“Why Is There Straw Everywhere?” and the Naturalness of German Pornography

Pop culture generates random flecks of absurdity which lodge themselves in a nation’s soul. In Germany, one of these gems is this scene from a 2002 movie Eighteen-and-a-half (g), a type of flick we used to call a ‘specialty feature’ in English:

Girl: “So, here’s the fuse box we’re having problems with, so you can take a look.”

Man: “Sure, but why is there straw everywhere?”

Girl: “Why are you wearing a mask?”

Man: [sighs] “Oh well. How ’bout a blowjob?”

Someone found this stretch of dialogue amusing, and stuck it on the Internet in 2002. It went viral, as they say, and now every German under the age of 40 knows this scene. All you have to do is mention “straw lying around” somewhere and people will break out in knowing smirks or, if there’s been drinking, lusty re-creations of the “electrician’s” visit.

A German documentary team later investigated this piece of history tracked down the director of the movie, Nils Molitor. Here is his interview:

Molitor is the friendly bald guy. He explains that as a porno director, he always took care to make sure his movies had at least some semblance of a plot and dialogue. He tried to make the actors look as good as possible, and to “bring out the acting talent hidden inside some people”.

For the scene in question, he had hired a guy from Berlin who “had a giant cock”. When the guy showed up, he insisted on playing the scene in a mask, since he had a job in Berlin and people who didn’t know about his side-hustle. So Molitor, with the ingenuity of a Cassavetes, integrated the mask into the dialogue.

Molitor goes on to describe the basic philosophy of German porno: “Naturalness” (Natürlichkeit). American porn stars, he complains have “everything done”, from breasts to lips to privates. As for Eastern European women, they’re so beautiful that no ordinary German schlub (the Deutscher Michel) could imagine bedding one of them. German porn, Molitor insists, should be made with German women. They may have some imperfections: a few crooked teeth, or a little roll of belly fat. Yet this brings them into the realm of the maybe-beddable, the guy watching the flick thinks: “Yeah, that might just happen to me one day, if I get really lucky.”

I hope you enjoyed this little foray into German pop culture. Later, if I have a moment, I’ll explain why certain Germans, the best kind of Germans, burst into laughter if you repeat the phrase: “60 kilograms (g) of ground meat”.

The American MegaSmile and Wal-Mart Chant

 

Olga Khazan on why Americans smile so much, and so broadly:

After polling people from 32 countries to learn how much they felt various feelings should be expressed openly, the authors found that emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.

People in the more diverse countries also smiled for a different reason than the people in the more homogeneous nations. In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone “wants to be a close friend of yours.” But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another. That might be, the authors speculate, because countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures….

[W]hen Wal-Mart opened stores in Germany, the company also had to tweak its chipper ways to better suit the sober local mores, as The New York Times reported in 2006:

Wal-Mart stopped requiring sales clerks to smile at customers—a practice that some male shoppers interpreted as flirting—and scrapped the morning Wal-Mart chant by staff members.

“People found these things strange; Germans just don’t behave that way,” said Hans-Martin Poschmann, the secretary of the Verdi union, which represents 5,000 Wal-Mart employees here.

I give you the Wal-Mart chant:

Say what you want about the Germans — this proud race’s refusal to perform the Wal-Mart chant can only be pleasing in the eyes of Odin.

I’ve noticed Germany getting distinctly friendlier over the years, which I think is a welcome development. It’s never the kind of fulsome, fake, enforced American friendliness, but just a greater tendency to make eye contact and exchange a few simple greetings and a joke or two. If the optimal level of friendliness is 5 on a scale of 1 (Soviet Russia) to 10 (Disneyland), Germany has slowly crept up from 2.5 to now 4.6. America is at 8.1, and needs to get that number down.

Communism for the Children

Years ago, I visited the famous “M99 Dry Goods and Revolution Supplies Store” in Berlin, a must on any tourist itinerary. The name is ironically-old fashioned. It’s a legendary store and meeting-place operated by a cantankerous old anarchist, and it’s filled with spray-paint, balaclavas, supplies for occupying houses and keeping the cops out, and of course, revolutionary literature. It’s been repeatedly searched by cops, and the owner threatened with eviction. Yet it enjoys the support of the Berlin left scene, and is still going, albeit not in its original location (Manteuffelstraße 99, hence ‘M99’)

While there, I bought a small pamphlet entitled: “Communist Child-Rearing:”

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The contents are:

  • Socialist work with education problems today
  • Socialist child-rearing in the family
  • Socialist education
  • Communist children’s groups (Weimar)
  • Toleration or encouragement of children’s sexuality
  • A socialist children’s home

The inside cover:

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Here we find a list of other pamphlets in the series, including a few writings by notorious quack Wilhelm Reich, and works on “The Sexual Revolution in Russia”; “Children’s Sexuality in Nature-Peoples”; and “Theses on Self-Help” by the “Patient Collective”.

