Saturday, February 28, 2009

Postcard from Berlin

Eli spotted this postcard and it was the only copy, so I haven't been able to purchase more than one to send to folks. It's a picture of the Berlinosaurus eating the Gedächtniskirche, a late-19th-century church that was hit in a 1943 bombing raid; it remains in central Berlin as a war memorial.

Film Bookends Part III: "Blow-Up" (1966) and "Deep Red / Profondo Rosso" (1975)

David Hemmings in Dario Argento's 1975 Profondo Rosso (Deep Red)

My latest entry on the theme of Film Bookends allows me to discuss two of my favorite films, both by Italian directors: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, from 1966, and Dario Argento’s Deep Red / Profondo Rosso, from 1975. Blow-Up, like so many of Antonioni’s film, is a powerfully intellectual film that operates on many different levels; one critic calls it “a deeply philosophical film.” Deep Red is, more or less, a slasher flick; Argento is known for his bloody horror films in which blood and gore are exaggerated, aestheticized, and relished. Antonioni is an auteur, but Argento has his own claims to auteur-ship, his films having something of a cult status. Argento delights in imagining ever more gruesome manners of death, and in capturing them in exquisite detail on film.

Blow-Up was Antonioni’s first English-language film, and it was set in London. It was scandalous at the time for its representation of the Swinging London scene of the 1960s, depicting pot-smoking and promiscuous sex. (The Yardbirds perform in a guest appearance.) But these aspects are secondary to its incisive character study, its formal design, and its meta-discourses on art, filmmaking, and vision.

I read Deep Red as an homage to Blow-Up, a tribute from a younger Italian director to a great Italian master. The first clue of their relationship is that both films cast the British actor David Hemmings as their star; the second clue is that they share a plot device, which is that they both involve mysteries that the Hemmings character attempts to unravel, based on visual evidence that is only available to him. Whereas Blow-Up frustrates the expectations of the “whodunit” genre by having all evidence disappear before the protagonist can expose the crime, Argento fulfills expectations by allowing the protagonist to catch and punish the murderer. Perhaps Argento wanted to compensate for Blow-Up’s lack of closure.

The films’ similarities go deeper than that: both thematize questions about the status and reliability of visual evidence, perception, and recollection. In Blow-Up, Hemmings plays a photographer who “witnesses” a crime, though in fact he does not know he has witnessed it until he finds traces of it in the film he shot that morning. However, he does meet a mysterious woman in the park (Vanessa Redgrave), whose desperation to retrieve the film from him suggests that something’s up. The Hemmings character pieces together and deduces the crime based on the sequence of shots he surreptitiously took of her and her companion; and though he passes an erotically charged afternoon with her in his flat, he never learns anything about who she is, her motives, who the murdered man might be, or who her accomplice is. The title refers to the repeated enlargements (ever larger and larger) that he prints from his negatives, which reveal (very indistinctly) the gun barrel peaking through the bushes, and the corpse.

In Deep Red, Argento contrives a pretty good mystery as well, which leaves the audience guessing up until the very end. The film begins with a psychic, a German woman named Helga, whose powers of telepathy are being demonstrated before an audience in Rome by two Italian psychologists. The murderer is in the audience, and Helga discovers the murderer’s violent thoughts. We see Helga perform the following monologue:

"There is something – someone – no – I don’t know – forgive me, I’m sorry. It was – I can’t explain it – something strange – and sharp – like the prick of a sword. It upset me, but it’s alright now. I can feel death in this room. I feel – a presence – a twisted mind – sending me thoughts – perverted, murderous thoughts. Go away! You – have killed – and you will kill again. There’s a child – singing – And that house! – death – blood – hard blood – aah! I’m scared! We must hide everything – everything in the house – back the way it was. Noone must know – noone – noone! – forget it – forget it – forget it – forever – forever – forever."

In the last two sentences the psychic is no longer stating her impressions, but serving as a medium for the thoughts and words of the murderer. In this opening scene, the director immediately makes his case for the centrality of “the house” as locus of family, of trauma, and of repression; these words will provide the clues that later will lead the Hemmings character to discover the killer’s identity.

