Sunday, 29 November 2009

Stasiland

Stasiland

Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall

by Anna Funder

London: Granta 2003

Now that the events marking the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall are dying down, I thought I would remind myself just what it is we have been celebrating. Funder's first person narrative about seeking out the victims and perpetrators of total state control in the former GDR (DDR) is an antidote to the indifference that sets in from seeing black and white footage of the wall going up for the umpteenth time. It also explains the ecstasy in the faces of those filmed pouring into West Berlin when the regime finally came crashing down.

Her story begins with her visit to the volunteer-run Stasi museum in the Runde Ecke building in Leipzig. The exhibits, neatly labelled in glass cases, are strange, unfathomable - comical even; the fake wigs and moustaches for disguising Stasi spies, the empty jars that once contained smell samples taken from suspects, the microphones hidden in handbags. The woman who runs the museum perhaps notices Funder's confusion and knows how to make sense of these artefacts from a lost land. She tells Funder about Miriam, who's husband died during Stasi interrogation, supposedly by hanging himself, though the suspicion is that he died at their hands and that the funeral was a charade, perhaps even involving an empty coffin. Funder decides she must speak with this Miriam, and the book is primarily Miriam's story.

Along the way she uncovers many other personal tragedies; it is almost as if everyone has a dreadful tale, including her landlady, if you could just get them to speak. Ay, and there's the rub, because there seems to her to be a collective amnesia, a deep level of denial, in everyone from former East and West. Though at the time of starting to write (1996) these events happened only a few years before, already it was becoming like ancient history. Not relevant any more. Best forgotten. But as one victim explains why he just lives from day to day, nobody foresaw The Wall going up in 1961, and no-one expected it just as suddenly coming down in '89. Things might change again tomorrow, so make the most of your freedom whilst you have it.

Miriam's tale spans the book and is truly heart-rendering. A soul scarred for life by the brutality and callousness of a totalitarian regime is laid bare before us. A beautiful, innocent butterfly who has had a wing ripped off by an anonymous gloved hand. And as the book unfolds, similar tales are bravely revealed by ordinary folks who have been subjected to extra-ordinary torture.

Funder interviews people from the other side of the divide; the watchers and manipulators as well as those whose lives they crippled or destroyed. This is not, cannot be, an objective assessment. Funder is writing first-person all along, sharing her thoughts and emotions with us, becoming our proxy within the narrative. She is not giving a scientifically methodical historical analysis, she is engaging us with the emotions of someone whose eyes are being opened to a past she barely imagined. So, the ex-Stasi men (all men) come over as unrepentant, bitter, wishing The Wall had never come down. Either that or finding that they are well suited post Wende to a job selling insurance or telemarketing. However, her book is also lacking in the stories of the innocents who just got on with their lives without snooping on their neghbours. And hey (don't shout it too loud) but maybe they actually agreed with the principles of Socialism, and looked at the West and really did believe that Capitalism wasn't the perfect system it's cracked up to be.

The title of this book is 'Stasiland', and the allusion is to the ridiculous illogicality of Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. But the work of fiction more fitting here is surely Kafka's 'The Trial', because there is a warped logic to the oppression; it's just no-one tells you the rules by which to behave, or what you are accused of, or when you may be imprisoned, or how you can prove your innocence. The GDR was a country with more people spying on each other - either directly employed to do so, or paid informers who might be your boss or co-worker or a member of your family - than any other regime in history. By the end of the GDR, it was becoming farcical: so many members of some dissident organisations were Stasi infiltrators that it looked like the organisations were much more powerful in numbers than they actually were. And the brutality of what the State could get away with doing to personal lives is stomach-churning. The chapter on the Stasi prison of Hohenschönhausen is almost unreadable.

The book is not without its flaws though. It is written in the style of a piece of fiction, and sometimes you wonder if it is fiction. Funder is apt to pepper her narrative with descriptions and incidental details that distract from the main points. Do we care what colour the wallpaper was in the cell? Or should we be concentrating on the fact that the prisoner had only a small three-legged stool to sit on 24 hours? And to be frank, do we really care about Funder's description of the events of her life, when by comparison with the lives of her subjects they seem trivial concerns, petty even? As someone once advised me about writing a gig review, the readers don't want to know how you and your girlfriend got to the venue and how your moped broke down on the way, they want to know how the band looked and performed. Maybe Funder felt that Alice in Stasiland couldn't have done without its Alice.

