The New York Times Profiles Cindy aus Marzahn

The New York Time profiles Ilka Bessin, the obese former welfare recipient from East Germany who created a stage persona called 'Cindy aus Marzahn' and has parlayed it into massive success. 'Cindy', by the way, is a typical lower-class German name, as you can tell from its American provenance. Other names that instantly evoke the German (not Turkish) Lumpenproletariat are Kevin, Dakota, Darryl, Montana, Jasmin, and a few others. Although lots of these stereotypes are increasingly outdated, since I've had plenty of high-achieving Jasmins and Kevins in my classes. Here's a bit of the profile: 

Out of the crucible of humiliation emerged Cindy, crass and cagey, driven by appetites. She hides a bratwurst in a banana peel and asks the audience for chocolate, then eats what they throw onstage. “I have Alzheimer’s bulimia,” Cindy likes to say, stomach bulging under her pink sweatshirt, tiara perched atop her wig. “I eat everything in sight and then forget to throw up.”

Critics call her act offensive, lowbrow and worse, mixing high-minded attacks on her with patronizing depictions of her supposedly benighted fans. Those fans answer by buying her concert videos and turning out to her shows in droves, where they scream and applaud like mad, many wearing their own tiaras and pink sweatshirts emblazoned with the words “Alzheimer’s bulimia” on the front.

Cindy regales them with tales of her time as a member of the Socialist Children’s Television Ballet or her efforts to get adopted by Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt. Her performances are marathons with musical numbers. Fans often bring her presents and handmade cards. She is a star but also a hero, one of them, one who made it.

“I win,” Cindy sings in one of her songs, “although I’m not a winner.”

I've watched her, and Cindy is actually pretty funny. She knows that some of the people watching her show are proper bourgeois urbanites who are laughing at not with, but she doesn't give a flying fuck. In fact she gives as good as she gets, mocking organic food and viola lessons and hybrid cars and multi-kulti tolerance and other shibboleths of the educated urban bourgeoisie. It's one of the things I find honest and refreshing about German culture: everyone knows that classes exist and always will, and that they're always going to be in conflict. Yet merely acknowledging that fact doesn't doom society to centrifugal self-destruction. This means you can speak openly, even vulgarly about social classes without employing all the enervating euphemisms Americans often resort to (example here).

By the way, the fact that Cindy aus Marzahn was profiled in the New York Times was big news in Germany. It was all over the airport news monitors!

Kyrghyz Eyes

Susan Messer writes about The Magic Mountain:

One of the unforgettable details of the
novel was the obsession of Hans Castorp (the main character) with the
elusive Clavdia Chauchat, who Mann describes repeatedly as having Kyrgyz
eyes. This is, indeed, one of her defining features. "Kyrgyz eyes" were
also a feature of an earlier breathless obsession in Castorp's life–a
young boy who had many years before loaned young Hans a pencil on the
school playground. So Mann echoes these eyes and these obsessions (even the pencil) throughout the novel.

I also wondered exactly what Mann meant by Kyrgyz eyes (Kirgisenaugen). Messer provides us with this photo of actual Kyrgyznauts, or whatever one calls people from Kyrghyzstan:

Kyrghiz eyes
Cute and wholesome. But I prefer this version, courtesy of St. Petersburg-based photographer Daniil Kontorovich aka Tertius Alio:


If you ask me, she's got Kyrghyz-everything.

The New Brother Theodore DVD is Out

I blogged before about To My Great Chagrin, the documentary about Brother Theodore, scion of a wealthy Jewish Düsseldorf family who was chased out of Germany by the Nazis, landed in the U.S., and started a career as the strangest, darkest, absurdest stand-up 'comedian' you're ever likely to see. He called his bit 'stand-up tragedy.'

I've now got news that the producer, Jeff Sumerel, is offering a new, enhanced DVD with interviews with Woody Allen, Eric Bogosian, and many others. You can — and should — order it here.

Thoughts on ‘Funny Games’

A few days ago I watched Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke's 1997 succes de scandale — which he remade in the U.S. a decade later. Since there will be spoilers, the rest comes after the jump.

The plot could hardly be more simple: a wealthy bourgeois German family retires to their sprawling lakeside second home. There's the father, the mother, and a boy about 10 years old. Two young men named Peter and Paul, apparently acquaintances of one of the neighbors, appear at the house. They're dressed in what looks like tennis whites and are wearing white cotton gloves like antiquarians. They insinuate themselves into the home, take the entire family captive, cut them off from the outside world, and torture and kill all three after playing bizarre mindgames with them. All for no discernible reason, except twisted kicks.

Funny Games is a patholological, cynical, ugly masterpiece, because it's a bundle of paradoxes. On the one hand, it's remorselessly faithful to its premise of bleak honesty: this is going to be a movie in which nobody heroes up, the bad guys win, nobody escapes, and there is no justice or accountability. Haneke almost taunts the audience by setting up story lines that start moving into the familiar grooves of resourceful-rescue stories. For instance the plucky, adorable son, Georgie, manages to escape from the house where his family is imprisoned and get to a neighbor's house — only to find the neighbors have all been massacred, and Paul is waiting there to bring him back. Peter and Paul dunk the family's cellphone in water to disable it, but later Georg, the father, painstakingly blow-dries the phone until the display finally re-activates — to show the phone's battery is dead.

