Gumbrecht Dissects Deutschland

In an interview with Die Welt, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a German professor of Romance languages who relocated to sunny California and became an American citizen, notes the things that annoy him about Germany when he returns (excerpts, in my translation):

Welt:...What is lame about German debates?

Gumbrecht: I would say: The fact that there actually aren't that many different ones. There is a certain spectrum, but the individual positions on the spectrum are always there and recognizable. Here's how it works: On the one side you have people who say we should just love all the wonderful foreigners, on the other side, people who think German culture is unique and must absolutely be preserved, a view that's almost fascistic. When people like Sarrazin come along with their viewpoints, which are somewhat right-wing, then a certain predictable sequence of reactions begins. It reminds me of a xylophone: You keep hammering your little plate, and the others hammer theirs a bit -- but always in the same way.


Gumbrecht: In Germany, there's still this idea that Europe, and not America, should be the center of the world, and that Europeans actually already know how the world should be ideally. But you actually see things going wrong there constantly.... This creates a lot of dissatisfaction.

Die Welt: How does that present itself in the society?

Gumbrecht: In the nine months when I was in Germany, it struck me as extreme how social democratic the country is. You barely ever meet anyone who isn't somehow calculating how they can obtain the maximum amount of leisure time with the least effort.


Gumbrecht: My thesis is there's a specific kind of German know-it-all self-righteousness (Rechthaberei).

Die Welt: A German kind?

Gumbrecht: You very seldom talk to people in Germany who are capable of viewing their own opinions in a sort of second-order way; that is, to be able to say 'this is my opinion, and it might be correct or false.' Or people who enter a conversation without thinking it would be a terrible defeat if they were to change their opinion. If it begins to seem during a conversation -- either in academic ones or in normal middle-class ones -- that not everybody is going to sonorously state their agreement, then the subject will be avoided. Take, as an example, that there are no 'debate clubs' in Germany.... [In the U.S.], it's like a sport. But it's completely unthinkable that there would be debate clubs in Germany. Either you know what's right and wrong, or you don't. By the way: Two out of three Germans who visit me in Stanford explain to me after ten minutes what America is and how it works. When they notice that I don't think the same way they do, they then explain to me why I'm wrong and what the right opinion is. Even people whom I consider intelligent do this.


Die Welt: And this doesn't happen in America?

Gumbrecht: Oh sure, there's a culture of political correctness here. But the basic differences begin with the legal system, the common law and it's basic principle that 'each case is to be argued.' Or with nationality. The judge who swore me in stressed that from that moment on, I was 100% American, just as American as someone whose ancestors came here in the 17th century. That is an interesting premise. Or look at these absurd churches. You have to have them all. Whether they'll last is another question. But this inability to tolerate all sorts of things existing side-by-side -- this need to force them all to be compatible -- this you find specifically in Germany. Take the university debates. In Germany, people think there's an ideal model of a university that can be made uniform. But here in the USA, it's considered perfectly fine that Stanford is so different from Berkeley, or Harvard from Yale. The more diverse, the better.

Die Welt: can you think of anything positive?

Gumbrecht: I really tried! I have to say one thing. All these things I've just mercilessly dissected -- a very academic thing to do, by the way -- also exist in American, as trace elements. But the worst know-it-alls here are slightly less annoying, because it's clear to them that there are lots of people around who don't think as they do. In a society in which you can either be Protestant, Catholic, or nothing, you can be convinced you're right. In the crazy plurality over here, though, even when you're a total fundamentalist, you have to recognize there are others. And thus, one thing doesn't exist here: the desperate search for correctness and this German oxymoron: the 'desired opinion.'

I'll refrain from comment, except to note that this blog noted the lameness of German debates years ago...

Review of 'To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore'

Domestic bliss chez les Gottliebs

Theodore Gottlieb, the subject of 'To My Great Chagrin', was born in 1906 in Düsseldorf, to parents who each came from wealthy families. The family industry was fashion publishing, and they circulated among the highest circles of inter-war society. Albert Einstein was a frequent guest of the family, and a favorite chess opponent of the precocious young Theodore. Theodore completed Gymnasium, visited the University of Cologne, and became something of a man-about-town. Judaism seems to have meant little to the Gottlieb family until the mid-1930s, when it suddenly became overwhelmingly important. The family moved to Vienna in 1938, hoping to escape the Nazis, but as Gottlieb puts it, Hitler 'followed him to Austria.'

Gottlieb was imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp, and forced to sign over his inheritance rights to his family's wealth in return for being allowed to leave the camp. Gottlieb had been promised that the paperwork he had signed would permit his family to live unmolested, but instead they were all deported  and murdered by the Nazis. After Gottlieb's release, he lived in Switzerland for a while, before Einstein helped arrange the complex paperwork that permitted him to emigration to the United States. He eventually settled in California, penniless and with a much younger bride (Else Gabriel). To make ends meet, he worked as a janitor at Stanford University and hustled chess.


