Archive for the ‘Germany’ tag
Every year, along with firecrackers, champagne and pouring molten lead, it has become a tradition in Germany to watch a TV show called Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve. Recorded in a small Hamburg theatre in 1963, the sketch, also known as The 90th Birthday (Der. 90. Geburtstag), has become an integral component of the Silvester schedule and German visual culture. The grammatically incorrect catchphrase of the show ‘same procedure than every year’ has been widely adopted into popular discourse. Shown up to twenty times on various public channels at the height of New Year’s festivities, the sketch has emerged as one of the most watched programs in the history of mass media and culture.
Initially written for the theatre by the British playwright Lauri Wylie in the 1930s, the plot of the 18-minute sketch is strikingly simple. Miss Sophie, an upper-class English lady, has invited her old friends Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and Mr Winterbottom for dinner to celebrate her 90th birthday. However, as the announcer informs the viewer at the beginning of the sketch, Miss Sophie has outlived all her friends by twenty years. It is left to the equally aged butler James to make his way around the table and impersonate each of the guests in turn. The menu is accompanied by a different alcoholic drink served by James, who finds himself raising his glass four times per course. Throughout the sketch, James gets increasingly drunk, slurring his words and repeatedly tripping over the head of a tiger skin. The key to the sketch lies in the repetition of James’ dialogue and movement. In a sense, the sketch is deeply self-referential as not only is James performing the same tasks over and over at the dinner, Miss Sophie too insists on this repetition by celebrating her birthday, year after year, in spite of her friends’ absence. The dramatic tension created by this doubled repetition is further increased with the realization that Dinner for One itself is shown year after year on German television.
But why did this particular TV program became so popular amongst German audiences? The popularity of Dinner for One appears even more unusual since the entire sketch, except for the brief announcement at the beginning, is performed in the English language by English actors. While the live theatre audience, and presumably the TV viewer at home, appears amused by James’ and Miss Sophie’s actions, the four absent figures at the table add a subtly tragic twist to the narrative. In the context of postwar Germany, these four absent figures, all of whom are men, can be read as representing Germany’s troubled past and the many lives lost during World War II. James’ brilliant impersonations brings these characters back to life, and with each time he does so, the theatre audience can be heard breaking into laughter. Particularly Admiral von Schneider raising his glass and saying ‘Skol’ while clicking his feet is almost a comic inversion of the stereotypical Prussian military personnel. The absence of Admiral von Schneider at the dinner table signifies the allegorical death of the unknown soldier from World War II. This reading also fits into the chronology that the announcer sets out at the beginning of the sketch: first screened in 1963, Miss Sophie has outlived her friends by twenty years. In other words, the last of Miss Sophie’s friends passed away in 1943 – in the middle of the war. While in the original sketch performed in British seaside resorts, the playwright Lauri Wylie might have referred to the fallen soldier in World War I, this meaning has changed once removed into a German cultural and historical context.
Dinner for One also offers itself to be read from a postcolonial perspective. For instance, Miss Sophie is served a Mulligatawny soup and the interior decoration of her house, such as the tiger skin, is cluttered with references to the British Empire, or more specifically, a British colonial presence in India. But when Dinner for One was first screened on German television, the British Empire was already crumbling under the debt incurred during the war. There is therefore an element of Schadenfreude when the laughter of the German audience captured in the Hamburg theatre erupts every time the butler James trips over the head of the tiger skin. In the geopolitical context of postwar Europe, James’ clumsiness represents the fall of the British Empire. With the wounds of war barely healed, Dinner for One allows the German audience to wholeheartedly mock both the etiquette and the aspirations of upper-class British society in this study of culture.
Throughout the dinner, the viewer also begins to get the impression that Miss Sophie has once entertained a relationship with each of her male guests. Especially Mr Winterbottom, Miss Sophie points out several times, is a ‘very dear friend’. Miss Sophie’s implied promiscuity is later re-affirmed as she asks James for his services after the dinner. A last ‘thumbs up’ to the audience by James signals that, despite being totally drunk, he is expected to serve one last course in the privacy of Miss Sophie’s bedroom. In the context of New Year’s celebration, the ‘thumbs up’ signifies health, agility, potency and joviality for the new year. But ultimately, it is not the content of the show itself, rather than the context in which it is seen, that is important. The watching of Dinner for One therefore becomes about relationships: ‘Who did you watch the show with last year?’ is the overriding question. And maybe that’s why Dinner for One is so popular in the mass media: because it reminds the viewer that despite a quickly changing world, some things, like the company of relatives and the ritualistic behaviour over the holiday season, are not likely going to change in the new year.
