Category Archives: Arts and Culture

Sex, Drugs and Crime in the Gritty Drama ‘Babylon Berlin’

The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2017

BERLIN — It’s the spring of 1929, and this city is a fast-moving modern metropolis where artistic and sexual experimentation flourishes against a backdrop of organized crime, political street battles and a fragile democratic order.

Welcome to the world of “Babylon Berlin.”

This new epic crime drama, set during the Weimar Republic, the chaotic 15-year era that preceded the Third Reich, is widely predicted to become an international television sensation. Reportedly the most expensive German-language TV show ever produced, “Babylon Berlin” aims to build on the success of other recent German hits, like “Deutschland ’83” and “The Same Sky.”

This ambitious 16-part, two-season show has already been sold to 60 TV markets. It had its British premiere on Sunday night on Sky Atlantic and will begin streaming on Netflix in the United States on Jan. 30.

Based on the best-selling novels by Volker Kutscher, the show centers on Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne played by Volker Bruch, who arrives in the unfamiliar capital to investigate a blackmail plot involving a sadomasochistic porn film.

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A Cold War Icon Revived

Once the gateway to West Berlin, the area around Zoo Station suffered decline and neglect after the fall of the Wall. Now international and German investors are rediscovering the Cold War city center.

Handelsblatt Global, September 26, 2014

It is early afternoon and police officers are shaking the shoulder of a man sleeping rough under the bridge next to Berlin’s Zoo Station. He is wrapped in a blanket, nestled beneath scaffolding in this murky underpass often frequented by drunks and junkies. A few feet away two young men in designer T-shirts and sunglasses sip coffee outside a new corner café.

The juxtaposition reveals how much the area is changing around the iconic station, formerly the main transport hub of the old West Berlin. While it had fallen into decline after the fall of the Berlin Wall it is now undergoing something of a rebirth.

Ambitious new construction projects are transforming the urban landscape here. Entrepreneurs are building luxury hotels, concept malls, office space and residential blocks, making it one of Berlin’s newest real estate hotspots.

Zoo Station has an iconic place in Berlin history. It is named after the oldest zoo in Germany, next to which it first opened in 1882. During the Cold War it was the first point of arrival for many entering the cut-off Western enclave.  One of the first things they would see is the bombed out steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a reminder of the brutal war the Nazis thrust on Europe. On the other side of the square the Kufürstendamm, the prime shopping boulevard, was the showcase of capitalism in the divided city.

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Berlin’s Art Scene Moves West

The empty spaces of the former East Berlin gave rise to one of the most important art scenes in the world. Yet many galleries and artists are now turning their backs on the increasingly expensive and often staid East.Handelsblatt Global, September 18, 2014

Thomas Fischer’s gallery is hidden away on the second floor of a Berlin Altbau, looking out on a courtyard behind what were once the drab offices of a Berlin newspaper.

It is on Potsdamer Strasse, a grubby run-down street in West Berlin, still filled with Turkish supermarkets, cheap casinos and brothels. But now, it is also the epicenter of one of the hippest and most productive art scenes in the world.

Even though it was the empty spaces of the former East Berlin that first attracted thousands of artists and gallery owners to create one of the world’s most vibrant art scenes, the focus has now shifted firmly back to the West.

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How Hitler helped make Hollywood

GlobalPost, February 14, 2013
BERLIN, Germany — Two months after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933, Jews working in Germany’s groundbreaking film industry were warned there would be no place for them under the new Nazi regime.

“We will not even remotely tolerate that those ideas, which Germany has eradicated at the root, are able to make their way either openly or surreptitiously back into film,” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced that March. The powerful UFA studio canceled contracts for most Jews working there the following day.

Thus began the greatest rupture in German film history, marking the end of the golden age for Weimar cinema. Soon not only Jews, but left-wingers began fleeing the country, followed by others who saw no place for themselves in what would become the Third Reich’s propaganda machine.

Their departure would help transform another film industry: Hollywood. Of the some 2,000 movie professionals who left Germany in the 1930s, most ended up in California, where the techniques they pioneered back home would have a lasting impact on American film.

This week, the Berlin International Film Festival is honoring them in a retrospective called “The Weimar Touch.” More than 30 films dating from 1933 to 1959 are being shown in a program co-curated by the Deutsche Kinemathek film archive and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The selection explores not only films made by those immigrants after they left Germany, but also their influence on international cinema in general, from their experimental sets and lighting techniques to the way they viewed the world.