Quibbles aside, this is a moving and insightful book. One that should be on the reading list of anyone who wonders what all the fuss is about with The Wall coming down. For someone who lives in Berlin it also makes you look twice at your fellow S-Bahn travellers, and make you wonder what kind of tales they could tell. And if the woman at the till in Netto is a bit short with you when you're not quick with finding your change, just ponder for a moment if she ever tried to scale the wall as a teenager, or lost a dying son because she couldn't travel West for medicine.


Thursday, 26 November 2009

Hamburg

Today we had a day-trip to Hamburg to celebrate my dearest's birthday. Hamburg is 286km North West of Berlin, but the journey took only an hour and a half because we travelled it in a sleek, white, bullet shaped ICE (InterCityExpress) train. The ICE was really impressive, more like a jet plane inside - and I don't mean Ryanair. We had a six-seat compartment to ourselves on the way out, but even on the way back the main carriages were spacious and comfortable. A speed display showed we were cruising at 230km/h for most of the time, and the ride was smooth and slick. There wasn't much to look at out of the window; a few deer, cranes, horses etc. but mostly just fields and forests and a reminder of how very very flat the Norddeutsches Tiefebene (North German plains) really are. It's no wonder then that Hamburg, though quite some distance from the sea on the river Elbe, is prone to periodic flooding, the worse being the North Sea flood of 1962 when a fifth of the city was underwater and over three hundred people tragically lost their lives. Maybe we should have packed our life-jackets? But no, though the weather was rather grey and it tried to rain once or twice, we didn't get too wet.

Hamburg is Germany's second largest city after Berlin, but there is a marked difference between the two. Though both were virtually flattened by air-raids during WWII, Hamburg was in West Germany and so didn't get rebuilt by Soviet, plattenbau-obsessed planners like East Berlin was. Instead, the townscape of Hamburg is a mixture of rebuilt neo-gothic blackened sand-stone buildings, and the kind of 1970's shopping centres that went up in England in the bombed-out city-centres of places like Exeter, Coventry, and Birmingham. In fact, I have been to Hamburg before, way back in my teens, and all I can remember of it are the pedestrianised shopping precincts, the Rathaus, and the unexpected Binnenalster lake. But mostly the shopping precincts. Hamburg also feels a lot less German than Berlin, or at least less Prussian. It has a feel of Amsterdam about it, or even a larger version of Liverpool - no wonder The Beatles felt at home here in their early days.

Unlike Liverpool though, the seaport of Hamburg (second-largest in Europe after Rotterdam, stat fans!) seems to be thriving, with many large container ships and cruise liners in the docks, or undercover in the shipyards for renovation. Another river-side area still full of life is the old warehouse district, or Speicherstadt (NB 'Speicher' is also the German word for computer disk storage and memory). Though strangely it smelt of toasted tea-cake when we were there. The rows of many tall, narrow warehouse fronts have both road and riverside entrances, and a pulley beam on the apex of the gables for hauling up goods to the various levels. The warehouses are home to many importers and exporters of goods, including more Oriental carpet companies than I have ever seen in one place. They are also home to 'The Hamburg Dungeon', 'Miniatur-Wunderland' model railway exhibition (the largest of its kind in the world!), and an Afghani museum, but just to wander down the quaysides, and especially see them lit up at night, is enough of an attraction. On a cynical note, if this was England they would have been renovated into 'authentic' loft and warehouse apartments for Yuppies like at Salford Quays. What is incredible is that all these towering red-brick warehouses are built out in the middle of the Elbe on wooden-pile foundations, somewhat like a German Venice (or Venedig). And in fact - or at least according to the Hamburg entry in Wikipedia, so maybe not - Hamburg has more bridges over its canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined.

