Why German Movies Disappoint Again and Again

A few days ago I watched ‘Die Habenichtse’ (‘The Have-nots’), a German movie from 2016, based on an award-winning 2006 novel of the same name.

The plot revolves around Isabelle, a thirtysomething graphic designer, and her romance with and marriage to Jakob, a thirtysomething lawyer. It takes place in both Germany and the UK.

Julia Jentsch was good in the main role, she’s a fine actress. Overall, though the movie was quite dull.

There are two levels to its dullness: one specific to this movie and script, and a much more general kind of dullness which afflicts most movies made within the German public film-subsidy system, as this one was.

Since I think this movie’s a good example of the problems with German movies, I thought I’d take it as an exemplar.

First, a digression. At this point, I don’t think many people would challenge the statement that there’s something wrong with the German movie business. Germany is a large, prosperous, well-educated society. It should be a major player in international cinema. But it punches far below its weight. German movies connect with foreign audiences so rarely that it’s a big story when they do. This is not how it should be: a country with this much talent and funding should produce at least 3-4 German-language movies every year which catch the eye of higher-end international audiences, as is the case for France and Japan, to say nothing of the UK. (German TV series, on the other hand, are steadily improving.)

Instead, Germany produces maybe one movie like this per year, and that’s counting very generously. And even the movies which attract international attention rarely attract international enthusiasm, much less a cult following. The majority of German-language movies produced with film subsidies show to German-only audiences of a couple thousand people, then slide silently into obscurity. German culture-types are generally aware of this underperformance, and respond either with acute analyses (g) or defensive justifications.

Now let me point out the problems with Die Habenichtse.

  1. The characters never do anything interesting. Isabelle is a graphic designer, but she doesn’t burn with creative energy. She never addresses her work or sources of inspiration. She never says or does anything particularly interesting. The same is true of Jakob the lawyer, although he has a minor nervous breakdown during the movie. A very dull nervous breakdown, which is only hinted at.
  2. The main characters never say anything interesting. The German characters are neither witty nor insightful nor profound. They spend most of the time silently moping, even when they’re together. There is no repartee, no in-jokes, no chemistry, no sardonic commentary (except for one pretty good joke*). Their arguments are just ordinary spats and disagreements.
  3. I didn’t care what happened to them. Which is basically a consequence of #1 and #2, plus the fact that the characters weren’t appealing. They weren’t revolting, either. They were just blah.
  4. The movie actually seemed allergic to anything interesting. Jakob the lawyer works for a law firm which represents the heirs of Holocaust survivors trying to reclaim property in East Germany. Wow! That really does sound interesting, doesn’t it? But perhaps only 10% of the screenplay relates to this work, and you are never shown any interesting details. Nor is there any exploration of the various ethical dilemmas the work raises. The characters hint at these things, but then the thread is dropped, and the story returns to the dull relationship between Jakob and Isabelle. I wanted to grab the director by the lapels and say: “Jesus Christ, can’t you recognize drama, conflict, and moral complexity when you see it? No, don’t drag the script back to Jakob and Isabelle’s relationship! I don’t care about that! Neither does anyone else!” The same thing goes for Isabelle’s art. Instead of learning what drove her to become an artist, how she cultivated her talent, or what her aspirations are, we see her boring fights with her partner.
  5. The movie was shot in black-and-white for no discernible reason. The action is set in 2001 and 2003 in Berlin and London. The cinematography was competent, even good, but not particularly distinctive or ambitious. Nowadays, there are any number of interesting options between color and black-and-white. Unless there’s a very good reason for doing so, shooting a movie in 2016 solely in black-and-white is an affectation.
  6. The only interesting characters in the movie were artists, and even they weren’t that interesting. When an American movie needs a character full of soulful wisdom or magic powers or crazy do-anything spontaneity, it often wheels out a tired trope Spike Lee calls the Magical Negro. Germany has its own equally tired trope: the Krazy Kunstler. He (it’s usually a he), dresses and acts real funny, does whatever the funk he wants, follows his impulses no matter where they lead, and speaks the truths no-one else dares to. (Of course, he lives a comfortably middle-class life, and most of his income comes directly or indirectly from the state or rich patrons, but we will discreetly gloss over that.). Yeah, there’s two of those in this picture, one of them actually named “Ginka”. Ginka!

