Germany follows France in ripping off Conan O'Brien. The German gag's not bad, though.
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 “Tatort,” the country’s most popular program, is an uneven cop show that often feels several decades out of date, and most other fictional TV shows perpetually reshuffle a few familiar elements (blonde doctor, romantic woes, rural hospital, Bavaria).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.
The BBC has a short piece on Faust, who were supposed to be the German Beatles but turned into something more rich and strange:
However, a second stroke of fortune befell them when Richard Branson, young head of the fledgling Virgin Record label, decided he wanted a piece of the Krautrock action,signed up Faustand brought them to the UK. He released an album of their outtakes, The Faust Tapes, for the price of a single, in 1973 – its low price and (to ‘70s British rock fans) difficult content made it one of the most bought but least listened-to cult rock albums of the year.
The few who did get Faust, however, were highly influential – BBC radio DJ John Peel, critics like NME’s Ian MacDonald, future band members like Bill Drummond, Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Jim Kerr, all of whom found in Faust post-punk ideas before punk had ever happened. They had seen nothing like them, or their neo-Dadaist live act, which involved sofas, a pinball machine, power tools, TV sets and walls of tin cans.
Faust, however, hated English food, English studios and Branson himself – though today, an older and wiser Péron believes they behaved unreasonably towards him. Inevitably, Virgin dropped Faust. They disappeared in the 1980s altogether – one of their members, Rudolf Sosna (described by Péron as the “true genius” of the band) sadly died. However, in the 1990s, they re-emerged, finding appreciation and understanding from rock audiences schooled in Faust’s successors, such as the 80s German group Einstürzende Neubauten. Faust’s onstage arsenal was as bizarrely formidable as ever, including angle grinders and even a cement mixer.
First, Carl Douglas' evergreen 1974 hit 'Kung Fu Fighting':
And now, the near-simultaneous and deeply regrettable German ripoff 'Kung Fu Leute', from the hapless 'Kandy', who looks like he was dragged in off the street to read lyrics from a card:
Given Germany's role as self-appointed Sole Remaining Keeper of the Flame of Intellectual Property™, I can only hope Carl Douglas was handsomely compensated for the traumatic defunkification of his song. (Right?).
But wait! Deutschland redeems itself 30 years later when the German outfit the Mardi Gras Brass Band returns to the original English lyrics and turns KFF into a tuba-driven slow jam:
And now comes Erdmöbel with their own song about someone who remembers his lover by her 'kung fu fighting' ringtone. The video features two people with pure Nordic blood pretty faces kissing:
But lest we forsake or fake the funk, let us conclude this musical journey with Cee Lo Green insanely buttshaking but way too short cover:
I watched Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ('Our Mothers, Our Fathers'), the three-part German miniseries that has recently been released to decidedly mixed reviews in the USA under the title 'Generation War'. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it
an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans — “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” in the original title — were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.'
...There is good and bad on all sides, a dash of mercy mixed into the endless violence. But the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film’s disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did. We see massacres of Jews by local militias in Ukraine under the supervision of the SS, but “Generation War,” for all its geographical range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps.
This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes — that they were as much Hitler’s victims as his accomplices and did not know what he was doing. They also suffered, after all, but there is something troubling about how the filmmakers apportion this suffering.
Virtually all the reviews name-check the various controversies the film provoked -- Poles were especially frustrated by the depiction of Polish anti-Semitism among partisans.
I rather liked the movie. One thing that American reviewers may not appreciate is its simple technical proficiency. Americans are spoiled -- standards of dialogue, narrative pacing and production design are now so uniformly high in American television series that Americans take it for granted that backgrounds and sets will appear extremely plausible and detailed down to the last cigarette butt or car model, and that dialogue will sound as if it were actually being produced by people in the periods and professions the actors portray. This doesn't mean that show is worth watching or the plot is plausible, but the technical stuff will seem right.
In German shows, alas, this basic level of proficiency can't be taken for granted. Generation War looks authentic, although I'm sure there are minor flaws here and there. The combat scenes are chaotic and gritty, basically copies of Steven Spielberg. Which is fine by me -- nobody does combat scenes in middlebrow war movies better than Spielberg, and there's not much room for individual experimentation, so why not copy the master? The director, Philipp Kadelbach, has worked hard at creating a bloody, gritty, nasty, violent combat background, and deserves kudos for pulling that off.
