was big news in Germany. It was all over the airport news monitors!

‘Luxury Problems’ is a Masterpiece

On the strength of David Pescovitz's recommendation at BoingBoing, I downloaded (legally, I might add) UK techno-dub guru Andy Stott's new album, Luxury Problems. One reason it caught my interest is because the title's a literal translation of a great German word, Luxusproblem. But the album itself is shockingly fantastic. RA reviews it:

Luxury Problems has all the hallmarks of
its two predecessors, namely the drab atmosphere and sluggish rhythms.
But it also has more conventional beauty than those records, thanks in
part to fantastic vocals from his old piano teacher, Alison Skidmore.
It's tempting to think of her as the missing ingredient in Stott's
reinvented sound; in equal parts mournful and seductive, sometimes even
operatic, she gives his music a sexy and haunting feel that makes you
think of Portishead or Massive Attack. Stott's music, in all of its
exquisite gloom, has long stood up on its own, but it still benefits
enormously from this bold addition.

I've now listened to it several times on my Sennheiser 180 wireless headphones, and I'm more impressed each time. Stott's tracks have a typical trip-hoppy structure, with a slow intro that's gradually embellished with more and more beats, a climax, and then a ghostly outro. But the samples and loops are fascinating and original, and the contrast of Alison Skidmore's ethereal voice (overdubbed, transposed, and manipulated in a thousand other ways) with the pulsing, menacing, often-danceable beats is, well, nothing short of mystical. Here's a video for 'Numb' (but note that to really enjoy this, you've got to play it loud on a good stereo or headphones).

Kyrghyz Eyes

Susan Messer writes about The Magic Mountain:

One of the unforgettable details of the
novel was the obsession of Hans Castorp (the main character) with the
elusive Clavdia Chauchat, who Mann describes repeatedly as having Kyrgyz
eyes. This is, indeed, one of her defining features. "Kyrgyz eyes" were
also a feature of an earlier breathless obsession in Castorp's life–a
young boy who had many years before loaned young Hans a pencil on the
school playground. So Mann echoes these eyes and these obsessions (even the pencil) throughout the novel.

I also wondered exactly what Mann meant by Kyrgyz eyes (Kirgisenaugen). Messer provides us with this photo of actual Kyrgyznauts, or whatever one calls people from Kyrghyzstan:

Kyrghiz eyes
Cute and wholesome. But I prefer this version, courtesy of St. Petersburg-based photographer Daniil Kontorovich aka Tertius Alio:


If you ask me, she's got Kyrghyz-everything.

Gun Deaths in Germany and the U.S.

Gun homicidesHere are the goods on gun deaths in the U.S. and Germany. Germany is a surprisingly well-armed society — but oddly enough, not as well-armed as France. But because of sensible regulations, Germany's rate of firearms homicide is 17 times lower than the USA's.

And yet:

The national homicide rate for 2011 was 4.8 per 100,000 citizens —
less than half of what it was in the early years of the Great
Depression, when it peaked before falling precipitously before World War
II. The peak in modern times of 10.2 was in 1980, as recorded by
national criminal statistics.

“We’re at as low a place as we’ve been in the past 100 years,” says Randolph Roth, professor of history at Ohio State University and author of this year’s “American Homicide,”
a landmark study of the history of killing in the United States. “The
rate oscillates between about 5 and 9 [per 100,000], sometimes a little
higher or lower, and we’re right at the bottom end of that oscillation.”

year’s rate was the lowest of any year since 1963, when the rate was
4.6, according to the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. Don’t relax quite yet: Americans still kill one
another at a much higher rate than do citizens of other wealthy

“By international standards, we never really get to ‘low,’ ” Roth says.

How Many Bullets Can Your Disney Princess Absorb?

Would You Send Your Child to School With Body Armor?

Hammel's law: Sooner or later, every American gun massacre will give rise to commercial exploitation and unintentional self-parody. Or, in this case, both:

Amendment II is a company that
makes lightweight body armor for obviously, military and police. But six
months ago, in reaction to the flux of school shootings we've
needlessly seen in this country, they've moved into a new area of the
market—Avengers- and Disney Princess- themed backpacks for young kids
and a SwissGear for teens. The innocent-looking $300 knapsacks are
fitted with the company's carbon nanotubes to fend off bullets. And
sales are at an all-time high. While Amendment II won't give out
specifics, since the horrible tragedy in Newtown, it's basically sold
three times what usually does in a month in less than a week.