Like Amsterdam, but not so much Venice (not since the Eighteenth Century anyway), Hamburg is also famous for its red-light district, centred around the Reeperbahn in the dockside St. Pauli quarter. This is of course also the area where those young scousers with the mop-tops played all those years ago, but you'll be hard-pressed to find The Star-Club (it closed in '69 and the building burnt down in 1987). We wandered along the Reeperbahn in daylight so we didn't get the full feel of the place (if you'll excuse the expression), and, well the Reeperbahn is all rather more seedy and run-down than Amsterdam; sort of like Blackpool but without the funfairs. But then it also feels like it actually caters for its originally intended customers, rather than to stag-parties and middle-aged Japanese tourists with cameras, like Amsterdam. My geography reference book 'Deutschland-Atlas für Kinder' (= children's Atlas of Germany) delicately calls the Reeperbahn 'ein Erwachsenenvergnügungsviertal' which is a wonderfully long word meaning 'pleasure district for adults'. It did have a wonderfully quirky and rather different Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) though!

Ah yes, the Christmas Markets. Wonderful the first time you visit them. Maybe also the second, third and fourth time. But after the fiftieth time of the same twee faux-Alpine cabins selling wooden soldier nutcrackers, or candles, or rock-crystal lamps, or woollen hats, or wurst wurst immer wurst, then ... sorry, getting all Scrooge there. Anyway, Hamburg would have been a lot more interesting if all the buildings and views across the river and lakes weren't all lit up like - well, like a Christmas tree. Just saying, that's all! I did get to see Santa fly up to the top of the Rathaus on his sleigh though.

Apart from the Christmas lights and stalls then, the area around the Rathaus and the Binnenalster (the 'inner Alster') were very interesting. Alster, by the way, is the name of the river that's been locked (as in a canal lock) to make this inner-city lake. And Alsterwasser (Alster water) is the name for an alcoholically weak mix of lemonade and beer invented in Hamburg (what everyone else calls a shandy, or Radler in German), just to let you know to avoid disappointment at the Hamburger Bier festival.

The Binnenalster's waterside promenade is good for strolling along, and it has an unusual name: Jungfernsteig, or Virgins' promenade. Apparently in the Nineteenth Century it was the done thing to take your unmarried daughters for a walk along here on a Sunday afternoon, to show her off to eligible bachelors. Another name for it could have been Fleischmarkt, but thankfully not. Also around this area is the picturesquely quaint 'Colonnaden', with its rebuilt colonnades (surprise!) giving it the air of a Regency-period arcade.

Hamburg is dominated by the river, and has a long nautical trading past and spirit of independence. This stretches back to at least 1241, when Hamburg founded the beginnings of the Hanseatic League in alliance with Lübeck. The closeness of Scandinavia is also felt, so much that this is almost a Viking town, though the heathen pillagers have been kept in check by the Lutheran church: there are numerous churches with names such as the 'Danish Seamen´s Church' and the 'Norwegian Church'. A traditional local dish is 'Labskaus', which takes its name from the Norwegian stew 'lapskaus', which also gave its name to the Liverpool sailor's staple food and hence to their nickname 'scousers'. So, another reason why the Fab Four felt at home in Hamburg!

We feel at home in Berlin though, so we caught a late-evening ICE and were soon back with the cats, who were wondering where we had been all day, and why if we'd been to Hamburg we'd not been to the famous Fischmarkt and brought them a fish back. (Because the Fischmarkt is only open on a Sunday, darlings!).


Deichstraße, Hamburg
or Dyke Street.
Oy! No sniggering at the back!

More photographs of Hamburg at Julie Woodhouse Photography, of course!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Roter Sand - Lyrics & Translation

I love this song. So tragically romantic. A touching ending to Rammstein's exploration on LIFAD of the varied aspects of sex and love in all their (sometimes bizarre) forms.

This is my translation of the German words, though I hold no claims that it is correct.

Roter Sand - Red Sand

Eine Liebe, ein Versprechen
Sagt: 'ich komm zurück zu dir'
Nun ich muss es leider brechen
Seine Kugel steckt in mir.

One love, one promise
that says: 'I will come back to you'
Now I must regrettably break it
His gun-shot plunges into me.

