Donnerstag, 22. Januar 2015
Barnaby Britton is a Seattle-based writer and photographer, a former contributor to the UK's Amateur Photographer Magazine and now the editor of dpreview.com - the world's most popular digital photography review website. One year ago in a local flea market, he happened upon 20 boxes of Kodachrome slides marked: 'Berlin, 1956' and 'Hungarian Border, 1957'. Even though he had never visited Berlin, and has no particular affinity with the city, his curiosity was whetted, and he bought the collection – thank goodness.
Britton had stumbled upon the personal snapshots of a US air force serviceman – as yet unidentified, who had been based in Germany for a few years in the mid 1950s. Britton knows the man's name but he has decided not to release it, while he further researches the story.
Much more importantly, Britton has made public the 'vintage colour' photographs, and they capture an outsider's glimpse of Berlin only ten years after the end of the Second World War. Through them Berlin circa 1956/57 comes to life: the Reichstag in ruins, a casual metal barrier across Potsdamer Platz, the lights of Ku'damm, a ticket collector on the U-Bahn, a man walking his dog in the wasteland that – all too soon – will become no-man's-land.
As Britton told Paul Sullivan in an interview in the wonderful, weekly Slow Travel Berlin, the photographs 'capture sights as a hurried tourist might see them – in passing, and often I think from within a moving car. The scenes that this photographer captured were not formally posed, or even particularly well-framed for the most part. They have the impression of spontaneity. And some of the blurry, out of focus or mis-exposed images are quite impressionistic – albeit accidentally.'
'What makes these pictures special to me is that they show Berlin before reconstruction was complete, and before the Wall was built to physically divide the two halves of the city,' Britton went on. 'That said, there is a clear division between the sectors – in one image for example you can see snow swept from the pavement up to the sign denoting the end of one sector and beginning of another but no further. The snow and ice of the shots taken in the winter of 1956 seems appropriate for the early years of the Cold War.'
To my mind it is the ordinariness that makes this collection so special. In none of these images is there artifice. No attempt has been made to be 'creative' or original, or to make an impression. The unnamed photographer was simply portraying Berlin as he saw it, with his amateur, everyman eye.
Luckily for us, Britton is fortunate in having a global audience, thanks to DPReview. All the images – as well as some from other parts of Germany plus Spain and Italy -- can be seen now, in all their unpretentious, ordinary, honest glory…by following this link.
(photographs reproduced with permission of Barnaby Britton)
Donnerstag, 15. Januar 2015
Anti-Islamic marchers take to the streets in Dresden. A bloody assault is made on the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo. Acts of mindless brutality are posted on the world wide web to arouse
anger and hatred, in an attempt to divide and polarise Western public
opinion. A leaked government report reveals that German security authorities believe the threat of a terrorist attack in Germany is now higher than at any time since the late 1970s. Across Europe, liberal values are under threat, and fear threatens to make cowards of us all.
Berlin has a long tradition of resistance. During the 1920s the city was known as 'Red Berlin', until Goebbels' propaganda machine – and the Nazis' vicious tactics -- changed its political colour for a decade. Every May Day since the 1960s, the city's hard-core activists have battled with police, smashing Ku'damm windows and burning upmarket Porsches in the process. Earlier this month supporters of the so-called 'Pegida' movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) tried to march to the Brandenburg Gate, but were stopped by some 5,000 anti-racist activists and several hundred riot police.
Acts of individual courage must be applauded, as ever. Florian Mundt is a tattooed, skateboarding, 27 year old psychology student at Berlin's Humboldt University – and a YouTube star. His two channels – LeFloid and FlipFloid -- have over 2.5 million subscribers and have logged more than one-quarter of a billion hits. How does he do it? Simply by telling the news, as he sees it, twice a week.
LeFloid – as Mundt is known online – has an opinion on just about everything from Pegida marches to North Korean politics, from IS fighters to 'Nazi hipsters'. He is not shy to share those opinions, and in the process engage his 16-24 year-old target audience in current affairs and the news.
As he recently told the BBC, 'I think people do not watch my videos because they agree with my opinions. I think it's just really a place for people to talk about stuff, to argue, and that works best when you really – like – knock on their heads.'
His posts are witty, provocative and rich in irony, for example in his news item about Nazi skinheads … and their image problem ('The old image of the Nazi with a fat neck, bald head, combat boots and bomber jacket is so out-of-date. It's so 'nineties and not cool at all…' says LeFloid. Cue a graphic of a youthful, hip, modern Hitler in t-shirt emblazoned with the words, 'Death Camp for Cutie').
LeFloid is pushing the boundaries -- for a reason. He wants to stimulate discussion and debate, to make people aware of events and trends, to grip people with the news … even to engage them by making jokes about Nazis. 'I really love making jokes about Hitler, because that is so provoking and Germans are always like – you can't do that. Of course I can.'
Mel Brooks – the American comedian born to a German Jewish father -- once said, 'You can bring despots to their knees faster with humour than with invective.' To my mind Brooks' greatest work is the satirical black comedy cult classic The Producers, about the staging of a cheerfully upbeat and utterly tasteless musical about the happy home life of a brutal dictator.
