Blame-Shifting Slang, or ‘The Anglo-Saxons Made Me Do It!’

Got something you’re ashamed of as a nation? Blame it on foreigners! Syphilis is the most common example: The English call it (if memory serves) the French pox, the French call it les pustules anglaises, the Russians call it the ‘Albanian abomination’, Canadians call it ‘Yankee palsy’, etc.

Anything to do with organized crime, violence, or police brutality gets blamed on the Anglo-Saxons, especially the Americans. American movies have been shocking everyone with their over-the-top violence all the way back to Scarface (1932 and 1983) and Little Caesar.

In both Germany and France, you can read about the “American third-degree tactics” when cops browbeat suspects into confessing (And of course Americans and Brits return the compliment by denouncing “Gestapo tactics”.). In the 1920s and 30s, papers all across the world denounced “Chicago-style gangsterism”. The list goes on and on.

I just found another example. I’ve been reading a lot of James Ellroy lately (recommended), and decided to do a bit of research on brass knuckles, which various men are constantly punching other men with in Ellroy’s famously gore-gushing, testosterone-tainted crime epics. Wikipedia tells me:

“In Brazil, brass knuckles are legal and freely sold. They are called ‘Soco Inglês,’ which means ‘English Punch.’…The French term is ‘poing américain’, which literally means ‘American fist’.

So there you have it: We Brazilians and French were once peaceable and civilized peoples, incapable of violence when left to our own devices. And then came the insidious Anglo-Saxon plague of brass knuckles….

Zombie Institutions and Zombies in Institutions

A reporter for the Berlin Tagesspiegel visits (g) an evangelical Christian church in Berlin, where the congregation is young, hip, friendly, and enthusiastic. The big mainstream established churches in Germany, Catholic and Protestant, have been hemorrhaging members, but the evangelical churches are growing, even without the official status and tax subsidies the big churches get.

The big churches are zombie institutions — they still exist, even though their primary purpose has nearly disappeared. They still do secondary stuff like run hospitals and schools, but only a small fraction of Germans use them for regularly gathering to celebrate the Christian faith. Germany has a lot of these zombie (or near-zombie) institutions, some huge, some as tiny as a single job. Examples: TV license collecting bureaucracies, various commissions which produce reports and recommendations nobody will ever read, dead-weight older professors and teachers and civil servants who have stopped showing up, or are on various kinds of permanent sick leave.

Part of this is down to Germans. Germans on average, are conservative and tradition-oriented, so they will keep doing stuff that previous generations did, even if it no longer serves much of a purpose. (This is why you still see fax numbers everywhere). Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in official state churches preach to near-empty churches in German cities, but they are government employees with great job security and benefits. You basically can’t fire them.

And they don’t want to quit. In many other countries, people might give up jobs like this, since every workday means being confronted with the increasing futility of your profession. Why not switch to something more fulfilling — some thing people actually want you to do? Because that’s not how most Germans think. Most Germans still show up to do jobs which have become largely meaningless (most of which are in the public sector, of course). Who cares if your job makes no sense in the larger scheme of things? Who cares if nobody really cares about what you do or how you do it? Your psyche doesn’t require you to actually care about something larger than yourself or transform your life into a kick-ass mission to change the world. It only requires that you perform certain assigned duties, in accordance with contractual stipulations. And by God, you’re gonna do that.

The other reason is institutional stickiness. Say you have a 61-year-old schoolteacher, Elfriede, who’s burned out. She starts showing up only a few times a week, and then began daisy-chaining various kinds of sick leave, disability leave, and vacation to the point that she never shows up for weeks, or even months, at a time. (Very much doable if you’re clever).

Now the rest of the staff is faced with a dilemma. Sure, you can fire Elfriede, but you know that as soon as she notices that process starting, she’ll wake up from her magical slumber, hire a lawyer, and fight. She doesn’t want to do her job, but she also doesn’t want to lose it. You may be able to finally fire her, after a 12-to-18 month process, minimum. But you’re still less than halfway done. Now, you’ll need to go through the complex rigmarole of hiring someone new: publishing job announcements, holding interminable meetings to discuss qualifications, commissioning the disability and gender equity ombudsmen to issue reports, holding interviews, negotiating about office space and funding for assistants, etc.

