'Er ist Wieder Da' by Timur Vermes appears in English

Jamie Bulloch's translation of Er ist Wieder Da into English under the title Look Who's Back gets an uneasy review in the New York Times:

The novel’s conceit is easily summarized, less easily parsed. In 2011, Hitler awakes (apparently not from uneasy dreams, as Gregor Samsa does) in a field in Berlin. “I remember waking up,” he says. “I was lying on an area of undeveloped land, surrounded by terraces of houses.” He has no memory of his suicide. He has no idea how he’s gotten here. Soon enough he is taken with watching “modern-day television,” but when he finds only cooking shows, he is angered that “Providence had presented the German Volk with this wonderful, magnificent ­opportunity for propaganda, and it was being squandered on the production of leek rings.”

For the next 250 pages, Vermes walks us through months during which Hitler, resurrected by unexplained means, ­overcomes every presented obstacle. A newspaper vendor discovers him in ­uniform and assumes he must be an impersonator playing for dark comedy — the word Galgenhumor belongs, after all, to the Germans — and gives him a bed. Producers from an “Ali G”-style comedy show (hosted by the unimaginatively named “Ali Gagmez”) offer him a spot on the program. His first appearance quickly accrues hundreds of thousands of YouTube views. Soon Hitler gets his own show, website, production studio, even a back-alley beating by right-wingers who assume he’s making fun of himself. Eventually he also has a deal to write about his life. “I’m calling to ask whether you’d like to write a book?” the editor says. “I already have,” Hitler replies. “Two, in fact.”

Let me just admit it: the main reason I posted this is so I could include the illustration by Doug Chayka:

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German Television is 'Low-Quality Schlock for Aging Viewers'

Thomas Rogers, a writer living in Berlin, takes to the pages of the New Republic to describe the oddity of 'Wetten, Dass...?' and the crappiness of German TV in general:

...[T]he mediocrity of [German] TV—and “Wetten Dass..?” in particular—is currently a particular source of national insecurity. Whereas other European countries, like Denmark and France, have impressed international audiences with high-quality shows like “Borgen” and “The Returned,” TV in Germany remains dominated by talk shows, schlocky crime procedurals, mediocre miniseries, and, well, “Wetten Dass..?”—or as a New York Times headline from last year described it, “Stupid German Tricks.” 

...Not only does the 33-year-old “Wetten Dass..?” seem to confirm a lot of the world’s less generous stereotypes of Germans—e.g. humorless, weird, with terrible taste in formalwear—its concept is also awkwardly difficult to explain....

For Hollywood stars used to appearing on “Kimmel” or “Conan,” [Markus] Lanz’s interview techniques—which often involve commenting on female stars’ appearance—can seem jarringly unpleasant and often sexist. When a baffled-looking Cameron Diaz appeared on the show this spring, Lanz asked her to stand up from the couch so two young boys could get a kiss from “one of the most beautiful women in the world.” She instead gave them high fives and awkwardly and silently sat back down.

On a cultural level, the show has also become a symbol of Germany’s continuing struggles to create good television. As television has emerged internationally as the new medium for sophisticated storytelling, public criticisms of the show, and German TV in general, have sharpened. In 2012,Spiegel published an interview with a top German media critic under the headline “Why are German TV shows so lousy?” Unlike the U.S., television in Germany is highly subsidized by the public.

Even if you ignore stunty shows like “Wetten Dass..?,” German narrative offerings have lacked the nuance and verve of high-end British, American, or Scandinavian productions. “Tatort,” the country’s most popular program, is an uneven cop show that often feels several decades out of date, and most other fictional TV shows perpetually reshuffle a few familiar elements (blonde doctor, romantic woes, rural hospital, Bavaria). As Lothar Mikos, the media critic, told Spiegel, the problem isn’t monetary, it’s the opposite: German broadcasters’ enormous bureaucracy and generous funding have largely insulated them from the need to innovate. And since younger people tend to watch American or British shows online anyways, there’s little to dissuade networks from creating more low-quality schlock for aging viewers.

Rogers has subscribed to the donut-hole theory: Germany does highbrow really well and lowbrow OK (but who cares), but the vast middlebrow area is a wasteland.