In his interest in Freudian psychology, Argento obviously owes a huge debt to Hitchcock; but his debt to Antonioni is more pronounced. Antonioni used the photograph to represent the subjectivity of vision and perception. Argento gives his hero a few visual clues as well: the fleeting glimpse of a picture as he enters the dead woman’s flat in his attempt to rescue her (a picture which disappears almost immediately); a photograph of a haunted house, which he finds in a book that one of the paranormal psychiatrists recalls; and a child’s drawing of a murder, an image which he discovers in three separate places (and which he fails to apprehend correctly, or even to see completely). Another character discovers a clue in a word written on a steamy mirror, a word that becomes invisible as soon as the steam goes away. In all of these clues, knowledge is elusive; by not being shared, knowledge lacks its socially-agreed-upon status, just like the clues in Blow-Up.

Readers of this blog may recall that I am considering Deep Red for my course this fall on “The House in the Horror Film.” The importance of the haunted house as a plot device, and the explanation of the house’s sinister aspect being caused by traumatic events that took place there in the past, make it perfectly suited for this course. But the film has a couple drawbacks that could make it a problem for students: (A) the extreme goriness of the film; and (more significantly) (B) the dialogue’s constant switching between English and Italian, with no English subtitles available for the Italian dialogue. Most of the communication that is important to the plot takes place in English (except for an early conversation between the Hemmings character and his friend Carlo), but there is enough Italian conversation that English-speaking students could be put off by it. There is no apparent rhyme or reason for when English occurs or when Italian occurs; both languages have the appearance of being dubbed, and conversations between the same characters take place in both languages. It’s almost as if a restoration was created from two partial prints of the film, one dubbed in English and one dubbed in Italian. It’s distracting if nothing else.

But even if you speak no Italian, I urge you to see Deep Red. I also urge you to see Blow-Up, and then to watch the excellent commentary track available on the DVD.

My thanks to my friend and colleague Valerie Kaussen, who initially turned me on to Dario Argento’s work.

More Photos from the Markets in the Kollwitzplatz

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saturday Market in the Kollwitzplatz

Curry-wurst -- a popular Berlin fast food -- and French fries (pommes frites).

The curry-wurst stand has long lines for wurst and French fries.

How can you choose????

Our building is visible behind the market stalls -- near the end, but not on the corner.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Berlin Video

A German colleague in Missouri created this video of Berlin, driving through the streets of Prenzlauer Berg, where we live:

You will get a brief glimpse (about two seconds!) of the Kollwitzplatz at about 2:34 into it, followed by a drive up Husemanstrasse, which is like walking around the block for us. Where you see the street market on the Kollwitzplatz, our building is in the background.

Notice that it begins and ends with the familiar yellow streetcar going up and down Prenzlauer Allee. Please visit us and see it for yourself!

German Winter Wonderland, part 2

This is one of those rare sunny days that occur about 20 percent of the time (one out of every five days) in February here in Berlin. What a difference compared with the photo I posted yesterday, eh?
This is day 16 of our time in Germany, and my son has repeatedly asked me, "Mommy, is it still day time?" (This at 3:00 in the afternoon), or "Is it almost nighttime?" When told no, he says, "is it late afternoon, at least?" I have explained to him that it's just dark all of the time here, but in the summer the days will be very long -- but I think that's too abstract for him right now.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A German Winter Wonderland

This was the view from our window this morning (February 16), after a steady snowfall for the past 24 hours or so. It's hard to say how much accumulation we got -- about an inch or so, maybe. We went to the East Berlin Zoo (the Tierpark) on Sunday and saw it through the steady snowfall the whole time. The reindeer loved it! It was fun to see them frolicking around in the snow; they could only be described as frisky.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The House and the Horror Film (Fall 2009 Course Offering)

Last month I read the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, first published around 1958 or ’59, I believe. It was a fantastic 20th-century example of the Gothic novel, though surprisingly it is the only “ghost story” that Jackson wrote. She is probably best known for her short story “The Lottery” (first published in The New Yorker magazine). The Haunting of Hill House appealed to me because of the author’s use of architecture – a creepy old Victorian mansion – as the locus for both the apparent haunting and for the troubled psychic life of the main character. It turns out there is a film version of the novel, a 1960 movie called simply The Haunting (which is decidedly a B movie). Reading Jackson’s novel, then watching the film, convinced me that this fall, when I teach my “Architecture in Film” course, I will organize it around the theme of “The House and the Horror Film.”