It's also refreshing to see a German movie that other nations are interested in seeing. German cinema is in at least the third decade of doldrums, producing far too many portentous didactic pieces about parochial social issues or navel-gazing rides on the hobbyhorses of the urban bourgeoisie. Germans are well aware of this problem, which is the subject anguished hand-wringing every year as the German Film Prize goes to yet another group of movies that few have seen and which sink rapidly into oblivion.
One of the culprits is the script review process, necessary to get the public funds with which these movies are made. Any juice these movies might have had is patiently extracted during this process, in which squeamish, picky film bureaucrats carefully remove most traces of originality, political incorrectness, or excessive action. I myself have seen a film script with the review marks of numerous of these prigs, whose favorite means of removing interesting scenes from movies is the phrase 'zu Hollywood' (too Hollywood). Generation War is hardly profound auteur cinema, but it's a gripping, well-made middlebrow drama with well-defined characters (the cast, as is usually the case in German movies, is outstanding) and which doesn't shy away from controversy.
The critics who carp that the movie doesn't do precely-calibrated justice to all who suffered under German rule (no death camps? Polish anti-Semites?) are missing the point. The typical German film would have tried to placate every constituency, and would for just that reason have been a pedagogic exercise. The movie focusses on the five main characters, showing 'their' wars. We see German soldiers committing plenty of atrocities, and witness ordinary Germans gleefully parroting militaristic and anti-Semitic propaganda, denouncing one another, and ruthlessly executing women and children. Not all of the five main characters survive, and the ones who do are all morally compromised. The fact that they also display some sympathetic qualities such as loyalty to friends hardly counts as whitewashing.
American critics seem blind to the fact that Generation War is an anti-war film. Americans and Britons approach a German movie about World War II with an iron framework of anticipations and preconceptions that focus narrowly on one question: Are the Germans somehow trying to whitewash their unspeakable past? Once you put aside this tired framing, you see that Generation War is about the human stupidity, groupthink, and cowardice that lead to war. The non-Jewish German characters start out swallowing Hitler's propaganda about a quick war and the international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy (while excepting their Jewish friend Viktor Goldstein under the motto of Karl Lueger, former mayor of Vienna: 'Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich' (g) -- 'I decide who's a Jew'). The rest of the movie grinds each of the four non-Jewish characters through a relentless nightmare of betrayal, hypocrisy, moral corruption, and violence that kills a few of them and leaves the rest permanently scarred and profoundly cynical. The viewer is meant to experience this as just retribution for their gullibility and gradually-expanding complicity in evil.
Generation War is a German movie that shows the horror and futility of any war anywhere. It's a straightforward, not-particularly-subtle morality tale about the dangers of nationalism and militarism. American critics might have given that aspect of the movie some thought, considering that just 11 years ago, Americans were -- with truly embarrassing ease -- suckered into supporting a pointless, brutal occupation that has now left over a million injured, 270,000 of whom have brain injuries (counting Afghanistan), not to mention the countless millions of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured. Whether the echo was intentional or not, it's telling that one of the German characters, fighting partisans and the Red Army on the front lines in Russia, muses bitterly that just three years ago, the German army was 'greeted as liberators' from Bolshevism.
Another in the regular dispatches from America's moribund classical-music scene:
Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case. A Bloomberg story on the recent wave of orchestra bankruptcies (an unheard-of phenomenon outside of the U.S., says Flanagan) notes that by 2005, orchestras got more money from donations than from ticket sales. The New York City Opera, once hailed as the “people’s opera,” filed for bankruptcy in October. If the “people” want opera, they’ve got a funny way of showing it.
If classical music was merely becoming the realm of the old—an art form that many of us might grow into appreciating—that might be manageable. But Sandow’s data on the demographics of classical audiences suggest something worse. Younger fans arenot converting to classical music as they age. The last generation to broadly love classical music may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.
What about making music? In 1992, 4.2 percent of American adults reported performing or practicing classical music at least once in the previous year.
By 2012, the number had dropped to 2 percent (compared with, say, the 5 percent of Americans who reported they created “pottery, ceramics or jewelry.”)
The only thing that can save classical music in America is a recognition by politicians of all parties that classical performance will never pay for itself, will never be popular with the mainstream, and is yet important enough to deserve large subsidies to prevent its ultimate disappearance.