I asked myself: Why was this movie made? The characters do not come from the working class, which is neglected by most movies. They aren’t charming or funny or perceptive. There is only one intense dramatic confrontation in the movie, which is spurred by an implausible sub-plot involving a drug addict who somehow manages to live in a ₤2000/month townhouse apartment in London.

German art-house movies are beset by one all-encompassing fear: seeming too “Hollywood”. German screenwriters and directors are obsessed with being everything Hollywood is not: authentic, modest, naturalistic, low-key, and oblique. German art-house movies are, therefore, peopled with fairly ordinary-looking people with crooked teeth, who don’t give Sorkin-like canned speeches, who make silly mistakes, who may not be very bright or articulate, who aren’t all that appealing, and who spend most of their time just trying to manage ordinary relationships.

This aesthetic is not totally misguided, by any means, and can be refreshing. The crushing idiocy and ubiquity of superhero movies — in fact, the very existence of superhero movies — is a sign of cultural bankruptcy to all thinking persons. Ordinary stories need to be told. The problem, though, is that German movies tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Movies need not be packed with ridiculous characters and stupid catchphrases and bombastic music and relentless, over-the-top conflict.

But they should be at least somewhat more interesting, unusual and/or entertaining than ordinary life.

What else are they for?

Continue reading “Why German Movies Disappoint Again and Again”

My Contribution to the Enlightenment Now

A friend who’s reading Steven Pinker’s defense of the European Enlightenment, Enlightenment Now, alerts me to the fact that I am name-checked on page 210:

pinker name check.JPG

Nice to encounter a fair and reasonable summary of your work in a best-selling book, especially one whose argument you find congenial.

If you’d like the longer version of this argument, you can buy, or borrow, or otherwise acquire my 2010 book, Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective. And if you’re wondering: Yep, it’s written for non-lawyers.

Graphic Designers and their Goddamn Chameleons

A friend in Düsseldorf spotted this sign offering a €50 reward for the return of their veiled chameleon (which is called a ‘yemen chameleon’ in German):


It reads “It may sound unlikely, but unfortunately, our chameleon seems to have run away.


He’s probably curled up in a corner of our apartment, but we wanted to cover every base. He’s not dangerous or poisonous, just kind of a punk.”

The little arrows next to the picture say he “likes to eat flies and crickets”,  “moves slowly and is fragile”, and has a “helpless, usually skeptical expression”.

This is what happens when you live in a city full of creative types. (1) They keep foofy-ass pets, and when they lose them, (2) painstakingly craft the most eye-catching missing posters you’ve ever seen.

In fact, I’m not sure this isn’t mainly an ingenious freelancer marketing scheme. (‘Did this missing-chameleon poster catch your eye? Wouldn’t you like your ads to do the same?’).

German Word of the Week: Bruchwald & Hörsturz

I don’t travel in the summer, too hot and sticky. But the past few weeks have brought a spell of dry, sunny weather that has tempted me out on my Bulls cross bike several times a week. I’ve been riding to the east of Düsseldorf, to the hilly areas which mark the far eastern outskirts of the Bergisches Land , an area of low mountains and hills west of Düsseldorf and Cologne.

One discovery during these rides was the Stinderbachtal (g) nature preserve. A stream called the Stinder flows in the middle of a marshy area set among rolling hills and cliffside forests. A sign by the hiking trail identifies this as an Erlenbruchwald, where Erle is the German word for alder and Bruchwald (literally, break-forest), is the German word for…what, exactly?