Conan O'Brien Inspects a Kotzbecken and Confronts Harald Schmidt's Producer

I stumbled on this 1997 Conan O'Brien segment recently. Far from his best work, but of sociological value for showing Americans a genuine German Kotzbecken (puking-sink) and, even more entertainingly, exposing Harald Schmidt's relentless plagiarism of American late-night television:

Just underneath the video: DISABLING COMMENTS - YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL CHILDISH DOLTS. THIS IS A COMEDY VIDEO. ENOUGH WITH THE COUNTRY BASHING.

Arrgh, what I would have given to read those. Perhaps we can re-create some COUNTRY BASHING right here, folks -- what do you say?


"Who Knows This Man?"

There's only one publication in Germany that can intentionally make me laugh out loud, and that's Titanic, the monthly satire magazine to which I am a proud subscriber. Its subtitle proclaims it to be "the ultimate satire magazine", and that's true in any number of ways. Among them: nobody in Germany goes further than Titanic. According to occasional contributor Oliver Maria Schmitt, the magazine's motto (g, paywall) is "A resounding 'Yes' to 'No'!". Titanic's doesn't just slaughter the sacred cows, it tortures and mutilates them first. Which brings them endless lawsuits (g), usually based on quaint German laws making it a crime to insult people or otherwise injure their honor or dignity. Naturally, Titanic wears these lawsuits with pride.

The latest Titanic escapade is particularly rich. To understand the joke, we must first review some recent German history. On the 4th of November, an apartment burned down in the East German city of Zwickau. Nearby, in Eisenach, two right-wing extremists shot themselves in a mobile home after a botched bank robbery. During searches of the apartment and the mobile home, police found evidence linking both sites to a team of two men (Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, the ones who killed themselves) and one woman (Beate Zschärpe) who together constituted a right-wing terror cell called the National Socialist Underground (g). Unbeknownst to police, the NSU had, since 1998, been on a nationwide murder and bank-robbery spree (g) killing at least 10 people in targeted assassinations -- mostly immigrants, but also a young policewoman, murdered execution-style. All of the shootings were committed with the same weapon. The group also set off at least one bomb, in 2004 in a crowded street in a heavily-immigrant section of Cologne, injuring 22 people.

In the rubble of the Zwickau apartment in November 2011, the police found a truly astounding 15-minute video in which the group -- using a mash-up of Pink Panther animation clips -- took explicit credit for the mayhem (g) and mocked both victims and police. Even shortly after the discovery, people began asking how a group could go on killing and bombing undistiurbed in an advanced, well-policed nation such as Germany without being detected. But the facts that came out later made the question even more urgent. It turns out all three suspects were known to the police in the 1990s as neo-Nazis. The men had criminal records for violent attacks on foreigners and bomb threats. The three even ran a small bomb workshop in Jena in Zschärpe's garage. They narrowly escaped arrest in 1998 after a tip led to the workshop's detection. Despite the fact that they were all known to the police by name, appearance, and affiliation, they were able to go underground and elude detection for 14 years. When police investigated the immigrants the NSU had murdered, the cops generally discounted the idea that right-wing violence might be behind the killings, and instead suggested that the victims were targeted because of their involvement with drug-smuggling or immigrant mafias.

During the entire neo-Nazi terror spree, the German domestic spy agency (rather pompously called the Verfassungsschutz, or Agency for Protection of the Constitution (APC)) released report after report announcing that there were "no signs of right-wing terror groups" in Germany. The APC had infiltrated dozens of paid snitches into right-wing groups, but still didn't uncover the extensive network of accomplices that made the 14-year murder spree possible. After the vicious 2004 nail-bomb attack in Cologne -- in which a white man can be seen in a surveillance video depositing the bomb -- interior minister Otto Schily denied the very next day that there was any evidence it was a right-wing anti-immigrant attack. All of the murders and bombings, of course, went unsolved. In fact the murder of the policewoman was attributed to a mysterious female super-criminal who, according to DNA traces, had committed an astounding number of varied crimes all over Germans from 1993 until 2009. Until it was found out that the DNA actually all came from a police lab employee who had contaminated (g) crime-scene samples.

The mind, as they say, buggers. The whole sordid episode has sparked a controversy in Germany which has dominated headlines for weeks and shows no signs of abating.