This will be my third time teaching the course (which has finally been given a permanent course number), and each time I teach it, it’s slightly different. I taught it for the first time in 2006, and I covered an eclectic assortment of themes, including heterotopia, dystopia, modern and avant-garde architecture, films about architects, the postwar European city, and methods of creating horror or suspense through architecture (including the Gothic novel conventions and the uncanny, among others).

I taught the course again in 2007, and this time organized it around the theme of domestic architecture, examining various categories of domestic architecture: the hotel as temporary home (in Grand Hotel and The Shining), the aristocratic mansion (La Règle du Jeu and Gosford Park), the urban apartment (Rosemary’s Baby, Rear Window, and A Raisin in the Sun), the rural dwelling (The Birds), the suburbs. We discussed gender (for example, The Stepford Wives of 1975 as feminist critique of the suburbs), race (both in A Raisin in the Sun and Far from Heaven), and some more specifically architectural topics (e.g., the critique of New Urbanism in The Truman Show).

The 2007 course on domestic architecture in film was premised on my argument that, in film, the house is always a symbol of the family; and that films featuring domestic architecture can be read as family dramas, regardless of the genre (horror, drama, comedy). I told my class this on the first day of the semester:

“The basic argument of this course is that domestic architecture in film is always used to represent the family: how the family works, or doesn’t work, is mirrored by the kind of home it occupies. For example, in The Shining, the Torrance family is highly dysfunctional, and the hotel they occupy – their temporary home – becomes more unsettling as the family unravels. Ruptures between husbands and wives (as in Rosemary’s Baby), or between parents and children (as in A Raisin in the Sun), are played out in films in which the plot centers on creating or changing homes (as in both of these examples), which often involves the addition of new children to the mix (which is a central plot device in both of these films).”

In the 2006 and 2007 classes, although very different, there was a surprising emphasis on horror films – surprising because it was unintentional on my part. I always used to say that I don’t like horror films, but given the evidence I’m forced to admit that I actually do like them (some of them, anyway, but not slasher films). There are distinct disadvantages to my choosing this theme for the course – I won’t be able to teach some of my absolute favorite films, because they’re not horror films (both Grand Hotel and La Règle du Jeu come to mind, and I also like teaching L.A. Confidential and The Ice Storm); but I do like to vary the course a bit, and this slightly different focus (still a variation on the domestic architecture theme) will open up some other possibilities. So far, I’m planning on the following films and readings:


Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920, dir. Robert Weine (German Expressionism used to create horror)

Rebecca, 1940, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (based on another 20th-century Gothic novel, by Daphne du Maurier)

*The Haunting, 1963, dir. Robert Wise (note: there is also a 1999 remake that I haven't seen yet; then there's the 1958 House on Haunted Hill, with Vincent Price, unrelated but equally B-movie-ish)

The Shining, 1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick (Stephen King’s novel, in my view, owes quite a lot to Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House)

Psycho, 1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Rosemary’s Baby, 1968, dir. Roman Polanski

The Birds, 1963, dir. Alfred Hitchcock

*The Amityville Horror, 1979, dir. Stuart Rosenberg

*Poltergeist, 1982, dir. Tobe Hooper

*Profondo Rosso/Deep Red, 1975, dir. Dario Argento (Italian)

The Stepford Wives, 1975, dir. Bryan Forbes

*Panic Room, 2002, dir. David Fincher

(Films marked by an asterisk are those I have not taught previously.)