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This is the moment when the main protagonist in the East German film The Architects says goodbye to his wife and daughter who received permission to escape to the West. In the background you see a sign that says ‘Ausreise’, or ‘Emigration’, a word so rarely applicable to the citizens of the closed-off German Democratic Republic. As the director Peter Kahane has explained in an interview, filming the scene was fraught with difficulties because as The Architects was produced in 1989, the borders between East and West Germany were in themselves evaporating. The bizarre encounter between fictional and real events in The Architects is best encapsulated in the moment the daughter leaves her father behind, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands East Germans escape to the West in actuality. The painful breakup of the family becomes the reminder of the traumatic breakup of the Germanies more than four decades earlier.
Director Peter Kahane in interview.
The central plot of the film focuses on the planning of a large housing estate on the outskirts of East Berlin by a young team of idealistic architects. The architects’ disillusionment with the construction of the housing estate can be read as a critique against the repressive state apparatus. The state’s constant meddling with the architects’ plans for the estate therefore becomes a metaphor for the lack of civil liberties in the German Democratic Republic. Considering that The Architects was granted full financial support from the East German funding body for propaganda films (DEFA) as early as 1988, the film is not only surprisingly critical towards the communist regime, but the support of the film itself signifies the collapse of an ideology even in institutions considered loyal to the regime.
The filming for The Architects began in earnest in September 1989, just as the border between East and West Germany began to erode. The constant flow of people to West Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 even threatened the very production of The Architects itself, as the director Peter Kahane feared for losing his production team. Far from merely depicting the dissolution of ideological and geographic borders, The Architects is in itself an active constituent of this collapse in its own right. While it might not be the End of History as postulated by Francis Fukuyama, The Architects does nevertheless cinematically mark the end of a particularly autocratic and stifling version of communism in East Germany. It would become one of the last films ever funded by DEFA, also marking the end of nearly 40 years of propaganda films and visual culture produced for the indoctrination of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic. One of the ironies of The Architects is that as the political events of 1989 unfolded so rapidly, by the time the film came out in spring 1990, the history it depicted was already buried in the past. The Architects, caught up in the collapse of the regime it sought to critique, would eventually flop in the deserted cinemas of a united Germany.
This blog post is an abbreviated version of an extended book chapter titled ‘The Collapse of Ideology in Peter Kahane’s The Architects‘ to be published in the forthcoming collection Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema, 1945-2010 edited by Raita Merivirta, Heta Mulari, Kimmo Ahonen and Rami Mahka.
Let me introduce you to one of the most iconic photographs of post-war Germany: the politician Uwe Barschel found dead in a bathtub in a hotel in Geneva. I was nine years old when this photograph was imprinted in my memory. It was taken by journalists working for Stern magazine as they checked up on Barschel in his hotel room. It is a highly voyeuristic image and one can only assume that the journalists decided to pull back the shower curtain in order to get a better view of Barschel. The strong flashlight of the camera captures every little detail: Barschel lies fully clothed in a bathtub, his body submerged in water, his head leaning towards the side. A few details of the photograph are intriguing: his collar button is opened and his tie is loosened, his hair is wet despite being above water and his wristwatch peaks out from his sleeve. The non-water proof wristwatch would later give an indication of Barschel’s time of death. All these elements further raised the intrigue of what happened to Barschel.
Until this day, the circumstances of Barschel’s death have not been resolved. One line of investigation has been suicide as several drugs have been found in the room and in Barschel’s body. Another theory involves the Isreali secret service Mossad who were weary of Barschel’s knowledge of an arms deal between Isreal and Iran. The mysteriousness of Barschel’s last living moments coupled with the paradoxical representation of his death had the effect that this photograph gained iconographic status and remains well remembered in the German psyche.
The German photographer Thomas Demand who is well-known for his reconstructions of iconographic images, rebuilt the bathtub in room 317 of the Hotel Beau-Rivage in paper and cardboard. There is no trace of Barschel himself in Demand’s reconstruction, yet the vantage point of the camera, the bathroom tiles, even the water level in the bathtub remain strikingly similar to the original photograph published by Stern magazine. As if to grant the deceased subject more privacy, Demand drew the curtain slightly closed. Demand’s image is a comment on the role of photography in the production and consumption of memory.
But it is not only photographic memory that is referred to here. Jacques Louis David’s painting of Marat lying dead in a bathtub is part of this visual iconography in the construction of memory. I hesitate to assume that the Stern journalists were aware of David’s painting. Nor do I think that Stern readers immediately think of the Death of Marat when they see the photograph of Barschel. Nevertheless, the striking similarities between David’s painting and the Barschel photograph might explain why the latter has become one of the most iconic images in recent German history. Marat was assassinated while Barschel, as many believe, might also have been the victim of political plot. Like Marat’s note held in his left hand, Barschel’s wristwatch signifies the immediacy of his death.