On the other hand, though, Haneke continuously undermines his own premise by breaking the fourth wall. Paul, the smooth, cunning home invader, occasionally turns to the audience and winks during the cruel escapades. He asks us, the audience, who we think will survive the movie, and chides us for predictably siding with the innocent family. At about the 1 hour point, he addresses the viewer and reassures us that we shouldn't imagine the film will be ending soon, since that would be much too short for a feature film. He then tells us that he and his friend Peter will leave the house for a while, to give the remaining family members time to try to and escape, thereby increasing the suspense. After the wife suddenly reaches for a gun and kills Peter, Paul finds the remote control, 'rewinds' the plot as we watch, and takes the gun away from her. Haneke also has his fun with the smugness of the bourgeois family. Like all good high-bourgeois Germans, they have surrounded their home with carefully-maintained fences, walls, and gates — which paradoxically lock them in when they most need to escape.

Some reviewers found this to be a cheap gimmick, while others suggested it made the audience somehow 'complicit' in the barbaric fun. I don't really agree with either suggestion. The asides to the audience add another layer of chilling, alienated weirdness to what is already an intensely unsettling movie. The underlying point of Funny Games is to mock the lazy conventions of kidnapping/rescue dramas (especially the audience's expectations), and sabotaging the mimetic effect does that nicely. Yet, paradoxically, these asides actually enhance the suspense: they show that Haneke is blowing the conventions of the genre wide open, which means the audience can no longer rely on the assumptions it brings to 'psychological thrillers'. They are one of the first clues that are probably not going to see a heroic last-minute rescue, or a heart-to-heart in which the kidnappers gain insight and relent, or any of the other convenient knot-tiers used in dramas.

At the same time, the asides don't really make us 'complicit' in the pair's actions, anymore than a drunken barfly's leering makes a woman 'complicit' in his seduction plans. Rather, the asides set up an uncomfortable dichotomy: the family members are not in on the joke, and their suffering is 'real', but both the viewers and the home invaders are on the side who 'know' the whole thing is a game and who need not suffer any consequences. We're the voyeurs, they're the dungeon masters, and the family's ultimate humiliation, perhaps, is the fact that they never realize they are mere toys. That's also the key to the movie's title, which is in intentionally stilted English, not German. The end of the film, in which Paul charms his way into a neighbor's house, starting the cycle of murder once again, is about as brilliant and bleak as the famous ending of Cure, another deeply disturbing movie.

Funny Games is perhaps the archetype of a polarizing movie: the negative reviews treat the movie as if it were not just bad but soiled, debased, harmful and toxic. Those reviews may be the true yardstick of Haneke's achievement.

Naipaul’s Opinions on Thomas Mann and Jane Austen

The New Republic has an amusing interview with V.S. Naipaul (h/t SK). His opinions on Mann, Wodehouse and Jane Austen:

IC: I was wondering what you like to read now.

VSN: I read many things. I read to fill in my knowledge of the world. I am reading this writer, [Thomas] De Quincey, here [points to the book]. The other thing I am reading, quite unusual for me, is Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. I was staggered by it.

IC: Why did it stagger you?

VSN: It was so wise. Wonderful narrative gift. His language is
wonderful. When he is talking, it varies from mode to mode. And it’s
always marvelous. He has to deal with typhoid, which will kill his
character, and he does it pulling away. He goes inside the sufferer and
says, this is what happens to a cancer patient, a typhoid patient. At a
certain stage, life calls out to him. Very beautiful way of writing. I
am feeble trying to paraphrase. Very, very moving. I was dazzled by it.

IC: Are there English or British authors you go back to time and again?

VSN: No, no. Who do you go back to?

IC: [George] Orwell. P.G. Wodehouse.

VSN: I can’t read Wodehouse. The thought of, shall we say,
facing three or four months of nothing but Wodehouse novels fills me
with horror.

IC: What about George Eliot?

VSN: Childhood, you know, childhood. A little of [The Mill on the Floss]
was read to me. It mattered at the time. But as you get older, your
tastes and needs change. I don’t like her or the big English writers. I
don’t like [Charles] Dickens.

IC: No British writers.

NN: The poets he likes, not the prose. He likes the columnists more than the writers.

VSN: I don’t want to upset them.

NN: He upsets people for no reason.

IC: I was going to ask about his Jane Austen comments.

NN: Oh God, everybody hates Jane Austen. They don’t have the
balls to say it. Believe me. Who did we meet the other day, that famous
academic who said Jane Austen was rubbish? And I said, “Why don’t you
stand up and say it.” And he said, “Am I mad?” They have all reassessed
her, but they just don’t want to say it.

IC: Do you want to expand on why you don’t like her? You think she’s trivial?

VSN: Yes, it is too trivial. A romantic story. It doesn’t do
anything for me. It doesn’t tell me anything. It’s not like Mann talking
about death. He has a way of dealing with it.

That's an intelligent reason for admiring Buddenbrooks, which I find otherwise a bit tedious.