Readings from:

Bob Fear, “Evil Residence: The House and the Horror Film,” in Architecture and Film II, edited by Bob Fear

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Camille Paglia, The Birds (BFI Film Classics)

David Punter, The Gothic

Katherine Shonfield, Walls Have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny

So far I’ve only identified 12 films I plan to show, so there’s still room on the syllabus for two or three more. Please email me or leave a comment on this blog if you have any suggestions, either for films or for readings.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Käthe Kollwitz, Socialist Heroine

Our apartment house in Berlin is on the Kollwitzplatz, named for the artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), who lived in a building on the platz for a number of years. The building was destroyed in 1943, but there is a plaque that documents her residence there. Kollwitz was largely a graphic artist, who devoted her life and her art to protest and social criticism. She was the first German Social Realist artist to develop out of the German Expressionist movement during and after World War I. She was concerned with the problems and sufferings of her contemporary world, and produced very powerful images. Her “Death” series of lithographs emphasizes the themes of human suffering and despair. Her son died in the First World War, and that moved her to devote her art to the themes of war and death.

Kollwitz was one of several women artists working in Germany in this period. This was in contrast to the typical situation before the 20th century, when very few women had access to artistic training or careers. There were quite a number of female artists working in the Expressionist movement at this time, including also Paula Modersohn-Becker and Gabrielle Münter. In 1919 Kollwitz became the first woman admitted to the Prussian Academy of Art (Preussischen Akademie der Künste)

Kollwitz’s realist style was appropriate to her political engagement and social commentary. Her spare graphic style communicates the essence of her message – the raw, unadorned truth – and evokes visceral, emotional responses from viewers.

This monumental bronze statue of Kollwitz was made by Gustav Seitz in 1958, and erected in the Kollwitzplatz in 1960, when East Berlin had been under Communist rule for more than a decade. It is an East German monument, but Kollwitz is a heroine not just for (the former) East Germany, but for all Germans.

The simple, almost formless shape of the Kollwitz figure emulates her own etchings. The sculptor has defined the features of her face in broad gestures; she holds a lump of charcoal in one hand, and her portfolio in the other – the tools of her political engagement, and the attributes that define her as an artist.

In response to criticisms of her art, Kollwitz wrote in 1922:

“Ich bin einverstanden damit, dass meine Kunst Zwecke hat, ich will wirken in dieser Zeit, in der die Menschen so ratlos und hilfsbedürftig sind.” (Roughly: I don't mind that my work has a purpose in these times, when people are so helpless; I want my work to help people.)

Family History with Kollwitz

My husband’s family has two stories related to Käthe Kollwitz. His great-grandmother was an art student in Berlin around 1900, when she was 16 and 17 years old. Reportedly, Kollwitz saw her work at the school, and declared that she was a genius. She (N’s great-grandmother) was forced to quit art school by her guardians (she was an orphan), who declared that being an artist was not appropriate for a young lady, who should marry and have children instead. The young lady in question then destroyed almost all of her own paintings.

The second story is this: during the Second World War, when N’s mother was a child, the family fled to Moritzburg (near Dresden), and there they lived in the same apartment building where Kollwitz (who was by that time quite elderly) was also living, with her nieces. At the very end of the war, most people fled from Moritzburg, including Kollwitz’s nieces, who left their dead aunt’s body in the apartment building in their haste to escape from the invading Russians. N’s grandmother and sister attended to Kollwitz’s body, and buried her.

The Gentrification of East Berlin

From what I can tell so far, after five days in Berlin, most people in this city live in large apartment houses like the one we are currently occupying (see previous post, below). Though we are living in what used to be East Berlin, I have seen much of the western part of the city, having ridden through it three times in the first three days. The uniform character of the city’s residences – five- to seven-story buildings throughout – characterizes both East and West. Most of them seem to have been built between the late 19th century and the early 20th (up through the 1920s); they vary in terms of architectural detail, but maintain the medium-rise building heights, regular fenestration, and similar building profiles that you see in these photos.

(Note: having recently ventured further east, I noticed a lot of 11-story apartment blocks from the Communist era, but rarely anything taller.)

