Monday, June 28, 2010

Honor Among Thieves

Last night, I felt like a salmon swimming against the tide of 100,000 flag-waving (and -wearing), pop-eyed, whooping, vuvuzela-tooting Berliners flowing from Straße des 17 Juni (the long avenue that connects The Victory Column and The Brandenburg Gate). The televised victory of Germany over England advanced Germany to the quarterfinals of the World Cup and was the cause of major celebration in the streets. I'm not going to lie - I don't like watching most sports (tennis is an exception - I loved the "Marathon Match" at Wimbledon last week), but I admit to getting caught up in the excitement.


Nevertheless, I was happy for the silence at my destination, Kino Arsenal, a favorite Berlin venue. Here you can see film series that are categorized by countries of origin (e.g. Poland, Brazil, Mexico, India, or America); by director (e.g. Wim Wenders, Alfred Hitchcock, Andrej Wajda, Akira Kurosawa, or Roberto Rosselinni); or by time period (e.g. Mexican dramas from the 1940's, French films from the 1960's, Italian Neorealism, or American Westerns). If you happen to be a filmmaker yourself, you can get your  masterpiece professionally cleaned/restored there. You can rent some of the theater space within the venue to screen films for small groups. You can see films that are more esoterically grouped by their use of sound, color, or special effects. French director Robert Bresson's 1959 film, Pickpocket, was featured as part of the "use of sound" group. Aside from the barest minimum of dialogue, the sound of footsteps, and a few key scenes accompanied by beautiful orchestral pieces, the film is quiet.


The story is simple: a man wants to help his ailing mother and turns to pickpocketing to do it. He is a French pickpocket, though, so this means that he not only has intellectual discussions with like-minded individuals about the morality of crime (a la Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment, as has already been noted), he even keeps a thoughtful journal of his activities! Added to this is the character's voice over which further confirms his inner turmoil. The strange, zombie-like beauty of both of the lead actors, Martin LaSalle (Michel) and Marika Green (Jeanne), reinforced the nihilistic feel of the film. 


I have to say that I learned quite a lot about pickpockets and their craft! Did you know that pinball is a good way to sharpen the reflexes? That daily finger exercises are good for manual dexterity? That there are countless creative ways to relieve someone of their wallet/purse/watch? That, when working in a team, sharing the winnings is best divvied up by a friendly game of cards? The best scenes in the film were the ones that showed the thieves at work. The ones which annoyed me showed Michel as he exited his dismal hovel of an apartment, leaving the door open in a most cavalier manner! After one or two scenes like this, I wondered if this was just carelessness on the part of the director, the character, or perhaps it was deliberate to show Michel's subconscious desire to get caught. That's why Edgar Allen Poe's The Telltale Heart came to mind, and when Michel interacted with the police inspector, I thought of the Les Miserables dynamic.


But all's well that ends well - mostly. Things got worse, then better, then worse again before the angelic, Pre-Raphaelite Jeanne redeemed Michel at the end. Pickpocket is a classic that served as an inspiration to director and screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Cat People, The Last Temptation of Christ). 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Night at the Opera

Years ago when I was teaching in Buenos Aires, an oil company executive (one of my many students) gave me a CD for my birthday - Richard Strauss Orchestral Songs Volume I - sung by English soprano Dame Felicity Lott. Last night, I had the good fortune to enjoy Ms Lott's performance at the Deutsch Oper. With Sir Neville Marriner conducting, the evening began with Ottorino Respighi's Fontane di Roma. Ms. Lott then took the stage to perform Benjamin Britten's Les Illuminations, followed by Maurice Ravel's lovely Scheherazade. The very appreciative Berliner audience called her back on stage five times! Finally, the orchestra played the suite from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier to conclude the program.


Manuel, if you're reading this, thank you again for that CD. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nine Hours in Leipzig

75 minutes, 19 Euros*, acres of farmland, poppies, a few storks, and lots of wind turbines separate Berlin from Leipzig, which is situated about 150 kilometers to the southwest. Arriving at the city's Hauptbahnhof was an experience in itself. Leipzig boasts the largest train station in Europe. It is filled with shops that stay open until 10 pm (even on Sunday!), bustles with activity, and is as clean as a whistle. 