A few pages in, we see this pronouncement:

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This brochure must be and is: a slap in the face to anyone who believes they can win back a piece of their lost happiness by psychanalytic (sic) tinkering, who — sunk into a left-bourgeois subculture — now want to pull their children into it as well, to create a happy little garden colony on the margins of the repressive society.

Drive forward the organization of the working class by exposing the class character of modern education!

What we have here, obviously, is a mirror into the extreme-left subculture of Germany in the early 1970s.

I must say, it’s about as drab as this pamphlet makes it look.

German student leftists, true to stereotype, took things very seriously indeed, and — also true to stereotype — situated their rebellion within a logical, systematic intellectual superstructure — in this case, Marxism-Leninism. The most prominent student leader, Rudi Dutschke, wrote his graduate thesis on Marx and Engels, and his speeches are rather dull dissections of post-war German society along these lines. After the umbrella SDS group split up, most radical students joined one or another Marxist organization, which had fractured into so many sub-splinters that they’re now referred to collectively as the “K-Groups“, as in Kommunist.

Dipping into memoirs of old hippies, the main motif is discussions. Interminable, stultifying discussions. Discussions about which classes were ready to be ignited by the spark of revolution (Habermas’ correct answer: none), how children could be taught to avoid the straitjacket of repressive tolerance, how factories should be organized, how chores should be assigned in anarchist collectives, how to define ‘sanity’, how much violence is permissible and against whom, what to use instead of money, how to elect leaders — the list is endless. These smart, unworldly kids were trying — with German thoroughness — to draw up a blueprint for a completely different kind of society.

Of course, almost nobody else wanted to live in that society. So, the discussions involved the same people, discussing the same topics, ad infinitum. Which leads to small differences being exaggerated, resentment building, splinter groups forming, and, eventually, dissolution. As I see it, the reason leftist groups almost always splinter and deform is because of the kind of people who join them — a motley collection of drifters, artists, perfectionists, individualists, malcontents, cranks, geniuses, visionaries, misfits, and the occasional sociopath. Right-wing groups attract many of the same types, but are saved by their strong sense of hierarchy.

A necessary disclaimer: The 1968 generation did, in fact, force major ruptures in German society which were urgently necessary, and made the country the humane place it is today.  But the hobbyhorses of the more extreme German left — all of which are present in this brochure — would come back to haunt hippies in later life. The critique of “mainstream” psychiatry led a lot of severely mentally ill people to avoid therapy, convinced society was crazy and they were the real “sane” ones. The very weird and insistent focus on children’s “sexuality” led the Green Party, in the early 1980s, to briefly embrace pedophilia (g) as just another liberation movement like gay or women’s rights. This turned out to be a disaster on every level: Creepy-looking men were invited to participate in “working groups” to formulate policies which would grant them access to children. Several Green and left politicians got in trouble for violence during demonstrations before they settled down in the late 1980s.

Worst of all, everyone smelled quite ripe, since daily bathing was considered a bourgeois compulsion to profit Big Soap and “natural human scents” were signs of honesty.

I’ll post a few more excerpts from this pamphlet as time permits. Join me as I explore the dogmas and delusions of the years of lead!

Time for a Bike-Theft Crackdown

Yesterday I visited friends in Cologne and my bicycle broke down on the way without warning (the left pedal froze up). So I decided to park the bike near the Cologne Central Station so I could take a train to my destination. I was running late, so I didn’t have time to figure out how to use the ‘official’ Radstation bike parking, which is indoors. I parked my ride in a legal, official bike-parking stand next to the bus station and taxi rank, and went about my business, with a feeling of unease, since my bike was a pretty valuable Bulls Cross RS 1. Nevertheless, I reassured myself that at least the bike was in a highly-trafficked area. I looked around for video surveillance, but saw none.

When I got back a few hours later, the bike was gone, of course. Bike theft is endemic in Germany, so it wasn’t a stunning surprise, but it still makes one’s blood boil. I have dreams of finding someone riding the bike, tearing them off my precious steed, and inflicting exquisite tortures on them. But the bike’s almost certainly in the back of some truck, halfway to Latvia by now.