And that will never happen.
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?
We Anglo-Saxons are a race of reckless innovators, especially those of us who risked everything to cross the Atlantic and found the Land of Opportunity. It's our job to create the trends everyone else imitates, and we take it on gladly. Meanwhile, we look at the Continent with bemusement. There, 'stars' that would long have been forced down into the septic tank of obscurity continue to be venerated by millions of people. Hugh Schofield noted the curious French tolerance of Johnny Hallyday:
In fact, when one looks around, one realises that there is an unusual level of flattery - one might even say obsequiousness - in French public life, especially when it comes to culture.
If you have ever watched French television, you will get the picture.
A typical mid-evening programme is a chat show on which the invitees are members of the small, unchanging - and therefore ageing - club of national celebrities.
Behind in rows of seats, a youthful audience hand-picked for telegenic good looks bursts into applause at every anecdote or hackneyed clip from the archives.
At the more serious end of the market, the annual literary season is in September, when there is a rush of new publications and the big book prizes like the Goncourt are announced.
Here, too, listening to the reviews is like being beaten about the head with a powder puff.
Nothing is ever mediocre, let alone bad.
Everything is uplifting, exquisite, crafted, delicate, challenging, or that most irritating of French words: "engage", which means "committed", though to what is never spelled out.
One realises after a while that the French view their stars almost as members of the family. They enjoy going to see them in the same way they enjoy catching up with the latest family gossip.
That kind of conservatism is actually quite refreshing after the brutal neophilia (the constant need for the new and the culling of everything that is familiar) that one associates with British culture.
The bad reason is that it is all about self-protection.
Succumbing to sycophancy, after all, is a way of reassuring oneself that all is good in the world, when clearly it is not.
Seen like that, the French are merely deluding themselves that their culture matters the way it once did: sticking their fingers in their ears, if you like, and whistling to Johnny Hallyday.
Much of this applies equally to Germany. Die Zeit, despite its many virtues, is probably the worst offender here, dutifully reprinting every syllable that drops from the mouth of Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Schmidt. In the culture pages, virtually every writer, no matter how obscure, is dutifully given the epithet groß (great). Pop acts that are long-forgotten (or who have degenerated into jokes) in the Anglo-Saxon world -- Metallica, Ozzie Osbourne (g) -- fondly embrace Germany as a sort of geriatro-rocker retirement home. Quondam innovators Kraftwerk, who haven't released any genuinely new music in decades, continue to pack them in in Germany (and to be fair, MOMA, where their concerts were billed as a 'curated' retrospective, drenched with nostalgia).
Which brings me to this clip from the 1996 direct-to-video movie 'Vibrations':
Someone in the US unearthed it and it's become a minor Internet sensation under the heading '90s nostalgia. Yet in Germany, 'techno' music is alive and well -- in fact, the 2010 version of the Love Parade attracted almost a million people. If it hadn't been for the overcrowding that killed 21 people at that event, it would still be going on.
FINAL UPDATE: OK, I've inserted a few more links and done a bit of editing, so I'll leave this as the final version.
Let me reiterate one critical point: the purpose of this list is not some sort of a scorecard for an asinine whose-country-is-best locker room contest. Many of the stereotypes of America listed in the left-hand column have more than a grain of truth, and there are plenty of counter-arguments to mitigate the criticisms of Germany. This is not meant to be an even-handed scholarly analysis. It is just a handy cheat sheet to use when a certain (blessedly rare) kind of pompous, overbearing German launches into an anti-American tirade. In my experience, these episodes have become much less frequent since George W. Bush left office. But nevertheless, you never know when you'll get cornered at a party with one of these people, and this list can help the hapless Yank move from defense to offense.
UPDATE 12 April: Since a few commenters have implied I'm making these criticisms up or don't know what I'm talking about (which I do), I've decided to go through the list, revising a bit and adding links to back up my points. Still an ongoing process...
By popular demand, here's the list I mentioned in a recent post. As noted, the list is largely not of defenses to these stereotypical shortcomings of American society (many of which I find accurate). Rather, they are lists of similar/comparable shortcomings in German society. If I can't think of a comparable fault, I just say Touche.