And from a libertarian political commentator Megan McArdle:

I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than
following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people
that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy
with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly,
because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by
8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.

As frequent commentator Martin might say, how can you be too paranoid when you never know when THEY might strike again?

The New Brother Theodore DVD is Out

I blogged before about To My Great Chagrin, the documentary about Brother Theodore, scion of a wealthy Jewish Düsseldorf family who was chased out of Germany by the Nazis, landed in the U.S., and started a career as the strangest, darkest, absurdest stand-up 'comedian' you're ever likely to see. He called his bit 'stand-up tragedy.'

I've now got news that the producer, Jeff Sumerel, is offering a new, enhanced DVD with interviews with Woody Allen, Eric Bogosian, and many others. You can — and should — order it here.

Hasty Overreactions: The Good and Bad Kind

A few simple observations to help you understand American politics.

First, assume a spectacular crime.

Next, assume an opportunistic politician. Let's call him Stan.

When Stan responds to this crime by introducing a bill kick-punching suspects and/or criminals — say by expanding the death penalty, abolishing the insanity defense, broadening police powers, mandating life without parole, or lowering the age of criminal responsibility — this is known as responsive democratic action.

When Stan responds to this crime by introducing a bill opposed by powerful lobbies — say a bill imposing higher penalties for financial mismanagement, or stricter gun-control laws — this is called exploiting a tragedy for political gain, rushing to judgment before all the facts are in, and/or irresponsible populism.

I hope that helps!

Guns Kill More Efficiently than Anything Else

Two news stories from yesterday: In China, a man using a knife attacked schoolchildren. 22 were injured, and none died. Another man in the USA attacked schoolchildren using Sig Sauer and Glock semi-automatic pistols, precision instruments designed to efficiently kill humans. There were almost no survivors. Apparently, every single child he targeted was killed on the scene. The local hospital turned away nurses who had come in to help, since there was no more help to give.

Even for a determined murderer, killing someone with a knife is difficult. You'll generally need to hit them several times, and if you don't hit a major artery, they are likely to survive, especially with modern medical treatment. Plus, they will defend themselves, if they're conscious. Killing someone with a bomb is also a challenge — as recent failed bombings both in the US and in Germany (g) show, it's very hard to competently construct a large bomb.

A semi-automatic pistol is a different matter entirely. Standing well away from your victim, you can launch projectiles at 1,150 feet per second at their head and chest, pumping bullet after bullet into them until you're sure they're dead. The whole process takes seconds. There's almost nothing they can do to defend themselves. You can stay a comfortable distance away from your victims. Plus, you can pick them out specifically and target only the ones you want to kill. The gun that gives you this power is light and easily-concealed.

This is why most societies tightly regulate semi-automatic handguns. There's nothing like them for the combination of easy concealment and potent lethality. There will always be the occasional extremely rare incident in which one person decides to attack a large number of others at once, but only if he uses a semi-automatic weapon is the death toll likely to be high.

This latest American massacre will likely spur more debate about gun control in the US, but gun-control opponents there will rightly point out that tighter regulations probably won't achieve much. The genie of portable, effective killing machines is out of the bottle: the US is awash in 310 million non-military privately-held firearms, millions of which are semi-automatic handguns. There's nothing you can do to take them out of circulation — at least nothing that is remotely politically feasible. The US will be living with this policy disaster for decades, if not centuries.

(Graph source here)

Thoughts on ‘Funny Games’

A few days ago I watched Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke's 1997 succes de scandale — which he remade in the U.S. a decade later. Since there will be spoilers, the rest comes after the jump.

The plot could hardly be more simple: a wealthy bourgeois German family retires to their sprawling lakeside second home. There's the father, the mother, and a boy about 10 years old. Two young men named Peter and Paul, apparently acquaintances of one of the neighbors, appear at the house. They're dressed in what looks like tennis whites and are wearing white cotton gloves like antiquarians. They insinuate themselves into the home, take the entire family captive, cut them off from the outside world, and torture and kill all three after playing bizarre mindgames with them. All for no discernible reason, except twisted kicks.