Eine Liebe, zwei Pistolen
Eine zielt mir ins Gesicht
Er sagt, ich hätte dich gestohlen
Dass du mich liebst, weiß er nicht.

One love, two pistols
One aimed at my face
He says, I have stolen you
He doesn't know that you love me.

Roter Sand und zwei Patronen
Eine stirbt im Pulverkuss
Die Zweite soll ihr Ziel nicht schonen
Steckt jetzt tief in meiner Brust

Red sand and two cartridges
One dies in a (gun)powder kiss
The second will not spare their target
Now plunges deep into my breast.

Eine Liebe, ein Versprechen
Ach das Blut läuft aus dem Mund
Und keiner wird mich rächen
Sinnlos gehe ich zu Grund.

One love, one promise
Oh the blood runs from my mouth
And nobody will avenge me
Senselessly I fall to the ground.

Eine Liebe, zwei Pistolen
Einer konnte schneller ziehen
Nun, ich bin es nicht gewesen
Jetzt gehörst du ihm.

One love, two pistols
One could aim quicker
Well, it wasn't me
Now you are his.

Roter Sand und zwei Patronen
Eine stirbt im Pulverkuss
Die Zweite sollt ihr Ziel nicht schonen
Steckt jetzt tief in meiner Brust

Red sand and two cartridges
One dies in a powder kiss
The second will not spare their target
Now plunges deep into my breast.

Roter Sand und weiße Tauben
Laben sich an meinem Blut
Am Ende gibt es doch ein Ende
Bin ich doch zu etwas gut.

Red sand and white doves
refresh themselves on my blood
In the end, there is still an ending
I am still good for something.

Roter Sand und zwei Patronen
Eine stirbt im Pulverkuss
Die zweite sollt ihr Ziel nicht schonen
Steckt jetzt tief in meiner Brust.

Red sand and two cartridges
One dies in a powder kiss
The second will not spare their target
Now plunges deep into my breast.

Lyrics ©2009 Rammstein from the album 'Liebe Ist Für Alle Da'.
Unofficial Translation ©2009 Andie Gilmour.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Pierogi Run

Today we fancied some of those delicious Polish ravioli-like dumplings called pierogi. So, we emailed a couple of like-minded friends, got out the bikes, and all met up at Lichtenberg station with a shared Brandenburg ticket and a timetable for getting to Kostrzyn nad Odrą, which is just over the German-Polish border.

Of course, we weren't planning to travel all the way to Poland just for some dumplings. No, no, that would be madness. Some of us were in search of Polish vodka as well! And we did have a plan to stop off somewhere on the way and explore the area on our bikes. Exactly where, we weren't sure, but the ticket inspector on the train did helpfully suggest getting off at Seelow-Gusow. She even gave us a map, so Seelow-Gusow it was! (Note that this was on the NEB Oderlandbahn, where the ticket inspectors are very friendly, even when we pleaded ignorance for not getting tickets for our bikes. If this had been on the S-Bahn we wouldn't have been given a map, but instead a fine and a boot out at the next stop!).

So what's at Seelow-Gusow? Not an awful lot to be frank: a small, typical, rural East German village with a large collectivised farm. The kind of place that offers tourists plentiful opportunities for a relaxing holiday away from the stresses of urban life (i.e. no shops, no traffic, no people), with numerous Wander- and Fahradwegs (i.e. no proper roads or public transport), rare wildlife (i.e. wolves, wild boar, and vampires), and water-sport activities (i.e. a lake and a flooded meadow). But also a pretty in pink, moated, neo-Gothic Schloss (manor house).


Inside the entrance, the Schloss looked like it hadn't had a tidy up since the nineteenth century, and offered us the temptation of an exhibition of miniature tin soldier dioramas explaining Brandenburg-Prussian history ('Zinnfigurenmuseum'). Which we politely declined. Of more interest might have been the restaurant, but it was currently occupied by about fifty cyclists who had arrived moments before we did and were eating all the cake in the village.