The point of this informal, highly unserious list is just to provoke reflection and provide talking-points to wrong-foot German chauvinists, not make anybody feel bad. I haven't provided links to proof of the German shortcomings, but I'm pretty sure they're accurate, and proof is available if you know where to look.
|American failing||German Failing|
|Americans are hostile to science because they reject evolution / global warming||About 2/3 of Germans (g) believe in homeopathy; Germans have a widespread, exaggerated fear of certain technologies such as nuclear power and genetically modified food.|
|The American criminal justice system discriminates against minorities because they're overrepresented in prison||Judged by that metric, so does Germany (g). The typical response of the German chauvinist to this uncomfortable fact is the overrepresenation of minorities in German prisons shows their bad character and failure to integrate into society, while the predominance of blacks in American prisons shows exclusively the racism of the US justice system. I always find this amusing.
|Americans are fat||Touche! Yet Germans are catching up fast (g).
|Americans eat garbage fast food / have no idea about quality, freshness, etc.||Touche! Yet German cuisine isn't up to much, and ordinary Germans seem to like US fast food as much as ordinary Americans do. Perhaps even more, given that they pay much higher prices for it (g).
|Americans worship money and are obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous||Many rich Americans earned their fortunes, while many rich Germans simply inherited theirs, and haven't done a thing to contribute to society in decades, except perhaps open an art gallery. Germans may not be quite as openly money-obsessed as Americans, but easily make up for it by their lust for titles, nobility, and social status.|
|The American education system privileges the rich and well-educated||So does the German system (g). The German system also quasi-forcibly shunts (g) most students off into non-university education tracks quite early, and it's difficult to overcome this decision.
|Americans are racist; America is a racist society||Racist attitudes are at least as widespread in Germany (g) if not more so. Germany had to be prodded repeatedly by the EU to pass a law banning racial discrimination among private actors, and only did so in 2006, after a loud debate, and had to take 'anti-discrimination' out of the law's title to get it passed. The law continues to permit many forms of discrimination and has been criticized as toothless (g). Germany was criticized by the UN as late as 2011 for ongoing discrimination against non-Germans. Many Germans believe it's OK for private business owners and landlords to discriminate, while such practices have been made illegal and stigmatized by society in the US since the 1960s. You won't hear an American say anything about a black person that Germans haven't said about Turks -- most recently in a book written by a prominent German politician which became one of the bestselling non-fiction books in German history (g). Also, 1933-1945.
|Americans don't love nature or the environment||Wrong. Americans were creating national parks and raising environmental awareness long before Germans were. Americans burn about as much fossil fuel per capita as Canadians do, for basically the same reason -- big countries, lots of space to cover.
|Americans are obsessed by the military/easily led into war without considering the consequences||Touche, at least since 1945.|
|Americans file too many lawsuits||Surprise! Germans file almost twice as many lawsuits as Americans do per capita, and are the most litigious society in Europe, perhaps in the entire world.|
|Americans file crazy lawsuits like the hot coffee lawsuit||Germans file lawsuits over ludicrously trivial matters, such as €1500 for the fact that a hotel room had only two single beds instead of a double bed (g) or because an employee was called by the informal 'du' instead of the formal 'Sie' (g). And besides, what's so bad about litigiousness? Most of the world's population desperately yearns to live in a country in which the powerful can be called to account and disputes can be reliably settled without violence.
|The fact that large numbers of Americans don't have health insurance is scandalous||Touche.|
|Americans are uneducated and lack knowledge of history & the outside world||A much higher percentage of Americans has college degrees than Germans. Embarrassingly, German universities punch well below their weight in international comparisons (in part because cheating is rampant among German university students), while American schools regularly top almost every ranking. Plus, Americans are far ahead of Germans in understanding & using the Internet, an inexhaustible source of knowledge. Who created Wikipedia?|
|Americans often vote for foolish/unqualified politicians||Germans have no direct control over the leadership of their political parties, and have much less control over policy than American voters, leading to widespread alienation and lack of enthusiasm (g).