During the late 1940s, he tried to establish a career in Hollywood, acting in a few obscure B-films and Orson Welles' 'The Stranger.' Yet it was as a monologist that be really began to make his mark. Theodore's act was a combination of mad scientist and nihilist metaphysician. In his German accent, he would launch himself into paragraph-long, spittle-flecked tirades ending in a crescendo of shrieking, arm-waving, desk-clearing  mayhem. Or he would begin fingering his face as if it were a strange rock, or stare intently at one audience member, and deliver the monologue directly to him (or, more frequently, her). His topics ranged from 'non-existence, advisability of' to 'death, welcome relief provided by' (his gravestone reads: 'As long as there is death, there is hope') via 'teeth, unhealthy obsession with' and 'God, probable non-existence of; if existing, depraved nature of.'


Californians didn't know what to make of this literate Mitteleuropäer with his peculiar brand of Weltschmerz-cabaret (he called it 'stand-up tragedy'), so Theodore moved to New York City, where the bohemian life beckoned. His only marriage dissolved in the late 1940s, and Theodore set about enjoying the company of young female admirers, which his old-world charm won him in droves. He was fondly adopted by the Beats, and seems never to have had much problem getting invitations to perform, even appearing on early television shows with the likes of Steve Allen and Jerry Lewis. Woody Allen hired him to play the Commissar in his early play 'Don't Drink the Water', but he proved too erratic for regular stage work. Nevertheless, Allen seems to have kept up a life-long friendship with Theodore. Despite attempts, Theodore never broke into the mainstream, although his legendary appearances on David Letterman ensured him a cult following that lasted until his death in 2001, at the age of 94.


'To My Great Chagrin' is a documentary every bit as distinctive and disorienting as its subject. Director Jeff Sumerel eschews the trappings of ordinary documentaries, such as on-screen talking-heads interviews and timelines of dates and facts. All of the voices from Theodore's friends and colleagues (including Dick Cavett, Eric Bogosian, and Woody Allen) come from offscreen, and are not introduced or identified in any way. The focus is relentlessly on Brother Theodore (as he began calling himself in the 1950s): he dominates almost every frame of this hour-long documentary. When he himself is not onscreen, a puppet -- inhabiting an odd, sepia-toned brothers-Quayish dressing room -- 'narrates' interviews conducted with Gottlieb. It's a bit disconcerting at first, hearing a mournful-looking puppet answer questions in Gottlieb's voice , but it doesn't take long before you understand the dream-logic of it all. The movie itself a litmus test: If you're the sort of person who 'got' Brother Theodore, you will instinctively understand why it would be too safe and too predictable to describe him in a conventional, fact-driven, linear documentary. If not, not


'To my Great Chagrin' is as funny as the man himself (one commentator compares his wit to Dorothy Parker's) and unexpectedly touching. Gottlieb seems to have spent his life  between two stools, as the German saying goes. In fact, many more than two stools. He understood the comic potential of his German accent and peculiar habits in America, but had too much dignity to fully exploit the Mitteleuropäisch mad-scientist, crazy-philosopher shtick. He was capable of saying spectacularly funny things, but never wanted to be seen as truckling to his audience. He craved mainstream success in Hollywood horror films, but was either unwilling or unable to work in a team. Finally, Theodore had the deep aversion to confessional self-revelation typical of the European educated elite -- Lenny Bruce once advised him to talk about the Holocaust during his act, whereupon Gottlieb told Bruce to stop using profanities -- yet his entire act consisted of sublimated references to his experience of alienation, rootlessness, and senseless death. The overall impression is of a man whose profound sense of identification with the values and the Weltanschauung of Europe frustrated his intermittent twinges of longing to adapt to life in America. He died alone, but not friendless.


'To My Great Chagrin' is available for a 'donation' of $20, which you can make here. The DVD is rather bare-bones (it contains only the film), but the producers have promised more features and bonuses as resources allow. So keep the Paypal donations coming!

How Duesseldorf Gave Birth to 'Stand-Up Tragedy'

Famous Duesseldorfers include Kraftwerk, Heinrich Heine, and Josef Beuys (sort of).  Plus, never forget that Robert Schumann went insane in this city!  Unfortunately, few of these names rings a bell outside of Germany (although they should, they should!).  Therefore, I've been on the lookout for other famous Duesseldorfers. 

And I found one. The one, the only, the inimitable Brother Theodore:

Brother Theodore (11 November 1906 - 5 April 2001) was a German monologuist and comedian known for rambling, stream of consciousness dialogues [sic] which he called "stand up tragedy." He was born Theodore Gottlieb into a wealthy family in Düsseldorf, Germany, where his father was a magazine publisher. Theodore attended the University of Cologne. Under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family's fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend, helped him escape to the United States. He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, a dockworker in San Francisco and played a bit part in Orson Welles' The Stranger before moving to New York City.

His 'act', if you can call it that, explored what would happen if you re-animated Schopenhauer, glued mutilated chunks of a silver wig on him, stuck a gun in his back, and ordered him to 'be entertaining.'  Here is BT from one of his sixteen legendary appearances on the David Letterman show.

