German Word of the Week: Gesinnungsfleischwolf

In a recent interview in Der Spiegel (sorry, not free online), Jodie Foster said she found German a very difficult language, but liked the sound of it (or something like that).  Here at German Joys, we agree.  And our new German Word of the Week is proof thereof.

In a recent article in the obscure Krefelder Anzeiger, I came across a sentence containing the GWOW.  It’s a combination of two German words, naturally.  The first is Gesinnung, which means something like "conviction" or "worldview" (although there’s an even better word for worldview, namely Weltanschauung).  The next word is the word for "meat-grinder" in German.  But it’s much more colorful than "meat-grinder."  Fleischwolf, literally translated, is "meat-wolf."  You get the picture.

Anyway, back to the Krefelder Anzeiger.  In an opinion article about the process of forming a new Great Coalition cabinet, the slim, obscure paper had this to say:

Doubtless after the coming weeks of negotiations, both major parties will have to put all their plans and ideals through the meat-grinder of conviction (Gesinnungsfleischwolf), and the result will be a sausage which tastes of the lowest common denominator.

I could again praise the enormous word-combining flexibility of the magical, miracle Lego-language that is German, but I hardly think that’s necessary at this point…


Signal Iduna Park?

Oh weh.  Oh weh.  It’s beginning — Apparently they’re about to rename Dortmund’s Westfalen-Stadion (The Stadium of Westphalia, to translate it in the most dignified manner) to Signal-Iduna Stadium.  An impassioned outcry against the proposed move can be found here

My very respected ladies and gentlemen, I come from the place where the Houston Astros baseball team play.  They play now in Minute Maid Park (which used to be Enron Field, before Enron had, err, certain difficulties).  Notice how nobody even cares whether it’s a ‘field’ or a ‘park.’  When the next company buys it, maybe they’s rename it ‘palace’ or ‘clown’ or ‘sock.’  Who cares what you call the stadium?  The important words are the corporate designation. 

Germany, by contrast, is supposed to be the land where some things are Not for Sale.  It’s the land where books all have to be sold at the same price, to enable the survival of neighborhood bookshops like the fabulous Bibabuze, 100 meters from my front door.  It’s the land where cashiers get to sit down while they work.  It’s the land, in short, in which the people occasionally yank the chain on the pit-bull of capitalism, whack it across the nose with a newspaper, and yell "No!", before it tears another hole in the country’s cultural fabric.

And now this.  Signal-Iduna Stadion.  No matter how cool that name is (much better than Düsseldorf’s limp ‘LTU Arena’), it should not happen. 

Stand up, Dormunders.  Do something.  I’m counting on you.

Earth Furniture Sounds Good

A few months ago we had a fruitful discussion of German pop music. The name Erdmöbel ("Earth Furniture") came up, in the comments, and I decided to visit the nearest record store and buy their first CD, Altes Gasthaus Love. I immediately became hooked, and thus was among the first in line for the second release, für die nicht wissen wie.

Erdmöbel is a German pop band. They make hummable, delightful pop music — 4 or 5 minute songs.  They will never compose a suite for symphony orchestra on the theme of the Nibelungen. They will never create a political concept album with dense, threatening music clumsy lyrics sprinkled with words like "oppress" and "exploit."

Erdmöbel sets itself a higher challenge: writing catchy pop tunes. You’ve got to be disciplined and very, very smart to do this well. And man, do they do it well!  The first album is a minor masterpiece of bright, sinuous songcrafting. The musical textures are light and transparent, and the instrumentation varied.

There’s really no filler; each song has its own quirks and pleasures, and can’t be confused with any other. The first five tracks are all gems; standouts include the strangely touching "Dawai, Dawai" and "In the shoes of Audrey Hepburn," which captures the fey, calculated silliness of Holly Golightly; and Mit dem falschen Schatz in Venedig ("With the wrong darling in Venice"), a whimsical tale of infidelity which starts in a plodding kraftwerk-like monotone, but then bursts into tourist-brochure Venetian musical sunshine, complete with mandolins.  Altes Gasthaus Love impresses on first hearing, and the ingenious hooks then take up welcome residence in the subconscious.

The latest album, für die nicht wissen wie, ("for those people who don’t know how," very roughly translated) doesn’t quite bowl you over, but perhaps mostly because the listener’s expectations are so high. The record begins on a Beatles-esque note with the song für die nicht wissen wie, then segues to the juicy, festive electropop of "A song about nothing" (Ein Lied über gar nichts), then there’s a song about the world, then about someone’s nightshirt, then about plenty of other things.  Once again, each song is utterly itself, most of them stride confidently into your subconscious, and the album can be listened to over and over because so much care and talent has been put into it.  The lyrics, the instrumentation, and the melodies are full of hidden hooks and latent surprises. 

Erdmöbel is world-class pop music. It’s heartening to see it coming from Germany. German bands such as Die Fantastischen Vier and Wir Sind Helden are nice as far as they go.  But what they’re doing was done as well, or better, 7 years ago, in English. Erdmöbel’s sensibility puts it in the clever-pop realm with bands like Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, or Steely Dan (who are named after the dildo shared by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas).  But Erdmöbel are doing their own thing, and are outstripping many comers (say, Prefrab Sprout) in the innovativeness and musicality of their instrumentation. Added that their sly, winsomely ironic lyrics (whose clever allusions I am, of course, not fully grasping), and the world should be beating a path to their door.  Even if the world has to learn German first.