I walked straight into the center of town to St. Nicholas Church, where the first freedom demonstrations took place in 1989. It was the last day of the Bach Festival, so the composer's music was featured in the mass yesterday. I looked up at the unusual mint-green and pink columns, designed to resemble palms. I don't think I've ever seen a church that was this organic, almost tropical. I crossed the street and entered Specks Hof, one of many old galleria-type shopping arcades in courtyards throughout the city. 


Emerging onto Reichs Strasse and heading west towards the Alte Rathaus, I first encountered the wedding-cake like Old Bourse. In front of this was a statue of Goethe, who came to Leipzig to study law. [Please visit this great site, courtesy of a native Leipziger, for an excellent pictoral tour of the city. For a few reasons, I have opted out of photo-taking and therefore rely on others to augment my words with pictures.] 


Nearby, Zeitgeschichtliche Forum (aka The DDR Museum) had just opened for the day. I had intended to spend just an hour there; instead, I spent more than two. This expertly-curated exhibition begins in the dark and ends in the light, literally and figuratively. The murky interior rooms tell the story of the formation of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). All manner of things accompany this section - vintage films, photographs, passports, recordings, letters, suitcases, clothing, cameras, and even a cannon. As the timeline moves forward to the present day, the visitor approaches the exterior part of the building, which is windowed and full of light. I suspect this was intentional, and if so, quite brilliant. Footage of the wall coming down, interviews, songs, and teletype replicas from the German Police sent to their headquarters tell the story of the events that led to the fall of the wall over 20 years ago. It was moving. 


Conveniently located next door to the museum was Auerbach's Keller, made famous by Goethe. While devouring a delicious plate of wild boar, potatoes, and red cabbage, it was easy to imagine the scene from Faust playing out here. I left just before an enormous tour group's arrival could spoil my reverie. 


Walking off those carbohydrates was a pleasure. Wandering through fairly empty streets (all shops were closed because it was Sunday, but most restaurants, cafes, and bars were open), admiring centuries-old intact buildings was like going back in time...until the moment when turning a corner brought me face-to-face with a dreary specimen of DDR architecture, all concrete and paint store reject colors. Leipzig was bombed during WWII, but certainly not to the extent that Berlin was. So, here you have that jarring mix of old and new. 


I kept up my search for the old and reached St. Thomas' Church, famous for once having had Johann Sebastian Bach as its Cantor. Mozart played here once. In a side room within the church, there is a display of instruments used during Bach's time. Portraits, bas reliefs, and other artwork adorn the otherwise austere interior of the church. I noticed that there would be a Bach concert at 6pm, but since my train left from across town at 7, I reluctantly had to let that idea go. 


At the Museum der bildenden Künste (Museum of Fine Arts), which opened in 1848 and houses artwork from the 19th century to the present, I purchased a ticket for the Neo Rauch exhibition, Begleiter (Companion). To celebrate the native Leipziger's 50th birthday this year, a retrospective of the artist's work is being exhibited at this museum and concurrently at the Pinakothek Der Moderne in Munich until August 15th. Rauch's paintings have fascinated me since 2007, when I first saw his show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In particular, one piece, Die Flamme (2007) disturbed me greatly. It was on loan from The Met and it had the same effect on me three years later in Leipzig. His other work in this show consisted of large, rather surrealistic (a la Magritte) paintings - some old and some new. In the same way that Edward Hopper was said to have painted his own face into all his figurative work, I found that many pieces contained a central figure with remarkably Rauch-like features. Rauch is a key member of The New Leipzig School, and it is clear that his work is informed by aspects of Social Realism, juxtaposed with more traditional influences. It was hard to take my eyes off many of the strangely beautiful paintings. 