Now, I'll admit, a little of Brother Theodore goes a long way.  In fact, 2 minutes or so is enough to last most people their entire lives.  But I couldn't get enough of the man. As I watched the flickering, glowing television screen in my suburban home, I thought to myself: "One day, I must go to live in the city that brought forth this diseased man-child!"

Some of Brother Theodore's other aphorisms:

"The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people."

"All the great spiritual leaders are dead .... Moses is dead .... Muhammed is dead .... Buddha is dead .... and I'm not feeling so hot myself!"

"Her hair was of a dank yellow, and fell over her temples like sauerkraut, her face was sweaty like a chunk of rancid pork..."

"What this country needs, and I'm not joking, is a dictator. I feel the time is right, and the place congenial, and I am ready. I will be strict but just. Heads will roll, and corpses will swing from every lamppost."

Non-Bear Shaped Gummi Bears

Sex toys have been a topic on this blog before, albeit in the context of taxation. Now they're back: a trip to the store turns into a journey of erotic self-discovery when Harald Martenstein discovers (G) that his local department store now sells sex toys.

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Harald Martenstein discovers an “erotic goods” section in the department store

I’m not really a lady. That’s why I rarely visit the ladies’ underwear department in the Karstadt department store. However, it came to pass one day that I got lost. I wanted to go to the CD section. Do not buy the so-called new Beatles CD Love, by the way, it’s horrible. I didn’t find the CD-section. Instead, I was suddenly standing before a gigantic, knobby dildo. The term dildo denotes a stylized recreation of the male reproductive organ. It is designed for leisure pursuits. There are ones with and without motors, just like with boats and two-wheelers. I explain the word because once, when I was a young man, I had to admit at a party that I didn’t know the word, and that was embarrassing. I actually thought “dildo” was that large, extinct Australian bird. It also wouldn’t be such a bad name, when you come to think of it. Dildo DiCaprio. Dildo Jetengine. Suddenly it came to be that if Ildikó von Kürthy tried to pep up a Franz Kafka novel with sex scenes, you would have something that would be about as patchy as the Love CD.

Continue reading "Non-Bear Shaped Gummi Bears" »

Teach me to Laugh, Herr Boyes

Roger Boyes is an Englishman and Berlin correspondent for the London Times. He can often be seen on German talk shows commenting on international affairs (in perfect German). Now he's written a book, "My dear Krauts," which is designed to help Germans learn to laugh. First, I'll give you the gist of Boyes, then I'll add my take:

Germany is in urgent need of "humor development aid," Roger Boyes, the London Times correspondent in Berlin.

The Germans are a nation of paranoid schizophrenics who can't decide whether to love or loathe themselves, says Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent for the London Times, whose new book "My dear Krauts" marks the start of a one-man mission to help the country lighten up.

"It's not that they can't be funny. In fact they like a good laugh. It's just that they're a bit slower on the uptake than the rest of the world. And they don't understand irony."...

Continue reading "Teach me to Laugh, Herr Boyes" »

German Joys Review: Forklift Driver Klaus

It's time for a subject that doesn't get enough attention on German Joys: industrial safety.

Yesterday I watched Staplerfahrer Klaus: Der Erste Arbeitstag ('Forklift Driver Klaus - The First Day on the Job'), a 10-minute long industrial-safety film directed by Jörg Wagner and Stefan Prehn. Forklift Driver Klaus opens in an office of a warehouse complex in some industrial suburb of a German city. All the forklift driver trainees are assembled; they've all passed their test, and all receive a badge signifying that yes, they too may join "the 37,000 specially-trained people in Germany who can rightly call themselves forklift drivers."

Klaus_the_happy_welladjusted_forklift_drThe camera focusses on Klaus, a cheerful, innocent-looking blond-haired young man, beaming with pride as the firm's president pins his forklift-driver badge onto the lapel of his blue work overalls. Accompanied by peppy, burbling industrial-training-film music, Klaus walks confidently to his designated forklift and puts it through an initial safety inspection. Everything works. Klaus is about to start his new career as a forklift driver!

A near-accident at the warehouse entrance isn't Klaus' fault, it's the fault of the foolish pedestrian who ignored the sign clearly marking separate paths for motorized and pedestrian traffic. Unfortunately, Klaus cannot so easily be absolved of blame for the series of "cruel but informative accidents" (to quote the film's English-language website) that happen next.

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Adolf and the Leasing Contract

Something for the German-understanders out there.

Some lovable misfits took an audiotape of a comedian's routine (don't know which comedian) about an utterly banal legal dispute with a car dealership relating to a "Leasing-Vertrag" (leasing contract). They then synchronized it seamlessly to a videotape of a speech being given by a controversial German Austrian statesman in a large assembly hall filled with torches and flags.

I laughed until I cried, and then was filled with shame. Then I forgave myself, and watched the video again. (Hat-tip Ed P.)