It’s all a huge hassle. Why not just keep her on the payroll until she ages out at 65? It’s only four years, and replacing a retiring employee is easier than firing someone. And during the interminable meetings held to discuss what to do about Elfriede, something magical happens: Other professors and staff realize, quietly, to themselves: “Holy crud, she’s going to get away with it. Which means I can too, when I get to be 61 or 62. That means three or four extra years of de facto retirement, while I’m still accruing pension benefits.”

Does this mean they’ll all head for the exits at 61? No, these are Germans, after all. 80% of them will keep working, and many will keep helping for free even after their official retirement. But maybe 20% of the most dissatisfied and bored fifty-something profs intend to pull an Elfriede. And 30% of the fifty-something profs would at least like to keep that option open. So they vote to keep Elfriede on the payroll, to set a precedent they can follow later.

Germans will keep showing up for jobs that they find meaningless, which keeps zombie institutions alive. And if they stop showing up, German law makes it prohibitively complex and expensive to fire them, which keeps zombies within institutions alive.

The Brand-New Neanderland Hiking Trail

The German love of hiking and nature paired with German efficiency and organization is a formidable combination.

The Neanderland Hiking Trail (NeanderlandSTEIG) is a 240-km loop of hiking trails encircling the city of Mettman and the Neander Valley area, all of which is all east-northeast of Düsseldorf. It was opened only in 2014, which means all the signage is brand-new (and well-thought-out). It has its own thorough, informative website (apparently only in German so far). The trail is divided into 17 different sections, each with its own GPS map, and there’s even an app, which appears to have at least some English features.

neanderlandSTEIG wanderkarte

The way is marked by small red badges affixed to (or painted onto) trees, poles, or signs along the way, so you rarely have to consult a map to make sure you haven’t lost the plot. Almost all of it is within forests and pastures, sometimes on broad paths, sometimes on narrow, almost-overgrown single-track. The path enters cities only at the beginnings and ends of each of the 17 stages, to allow you to catch a bus or a train back home.

What the path shows is how much nature there is in this part of Germany. This might come as a surprise, since the Rhein-Ruhr region is the most densely-settled area in all of Europe. However, the key word is densely: there’s a clear demarcation between compact, circumscribed built-up areas and forests and pastureland. If you don’t allow sprawling suburbs to develop, you can pack a lot of people into a small area, and leave the rest for farming and nature.

I’m doing the trail on my cross bike, which usually works out pretty well. Especially in the northeast portions, there are lots of hills, but they’re not particularly brutal. There are a few gnarly passages, with tons of tree roots and undergrowth, so sometime you just have to portage the bike. But by and large, the trail is quite ride-able, and a skilled mountain-biker could probably do all of it. So far, I’ve only ridden three sections of the trail in full, and each has been memorable. I plan to assault the rest of it over the coming months. Here’s a picture gallery (taken during Stages 4, near Velbert, and 12, in South Düsseldorf) which helps explain why:


Dorm-Room Bullshit Sessions, Lovingly Filmed

Above is a trailer for a German movie, ‘303’ (link here if the embed doesn’t work). The English-language description is:

When biology student Jule finds out she’s pregnant, she sets out for Portugal to find her boyfriend Alex, who works on an organic commune there. Traveling in a Mercedes ‘303’ bus, she picks up hitchhiker Jan at a gas station outside Berlin, who’s traveling to a Spanish fishing village to tray [sic] and find his biological father. They’re both passionate and not very diplomatic, very interested in world affairs and philosophy, and while they’re “on the road”, they have impassioned and deep conversations about capitalism, human nature, love and relationships and the meaning of life. They trip becomes an emotional roller coaster, which finds them falling in love with each other? [sic]

Middle-class kids who inexplicably have months of free time on their hands conversing earnestly about “capitalism” and “the meaning of life”?

Alas, my pressing schedule will not afford me time to see this film.

The Transcultural Overton Window Displacement (TOWID) on Race

Here is a tweet from an editor at the FAZ, a German center-right newspaper:

Responding to a tweet that mocked “white men” for being offended at this label, the author tweets: “When old white males feel themselves targeted by disparaging remarks targeted at ‘old white men’, this supposedly makes them self-absorbed morons? It’s pretty amazing how many people are willing to justify discrimination when it targets the ‘right’ people.” The tweeter is a legal journalist with centrist, perhaps slightly right-of-center views.

This illustrates an interesting cultural divide between Germany (and, I suspect, many other European countries), and the US. In Germany, mockery of “white” people certainly does happen — the tweet I cited above responds to exactly this.