In need of a major break, I got out of the tourist-filled town center, crossed the ring road, and found Luise, a cafe located in the Gottschedstraße (Sunset Boulevard). The street is lined with  many theaters, cafes, and bars, all filled with locals. I had a large kaffee mit milch, and continued reading Zadie Smith's 2000 novel, White Teeth, which I am utterly enjoying.


For my last stop, I visited the Museum in der Runden Ecke, aka "Museum in the Round Corner," aka the former Ministry of State Security (Stasi) headquarters in Leipzig. This was a fascinating but really depressing place, kept just as ugly and spiritless as it likely was when it was a functioning office. I rented an English audio guide, something I am usually loath to do. However, there were many details that I wanted to understand about this period in history. My German, though improving, is nowhere near that level yet. I found myself getting a bit queasy - even claustrophobic - looking at the interrogation rooms, spy cameras, and the countless files kept on citizens. It smelled like fear in there. With relief, I exited the building and went immediately to a park near the train station, sat on a bench in the sun, and watched some nice ladies feed some nice ducks. I had to do something to lift my spirits! 


I had time to grab a quick bite to eat at the station before the train left for Berlin. It was a great day trip out of the city and one that I recommend, whether you follow my itinerary or your own.


*InterConnex - If you plan to go by train from Berlin to Leipzig, do NOT get your tickets through Deutsch Bahn (DB). They will cost twice as much and your train will probably not be a direct one. Book online with InterConnex and pay half. The only drawback - and it is a minor one - is that you are limited to one or two trains per day. For instance, mine left Potsdamer Platz at 8:00am and arrived in Leipzig at 9:15. Coming back, I had to take the 6:55pm and it arrived in Berlin at 8:10pm.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

La Monnaie Vivante (Human Money)

On Thursday evening, I attended the opening performance of La Monnaie Vivante, an exhibition that took place from 7:30pm - 12:30am on 17-19 June. The venue was the Hebbel am Ufer 1, a classic old theater in Kreuzberg, and was one of the many events surrounding the opening of the Berlin Biennale. 


Originally conceived in a Paris dance studio in 2006 (and inspired by French writer, translator, and painter Pierre Klossowski's work of the same name), La Monnaie Vivante toured Belgium (2007) and London (2008). It was restructured this year in cooperation with Warsaw's Museum of Modern Art. 


We arrived at 7:30 pm. Instead of entering through the front doors, we were directed to the side entrance so that, like performers, we emerged onto the stage. The first thing we encountered was Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles' piece entitled In the Air (2003), a machine suspended from the ceiling which blew a continuous stream of bubbles. One guest slipped and fell on the watery residue from the bubbles and a young mother walked with her toddler through the bubbles. The latter was quite sweet, and it wasn't until later that I learned that the mixture used for the bubbles had been made with water used to wash the bodies of murder victims following their autopsies! The artist deliberately uses this mixture in her other work to call attention to the political and social violence of Mexico City. Probably for this reason, I immediately thought of the grisly passages from Roberto Bolaño's excellent novel, 2666.  


A rhythmic mechanical sound drew us stage right, where two women were busy working on a pair of sewing machines. This was Danish artist Jens Haaning's piece, entitled Näherei Nebtex (2010), a mini-Berlin sewing factory. By bringing it on stage, the artist confronts the audience with the repetitive reality while simultaneously hinting at the exploitation of factory workers. This theme was also evident in 111 Constructions Made with 10 Modules and 10 Workers (2004), a performance piece by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra in which 10 Polish construction workers arranged a series of large pieces of wood into different formations at precise intervals.


At this point, I decided to wander off the stage and into the balcony section in the audience. There were a few people here, including the Polish artist, Artur Żmijewski, who likely wanted a good vantage point from which to see/hear his contribution to La Monnaie Vivante. In his piece, entitled William Shakespeare: Sonette (2010), a Turkish woman on stage left read haltingly from a book of sonnets that had been translated from English into German. [In New York, I had seen a couple of the artist's films and at MoMA, I listened to him speak about his collaboration with the Israeli artist, Yael Bartana.]