No pierogi and no vodka though. But for some reason there were tall (and I mean about ten metres tall) artificial flowers amongst the woodland round the back, so we thought we'd better move on before things got too weird. You think I'm joking? I swear that this photo is not Photoshopped:


Let's move on to Seelow then.

Actually, we had heard of Seelow for a rather sobering reason. It was here that in the final months of the Second World War, between 16th -19th April, the 91 000 soldiers of the German Ninth Army held out against a million Soviet and Polish soldiers of the 1st Belorussian Front who had pushed across the River Oder and were marching on Berlin.

The outcome was somewhat inevitable, though it took the lives of 33 000 Soviet, 12 000 German, and 5 000 Polish soldiers before the 'Gates of Berlin' were breached and the Soviet troops passed through to engage with what remained of the German army defending Berlin itself. The battle to take the Seelow Heights was the biggest battle of the Second World War on German soil.

Our route from Gusow to Seelow was a steep 5km cycle-ride up to the plateau on which the small town of Seelow lies. Once in the town centre we cycled East, to a ridge on the edge of Seelow overlooking the vast, flat plain which led to the river Oder and the German-Polish border and onwards seemingly all the way to Russia. Here is the location of the battle for the Seelow Heights (Seelower Höhen); today a memorial site with the graves of the fallen Soviets and allies, Gedenkstätte museum, and a gigantic, bronze monument dedicated to the heroes who had died in their struggle against Fascism (so the inscription reads).


After taking in the enormity of the figures for the dead, and the value of the causes for which each side fought, we sombrely free-wheeled down the hill back to Seelow-Gusow station and with seconds to spare caught the next train to Kostrzyn.

The moment you get out of a train in Poland it is immediately apparent that you are in a different country. Even though you are barely five minutes over the border with Germany, wham! Pow! You are hit with an unfamiliar Slavic language on all the signs and posters, and people who have little grasp of German, let alone English.

On the station platform there was a hairdressers, and the station shop sold cheap tobacco and spirits in bulk. So it was true what they say that Germans make special journeys into Poland to stock up on lower duty drugs, and meanwhile get their hair cut. And their teeth done, so I hear. But strangely, there was also an abundance of gynaecologists advertising their services. Most peculiar, and I dare not speculate why that might be.

Anyway, the day is getting on by now, and the sky is getting dark, and you too, dear reader, are probably feeling your eyelids get heavier. What you want to know is, did we get our Pierogi and Polish vodka? The answer is yes, and yes! They were also both very cheap. Will we be going back again though? Probably not in a hurry. Kostrzyn is not, shall we say, the prettiest or most inviting of towns. But it's a train-station border-town that has also had the Soviet army run through it not so long ago, so you wouldn't exactly expect it to be like Stratford-Upon-Avon would you?

So, we'll probably leave another trip for when the pierogi urge becomes too great.
Or we need a hair-cut.
(Or a gynacologist!)


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Der Himmel über Berlin



As part of the Fall of The Wall celebrations, angels stood on top of buildings lining the route of the wall from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate. Or rather actors dressed as angels of course.

The reference was to the superb film Der Himmel über Berlin directed by Wim Wenders, and released in the English speaking world as Wings of Desire.

The film is as much about the last days of the Berlin Wall (it was filmed in 1987) as it is about angels becoming mortals and falling in love with trapeze artists. Apart from delicious cinematography the film is notable for starring Bruno Ganz, who later went on to play Hitler in Der Untergang, Otto Sander, who played the shell-shocked U-Boat commandant in Das Boot, and - rather bizzarely - Peter 'Columbo' Falk.

Ganz and Sander play two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, who along with many other winged beings in Berlin spend eternity testifying to 'reality'. The meaning behind this is all rather too deep to get into here, but suffice to say that it leads to some wonderful stream-of-consciousness dialogue and some pretty dark humour (the last thoughts of a suicide whom Cassiel wants to save, but can't, in particular springs to mind). Damiel is the angel who falls in love with the trapeze artist (played by Solveig Dommartin), but to be able to make him see her, or indeed touch her even, he needs to become human. This leads to some more quirky comedy as Damiel tries to fit in as a mortal, which he is somewhat inept at even though he has spent thousands of years observing and documenting human nature. We also find out that he is not the first angel to become mortal, as Peter Falk (playing himself), apparently was also once an angel. No wonder he's so good at seeing through people's false alibis as Columbo.