LeFloid brings Brooks to mind. Their work makes audiences laugh, and shudder, and think. And debate. Openly. Freely. Without fear.
photographs © Florian Mundt
Donnerstag, 8. Januar 2015
Singer-songwriter Pigor is one of the most provocative performers on the German stage. Bold, cheeky and effervescent, Pigor was the first German to bring to the theatre a 'funny Hitler', a creation which led to the YouTube 20-million-hit parody 'Adolf, Die Nazisau' with cartoonist Walter Moers and animator Felix Gönnert.
In Pigor's original number, Hitler stares in his bathroom mirror, salutes himself and prepares for his morning shave. 'Eva, where is my razor?' he calls out to piano accompaniment. 'I will shave away these bristles as I did Eastern Europe,' he sings as he strokes his chin. 'But shall I keep the moustache?'
'Hitler, the new perfume for men: smells monumental -- and like a German shepherd,' teases Pigor as the Fuhrer, slapping his cheeks with aftershave and saluting himself again.
The masters of 20th century chanson – Gerhard Bronner, Helmut Qualtinger, Georg Kreisler and above all Georges Brassens with his elegant melding of seductive humour with rhythms and Boris Vian with his literate, thoughtful and theatrical songs -- impressed Pigor, and helped to spur him onto the stage (by way of a chemistry degree at Würzburg University). Over the last 25 years – as a solo-performer, in double acts and in group shows, he has worked to regalvanise the German chanson scene.
Since 2011 he has also written and recorded a monthly 'Chanson des Monats' for SWR2 and Deutschlandfunk radio. In each programme he tackles an aspect of contemporary life, demonstrating a remarkable ability to make people laugh over dry material such as the five-year-delayed Berlin Brandenburg airport. In German it's called Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt. As Brand means burning in German, Pigor points out that it's no surprise that the airport's biggest problem was with its fire-control system.
'Just imagine if it had been called Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg Marlene Dietrich, then the problem would have been with the door locks,' he jibes. Dietrich is the German word for a lock pick, or skeleton key.
Pigor sings with wit and wisdom, veering off on unpredictable tangents, delighting and surprising audiences with his wicked sense of humour at as many as 100 concerts a year. His distinct style – in which words and music are given equal weight – bring to mind a funny Wolf Biermann, a less ambiguous Bob Dylan and a Tom Lehrer with a penchant for acting. Above all Pigor is blessed with a gentle, life-enhancing sense of fun – and a deep understanding of what it means to be German today.
'My work is very different from that of the big, state theatres,' he told me when we met for this month's Meet the Germans artist interview. 'I don't want to be distant from the audience. I want to have a dialogue with them, to be close to them, both physically and emotionally. I don't call that simple "U" (Unterhaltung) entertainment.'
Mittwoch, 31. Dezember 2014
For years I've been fascinated by the growth of Prussia; indeed, answering the question about it was part of my motivation for writing my history Berlin: Portrait of a City through the Centuries. How did a poor, divided, uncivilized state rise to become a major European power? The short answer is the Hohenzollern princes, Bismarck and the army.
Prussia, with its poor land, scattered territories and lack of natural borders, survived and prospered because of its military. Its successful wars against Austria and France in the 18th and 19th century -- plus the timely death of Empress Elizabeth of Russia in 1762 – enabled it to expand its territory and dominate the creation of a united Germany.
The achievements of the Prussian (and German) military have been overshadowed in the popular imagination by the iniquity of the Nazi regime. To the undiscerning there is no difference between officers like Scharnhorst, Heydrich and Todt. But this narrow and simplistic view – fuelled in part by the idealistic appeal of pacifism – leaves us ignorant of key moments and players in European history, and so our modern identity.
In 2010 – while researching Berlin -- a retired Bundeswehr general took me on a tour of the snowy Invalidenfriedhof, one of Berlin’s oldest cemeteries. Back in 1748 Frederick the Great established a hostel for old soldiers along the lines of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and Les Invalides in Paris. In the hope that the military colony might become self-sufficient, he also created a small farm, a mulberry plantation and a distillery. But wounded soldiers make poor farmers – the absence of limbs being a distinct disadvantage -- and the initiatives failed, apart for the cemetery.
Eighteen thousand funerals took place in its grounds between 1748 and 1872. Gerhard von Scharnhorst, a hero of the Napoleonic wars, is buried beneath a tomb designed by Schinkel. Here too lie von Winterfeldt, von Boyen and von Moltke. Not far away are the remains of 'Red Baron' von Richthofen.
The Invalids' Cemetery is not a place without controversy. Interred here are First World War commanders whose decisions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of German, British and French soldiers, as well as senior figures from the Second World War, including Rudolf Schmundt who was killed on July 20th 1944 by the bomb intended for Hitler. At the end of that war, the Allies ordered the removal of all Nazi monuments, including those in cemeteries. Heydrich and Todt's gravestones were taken away but their remains were not disinterred.