Fortunately, Germany’s crack police agencies have a sophisticated and well-funded system for recapturing stolen bikes called “BikeFinder 3.0”, so I’ll surely get it back in a few weeks. Just kidding! The chance of recovering a stolen bike in Germany hovers just over 0% (g). Once your bike’s gone, it’s gone, baby. German cops have much bigger fish to fry — in the 2000s, state and federal governments started slashing police budgets, anticipating a continuing decrease in crime caused by an aging society. Then, starting in 2015, federal politicians decided to allow almost a million young males from the most unstable parts of the globe into Germany without any background checks. The rest, as they say, is history (German prisons now have the highest proportion of foreign-born inmates in history (g)).

Endemic bike theft represents a larger policy failure. Germany wants to meet climate goals and reduce pollution by encouraging people to ride trains and bikes. But they’re simultaneously allowing trains and bikes to become ever more inefficient and risky. The German national train system, Deutsche Bahn, has been spiraling into crisis for years owing to relentless budget-cutting. On-time performance has decreased year after year even as ticket prices rise. Security on trains has also deteriorated, with attacks on train personnel sharply increasing (g) and many local train companies introducing police-like bodycams (g). After the first unpleasant incident on a late train, you might just chalk it up to chance. But after the 10th, or 20th, you will decide that investing in a car now makes sense.

German cities have created an increasing number of bike paths and bike infrastructure, but what good are those when you can’t park your bike safely, and have zero chance of recovering it after theft? If the chance of your bike being (1) stolen and (2) never recovered is more than negligible, and if you need ever-more expensive and inconvenient devices to prevent theft, the attractiveness of bicycles as a form of transport slowly erodes. And you’ll think longer about buying a car. After all, it’s getting harder and harder to steal cars.

German politicians don’t seem to perceive the links between safety and security and transportation choices. One sign of this is the embittered resistance to video surveillance. Video cameras are pretty much ubiquitous in private spaces in Germany because it’s cheap and it works. But when it comes to installing video surveillance in public areas, some left/Green politicians still trundle out antique arguments about Orwellian privacy loss and Stasi spying. It never seems to enter their minds that the trivial loss of privacy caused by your image being captured for a few fleeting seconds might be outweighed by the documented proof that video surveillance reduces crime and disorder and increases the reliability and success of criminal prosecutions.

There will never be 100% security against bike thefts, but it should be easily manageable to provide security for an open, public bike parking structure on public property with 100 bikes attached to it, like the one I used. Point some cameras at it, have someone actually looking at those cameras, and post large notices to announce the fact that it’s under camera surveillance. Even better, add an armed cop to patrol the public bike-parking areas every 30 minutes or so, on the lookout for suspicious behavior.

And right about now, with the loss fresh in my mind, I would be fine with giving that cop the right to beat bike thieves to death on the spot, and then hang their lifeless, flayed corpses on a nearby gibbet.

You won’t stop every bike theft, but you can at least offer ordinary citizens the reassurance that if they park a bike at a large open bike-parking lot near a main train station, it will be there when they get back. Shouldn’t that be the least we expect for the taxes we pay?

How ‘Fucked’ are Germans?

An editor’s website advises Germans not to use the word ‘fuck’ in professional settings:

A lot of Germans are surprised to find out that Brits and Americans can be rather prudish when it comes to using swear words. After all, in TV and movies, they hear the F word all the time so they don’t realise that in everyday life in the UK and the USA, swearwords can be quite controversial.

When I first came to Germany, I was astonished how many people swore, even in business situations and in front of children. Even children in Kindergarten were told so say, “Armeisenscheiße!” instead of saying, “Cheese!”, when getting their photograph taken.

This is sort of true, sort of not. Germans will often use the English word ‘fuck’ in all sorts of situations — both in Germany and France, it’s often used to express dismay at a minor catastrophe: dropping an ice-cream cone, or stubbing a toe against a piece of furniture, getting shot. And then there was the notorious ‘Fuck the Diet‘ (in English) ad slogan by a German food company.

Many Germans simply don’t understand quite how rude this word is in English. One handy guide is to tell them that it’s as rude in English as the word ficken (“to fuck”) is in German, which is very rude indeed. Why they wouldn’t have understood this from the beginning is an interesting question. My guess is that it comes from watching American movies and TV shows, where characters say “fuck” far more than ordinary Americans do in real life:

On the other hand, the German law students I used to teach nearly jumped out of their skins the first time I dropped an ‘f-bomb’ on them. German law students, bless their prim little hearts, are old-school haute bourgeoisie. Think wooden toys, recorder lessons, set mealtimes, and choir practice.