Once I got home, I looked it up, and it means “carr“:

carr is a type of waterlogged wooded terrain that, typically, represents a succession stage between the original reedy swamp and the likely eventual formation of forest in a sub-maritime climate.[1] The name derives from the Old Norse kjarr, meaning a swamp. The carr is one stage in a hydrosere: the progression of vegetation beginning from a terrain submerged by fresh water along a river or lake margin. In sub-maritime regions, it begins with reed-swamp. As the reeds decay, the soil surface eventually rises above the water, creating fens that allow vegetation such as sedge to grow. As this progression continues, riparian trees and bushes appear and a carr landscape is created–in effect a wooded fen in a waterlogged terrain.

I make my living with words and I have a pretty damn big vocabulary, but I had never heard of the word “carr” before.

This is an example of the back-door second-language vocabulary enhancement effect, or BADOSLAVEE. The German term Bruchwald is not technical, Germans probably have a vague idea what one is (valley forest), even if they may not be able to identify it in precise geological terms. But its English counterpart is exotic as hell. And I would never have run across the English word had I not learned its German equivalent first.

Learning a second language exposes you to words that are ordinary in that language, but exotic in yours. Another example of this is Hörsturz, a German word which literally means “hear-fall”, and refers to a sudden loss of hearing.

The first time I heard this word, I said, “What? A sudden loss of hearing? You mean like after an explosion?”

“No, silly,” my German Interlocutor (GI) said, “it’s because of stress or overwork. You suddenly lose your ability to hear. It’s happened to me a few times. Happens to everyone now and then.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “You’re otherwise healthy, just sitting there, and you suddenly go deaf for no reason? And then you regain your hearing again at some point? How? Why? Never happened to me or anyone I’ve ever known.”

“Are you crazy?” GI said. “I though it was universal. Are you sure there’s no English word for that?”

And in fact, Germans consider a Hörsturz to be an ordinary sign of stress. You can call up your boss here and say: “I’m not coming in today because I suddenly lost my hearing for no reason, probably because you worked me too hard. But it will return on its own in a day or two, and I’ll come back then.” And your boss will say, “OK, get better soon.”

But you won’t be able to hear him.

Try that in any other country.

To check my suspicion that this was a German idiosyncrasy, I turned to Wikipedia, and sure enough, there’s a detailed entry for Hörsturz (g) including sections coverage by medical insurance, as well as treatment by vitamin-C infusion, “corticosteroids”, and “fibrinogen reduction” by apheresis. All for a medical syndrome that appears to be a by-product of some sort of Sapir-Whorf effect (language shapes perceptions of reality, things become much more common and recognizable if there’s a word for them), or generation-spanning mass hysteria.

Sure enough, there’s no entry in any other language except…Japanese. Intriguing, that.

Anyhow, as a reward for reading to the end of this post, I give you a few photos from the Erlenbruchwald, or “alder carr” of the Stinderbach Valley, plus surroundings:

‘Growing Up in Germany’: Meinhof, Meins, and Fassbinder Yelling at an Old Woman

On a recommendation from John of Obscene Desserts, I watched this joint French/German documentary about the origins of the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction. (The title of this post is my translation of ‘Eine deutsche Jugend/Une Jeunesse Allemand’). It consists of nothing but media documents from the late 1960s: political talk shows, revolutionary student films, Germany in Autumn, and contemporary news reports, and contemporary documentaries.

Those who aren’t familiar with this era in German history may have a hard time following it, because there’s no voice-over explanation or modern interviews to explain dated references. But that’s the point of the movie: the story of the RAF has been encrusted with decades’ worth of commentary, analysis, and speculation. This movie scrapes these barnacles away and shows you what a reasonably well-informed German or French person would have seen as events unfolded in real time.

‘Growing up in Germany’ also presents some excerpts from Germany in Autumn, an odd omnibus movie made by four German directors which, at least nominally, addresses the wave of RAF terrorism and the state’s response to it during the autumn of 1977. We see Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the most overrated (I didn’t say bad, just overrated) German director of the 1970s, harassing his own mother in a (likely coke-fueled) interrogation designed to reveal her alleged authoritarian tendencies. At the time, the interview was celebrated by some as a ‘devastatingly personal reckoning’ with the ‘hidden authoritarian conformism’ of elderly Germans. Now it just looks like some greasy-haired guy yelling at an old woman.