Funny Games is a patholological, cynical, ugly masterpiece, because it's a bundle of paradoxes. On the one hand, it's remorselessly faithful to its premise of bleak honesty: this is going to be a movie in which nobody heroes up, the bad guys win, nobody escapes, and there is no justice or accountability. Haneke almost taunts the audience by setting up story lines that start moving into the familiar grooves of resourceful-rescue stories. For instance the plucky, adorable son, Georgie, manages to escape from the house where his family is imprisoned and get to a neighbor's house — only to find the neighbors have all been massacred, and Paul is waiting there to bring him back. Peter and Paul dunk the family's cellphone in water to disable it, but later Georg, the father, painstakingly blow-dries the phone until the display finally re-activates — to show the phone's battery is dead.

On the other hand, though, Haneke continuously undermines his own premise by breaking the fourth wall. Paul, the smooth, cunning home invader, occasionally turns to the audience and winks during the cruel escapades. He asks us, the audience, who we think will survive the movie, and chides us for predictably siding with the innocent family. At about the 1 hour point, he addresses the viewer and reassures us that we shouldn't imagine the film will be ending soon, since that would be much too short for a feature film. He then tells us that he and his friend Peter will leave the house for a while, to give the remaining family members time to try to and escape, thereby increasing the suspense. After the wife suddenly reaches for a gun and kills Peter, Paul finds the remote control, 'rewinds' the plot as we watch, and takes the gun away from her. Haneke also has his fun with the smugness of the bourgeois family. Like all good high-bourgeois Germans, they have surrounded their home with carefully-maintained fences, walls, and gates — which paradoxically lock them in when they most need to escape.

Some reviewers found this to be a cheap gimmick, while others suggested it made the audience somehow 'complicit' in the barbaric fun. I don't really agree with either suggestion. The asides to the audience add another layer of chilling, alienated weirdness to what is already an intensely unsettling movie. The underlying point of Funny Games is to mock the lazy conventions of kidnapping/rescue dramas (especially the audience's expectations), and sabotaging the mimetic effect does that nicely. Yet, paradoxically, these asides actually enhance the suspense: they show that Haneke is blowing the conventions of the genre wide open, which means the audience can no longer rely on the assumptions it brings to 'psychological thrillers'. They are one of the first clues that are probably not going to see a heroic last-minute rescue, or a heart-to-heart in which the kidnappers gain insight and relent, or any of the other convenient knot-tiers used in dramas.

At the same time, the asides don't really make us 'complicit' in the pair's actions, anymore than a drunken barfly's leering makes a woman 'complicit' in his seduction plans. Rather, the asides set up an uncomfortable dichotomy: the family members are not in on the joke, and their suffering is 'real', but both the viewers and the home invaders are on the side who 'know' the whole thing is a game and who need not suffer any consequences. We're the voyeurs, they're the dungeon masters, and the family's ultimate humiliation, perhaps, is the fact that they never realize they are mere toys. That's also the key to the movie's title, which is in intentionally stilted English, not German. The end of the film, in which Paul charms his way into a neighbor's house, starting the cycle of murder once again, is about as brilliant and bleak as the famous ending of Cure, another deeply disturbing movie.

Funny Games is perhaps the archetype of a polarizing movie: the negative reviews treat the movie as if it were not just bad but soiled, debased, harmful and toxic. Those reviews may be the true yardstick of Haneke's achievement.

Comrade, Study the Geist of your Volk!

As part of the Gleichschaltung of the German nation behind National Socialism, universities were gradually purged of political unreliables, and all university fraternities were progressively banned or co-opted into the National Socialist German Students' Union (g). The leading program of this organization can be found in the '10 Laws of German Student Life' (Zehn Gesetze des deutschen Studentums), promulgated in 1938. Here is my translation of them:

I. German student, it is not necessary that you live, but
rather that you fulfill your duty to your People (Volk)! Whatever you become,
do so as a German!

II. The highest law and greatest dignity of a German man is
honor. Injured honor can be expiated (gesühnt) only with blood. Your honor is your loyalty
to your People and to yourself.

III. Being German means having character.  You are among those called upon to struggle
for the freedom of the German spirit (Geist)! Seek the truths that lie concealed in
your People!

IV. Lack of restraint and attachment are not freedom. There is
more freedom in service than in obeying your own command. Germany’s future depends on
your faith, your enthusiasm, and your fighting spirit.

V. He who cannot imagine new things will never achieve
anything. You cannot ignite that which is not already burning within you. Have
the courage to feel and show admiration and respect!

VI. A man is born a National Socialist, but is also trained
to be one, and, most of all, trains himself to be one.

VII. If anything is more powerful than fate, it is your
courage to bear it stoically. What does not kill you makes you stronger. Praised
be the things that make men hard.