I didn’t do it for effect — not at first. I just naturally sometimes say ‘fuck’, don’t we all? Most of my law professors dropped an effy once in a while, although of course they didn’t make a habit of it.

Eventually, I confess, I started dropping f-bombs just for the fun of it. They never failed to elicit a few gasps and chuckles. To prepare my students, I decided to play an educational recording for them about the word ‘fuck’ in English:

This really helped cross the cultural bridge!

‘New Metallurgists’ at the Julia Stoschek Collection

One of the many advantages of life in one of the world’s most cultured cities is that, in addition to the ‘official’ public museums and galleries run by the city, there are dozens of exquisitely-run, professional-standard small private museums and galleries to explore.

When Julia Stoschek inherited millions from her family’s auto-parts business, she did what many wealthy Germans do: she began collecting art, focusing on contemporary video and installation art — or, as the promotional material for the collection puts it, “time-based” art. By all accounts, she’s a thoughtful and dedicated connoisseur (or is it connoisseuse?).

Just over ten years ago, she converted a former factory built in 1907 (g) in the tony suburb of Oberkassel to house her collection, with a nod to Beuys at the entrance.

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Oberkassel, with typical Gründerzeit townhouses and a signature Düsseldorf gas lamp

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You’re missing an ‘e’ there, but we forgive you ‘cuz you art good

The Julia Stoschek Collection is open to the public for free every Sunday. It has a theater in the basement for showing art films and films about art, and several exhibition floors designed for video installations. Some of the rooms are open, others are closed inside glass walls to limit sonic bleedover and enable better concentration. This means views within the museum offer layered reflections of several different pieces at once:

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The current exhibition is ‘New Metallurgists’, featuring recent works by Chinese artists.

The reference to metallurgy is derived from some bit of Deleuze/Guattari foofaraw which need not detain us further.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m rarely impressed by contemporary Chinese art. Too often, it combines an obligatory shout-out to China’s Rich Cultural Heritage™ with a cheeky reference to contemporary ‘social issues’. Yang Yongliang‘s traditional landscapes speckled with building cranes and half-finished housing developments, for instance, or basically anything by Ai Weiwei. Snarky juxtaposition only takes me so far. Maybe it’s the German in me, but art doesn’t get its hooks into me unless it has a seam of the ineffable/oneiric/eerily sublime buried in it somewhere.

Some of pieces in ‘New Metallurgists’ don’t get far beyond the snarky juxtaposition, for instance a piece tracking the many interim owners of a mid-sized airplane scattered about the globe, or an three-part video display tracking hundreds of players in a World of Warcraft game.

Other pieces were less on the nose. Fang Di was represented by three cheeky, trippy works the length and style of music videos, the most interesting of which was Triumph in the Skies, in which three cyborg flight attendants with creamy, soft plastic sex-doll faces cavort in a sort of post-apocalyptic cave bar.

Warm Spell by Shen Xin is a 35 minute long (many of the works are around this length) exploration of a Thai tourist resort, stripped of all conventional narrative. The effects of mass tourism are hinted at, but the film is mostly an moistly atmospheric, meandering, hypnotic exploration of jungle, sea, and people working. There is a bit of narration, in broken English and Thai, by a native, some of which is translated, some of which isn’t. Other pieces that caught my eye were the 9-minute Ecdysiast Molt (what a title!) by Yao Quingmei, an impossible-to-categorize work in which an amateur choir sings and recites odd bits of philosophy and song while a traffic cop seems to guide an ecdysiast (striptease artist, that is) through her performance.

And then there were two pieces by Wang Tuo, the most interesting being Smoke and Fire, which juxtaposes an elliptical portrayal of a migrant worker’s revenge killing filmed in color with grainy black-and-white interludes depicting fragments of Chinese revenge and ghost stories. It all hangs together, and falls apart, in an agreeably dreamlike way.

Overall many sharp, provocative pieces in an interesting space. It seems churlish to complain about a free museum, but the bare benches in many of the rooms were too uncomfortable to sit on for the longer pieces, and the headphones were too loud, although that might have been the artists’ specification.

German Small Talk: NO NAMES

This isn’t bad. Other acceptable topics for German small talk include insurance, heating and energy costs, insurance, restaurants that have opened or closed nearby, insurance, local crime, insurance, insurance, the most recent episode of Tatort, insurance, sales and discounts, insurance, and insurance.

