A Short Review of ‘Poem’

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem — perhaps any Heine poem — superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively — the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.

The Peter Sodann Library of East German Books is Now Open

Gestaltung des Lebens und sozialistische Erziehung im Kindergarten

After the collapse of East Germany, the question arose of what to do with all those East German books. East Germany had many publishing houses and a quite well-developed educational system. Nevertheless, a typical East German biography of Bismarck, say, was unlikely to be competitive with its West German (or non-socialist) counterpart. Not to mention the hundreds of university coursebooks on 'socialist' small-business management, town planning, early-childhood education, etc. Some of these books made their way to used booksellers, where I eagerly bought as many as I could, as I find them fascinating. Others, however, were unceremoniously dumped into the garbage or left to molder in storage.

Then came Peter Sodann, a German actor and theater director who grew up in East Germany. He started collecting these books to preserve a part of German history and culture. The 'Peter Sodann' library is now open in the small town of Staucha, in Saxony. It even has an online catalog, which is quite extensive. Apparently much of the cost of the library is covered by donations and by volunteer catalogers. Many of the books, the website states, remain in banana crates, waiting to be catalogged.

Given my fascination with East Germany, I will be planning a pilgrimage there shortly, and will report…

Germany is the Eurozone’s Most Unequal Country

An analysis of a recent ECB report debunks the notion that Germans are somehow 'poorer' than Spaniards or Greeks and also reveals, along the way:

A comparison of the median and mean wealth reveals something about
the distribution of wealth in each [Eurozone] country. If the largest difference is
between the mean and the median, the greater is the inequality in the
distribution of wealth. It now appears that the difference is highest in
Germany. We show this by presenting the ratios of the mean to the
median for the different countries in Figure 3. In Germany the mean
household wealth is almost four times larger than the median. In most
other countries this ratio is between 1.5 and 2. Thus household wealth
in Germany is concentrated in the richest households more so than in the
other Eurozone countries. Put differently, there is a lot of household
wealth in Germany but this is to be found mostly in the top of the
wealth distribution.

The inequality of the distribution of household wealth is made even
more vivid by comparing the wealth owned by the top 20% of the income
class to the wealth owned by the bottom 20% of the income class. This is
shown in Figure 4. We find that in Germany the top 20% of the income
class has 149 times more wealth than the bottom 20% of the income class.
Judged by this criterion, Germany has the most unequal distribution of
wealth in the Eurozone.

Wealth held by top 20%/bottom 20%:

h/t MTW.

What Made the Black Death so Deadly

Maggie Koerth-Baker reports the pretty amazing fact that if you happened to get infected with Yersinia pestis — the bacterium that caused the Black Plague — today, you would have a 97% chance of surviving even without modern medical care. So why did it kill between 30-50% of Europeans in the 14th century? To find out, scientsts have been looking for ancient plague DNA:


In 2011, a team led by McMaster University paleogeneticist Hendrik
Poinar became the first to reconstruct a full genome for Black Death era
Yersinia pestis.

This was not a full and complete genome drawn from a single
bacterium inhabiting the body of a single victim. Instead, the genome
was patched together from bits and pieces of DNA in remains taken from London's East Smithfield cemetery.
The small chunks were lined up to create a whole, similar to the way
you make a panoramic photo by combining a series of different shots.
Hendrik Poinar calls it a "draft" of the genome, rather than a smooth,
polished work of biology.

The draft tells us a couple of things. First, the Y. pestis of the
Black Death era is related to modern Y. pestis. In fact, it's probably
the ancestor of all the strains of Y. pestis that exist today. Second —
and this is the weird part — there is really not much difference between
the old Y. pestis and the new. It boils down to about 100 genetic
changes, few of which seem to have given the bacteria enough of an
evolutionary advantage that they spread widely through the population.

Genetically, Y. pestis has barely changed. Its infection profile in
the real world, though, has changed massively. That suggests that at
least some of those small alterations in the genome must have been
extremely important. But which ones? And why? To answer those questions,
you could reverse-engineer the evolution of Y. pestis in the
lab. "We'd have an opportunity to test those changes, one at a time, and
find out," Poinar said. "… If we could do it in a form or fashion
that wouldn't terrify people."

So, who's going to join me in volunteering to be infected with ancient plague for Science? After all, with modern medical care, there's probably at least an 80% chance of survival. I like those odds!

Surströmming: Horror in a Can

One of mankind's more regrettable discoveries is that you can eat fish at a certain stage of decomposition and survive. Confusing ought with is, some people then decided that because it was possible to do this, it should be done. If you were ever to be transported back to ancient Rome, you would immediately be confronted with the omnipresence of garum, the fermented fish sauce that was used as a seasoning and widely mocked as repulsive even in Roman times. The Vietnamese also use fish sauce to this day.

But the Swedes take it one step back, refusing to wait until the fish liquefied. A friend recently brought back from Sweden a bulging tin can of 'fermented' (that is, half-rotten) chunks of herring, a Swedish specialty called 'surströmming'. A genteel Swiss food critic described this dish as 'horror in a can' (g) and described a tasting 'party' thus:

The biggest challenge when eating strömming is to vomit only after the first bite, not before. The word 'bestial' aptly describes the odor, the taste is just plain disgusting. Spicy, bitter, tangy, and sour. No-one in the group was able to take more than 5 grams into their mouths.

My friend, who staged a tasting party of his own, reached deep into his richly-stocked clearinghouse of metaphors to describe it:

Unspeakably vile. I managed one bite without throwing up and
couldn’t get down any more than that. It was a taste that resembled a rotting
corpse in a plastic bag left in an alley behind an Indian restaurant in the sun
for a few days. It was like what I imagine it would taste like blowing a
syphilitic homeless man who has pissed himself for the past three days
straight. It wasn’t pungent or offensive in smell beyond a ripe fart, it wasn’t
sharp, or tangy at all, but dear lord – in the mouth, it was like licking the
worst thing imaginable. The sheer sickly putrefaction taste just conjured up
dead flies in the bottom of a cheap beer bottle in a deserted crack house.

In the following video, the indomitable Aussie Louis barely manages to choke down some surströmming, which is really something, seeing as he has no problem eating roadkill and live scorpions