With a good view of the orchestra pit, I could see musicians assembling. Fairly soon afterwards, a bizarre cacophony of sounds emerged. Ranging from traditional wind instruments, guitars, and an accordion to tin plates, rocks, whistles, and their own voices, the Scratch Orchestra (conceived by British composer Cornelius Cardew in 1968) created their sounds together at the direction of a conductor.  When the spirit moved them, some of the musicians would perform solos, much like a jazz piece, but with a more jarring aural effect.


A number of other artists contributed their work to La Monnaie Vivante, but I thought these were the most interesting. What I found particularly thought-provoking was that the boundaries between performer and audience were dissolved and that the audience (myself included) was always a bit unsure as to what would happen next and to what extent they would be involved. This element of discomfort heightened the sense that we were experiencing reality, in keeping with the theme of the Berlin Biennale. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anfänge und Enden (Beginnings and Endings)

I dealt successfully with complicated visa, apartment, and insurance issues this week, mostly in German. As I prepare to leave Schoneberg and move to Prenzlauerberg in the former East Berlin, I'm a little sad because I have gotten to know people and places in my Kiez and I will miss them. Nevertheless, I look forward to exploring my new neighborhood and to getting a bicycle! Language classes began again this week as well and I have some fun classmates and teachers from now until mid-July. After that, my focus will be on writing my book. I've spent spring in Berlin, summer will be here next week, and I will spend at least part of the fall here. After that, who knows?  

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What's On in Berlin

There is a great deal going on this weekend in Berlin. The Biennale officially started on the 10th, the World Cup kicked off yesterday, and today, the Gay and Lesbian Fest began in my neighborhood. When faced with this many choices (in addition to the usual theater, music, and dance events throughout the city), it's hard to decide what to do. 


For me, though, it was pretty easy - I had already visited several of the Biennale venues on Wednesday after the press preview; I'm not interested in Fußball (though if I wanted to, I could watch every single one of the games in any number of pubs around town), and I just took a quick peek at the Gay and Lesbian Fest. In the end, I decided to spend a little time at one of the many satellite events attached to the Biennale - the launch of the second issue of the magazine The World According To at Salon Populaire. I talked briefly with the artist, Olaf Nicolai, and then looked around at the rest of the exhibition, which included work by Ryan Trecartin and Channa Horwitz. 


There are more Biennale-related events tomorrow, more World Cup games, and more Gay Pride, but if the weather is good, I think I might head to Wannsee with friends from my language class. I am ready to get out of the city and enjoy a little bit of nature!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What is Waiting Out There - Berlin Biennale 6

At the press preview for the 6th Berlin Biennale this morning, Curator Kathrin Rhomberg said that 50 percent of the pieces were commissioned specifically for the event. The 43 artists were asked to create work which reflected their visions of reality. In two of the three venues I saw (there are six in all - four in Kreuzberg and two in Mitte), film/video was the preferred medium. The Biennale runs from 10 June - 8 August.


At Orianenplatz 17 in Kreuzberg, American artist Phil Collins' powerful film, Socialism Today, featured a 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics GDR female gymnast. It ended with a grand display of Sozialismus, similar to the scary beautiful precision of the opening ceremonies we saw at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The gymnast spoke of grueling training sessions for 6-8 hours a day with little food. When her training ended, she began to eat normally, gained weight, and encountered problems trying to re-enter society as a young woman. The gymnast's mother said that if she had to do it over again, she would not have encouraged her daughter to train for the Olympics, but at the time, it was one of the only choices available to those who wanted some semblance of a life. As the gymnast's mother said these words, her daughter visibly choked up. I liked French artist Bernard Bazile's film, Les Manifs (The Demonstrations). In the same venue, Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa's C-Prints and films captured the reality of life in the French suburbs. 