The film offers a few interesting insights into the “leaden years” of German political terrorism, especially Ulrike Meinhof’s early appearances on German political talk shows. In the mid-1960s, she was a fairly well-known commentator for the radical journal konkret (g), and represented the leftmost fringe of respectable German public opinion on political talk shows, usually as the only female on the panel. She emerges as equally smart and dull. Her arguments, conveyed in agonizingly long sentences, are sometimes pretty convincing — the troubling authoritarian holdovers in German society in the mid-1960s which she criticizes were all too real. However, she always speaks in a near-monotone, sometimes almost mumbling, with very little eye contact with fellow panelists. She seems incapable of humor in any form. Today, we might put her somewhere on the mild side of the autism spectrum.

The director also dug up some of the student films made by Holger Meins, who later participated in several RAF terrorist actions, was imprisoned, and starved himself to death during a hunger strike, thus becoming the movement’s martyr. The excerpts of Meins’ films show young, smart, middle-class Germans striking poses while discussing revolutionary thought and assessing the contemporary state of German society and its readiness for revolutionary transformation, reminiscent of Godard’s ‘La Chinoise’. It all seems quite dour, lacking Godard’s wit, and, not to put too fine a point on it, German.

The verbosity of the RAF’s communiqués provides one of the few points of comic relief, as a West German news commentary shows scenes from the life of one of the ‘exploited workers’ the RAF claimed to be saving from the clutches of capitalism. We watch a montage of him leaving work, riding home in his nice little car to his nice little wife, pouring himself a frosty beer from the refrigerator, and settling in for an evening of bland, inoffensive public television. Meanwhile, a narrator reads a typical passage from an RAF communiqué, an clot of German caterpillar-sentences about objective and subjective conditions, revolutionary potential, alienation, consumer terrorism, the continuity of post-war German society with National Socialism, etc. The narrator asks whether any ordinary German worker could even understand this gobbledygook, much less be moved to give up his rather comfortable life for it.

I found the film a bit depressing. Germany, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was, overall, a prosperous, stable, pleasant place to live — at the time, probably one of the most prosperous, stable places to live on the planet. Yet, through a rigorous program of tunnel-vision indoctrination, a small group of student radicals managed to convince themselves that it was actually a grisly, contradiction-riddled nightmare of exploitation, just waiting to be swept away by revolution.

‘Growing up in Germany’ shows you just how this echo-chamber process of self-radicalization evolved in real time. It’s not a pretty sight, but an informative one. The intellectual tropes which drove radicalization still exist on the German hard left: the tendency to conflate all coercive state actions — even those which are part of the necessary functioning of any state — with fascism; the failure to draw distinctions between isolated social problems and total corruption; a hermeneutics of radical suspicion discerns conspiracies behind every unanswered question; cynicism toward every claim by authority figures to be acting in the name of any ideals higher than profit.

Underlying all of this is a tendency toward totalizing, principle-driven conceptual critiques (also a very German thing) which, followed to their logical conclusion, require rejecting Western society as a whole. In the words of one of the most famous revolutionary slogans: “It is impossible to live rightly within a wrong system” (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). Adorno coined this phrase in Minima Moralia, published in the direct aftermath of National Socialism. The fact that student radicals blithely applied this formula to the very different Germany of the late 1960s is a useful reminder of the human capacity for self-delusion.

No-Package Store Opening in the Hood

Ah, the Brunnenstraße (Well Street) in Düsseldorf, my stomping grounds. When I moved in, this storefront contained a regular video store, complete with actual VHS tapes and an X-rated section. Then it became the late, lamented Filmgalerie (g), an upscale video rental store with a massive selection of art-house, classics, anime, and horror from across the globe. And then it was a clothing design boutique named Carmona (g). And now, it’s going to become ‘Pure Note’, a ‘packaging-free’ grocery store:


Don’t worry, the neighborhood (Bilk) is still ‘diverse’ and ‘vibrant’ in the good way: almost 1 in 4 of the people who live here is a foreigner, like me. But the kooky young kids with their fresh ideas do liven the place up. I will post a report once the store opens.