“Weimar cinema paid attention not only to the surface but the deep currents beneath,” retrospective director Rainer Rother said in an interview. “It was a cinema more of doubt than of self-assuredness, very open to nuances and ambiguities.”

Film was one of many arts that flourished under Weimar Germany, a period of nascent democracy and great instability between the end of the World War I and the Nazi rise to power. The political and economic uncertainty somehow translated into a great burst of creative energy that’s rarely been matched.

Although experimental works such as “Dr Caligari,” “Nosferatu” and “Metropolis” may be the first to spring to mind on mention of Weimar, Germany also boasted a vibrant commercial film industry that turned out comedies, musicals and other popular entertainment for the home market and international distribution.

But German cinema’s most creative and productive period ended with the exodus that began in 1933. Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Douglas Sirk, Max Ophüls, Robert Siodmak and Max Reinhardt were just some of the actors, directors and others to leave. Continue reading

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Germany’s analogue Father Christmas letter service continues in a digital age

Once upon a time it was an unremarkable village in the former EastGermany, with a rather misleading name: Himmelpfort, or Heaven’s Gate, they call it, though there is not that much heavenly about it.

No matter. The name has proven enough in recent years to attract an annual deluge of letters to Father Christmas, such that Himmelpfort has reinvented itself as Santa’s principal sorting office. Last year the village received more than 300,000 letters, of which more than 15,000 came from abroad. The old redbrick village schoolhouse has been turned into one of seven official Christmas post offices designed to process the mail. Every letter gets a reply with the official Himmelpfort Christmas stamp.

The yuletide postal service had humble beginnings. Back in 1984, two children wrote to Father Christmas at Himmelpfort and a post office worker, Konni Matzke, not sure what to do at first, decided to write back. “Word got out and by 1987 we received 75 letters. And it was lovely – mothers sent packets of coffee and homemade cookies to say thank you to Father Christmas.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, things got even busier, with about 1,000 letters arriving each year, and the village post office was soon overwhelmed. In 1995 Deutsche Post, the state postal service, stepped in to help organise the responses. Now Santa Claus, along with his 20 helpers – the “Christmas Angels” – spend from early November until Christmas Eve replying to each and every one. Continue reading

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Merkel unveils Roma Holocaust memorial

GlobalPost, October 24, 2012

BERLIN, Germany — Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Germany has unveiled a memorial to the up to half-a-million Roma and related Sinti people murdered by the Nazis.

The memorial, a dark, circular pool of water with a triangular plinth in the center — where a fresh flower will be placed every day — stands in the capital’s Tiergarten park near the Reichstag.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck joined politicians and representatives of the Roma and Sinti communities, as well as 100 elderly Holocaust survivors for the unveiling ceremony.

“Every single fate in this genocide is a suffering beyond understanding,” Merkel said. “Every single fate fills me with sorrow and shame.”

However, representatives of the Roma and Sinti — a related people who live mostly in German-speaking Central Europe — say the memorial should also serve as a warning about ongoing discrimination across the continent today. Continue reading

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German Cold War film ‘Barbara’ eyes Oscar

GlobalPost, September 26, 2012

BERLIN, Germany — It’s the height of the Cold War in 1980. The authorities punish a female doctor from Communist East Berlin for applying to leave the country by banishing her to a provincial town. Under constant surveillance by the Stasi secret police, she’s determined to escape and join her lover in the West — until she’s gradually drawn to a fellow doctor in the ramshackle country hospital in which she now works, where she also develops a sense of duty toward her patients.

The tensions in Christian Petzold’s film “Barbara” have captivated audiences here since it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. It won the event’s Silver Bear prizes for best director and best actress and went on to win best film at the German Film Awards. Now it’s been selected as Germany’s submission for best foreign-language film to the American Academy Awards next spring.

The latest in a series of hit films to explore life in East Germany, it’s a strong choice.

Actress Nina Hoss, who’s starred in four previous Petzold films, plays the title’s eponymous protagonist with a restrained, nuanced performance. A glamorous Berliner, Barbara struggles to adjust to a lonely existence in her new home near the Baltic Coast. Quietly defiant, she’s subjected to regular humiliation, including full body cavity searches. She suspects everyone she encounters.

Rightly so: The local Stasi bigwig orders Andre, the hospital’s chief physician, to keep an eye on her. Despite the pair’s initial mistrust, however, their shared professional concern for two young patients prompts them to begin forming a bond. Continue reading

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