For some reason, I had my own private shuttle service from Oranienstrasse to the next venue I visited - KW Institute for Contemporary Art.. This is the supporting organization for the Berlin Biennale and was founded by Klaus Biesenbach, the curator of the first Biennale and now Director of MoMA P.S.1 in New York. My Albanian driver and I wondered why the traffic was so bad and then we saw that there was a student demonstration blocking our route. The driver was angry not only because of the traffic back-up but also because he said that German students didn't know how good they had things - Albanians and other students paid many times the amount of tuition that German students did. I told him that I might very well be paying off my Master's degree until the end of my days.


I entered KW by descending a narrow staircase and then emerged into a giant space filled with a wooden structure that looked like the foundation for a house. Roosters and hens were part of this piece! One of the hens took a liking to my lizard-skin cowboy boots. Clucking, she made her way slowly over to where I stood and started pecking on them as I calmly stood and made some notes,  much to the merriment of the KW staff. I delicately moved away (not wanting to provoke or otherwise piss off the "art"), and continued upstairs to view other organic work by the same Kosovar artist - a very interesting one by the name of Petrit Halilaj. Also at KW, I liked Shannon Ebner's work with symbols and letters and John Smith's 2001 film, Frozen War, in which he did a voice-over commentary on a news clip about the Afghan war.


Finally, I walked over to the Alte Nationalgalerie to see the Adolph Menzel exhibition, which was curated by Michael Fried at Kathrin Rhomberg's invitation. According to Fried, Menzel (1815-1905) was the best Realist artist and draftsman, and he assured us that spending time with the work "...will tell you all you need to know about art." Fried chose 36 of the artist's drawings, gouaches, and paintings. He said that the Realists depicted "...not what the world looks like, but what it is like to live in the world." The works he chose were beautiful, funny, sad, and ghoulish - from delicate portraits to anatomical drawings to landscapes to grand Fredrich the Great paintings. I really liked the fact that the Biennale included the work of an artist who was Contemporary for his time. I explored more of the Menzel collection in the gallery created especially for his work and found especially interesting a painting from 1859, Studentenfackelzug, in which students are marching with torches. It reminded me of the demonstration I had witnessed earlier - plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Well-Tempered Hund

Of all the places I've lived in, I have never seen dogs that are as well-trained as those in Berlin. I'm assuming that hounds from Hamburg to Frankfort, and from Leipzig to Dusseldorf are equally well-behaved, though I don't know this for a fact. Frequently off-leash, walking impatiently ahead of or dawdling behind their owners, or waiting expectantly outside shops for their owners to reappear, Berliner hunde go about their business in a civilized manner, unfazed by other dogs, animals, or people.

When I recall the stressed-out creatures I frequently observed in New York, I am convinced that it is the city itself which shapes both humans and animals. So there IS such a thing as a Berlin dog, a Paris dog, a New York dog, just as the the denizens of those cities have their own distinct characteristics

Monday, June 7, 2010

Small Victories

Today, I registered my address at the Town Hall in Schöneberg (where JFK made his famous speech) and asked about extending my tourist visa; requested special care at the dry cleaner's for a pair of pants; asked about bank transfer/withdrawal fees and other miscellany at one of my banks; got a really beautiful, inexpensive haircut and color at a nearby Friseur; and arranged to see a few more apartments in different neighborhoods. 


So what, you say? In New York, I completed tasks like this on auto-pilot. In Berlin, I am confronted with doing these things for the first time in another country and doing them in a language I didn't know two months ago. The mundaneness is about the same, but the sense of accomplishment here is much greater. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Biking the Berlin Wall

Thursday was the first truly summer-like day we've had in a month.  Of course, it was essential to be outdoors, but instead of my usual walk or run, I chose to be on a bike for 18 kilometers, following the remnants of the Berlin Wall (in a few of its four phases). Our fun group was led by a knowledgeable and entertaining guide in the form of Pieter from Holland, courtesy of Berlin on Bike. Starting at the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauerberg, we headed north to Bornholmer Strasse, the checkpoint where thousands of East Berliners began to cross over to the West. Nothing remained of the checkpoint; instead, we saw the pitched tents of a soon-to-be circus, complete with camels grazing in the grass. Utterly surreal. 