During the Cold War the Invalidenfriedhof lay in the Russian sector. The East Berlin city council closed it to the public for 'repair work' and later the Berlin Wall was built across it, destroying one third of the graves to make way for watch towers, barracks and 'security' strips. Its total destruction was prevented only by the presence of Scharnhorst's grave, as he was regarded as a freedom fighter by the East German Peoples' Army.
After reunification, the General and others set about restoring the cemetery. Helmut Kohl backed the undertaking, as did the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. New memorials were erected to the Berliners killed by Allied air raids and while trying to escape to the communist regime.
In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche describes the human drive toward 'active forgetfulness'. He maintains that it serves as 'a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette'. Without this power of forgetting the ugliness in human life, 'there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present'. National pride is a concept that was perverted by the Nazis, with devastating effect, leaving a scar that still marks the modern German psyche. But it is disingenuous to forget the individuals who conspired to create a nation. Without the 18th and 19th century commanders who lie in these all-but-forgotten graves there would be no Germany. Today Poland and Brandenburg might well be part of Russia, the Rhine would be French and Bavaria could be part of a Greater Austria. It is right that many of these old soldiers should actively remembered and honoured.
Donnerstag, 25. Dezember 2014
1. Open a Calendar: Germans start Christmas early. At the start of December every child in the land receives an Adventskalender with which he or she counts off the days until Christmas. The tradition is thought to have been started by Lutherans who chalked a line on the front door every day. Nowadays young devotees prefer calendars with holy Kinder chocolates, divine Lego toys and even sacred Minecraft cards.
2. Find an Old Shoe: On evening of December 5th, Germans put an old shoe outside their door for benevolent Nikolaus – and his evil sidekick Knecht Ruprecht (who is armed with a willow switch – don't ask why) – to fill with goodies. Nikolaus is distinct from the Weihnachtsmann – or Father Christmas – although the shoe has morphed into the stocking which Brits, Americans and Canadians hang above their fireplace on Christmas Eve.
3. Light a Candle: To make a German happy, give them a candle. At this time of year the nation goes potty over twinkling lights, and almost every household has an Adventkranz, a highly-flammable pine bough on which four red candles are mounted. Germany's fire brigades do not rest on the month's four Advent Sundays.
4. Stock up on Kitsch: After a single glass of spicy Glühwein, astute and discerning Germans lose their aesthetic sense as they stock up on flaxen-haired wooden angels and lucky chimneysweep figurines. To some the Weihnachtsmarkt are little more than themed funfairs but – despite the commercial overtones -- the Christmas markets do lift the seasonal spirit. Even those gaudy gingerbread hearts, inscribed with banal endearments like 'Für mein Bärche'’, enable people who do not know how to express themselves to show their emotions. They are also useful for timid Romeos who wish to lay claim to a particular woman.
5. Get Baking: To be a real German woman bake Christmas cookies. Timeless recipes are passed down from mother to daughter (or lesbian lover if in Berlin) for Pläztchen: cinnamon Zimtsternen, coconut macaroons, Kipferl and waistline-challenging Pfefferkuchen. Also popular is Stollen, a rich and heavy loaf-shaped cake which is particularly useful for wives who need to biff Glühwein-besozzled husbands for buying two 'Für mein Bärchen' hearts.
6. Buy a tree: While the womenfolk are in the kitchen, the traditional German male picks up an axe and -- in a manly fashion -- treks deep into the Teutonic Urwald forest to cut down a tall and noble Weihnachtsbaum. Thankfully most modern men chose to slip into the Mercedes and drive to the local do-it-yourself shop to buy a stunted Polish shrub.
7. Cook a Carp: At my first German Christmas I was served customary poached carp with horseradish and sweet whipped cream. I've never recovered from the experience. Berliners seem to consider sausages and potato salad as appropriate fare. In more civilised parts of Germany the Weihnachtsgans – or Christmas goose -- is the favoured festive feast.
8. No Christmas Pudding: At that first German Christmas (in Bremen) I treated my hosts – they of the poached carp – to Harrods' Christmas pudding, a British culinary masterpiece soaked in cognac and served with homemade brandy butter. My hosts tasted it, smiled politely and – when I was out of the room – threw it on the fire.
9. Santa Who? In Germany there is no Santa Claus. In Catholic families gifts are given by the Christkind, or the baby Jesus, aided by bands of angels from the Himmelswerkstatt, or Heavenly Workshop. Protestants ascribe the same task to the Weihnachtsmann who – depending on the depth of the family's faith -- may be helped by angels, elves or passing Smurfs. In days gone by families took the opportunity to read aloud from the Bible and discuss their spiritual wellbeing. Now most of them simply watch TV.
10. Get Back to Work: Christmas is a special time, especially for families with children, and it brings the opportunity to be together with the people we love and to reflect on ones blessings. For all too soon the holiday will pass and the time will come to get back to the workshop (which for most us is neither at Heaven's Gate or the North Pole).