However, there is almost always a pushback against the use of “white”, or “white man”, or “heterosexual white man” as a dismissive epithet. Someone will virtually always respond by saying that it’s hypocritical to attack white people for gratuitously identifying someone’s race or gender to dismiss their arguments. Nobody in their right mind, these critics say, would think of dismissing a female columnist’s opinion by saying “That’s women for you — always letting emotions cloud their judgment”, or “Of course this Turkish guy wants to expand welfare benefits — typical!” So why is it any more acceptable to dismiss a white male’s opinion just because of his gender and skin color? To mock white people for their skin color is no better or worse than mocking black people for theirs. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who the target is.

The important thing is that in Germany, this pushback comes not just from the right, but also from the center, and even sometimes the center-left. In the mainstream press, you almost never see a headline or an opinion piece singling out “white” people in a mocking, supercilious tone — and if you do, the response is swift.

Compare this to America. In America, there is a widespread conviction among college-educated people that discrimination can only be genuine when powerful majority groups practice it. When I went to college, in the late 1980s, it was generally assumed that there could be “no such thing” as discrimination or racism against white people, since they were powerful and dominant. To favor a “color-blind” society was seen as a mark of right-wing conservatism — it was a code for undoing affirmative action (hiring preferences for minorities) and entrenching the unfair privileges white people enjoyed from centuries of racism and slavery.

The basic idea is that minorities groups are knowingly given a pass for expressions of racial bias which would be unacceptable among white people. There’s no such thing as “reverse racism” against white people. Here’s one statement of this idea:

“Things like BET, Black Girls Rock or Black History Month are not reverse racist against white people,” Zeba Blay, a Huffington Post Black Voices writer, illustrates in a video. “Because remember, in a society where white is seen as the default race, all history is white history. But racism isn’t just someone feeling superior to another race and then discriminating against them.”

Racism and prejudice aren’t quite the same thing. Racism, rather, is best known as a system in which a racial majority is able to enforce its power and privilege over another race through political, economic and institutional means. Therefore racism can be described as “prejudice plus power,” as the two work together to create the system of inequality.

Note how the author doesn’t say this definition of racism is his opinion, he claims it’s just a fact, like the sky being blue.

I’ll call this idea “racism is always contextual” (RIAC). Or as Lenin said, the question of Who (is doing what to) Whom. RIAC thinking has not only survived to this day, it’s gotten even more deeply entrenched. As a recent analysis pointed out, white American liberals are getting “way more liberal on identity issues”.  You now see headlines mocking white people, or males, almost every week in mainstream(ish) news sources such as the New York Times and Washington Post. A few examples: The Post famously ran an opinion piece straightforwardly called: “Why Can’t We Hate Men?

So men, if you really are #WithUs and would like us to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from, start with this: Lean out so we can actually just stand up without being beaten down. Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power.

Of course this editorial was met with “a deluge of criticism“. But that’s not the point — the point was that it ran in the first place. Nobody at the Post apparently thought, even for a second, whether they would run a similar piece entitled “Why Can’t We Hate Jews” or “Why Can’t We Hate Blacks”. Because, to them, RIAC means there is an obvious distinction between hating men (a point of view which you may disagree with or find controversial, but which deserves to be aired) and hating these other groups (a point of view no sane or decent person could possibly hold, and which it is wrong to disseminate).

Another example: the New York Times published a piece by a black professor in which he said he would discourage his children from befriending white people:

I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible. When they ask, I will teach my sons that their beautiful hue is a fault line. Spare me platitudes of how we are all the same on the inside. I first have to keep my boys safe, and so I will teach them before the world shows them this particular brand of rending, violent, often fatal betrayal.

This piece sparked outrage from many readers. But once again, it was published in the New York Times, which obviously thought it a respectable opinion worthy of being broadcast to millions.

I doubt any mainstream German newspaper would have published either of these pieces, although the left-green taz has come close once, and had to defend itself by pointing out that the opinion piece was tongue-in-cheek (g). If you had submitted either piece to a more mainstream German newspaper, it would have encountered a buzz-saw of resistance.

So, to sum up: The RIAC idea, in Germany, is confined to the left. If you endorse RIAC in Germany, you will automatically be pigeonholed as left-wing. If you reject RIAC in the USA, you will automatically be pigeonholed as right-wing.

Here’s my point in terms of the Overton window:

Overton Window

You could definitely put France in the same position as Germany. I call this phenomenon the Transcultural Overton Window Displacement, TOWID™ for short.