Titanic felt the need to intervene. Here its its current cover:

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The caption reads: "The APC Needs Your Help: WHO KNOWS THIS MAN?" Meanwhile, according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (g) newspaper a citizen in the small Bavarian town of Taufkirchen had reported sightings of a "poster" displaying the markings of an "organization hostile to the constitution" (in this case, a rather large portrait of a controversial Austrian statesman). The police immediately swung into action, confiscating five more copies of the "poster", cunningly hidden among racks of magazines in various retail stores across town. The police surmised that the guilty parties must have come from "right-wing radical circles", and perhaps wanted to taunt the APC.

After further analysis, the police determined that the "right-wing posters" were copies of Titanic. (h/t MW).


Gumbrecht Dissects Deutschland

In an interview with Die Welt, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a German professor of Romance languages who relocated to sunny California and became an American citizen, notes the things that annoy him about Germany when he returns (excerpts, in my translation):

Welt:...What is lame about German debates?

Gumbrecht: I would say: The fact that there actually aren't that many different ones. There is a certain spectrum, but the individual positions on the spectrum are always there and recognizable. Here's how it works: On the one side you have people who say we should just love all the wonderful foreigners, on the other side, people who think German culture is unique and must absolutely be preserved, a view that's almost fascistic. When people like Sarrazin come along with their viewpoints, which are somewhat right-wing, then a certain predictable sequence of reactions begins. It reminds me of a xylophone: You keep hammering your little plate, and the others hammer theirs a bit -- but always in the same way.

...

Gumbrecht: In Germany, there's still this idea that Europe, and not America, should be the center of the world, and that Europeans actually already know how the world should be ideally. But you actually see things going wrong there constantly.... This creates a lot of dissatisfaction.

Die Welt: How does that present itself in the society?

Gumbrecht: In the nine months when I was in Germany, it struck me as extreme how social democratic the country is. You barely ever meet anyone who isn't somehow calculating how they can obtain the maximum amount of leisure time with the least effort.

 ...

Gumbrecht: My thesis is there's a specific kind of German know-it-all self-righteousness (Rechthaberei).

Die Welt: A German kind?

Gumbrecht: You very seldom talk to people in Germany who are capable of viewing their own opinions in a sort of second-order way; that is, to be able to say 'this is my opinion, and it might be correct or false.' Or people who enter a conversation without thinking it would be a terrible defeat if they were to change their opinion. If it begins to seem during a conversation -- either in academic ones or in normal middle-class ones -- that not everybody is going to sonorously state their agreement, then the subject will be avoided. Take, as an example, that there are no 'debate clubs' in Germany.... [In the U.S.], it's like a sport. But it's completely unthinkable that there would be debate clubs in Germany. Either you know what's right and wrong, or you don't. By the way: Two out of three Germans who visit me in Stanford explain to me after ten minutes what America is and how it works. When they notice that I don't think the same way they do, they then explain to me why I'm wrong and what the right opinion is. Even people whom I consider intelligent do this.

...

Die Welt: And this doesn't happen in America?

Gumbrecht: Oh sure, there's a culture of political correctness here. But the basic differences begin with the legal system, the common law and it's basic principle that 'each case is to be argued.' Or with nationality. The judge who swore me in stressed that from that moment on, I was 100% American, just as American as someone whose ancestors came here in the 17th century. That is an interesting premise. Or look at these absurd churches. You have to have them all. Whether they'll last is another question. But this inability to tolerate all sorts of things existing side-by-side -- this need to force them all to be compatible -- this you find specifically in Germany. Take the university debates. In Germany, people think there's an ideal model of a university that can be made uniform. But here in the USA, it's considered perfectly fine that Stanford is so different from Berkeley, or Harvard from Yale. The more diverse, the better.

Die Welt: ...so can you think of anything positive?

Gumbrecht: I really tried! I have to say one thing. All these things I've just mercilessly dissected -- a very academic thing to do, by the way -- also exist in American, as trace elements. But the worst know-it-alls here are slightly less annoying, because it's clear to them that there are lots of people around who don't think as they do. In a society in which you can either be Protestant, Catholic, or nothing, you can be convinced you're right. In the crazy plurality over here, though, even when you're a total fundamentalist, you have to recognize there are others. And thus, one thing doesn't exist here: the desperate search for correctness and this German oxymoron: the 'desired opinion.'

I'll refrain from comment, except to note that this blog noted the lameness of German debates years ago...