But there’s one pitfall I must warn you about.

Let’s say you’re trying to fit in with your German colleagues, and you begin with this gambit: “I was talking to Ulrike, my insurance agent, the other day, and she told me I could get a better rate on my retirement insurance by switching to Rate Group Norm Cluster 25/A4/36, which will entitle me to a matching government subsidy of €-.00032 on every Euro I contribute. That will really add up over 25 years!”

Congratulations, you’ve done four things right:

First, you’ve steered the conversation to insurance, a subject on which every German, from a captain of industry to the most humble currywurst chef, can chunter on about for hours. Literally hours — I have the scars to prove it.

Second, you mentioned a bargain. Germans love bargains. Among the high points of German lives are childbirth and finding a “perfectly good” vacuum cleaner for “only €24.99” at a local discounter which is “just as good as the big name-brands” but “costs half as much because they [i.e. the Golden Miracle Light Manufactures Corp., 23 山羊肛門 Road, Shantian] don’t bother with advertisements or in-store displays or celebrity endorsements or any of that fooferaw and just focus on making a solid product. If only our German firms would… [insert 4 minutes of general bitching here]”.

Third, you mentioned retirement. The specter of retirement haunts the average middle-class German like Nemesis. I have met Germans who switched from jobs they liked to a jobs they hated solely because the retirement bennies were better. Combining insurance and retirement is like injecting a speedball directly into the conversational centers of the middle-class German brain.

Fourth, you’re using a state subsidy. Germany packs tiny little subsidies from Father State state into every nook and cranny of society. You already played the role of savvy citizen in voting for these perks; now it’s time to play the role of savvy consumer in taking advantage of them.

So you did much right. But you made one mistake, which every German you talked to will note. You used a name. Now you might think this is a courteous thing to do — you’re trying to humanize an insurance agent, as difficult as that may seem. She’s not just another cog in the juggernaut that is the German insurance industry, she’s a person. She’s Ulrike.

But to a German, what you have just done is a faux pas. Ever read 19th or 18th century novels in which one of the main characters is identified only as the Baron of W_____, and all the letters are dated March 19, 18__? That is a trace of a long-standing cultural pattern of discretion. You don’t just casually identify absent third parties in conversation without their permission. What it Ulrike is ashamed of being an insurance agent? What if she’s never told her parents about her choice? What if Ulrike’s marriage is hanging by a thread because of her insurance-selling addiction, and it gets back to her husband that she sneaked into an insurance company’s office to fuel her shameful obsession?

Congratulations! You just ruined Ulrike’s life. I hope you’re happy.

One trick that helps foreigners maintain a proper level of conversational discretion is to imagine that it’s East Germany, and you’re talking about your dissident friends in an apartment you know is bugged. Now, this will make conversations pretty hard to follow. At some point, you may have to say things like: “While I was talking to my insurance agent, another insurance agent came in an introduced himself, and my insurance agent talked to that insurance agent until their boss came in, and invited us all to lunch. So I had lunch with my insurance agent, another insurance agent, and their boss.” This would have been a lot easier and less bureaucratic-sounding if you’d actually given these humans names. But this stilted syntax is, to most Germans, a reasonable price to pay to preserve everyone’s plausible deniability.

So, I have taken the video made by Rache — this human female and added some extra depth to it. You’re welcome!

You’ll Never Forget the Flavor Explosion of this Sizzling Wurst!

The First German Bratwurst Museum (g) in Holzhausen, Thuringia is so popular it’s outgrown its present location. The nearby town of Mühlhausen invited the wurst-lovers to relocate to a former military base of the East German army on the outskirts of town. The area is now abandoned and overgrown. It seemed like a perfect match, and the museum began drawing up plans.

But then came a hitch. Turns out that before it was an East German military base, the area was an “satellite camp” (g) of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Satellite camps hosted forced-labor detachments transferred to live and work on location in factories or quarries.

Perhaps this wouldn’t have been a problem if the museum were a thoughtful, sober meditation on the history of the sizzling pork tubes. But no. The planned museum features a “bratwurst cannon”, a bratwurst song contest, a golden pig and — best of all, a “walk-in bratwurst”. This is a photo from inside the current “world’s largest walk-in bratwurst”:

Festive, no?

Alas, the plans for a sausage museum on a former slave-labor camp did not go down well in Germany, and it’s probably not going to happen. I personally would have suggested combining the two purposes, but then again, not all of my ideas are good ones.