Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 2

December 15, 2009 at 1:39 am

The conference for which I had been invited was organized by the Institute for Cultural Studies and took place at Humbold University’s Graduate School at Luisenstrasse in Berlin (pictured), a building next door to the ugly massive of the Charite hospital.

Yet another event dedicated to ‘memory work’ and predominantly focused on the Third Reich period with little references to later developments or other strands of thinking, Whichever Stone You Lift offered quality scholarship of the ‘deja vu’ variety. The event concluded a month-long extremely interesting programme of screenings at the cinema of Hackesche Hofe which featured films that I would very much like to see in wider distribution, from the post-war last Polish Yiddish-language production, Unzere Kinder/Our Children (1948), to Katryn Seybold and Melanie Spitta’s seminal documentary on the persecution of Romanies, Das falsche Wort/The False Word (1987).

The film programme can be viewed here while the programme of the symposium is available at the site of RitesInstitute in Vienna, the owners of which were involved in moderating the panel I took part in. It was a conference like most other events I have attended in Germany, a European model to which I developed an allergy some time ago: speakers have about an hour at their disposal and present lengthy (and often monotonously delivered) papers that run for 40-50 at a time; there is little eye contact with the audience, and very few visual stimuli to keep the attention. This is then followed by a question period which normally runs over the time slot as the moderators believe it is impolite to pressure the speakers for shortness. Having grown used to the 20 min maximum paper format that is the norm in the Anglo-Saxon world (and with the ubiquitous paper note reminders ’5 min’, ’2 min’ or ‘stop now’ that the moderators show to the speakers as they go), I really could not help it but feel challenged by the length of presentations. A paper on black actors in the third Reich was presented by Viennese (and now London, Ontario) researcher Tobias Nagl. It was well illustrated and argued (even if it also run for unbearably long time in my view), and was thus the highlight of the event for me.

The discussion of our panel, dedicated to matters of representing Romani persecution in the context of popular culture, evolved around the need of a specific and more considerate history framework that should be applied to understanding Roma history, one that differs from the historical milestones linked to other groups. Once again, Roma issues resurfaced for consideration as related to other aspects of historical memory, the Jewish Holocaust in his case. Yet while the history of Roma and Jews overlap in the context of this particular historical experience, there are many aspects of memory and remembrance related to Romanies that cannot be exhausted only by such cross-referencing, which inevitably limits the multidimensionality of Romani memory. To me, this was one of the important messages that emerged from the debate.

It was great to be in the company of two extremely beautiful women for this panel. One was Katrin Seybold (pictured above), the veteran documentary filmmaker, who has worked with Sinteza Melanie Spitta over the years and has made a number of films that feature the plight of Roma and Sinti in Germany, was one of the guests.

The other one, Timea Junghaus (left), a Romni from Hungary, who works with the rich but still largely unknown material created by Romani artists across Europe. She spoke of her highly original curating work and of the various contexts that dominate curatorial practices and that, for a variety of reasons, routinely shut the work of Romani artists away from the public eye.

Timea is telling me that in her view the best film about the Romani experience is the puppet animation by Finnish director Katariina Lillqvist, a pupil of Jiri Trnka’s, which I am looking forward to seeing (here is a still from one of her animations).

The panel was moderated by Viennese filmmaker and curator Friedemann Derschmidt, who, alongside his partner, is involved mainly in curating film programmes linked to cultural exchanges with Israel and in maintaining an interesting web-site, in part entitled Israelstine.

© Dina Iordanova
15 December 2009

Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 1

December 11, 2009 at 5:42 am

This December I spent five days in Berlin: three for my own enjoyment and two to attend a conference. I thought I would do two separate posts to record the impressions of the travel: one about the leisure experience and one about the working context. I flew in on Ryanair, the first time I am using this company, as I have been avoiding because of the horror stories that British media regularly run about it. As it is the only one that flies directly from Edinburgh to Berlin, I had no choice, really. And then, the experience was not as bad as I had expected, I have had much more unpleasant time on flights of EasyJet in the past, a company that I am determined to avoid at any cost. Arriving at Schoenefeld I looked around for signs of the promised new airport for Berlin (which, hopefully, will help the city overcome its isolation) but could not discover them. Who knows, there may be things that are happening but are still invisible and it is possible that in 2011, as promised, we will see a big change. For now, however, things were the same as I knew them from the period I spent here in 2007; the next morning I was woken up by the noise from airplanes flying into the good old Tegel — my friend’s house in prestigious Ossie locale Pankow-Heinersdorf happens to fall just below the flightpath, so no avoidance of airplane noise is possible. It is noisier than living in the vicinity of the RAF airbase at Leuchars in Scotland …

The leisure experiences in Berlin were many and nice. The first day we visited a friend in the town of Zeuthen, which is located in the region of Brandenburg and thus does not count as Berlin. Nice large houses, trees, quiet atmosphere, and an S-Bahn to take you into the city. All in all a very nice place to live, with beautiful promenades on the waterfront. An imposing mansion painted in pink and ornate with statues, located on the waterfront where we went for a walk, turned out to house the Training Center for the company founded by Peter Dussman, the businessman who started in home cleaning services and care homes for the elderly but now owns Berlin’s premier cultural locale, Dussman das KulturKaufhaus on Friedrichstrasse. In the past, the mansion, reportedly, had belonged to the widow of a rich Jewish merchant who survived WWII and who sold the property to the Soviet forces, receiving several suitcases full of money, to just days after the sale see the value of the funds received dwindle and vanish.