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between the two halves of the city. During the Communist era East Berlin was extremely neglected, but most of the former East Berlin apartment buildings have been renovated and look like they would be at home in any well-heeled city in Europe or the U.S. But occasionally you will run across East Berlin buildings that have yet to be refurbished, and here you can get a sense of just how extreme the renovation has been.

Although I ran across several such structures in about a one-hour’s walk through Prenzlauer Berg one morning, they are by no means typical. It is more common to find entire blocks which have been completely renovated, or there might be one single unrenovated structure in the whole neighborhood.

One famous such neglected outpost in P’Berg is this squat, with an anarchist bookstore next door. A large sign on the façade reads, “Kapitalismus normiert, zerstört, tötet” (“Capitalism homogenizes, destroys, kills”), and there are many similar smaller signs of protest.

Several things seem to be going on here, both in the gentrification and in the protests against it. Both represent the desire to make and to preserve memory, to create a version of the city that conforms to an ideal, and to protest against a competing (“inauthentic”) version of the same city. Four decades of Communist rule produced an East Berlin that was visibly different from its western counterpart; for many this was not the authentic city, but for those born and raised in the Communist era, the changes wrought by the past two decades of West German capitalism seem inauthentic. (Of course we all know how suspect the terms "authentic" and "inauthentic" are, but I use them here deliberately.)
One of my husband's German friends looks with disdain on P'Berg because it has changed so much from the old days; it's the German equivalent of a Yuppie-ville. But there is some resistance, evidenced by this squat.

Our Berlin Apartment, Part 2

My previous post showed several interior views of the apartment we are renting in Berlin; the landlord did not provide exterior views, and upon arrival it was pretty clear why. In this photo you can see the front door facing onto the street; the graffiti surrounding it reflects the generally run-down condition of the building’s exterior. This is not all that unusual for Berlin, which I’ll say more about in another post.

The graffiti and peeling paint contrast with the building’s former grandeur, hinted at by the half-caryatids that are part of the architectural detailing above the main door. Everyone in Berlin lives in these large apartment blocks, visible from the street, which surround vast garden spaces. From the street you would never know these gardens are here; they provide most of the green spaces to which urban dwellers have access. (Though Berlin, of course, has enormous forests and tracts of green space within the city, which I am only starting to learn about.)

The view from our apartment does not look directly onto the Kollwitzplatz, as I assumed when I wrote my last post. That is actually a view of the garden behind our apartment building (and shared by all the buildings on this block).

Here are N & E on our first evening in Berlin, enjoying a snack in the cozy kitchen. We have two bedrooms, one living/dining room, a small kitchen, and a small bathroom (which also contains the washing machine). The space is so much smaller than our house in Missouri, but it has everything we need; it’s refreshing to be reminded of how little one actually needs in terms of space and stuff (what, no blender? no juicer?). It makes me realize that all of our belongings back in Missouri could all just be given away to charity and we would, for the most part, be just fine with only the limited amount of stuff we brought with us for these 6 months. And of course, no car.

One of the coolest things about our location is that the Kollwitzplatz is the site of two weekly farmers' markets, Thursday evening and Saturday morning. In this photo you can see what the street looked like outside our building last Saturday. They have everything from fresh eggs, fruit and veggies to prepared food and crafts. On Thursday evening we can get Persian food from one of the stalls -- hooray!
Our apartment is on the 3rd floor (which would be considered the 4th floor in American parlance) and we walk up 76 steps to get here; there’s no elevator. Upon our arrival, I realized (to my horror) the chief drawback of a suitcase weighing 69 pounds…the poor guy who brought it up the three flights of stairs for us was the 18-year-old son of N’s cousin’s boyfriend. (We live in a ranch house, okay? That means one story, no stairs between the house and the car...)

If it weren’t for N’s cousin (A), her partner, and his son, this transition to life in Berlin would have been much harder. A has done so much for us – from cleaning our apartment in preparation for our arrival, providing towels and bed linens (which our landlord didn’t), picking us up at the airport with TWO cars – one for luggage, one for people – wow, I just don’t know what we would have done without them.