|Giant corporations control Congress||Lobbying is just as widespread in Germany and the EU, and 85% of laws passed by the German Bundestag originate in Brussels. Further, the situation on lobbying and campaign donations in Germany is much more non-transparent than in the US.|
|There are dangerous ghettos in American cities filled with disaffected, outcast populations||Germany, like all modern nations, has neighborhoods and cities which are concentrations of the poor and minorities. In German, they're called Soziale Brennpunkte (g), roughly translatable as 'socially-deprived hot spots.' There are many of them all around Germany. In Gelsenkirchen, for example, 21.5% of the population lives from government assistance (g). Not to mention no-go areas where far-right and neo-Nazi groups predominate. The only difference is that Germans tend to stack their poor on top of each other in run-down housing projects, while in the US they tend to live on the ground next to one another. And in America, they have more guns.|
|America is a violent society||Ever notice how giant police cordons are required to keep German soccer fans from beating each other to a pulp? More statistically, the overall crime rate in Germany is almost twice that of the United States, according to one study, although that probably overstates the matter due to different ways of counting crime. Nevertheless, overall rates of violent crime in Europe and the US are comparable and Europe has higher property crime rates. Murder rates are higher in the US, mainly because of guns. In Germany as elsewhere, your likelihood of encountering violence is overwhelmingly dependent on where you live and who's in your social network.
|Many American workers work for pitifully low wages with no job security||The US has a national minimum wage, which Germany so far lacks. And Germany is rapidly catching up with the US in creating an easily-exploitable, low-wage workforce (g) with minimal job security. Since 2000, median German wages have actually declined, whereas American wages have merely stagnated.|
|Americans have a sexual double standard that combines prudishness with porn||Touche.|
|Americans discriminate against Muslims since 9/11||Germans were doing it long before 9/11 and haven't stopped. American Muslims are much better integrated into American society than German Muslims are; a comprehensive 2007 study (pdf) described American Muslims as 'largely integrated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.' -- a state of affairs Germany can only dream of.
|American television shows lots of garbage||So does German television. Ever seen a 2-hour-long Volksmusik program? The best American television drama and comedy (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Community) beats comparable German fare hands-down in terms of realism, freshness, quality of writing, universal appeal, and even social criticism.
|Americans watch too much television||Touche! Yet once again, Germans, who watch 4 hours 2 minutes per day (g) aren't all that far behind.|
|American news media are too tame and superficial||Germany lacks a culture of aggressive, oppositional investigative reporting and passed its equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act about 30 years after America did. Lots of German papers are full of pompous opinion pieces and court stenography of the rich and powerful. Plus, Germany has Bild, an influential (g) tabloid full of T&A, nationalism, reactionary platitudes, scandal-mongering, and crappy reporting (g). Nothing quite like Bild exists in the U.S.
|Americans are superficially cheerful and fake||Germans are superficially cold, reserved and rude. And sometimes not just superficially.
|Americans lack a culture of literature and reading||The percentage of people who genuinely read quality literature is tiny in all societies, and many German 'literary' novels have to be heavily subsidized, sell 200-300 copies maximum, and are so derivative, navel-gazingly self-indulgent or dully Germany-specific that they attract zero interest in other countries. The same is true of most German art-house movies as well.
|American society is too car-dependent and lacks good public transportation.
UPDATE in response to Marcellina's comment:
|Americans are uncultured and don't provide enough state support to museums, symphonies, etc.||America's flexible, multi-source model of cultural funding actually brings its own kinds of vibrant results. Germany's top-down system of cultural subsidies has been often criticized as elitist, wasteful and redundant (g). It also gives dictatorial power to self-indulgent directors and smug, insular, out-of-touch cultural bureaucrats, who routinely interfere deeply with artists' expression. Anyone who's ever been to one of the countless plays and operas defaced by gratuitously offensive / nonsensical / tediously didactic productions will wonder whether Germany's problem is actually too much arts funding with too little accountability.
UPDATE 2: Oh, and one other thing:
|American beer and coffee are undrinkable||Note how I had to leave wine out of this one to even make it a fair fight. Everywhere there's a Starbucks, and that's everywhere except maybe nuclear missile silos, you can get a cup of coffee brewed with reverse-osmosis-purified water and expertly-roasted, freshly-ground, 100% Arabica beans. Germany's beers, while consistently tasty, are also boring, predictable, uniform, and old-fashioned, when they're not sickening beer-cola swill. This is a product of German brewers' adherence to a pointless 500-year-old law that cripples their ability to innovate. Germany had to resort to naked protectionism (g) to try to protect its beers from the glorious diversity of foreign beer, and even so, the German beer industry is withering. By contrast, the average American grocery store on any streetcorner stocks a much wider selection of beer from all over the world than all but the most exclusive German luxury shopping stores.|
Metal bands per 100,000 people.