The next highlight was the visit to the special exhibition Koscher & Co. at the Jewish Museum, which also housed its annual Chanukka Markt where we were able to treat ourselves to potato pancakes (latkes) with smoked salmon and sour cream. The exhibition is truly impressive and much larger than any of us expected. More than ten rooms feature information on the origins of various beliefs about what is appropriate to eat and what not. The material is not restricted to Jewish beliefs but is much wider and includes extensive information on Muslim, Hindu and other worldviews. I was pleased to see, for example, that there was some coverage on the practices of the Jain, a Hindu sect that I know from my period in Leicester (where their only UK temple is located), whose beliefs on what of the vegetables are appropriate to eat are among the most restrictive I have ever come across. One of the video screens in an adjacent hall featured clips of Aamir Khan’s vehicle The Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a recent anti-colonial Indian historical blockbuster that covers the 19th century mutiny which starts among Muslim mercenaries, triggered by British disregard related to Muslim and Hindu beliefs related to food.

In the evening, it was a visit to trendy Monsieur Vuong, a new Vietnamese eatery at Alte Schonhauser Strasse, the heart of cool Berlin. Indeed, the place, which features a large poster of this sexually inviting boy on the wall (an image replicated on servers’ aprons as well), was full of cool people of the kind that one usually encounters in this part of Berlin, mostly international students and local intellectuals, wearing elaborate black concoctions and spiky black hair with punk ornaments in it. This is the same street, by the way, where I had spent an exciting evening of potato cookery at the nearby Kochstudio Berlin Mitte (at Nr. 36 here), another cool Berlin location where they teach you how to make creme brule of potatoes and a starter of fried potato skins. The menu at Monsieur Vuong consists of only about 5 dishes, all very fresh Vietnamese fare which is adapted to the local taste but still remains authentic in feel. It is most of all about atmosphere, not so much about eating. I orderd a traditional chicken Pho which was acceptable, especially due to the freshness of the coriander in the pot. The spring rolls, coming with the thick peanut sauce, were also nice (and they still had them, even though ‘der Sommer ist vobei’/'the summer is over’ – an excuse used by a waiter in another Vietnamese place in Berlin a few years ago, when I tried to order spring rolls).

There is nothing like a German Christmas market! The one pictured here is the WeihnachtsZauber at Gendarmenplatz in the very heart of the city, one out of about 20 such marketplaces staged around town. In comparison with others (I also passed by the one at Alexanderplatz), this one is upscale and features really artistic fare: original jewellery, felt hats (I got one!), kashmere, ceramics. There are all sorts of nice little things to eat (racklette, grapes in chocolate), and one walks around with a glass of warm Gluhwein in hand while children’s groups perform carols on the stage near the Christmas tree. Nearby is Unter den Linden where all the trees are dressed in chains of lights and look truly fabulous.

This is a photo of one of the nicest concert halls that I have ever been to, the one of the philharmony at Gendarmenmarkt. I do not know what this building was before, and it seems it had been on the Western side, so I do not really know it. In any case, this concert hall was restored in recent years; this was my second visit to it. It is a really beautiful rectangular white space, and, as I was a guest of one of the musicians, my place was at the balcony just below the organ, overlooking the performers from the back: it was great, being able to observe the workings of the orchestra from this unusual angle, that gave me full insights into the movements and the actions of the percussionists and of the members of the blow instruments section. As the programme was mostly modern music (Frank Martin, Bruckner), all these instruments had a prominent role in the performance. Most enjoyable!

The only thing I had planned but did not managed to do this time around, was to eat a currywurst at Konnopke’s, in Prenzlauer Berg. A real Berlin institution, a Wurstchen at Konnopke’s was quoted as the last dinner of choice by Angelika Taschen, the eponymous publishing empire empress, a slender great-looking German woman. The taxi driver who took me down to the conference at Humbold University agreed that, by missing the chance to do my rites at Konnopke’s, I had failed to fulfill an important function that is a must for ‘Leute’ who claim to appreciate Berlin. He must have had about 500,000 pieces of wurst here already, he said. Eh, well, next time!

Thank you, all: Elena, Sabine, Muttu, Heidi, Markolf, and Rudy!

© Dina Iordanova
11 December 2009