From Bornholmer Strasse, we headed south to Mauerpark, where a large, graffiti-covered portion of the Wall still stands. On a stretch of Bernauer Strasse, the Wall was constructed in the wee hours of the morning on August 13, 1961, immediately in front of the doors of a row of tenement houses. This forced many of the occupants to make a split decision - either remain in their houses (and therefore, in East Berlin) or jump out the windows, taking few if any belongings and flee to the West. At the Berlin Wall Memorial, we saw a watchtower, which Pieter told us was actually purchased for $2,500 on eBay and was not even from Germany. We peered through chinks in the Wall to see a portion of the infamous Death Strip, which stood between the two Walls (one for the East and one for the West), and which was continually raked so that soldiers could check for footprints of potential escapees. I had only thought that civilians tried to flee to the West, but many soldiers attempted the same. The most famous was Conrad Schumann (above right), although he later committed suicide, allegedly because of the paranoia that continued to plague him in the years after his successful escape. Some tried to hide in the nearby cemetery or the church which stood in between the two walls, while others successfully tunneled under the streets. 


Next, we stopped at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, whose walls formed part of the border between East and West Berlin. According to the web site, "Laid out in 1748, [the cemetery] was originally [meant to serve] the nearby Invalidenhaus, a hospital built for officers and soldiers disabled in military service. It opened to generals after the war against Napoleon in 1813, and starting at the end of the 19th century, civilians could be buried there, too." There is also a memorial here dedicated to Günter Litfin, the first person to be killed while attempting to flee to West Berlin.


We rode to a high point from which we could see the Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz, the TV Tower, the Spree, the Swiss Embassy, Hauptbahnhof, and the Federal Chancellery (aka "The Washing Machine" because of its appearance). Passing Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust memorial, we paused in the nondescript parking lot that was the site of Hitler's Bunker. In the lovely Gendarmenmarkt, we observed the French Protestant Church, the German Dom, and the Konzerthaus, before pedaling north to cross Unter den Linden. We passed through Museuminsel and lively Hackescher Markt and made our way back to the bike depot in Prenzlauerberg. 


My smug runner's pride began to loosen its grip that day, as I acknowledged the hard work that cycling entailed and more importantly, the joy of having the wind in your hair. Today is Saturday and the weather is still gorgeous, so I am going out for a run. But...in addition to contemplating which of the Sees I will visit with friends this weekend (Wannsee? Muggelsee?), I will be thinking about buying a used a bike, especially since I intend to remain in Berlin longer. There's no need for a wall separating running and cycling, is there?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Speaking of German...

I finished the first phase of my intensive German course today. I have signed on for another six weeks of fun, which will begin late next week. Until then, I give you my favorite German words thus far, chosen mostly because of the way they sound, but in some cases, for what they mean:


Quark - curds
Quatsch - rubbish, nonsense
Kugelschreiber - pen
Erdbeeren - strawberries
Heidelbeeren - blueberries
Blitzableiter - flash of lightning
Glühbirne - literally, "glowing pear," aka light bulb
Brötchen - literally, "little bread," or roll, bun, etc. of which there are many varieties here
Zwiebel - onion
Hell - light, bright
Handy - cell phone
Staubsauger - literally, "dirt sucker,"aka vacuum cleaner
Taschentücher - packet of tissues 
Schlüsselanhänger - key chain/key fob
Schmetterling - butterfly
Wimper - eyelash
Wunderschön - overwhelmingly, stunningly beautiful
Mensch - literally, "man," but used in many ways, e.g. "Mensch, what the hell are you doing?"
schmerzlos - painless
zwölf - twelve
fünf - five
Vogel - bird
Kinderspielplatz - children's playground
Krankenhaus - hospital
Schatz - treasure
Armbanduhr - wristwatch
Schmuck - jewelry
Gift - poison
Mist - literally, "animal dung," but used to express minor irritation, e.g. "Mist, I forgot to do my homework!"