The meandering plot is little more than a vehicle for some wonderful imagery, especially of the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall, a desolate Potsdamer Platz, and an immaculately pristine death-strip. Sometimes its experimentation with ideas, words and images doesn't quite hit true, but add in some cracking music by a young Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and you have a well-deserved classic.

The 'angels' out on the buildings tonight were a bit too distant, and the light a bit too dark, to get a clear shot. So, I mono-chromed one of my snaps and added a bit of graininess to put together this Berlin tourism poster. Hope you like it! (click for bigger).

This gives you an idea of how high up these angels were standing!


Monday, 9 November 2009

Mauerfall: The Domino Effect

For Germany, 9th November 2009 marks the anniversary of that evening twenty years before, when a prematurely read press-release inadvertently led to free-access for East German citizens across the border to West Berlin. The East Berliners jumped at the opportunity and flooded through the border-crossings, peacefully overwhelming bemused border guards who were unsure what their orders were.

Within days the structure and deadly apparatus of The Berlin Wall was being dismantled, to the sound of jubilant cheers and a thousand people with hammer and chisels pecking away at The Wall for souvenirs.

Within a year, East and West Germany were reunified into the Federal Republic of Germany.

And within that same year, many Soviet satellite states across Eastern Europe similarly rejected their Communist overlords in democratic parliamentary elections.

The Cold War - and some historians would argue the real end of the Second World War - was over.

Whilst the fall of The Berlin Wall was not by any means the cause of the downfall of Communist puppet regimes, it was symbolic of the effects of Gorbachev's economic and social reforms -perestroika and glasnost, demokratizatsiya and Uskoreniye - which were dramatically changing the politics of the Eastern Bloc. As such, the fall of the wall is a symbol not just for the reunification of Germany, but of a spirit of Freiheit (freedom) that would effect the whole world.

It is not surprising then that the twentieth anniversary of that fateful night's events is a significant moment shared by all of us in the free world, and that the world looked to Berlin to lead the celebrations. And lead them she did! With free concerts by everyone from U2 to Placido Domingo, from Bon Jovi to the Staatskapelle orchestra. Plus spectacular firework displays, naturally, this being Germany.

Many important leaders flew in to give their speeches about freedom: Nicolas Sarkozy, Dmitri Medvedev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gordon Brown, Hilary Clinton, and of course Angela Merkel.

The fall of The Wall was like one domino toppling in a line which started with Gorby and included Hungary opening its borders to the West and the election of Solidarnosc in Poland. It was inevitable then that as a symbol of the event, a line of a thousand giant polystyrene dominoes, representing sections of The Berlin Wall, were erected along the former course of The Wall. They stood all the way from Potsdamer Platz down past the Brandenburg Gate, by the redesigned Reichstag building, across the Spree (scene of many failed escape attempts) to the ultra-modern Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus and the new parliament complex of a newly unified Germany.

The first domino was pushed over by co-founder of the Solidarnosc free union movement, and subsequently president of Poland, Lech Wałęsa.

The dominoes had been sent out blank to schools, artists and organisations throughout Germany and around the world for them to paint. The result was an eclectic mix of style and artistic ability, but the effect was undoubtedly colourful and joyful in expression, even if many of the younger creatives hadn't even been born when The Wall fell.

We walked along the line of dominoes the day before, then stationed ourselves at the end of the line in the pouring rain on the night of the ninth to see the last one fall. Though not German, we felt at one with the crowd for whom the celebration reminded them of perhaps the happiest days of their recent history. We cracked open a bottle of sekt as the dominoes toppled along the banks of the Spree, gave a toast to Freiheit, then made our way back home through the cold damp night. We weren't all that keen to stay on for the Bon Jovi concert.


Friday, 6 November 2009

Have You Ever Had The Feeling ...

... Like You Are Being Watched?



Suki on the left, Tosca on the right.

Stasi Mitarbeiter in a former life.

(click for bigger)

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Neues Museum Open!