VIII. Learn to live within a system! Obedience and discipline
are the essential foundations of any community and the beginning of all

IX. As leader, be unyielding in the performance of your
duties, decisive in standing up for what is necessary, helpful and good, never
petty in judgment of human weakness, large-minded in recognizing the needs of
others and humble in respect to your own!

X. Be a comrade! Be knightly and humble! Be a role model in
your personal life! Your moral maturity will be judged by your interactions
with others. Be one in thought and deed! Follow the Fuehrer’s example!

(Source: Justiz im Dritten Reich, Ilse Staff, ed., Fischer Verlag 1978, pp. 117-18).

There can be little doubt that these rules were posted above the writing-desk of many a student of law (especially law), history, accountancy, and medicine during the 1930s. Since most outsiders have learned only about the unfortunate consequences of National Socialism, they have a hard time understanding how so many apparently intelligent people believed in it. Some were opportunists and hacks, of course, but many National Socialists were sincere in believing that the core ideology was instrumental in achieving the glorious renewal of their Volk.

You can just get a glimpse of this in these rules. Some of them sound bizarre to modern ears, but others tie in to values that Germans have always at least claimed to hold dear: order, discipline, honesty, humility, sound character, self-control, and sincerity. Of course, brilliant misfits would mock these soppy-stern admonishments, but the National Socialists weren't interested in brilliant misfits, except to exile or kill them. They were interested in the much larger mass of people who were intelligent enough to get into university, but stolid in thinking and conformist in character.

To really understand why the great mass of conformists students might find these rules appealing to live by, it's important to understand how untranslatable lots of the words are. Words like Geist, Volk, Ehre, Kamerad, and Ordnung are, to Germans, like spectacular conch shells, layered with hundreds of years of elaborate, filigreed connotation. Translating them into English is like ripping the sea-snail out of its magnificent shell and exposing it as a moist, palpitating little gastropod. Some of these words (especially Volk or Kamerad) were, in fact, so central to Nazi propaganda that they remain under a brownish suspicion to this day. 

Naipaul’s Opinions on Thomas Mann and Jane Austen

The New Republic has an amusing interview with V.S. Naipaul (h/t SK). His opinions on Mann, Wodehouse and Jane Austen:

IC: I was wondering what you like to read now.

VSN: I read many things. I read to fill in my knowledge of the world. I am reading this writer, [Thomas] De Quincey, here [points to the book]. The other thing I am reading, quite unusual for me, is Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. I was staggered by it.

IC: Why did it stagger you?

VSN: It was so wise. Wonderful narrative gift. His language is
wonderful. When he is talking, it varies from mode to mode. And it’s
always marvelous. He has to deal with typhoid, which will kill his
character, and he does it pulling away. He goes inside the sufferer and
says, this is what happens to a cancer patient, a typhoid patient. At a
certain stage, life calls out to him. Very beautiful way of writing. I
am feeble trying to paraphrase. Very, very moving. I was dazzled by it.

IC: Are there English or British authors you go back to time and again?

VSN: No, no. Who do you go back to?

IC: [George] Orwell. P.G. Wodehouse.

VSN: I can’t read Wodehouse. The thought of, shall we say,
facing three or four months of nothing but Wodehouse novels fills me
with horror.

IC: What about George Eliot?

VSN: Childhood, you know, childhood. A little of [The Mill on the Floss]
was read to me. It mattered at the time. But as you get older, your
tastes and needs change. I don’t like her or the big English writers. I
don’t like [Charles] Dickens.

IC: No British writers.

NN: The poets he likes, not the prose. He likes the columnists more than the writers.

VSN: I don’t want to upset them.

NN: He upsets people for no reason.

IC: I was going to ask about his Jane Austen comments.

NN: Oh God, everybody hates Jane Austen. They don’t have the
balls to say it. Believe me. Who did we meet the other day, that famous
academic who said Jane Austen was rubbish? And I said, “Why don’t you
stand up and say it.” And he said, “Am I mad?” They have all reassessed
her, but they just don’t want to say it.

IC: Do you want to expand on why you don’t like her? You think she’s trivial?

VSN: Yes, it is too trivial. A romantic story. It doesn’t do
anything for me. It doesn’t tell me anything. It’s not like Mann talking
about death. He has a way of dealing with it.

That's an intelligent reason for admiring Buddenbrooks, which I find otherwise a bit tedious.