Slovenian Joys IV: The City that Plecnik Built

Here’s part IV of my occasional series about Slovenia.  In this installment, we’ll meet the second most-famous Slovenian after Slavoj Zizek, the architect Joze Plecnik.  Then I suppose I’ll return to commenting about German for a while, since that really is the point of this blog, and I’ve got plenty of things to say.  But let’s stay in Slovenia for just a little while longer, shall we?

Perhaps it’s just because my friends are especially cultured (lucky me); but many of the people I met in Slovenia seemed to do something creative for a living. There was Gregor the poet, whom I’ve mentioned before. Then there was Sergey, also a poet. Also Primoz, who had the high cheekbones, piercingly intelligent eyes, and luxuriant, prematurely-gray hair of a newscaster or covert agent. But he, also, was a poet. In one of Slovenia’s many bookstores, I found a biographical almanac of contemporary Slovenian composers. There were page after page of them — at least 100 in all, and obviously one or the other might have been overseen or left out. The Slovenian Academy of Writers has hundreds of members, even though there are apparently entrance requirements to keep the mere wannabes out. Slovenia has fewer residents than Berlin, but seems packed with artists and cultural producers of every stripe.

Creative people also dominate the national memory. The monumental sculpture in Ljubljana’s central square is to France Preseren, a 19th-century poet who wrote what is now Slovenia’s national anthem. The currency features illustrations not of generals or statesmen, but of explorers (Valvasor), composers (Gallus), painters (Ivana Kobilca, a talented, if not dazzlingly original, female Impressionist), and architects (Joze Plecnik).

Evaluating the quality of the poetry and the novels isn’t particularly easy, since the translations are few and far between, and some of the works seem to contain references that make little sense to a non-Slovenian. Fortunately, though, you don’t have to exhaust yourself to experience one of Slovenia’s most impressive contributions to the world’s cultural heritage. All you have to do is leave your house in Ljubjana and wander around the city that Joze Plecnik, the Slovenian architect par excellence, almost single-handedly designed.

Perhaps you haven’t heard of Plecnik yet. I must admit, to my shame, I hadn’t either, before I visited Slovenia. But you can’t swing a dead cat, as Texans say, without hitting a building designed by Joze Plecnik. Plecnik (pronounced PLETSCH-nik) started his career studying with Otto Wagner in fin-de-siecle Vienna, and absorbed some of the stylistics elements of the Vienna Secession, which can be thought of as a slightly more rectilinear and reserved branch of Art Nouveau.

After the First World War, Plecnik was given a more-or-less free hand to design Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, finances permitting. He ordered the river coursing through Ljublj085_banks_of_ljubljanicaana to be dredged and supplied with stepped concrete riverbanks adorned by willow-trees. (see image) He designed a unique congregation of three closely-spaced bridges in the center, which provide ample opportunities for cars and pedestrians to cross at the center of the city. Although little-known outside Slovenia during his lifetime, Plecnik is now gaining a posthumous reputation as a visionary Gaudi-like synthetic iconoclast, mixing elements of Egyptian, neoclassical, and Byzantine elements into more-or less harmonious whole. Goethe once called architecture "frozen music," and the frozen music Plecnik created seems to veer from rollicking neoclassical warmth to eerie Oriental exoticism to atonal sound-clouds.

You can, and should, start by visiting Plecnik’s self-designed house, in the Trnovo suburb just south of Ljubljana’s center. Plecnik, a devout Christian Socialist, never married, and conducted an almost monk-like existence. Plecnik placed engravings of bees in the house to remind himself to get back to work. He designed most of his furniture himself, including a portable plug-in electric lamp. The house also contains fantastically detailed wooden scale models of projects he was never able to realize, for financial reasons. His bedroom is circular, with built-in cabinets housing a collection of books on all imaginable subjects. A cabinet built ingeniously into the curving wall contains a series of Japanese woodcuts, and a gilt angel hangs from the ceiling rafters.

098_altar_of_church_of_st_francis_in_sisPlecnik also designed several churches across Ljubljana and Slovenia. They do not resemble conventional churches at all.  For instance, on the left is the interior of the Church of St. Francis in the working-class Ljubljana suburb of Siska. The pillars are composed of brick, and the altar is in the shape of an elongated pyramid (Plecnik was a Freemason). The tower itself has a pyramidal shape as well. In Plecnik’s house, you can see a model he designed of a crucifix in which Christ appears to be descending from the 249_zale_entrance_to_crematorium_front_vcross himself.

But perhaps Plecniks’ crowning achievement is the municipal cemetery of Ljubljana, called the Zale cemetery. The entrance to the mausoleum (r) is all cool, stately neoclassical elegance. The in dividual gravesites, whether by edict or zeitgeist, seem to echo this dignified, Art-Nouveau restraint, as you can see in the photo to the left.  250_robinska_grave_sunlight_highlight_2