I don’t have any particular explanation ready to hand for this (nor am I expressing any opinion on who’s “right” on the issue), I just find it interesting. It also creates amusing cross-cultural misunderstandings: I have personally witnessed Germans mistaking a centrist American for a left-wing extremist, and Americans mistaking a centrist German for a right-wing extremist, based on this TOWID.

Others examples include a right to own guns (Germany: Radical; USA: Popular/Sensible); universal health care (Germany: Policy; USA: still just barely Radical, but moving rapidly toward more acceptance); popular referendums (Germany: Radical; USA: Policy). There are undoubtedly many more, but I need to get back to work. Feel free to add some in comments!

UPDATE: Via Twitter, here are some thoughtful tweets composed by Sarah Jeong, who just joined the New York Times editorial board:


The Viking Claw

According to a 2001 study, Dupuytren’s Contracture is:

“…an ancient affliction of unknown origin. It is defined by Dorland as shortening, thickening, and fibrosis of the palmar fascia producing a flexion deformity of a finger.”

This is what an advanced case looks like:

Bildergebnis für dupuytren's contracture

I have this in my right hand, although nowhere near as bad as this guy; one of my fingers just bends a little. It’s painless. It will get progressively worse, and one day I’ll need surgery, but for now, it’s just a slight nuisance.

What I did not know until yesterday was that Dupuytren’s contracture seems to be a genetic sign of Viking or Scandinavian heritage:

In his 1963 book, the Australian hand surgeon John Hueston wrote, “Dupuytren’s contracture is virtually confined to people of European descent” (). Its highest incidence is recorded in Iceland. As expected, the incidence is also high in Scandinavia: In a Norwegian study of 15,950 citizens, DD was present in 10.5% of men and in 3.2% of women (). In a large 1962 review of published figures, P. F. Early arrayed the countries of European stock in order of incidence of DD: Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. He also commented that the incidence in Australia, Canada, England, and Wales was similar since their populations are of basically English stock, which may itself represent a diluted strain of Danish (Viking) stock (). The incidence in Sweden is matched in Edinburg. Two different studies by James and Ling in Scotland showed such a high family incidence that DD was described as inherited through a single autosomal-dominant gene of variable penetrance ().

In a study in the French port of Toulon, 60% of the general population had brown eyes and 40% had blue eyes, but 80% of inhabitants with DD had blue eyes. The latter individuals were traced to the families of Breton and Norman sailors in the city’s history ().

DD is relatively uncommon in Spain, Greece, and Italy, except for Greece and Italy’s northern Adriatic Coast, which was penetrated by a northern genetic invasion during the Austro- Hungarian Empire.

I first learned of this yesterday, when a relative visiting a Viking museum in Norway sent me a photo in which this link was noted. The text next to the display had almost a note of pride, as in: Look how far we got despite our crippled, claw-like hands!

Kevin Drum Notices the Insanity

Kevin Drum, one of my favorite bloggers (and a lefty, nota bene Dr. B), also picked up on the Nation poempocalypse:

I don’t have the mind of a poet, so I have to take some guesses here. I suppose the ableist language is the word “crippled”—or perhaps the suggestion that people on the street might occasionally fake being a little bit disabled. The reference to “blackface” must be the black dialect used by the homeless narrator, which is problematic because:

This guy is whiter than me! I hope he’s learned his lesson. He says of the black dialect being interpreted as blackface that he “did not foresee this reading of the poem.” How the hell did he not foresee that in this hypersensitive age of cultural appropriation and racial siloing? Then again, neither of the poetry editors foresaw it either. Nor, apparently, did anyone else who saw this poem before it was published. And all of them solid lefties at The Nation! That’s surprising, isn’t it?

Luckily, Twitter saw it loud and clear. All hail Twitter, our new supreme arbiter of poetic insight and interpretive use of narrative language.

Fortunately, the phenomenon of people being forced to read groveling confessions at show trials staged by autocrats is no more.

Now they’re typed by writers who have run afoul of twitter mobs:

Anders is obviously a high-minded progressive, but that didn’t help him any more than Bukharin’s fervent Marxism did. Before you set pen to paper, you are apparently now obliged to imagine a solemn tribunal composed of the most hypersensitive and humorless members of all minority groups, and ensure that not a word you write will offend any of them.

There are people who spend all day, every day trying to bring this sort of thing to Germany. Let’s stop them.

This Peculiar Age, or: When Poems Kill

The Nation is an American magazine of left-wing politics and culture founded in 1865. It is the longest continuously-published weekly magazine in the US.

One day in the future, both this poem and the reaction to it will be seen as a curious example of a very strange era (and a fallow period) in American politics and culture:

Editor’s note: On July 24, 2018, The Nation and its poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, made this statement about the poem below, which contains disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities:

As poetry editors, we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received. We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem “How-To.”  We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem. We recognize that we must now earn your trust back.  Some of our readers have asked what we were thinking. When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.

We are currently revising our process for solicited and unsolicited submissions. But more importantly,  we are listening, and we are working. We are grateful for the insightful critiques we have heard, but we know that the onus of change is on us, and we take that responsibility seriously. In the end, this decision means that we need to step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors.

* * *

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

See no Evil, Hear no Evil

French political elites cling to a threadbare ideological framework in which ethnic differences do not matter in the single glorious melting-pot of the Grande Nation. Because they may not matter. Because they dare not matter!

Some of those groups haven’t gotten the message, as shown by the tendency of French Muslims to engage in physical attacks against French Jews at much higher rates than other groups. The New York Times has a surprisingly blunt article about the phenomenon today:

French leaders fear pitting one side against the other, or even acknowledging that a Muslim-versus-Jew dynamic exists. To do so would violate a central tenet of France — that people are not categorized by race or religion, only as fellow French citizens, equal before the law.

“We are all citizens of the republic, one and indivisible. But this doesn’t correspond to reality,” said a pollster, Jérôme Fourquet, who along with a colleague, Sylvain Manternach, wrote a recent book, “Next Year in Jerusalem, French Jews and anti-Semitism,” published by the respected Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a think tank associated with the Socialist Party.

“All the politicians speak of living together,” Mr. Fourquet said. “And yet, instead, we have de facto groupings based on culture and community. Yet to recognize this is to recognize the failure or breakdown of the French model.”

Gunther Jikeli, a German historian at Indiana University who conducted a meticulous study of Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe, called the phenomenon “blindingly obvious” in a recent opinion piece in the newspaper Le Monde.

In 16 surveys conducted over the last 12 years in Europe, “anti-Semitism is significantly higher among Muslims than among non-Muslims,” Mr. Jikeli wrote.

“There is a kind of norm of anti-Semitism, of viewing Jews negatively,” he said in an interview.

This article nicely illustrates the Other People’s Indians phenomenon: The New York Times immediately flames into outrage if anyone points to ethnic patterns in crime in America. But it’s fine to point out those patterns in other countries.

However, it’s also a nice illustration of another reality of European governance: the tendency to intentionally fail to keep certain types of statistics.

The date, 2011. The scene: An office in the French Ministry of Interior. Jean-Georges Marie Beauvais de Courgette, Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of the Statistical Service, begins a memorandum: “There are some troubling…patterns…shall we say, in the evidence we collect concerning who is engaging in anti-Semitic harassment and attacks in France. Certain…discrepancies are become clearer, which relate to certain…socially sensitive communities.”

His colleagues immediately swing into action:

In 2011, the French government stopped categorizing those deemed responsible for anti-Semitic acts, making it more difficult to trace the origins.

When you hear a Western European talking head or government official deny the existence of a problem by saying there is “no evidence” for it, this usually means the government has intentionally decided not to collect the evidence.

Why German Movies Disappoint Again and Again

A few days ago I watched ‘Die Habenichtse’ (‘The Have-nots’), a German movie from 2016, based on an award-winning 2006 novel of the same name.

The plot revolves around Isabelle, a thirtysomething graphic designer, and her romance with and marriage to Jakob, a thirtysomething lawyer. It takes place in both Germany and the UK.

Julia Jentsch was good in the main role, she’s a fine actress. Overall, though the movie was quite dull.

There are two levels to its dullness: one specific to this movie and script, and a much more general kind of dullness which afflicts most movies made within the German public film-subsidy system, as this one was.

Since I think this movie’s a good example of the problems with German movies, I thought I’d take it as an exemplar.

First, a digression. At this point, I don’t think many people would challenge the statement that there’s something wrong with the German movie business. Germany is a large, prosperous, well-educated society. It should be a major player in international cinema. But it punches far below its weight. German movies connect with foreign audiences so rarely that it’s a big story when they do. This is not how it should be: a country with this much talent and funding should produce at least 3-4 German-language movies every year which catch the eye of higher-end international audiences, as is the case for France and Japan, to say nothing of the UK. (German TV series, on the other hand, are steadily improving.)

Instead, Germany produces maybe one movie like this per year, and that’s counting very generously. And even the movies which attract international attention rarely attract international enthusiasm, much less a cult following. The majority of German-language movies produced with film subsidies show to German-only audiences of a couple thousand people, then slide silently into obscurity. German culture-types are generally aware of this underperformance, and respond either with acute analyses (g) or defensive justifications.

Now let me point out the problems with Die Habenichtse.

  1. The characters never do anything interesting. Isabelle is a graphic designer, but she doesn’t burn with creative energy. She never addresses her work or sources of inspiration. She never says or does anything particularly interesting. The same is true of Jakob the lawyer, although he has a minor nervous breakdown during the movie. A very dull nervous breakdown, which is only hinted at.
  2. The main characters never say anything interesting. The German characters are neither witty nor insightful nor profound. They spend most of the time silently moping, even when they’re together. There is no repartee, no in-jokes, no chemistry, no sardonic commentary (except for one pretty good joke*). Their arguments are just ordinary spats and disagreements.
  3. I didn’t care what happened to them. Which is basically a consequence of #1 and #2, plus the fact that the characters weren’t appealing. They weren’t revolting, either. They were just blah.
  4. The movie actually seemed allergic to anything interesting. Jakob the lawyer works for a law firm which represents the heirs of Holocaust survivors trying to reclaim property in East Germany. Wow! That really does sound interesting, doesn’t it? But perhaps only 10% of the screenplay relates to this work, and you are never shown any interesting details. Nor is there any exploration of the various ethical dilemmas the work raises. The characters hint at these things, but then the thread is dropped, and the story returns to the dull relationship between Jakob and Isabelle. I wanted to grab the director by the lapels and say: “Jesus Christ, can’t you recognize drama, conflict, and moral complexity when you see it? No, don’t drag the script back to Jakob and Isabelle’s relationship! I don’t care about that! Neither does anyone else!” The same thing goes for Isabelle’s art. Instead of learning what drove her to become an artist, how she cultivated her talent, or what her aspirations are, we see her boring fights with her partner.
  5. The movie was shot in black-and-white for no discernible reason. The action is set in 2001 and 2003 in Berlin and London. The cinematography was competent, even good, but not particularly distinctive or ambitious. Nowadays, there are any number of interesting options between color and black-and-white. Unless there’s a very good reason for doing so, shooting a movie in 2016 solely in black-and-white is an affectation.
  6. The only interesting characters in the movie were artists, and even they weren’t that interesting. When an American movie needs a character full of soulful wisdom or magic powers or crazy do-anything spontaneity, it often wheels out a tired trope Spike Lee calls the Magical Negro. Germany has its own equally tired trope: the Krazy Kunstler. He (it’s usually a he), dresses and acts real funny, does whatever the funk he wants, follows his impulses no matter where they lead, and speaks the truths no-one else dares to. (Of course, he lives a comfortably middle-class life, and most of his income comes directly or indirectly from the state or rich patrons, but we will discreetly gloss over that.). Yeah, there’s two of those in this picture, one of them actually named “Ginka”. Ginka!

I asked myself: Why was this movie made? The characters do not come from the working class, which is neglected by most movies. They aren’t charming or funny or perceptive. There is only one intense dramatic confrontation in the movie, which is spurred by an implausible sub-plot involving a drug addict who somehow manages to live in a ₤2000/month townhouse apartment in London.

German art-house movies are beset by one all-encompassing fear: seeming too “Hollywood”. German screenwriters and directors are obsessed with being everything Hollywood is not: authentic, modest, naturalistic, low-key, and oblique. German art-house movies are, therefore, peopled with fairly ordinary-looking people with crooked teeth, who don’t give Sorkin-like canned speeches, who make silly mistakes, who may not be very bright or articulate, who aren’t all that appealing, and who spend most of their time just trying to manage ordinary relationships.

This aesthetic is not totally misguided, by any means, and can be refreshing. The crushing idiocy and ubiquity of superhero movies — in fact, the very existence of superhero movies — is a sign of cultural bankruptcy to all thinking persons. Ordinary stories need to be told. The problem, though, is that German movies tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Movies need not be packed with ridiculous characters and stupid catchphrases and bombastic music and relentless, over-the-top conflict.

But they should be at least somewhat more interesting, unusual and/or entertaining than ordinary life.

What else are they for?

Continue reading “Why German Movies Disappoint Again and Again”