Just a post to record that the Neues Museum on Berlin's Museum Island (Museumsinsel) is finally open after a major rebuild overseen by British architect David Chipperfield. And very nice it looks too! Haven't gone inside yet, but from the press coverage it appears to have been sensitively and tastefully done.

Here's a photo of a sculpture of a man grappling with a lion outside, for some reason!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Here Comes Winter!

We've just put the clocks back, the darkness is drawing in, and it is beginning to feel like Winter once more. Just to prove it is on its way, the temperature dropped today and it snowed the first snowfall for the back end of 2009.

It's not the first snow in Berlin though. That arrived last week by lorry, for the Rodelbahn (toboggan run) at Winterwelt (Winter World) on Potsdamer Platz. Well, it's called a toboggan run but it is in fact a snow-covered artificial slope 12m high & 40m long, which people slide down on rubber rings to the sound of 80's pop music at 1.50 euro a go. The Alps, this is not. But fun all the same, perhaps helped by a good warming with Glühwein beforehand.

The cats acted like they had never seen snow before, and miaowed at us to make it stop and for it to get warm again so that they could go outside. I don't think they remember last Winter when it got down to minus 22 degrees. Then, I couldn't even break the frozen soil with all my weight onto a spade, so the cats had no chance with their little paws trying to dig to go to the toilet. Hopefully this Winter won't be so severe, or at least we have enough supplies of kitty litter.

For now, we can enjoy the novelty of a gentle snowfall and curl up together with a warming hot chocolate. We might even go tobogganing!

Here are a few photos of the first Winter snows in our garden:





Sunday, 1 November 2009

Rammlied - Wer wartet ...


Rammleid is the opening track of German industrial heavy rock band Rammstein's latest and sixth album 'Liebe ist für alle da'.

We've been waiting a long time for this album; four years since their last (and not their best) album Rosenrot. It is a prelude to their tour starting on 8th November in Portugal, and as we already have tickets for three of their Berlin dates in December, the album had better be good!

Here's my assessment and translation of Rammlied, with the usual disclaimer that it isn't an official translation and hasn't been endorsed by Rammstein's management Pilgrim. Nor am I especially qualified to give a proper translation, though I have just completed an intensive 'Deutsch als Fremdsprache' at the VHS (Volkshochschule - which are like adult education classes); I can at least now post a package at die Post :¬D

Actually, having to translate Rammstein's lyrics adds an extra enjoyment to understanding them. Rammstein have (usually) lyrically served up an exceptional experience. Unlike many other, pop-orientated, bands, the text of their songs have a deep, dark and rich meaning interwoven into them beyond the usual 'Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't feel the same. Boy feels sorry for himself and plays extended guitar riff solo to make up for his depression.' etc. Instead Rammstein sing about 'the German Cannibal' Armin Meiwes ('Mein Teil'), and on this album about the Austrian Josef Fritzl, who incarcerated his daughter in the cellar and had seven children by her ('Wiener Blut').

The words of Rammstein's songs are often poetic fragments in their own right,and indeed lead singer and lyricist Till Lindemann published a book of poems, 'Messer' (Knives), in 2002. So, like any good poem the words are meant to invoke images and associations in the reader from his/her own experience of life. And when the Deutsch-Englisch dictionary serves up quite a few subtle variations for the translation of any word, the interpretation ends up being both personal and imperfect - all very romantisch in the style of the Germanic literary style of that name. So that's my excuse if my translation doesn't match someone else's on the net: I might be wrong, but I am creatively expressing an inner subjective authenticity. Or something.

By the way, the spelling is Rammlied and not Rammleid. 'Leid' means 'sorrow', 'woe', 'distress' etc. in German. The correct spelling gets 714,000 hits on Google, whereas Rammleid gets 723,000 hits, including on sites like HMV.com.



Rammlied
Rammsong
Sort of. The 'Lied' isn't just any old song ('der Song'), but more a ballad or folk song that people get together and communally sing along to.
The Lied tradition in German music and poetry began with the sung tales of the Mediaeval troubadour and runs through folk songs and church hymns to protest songs and work songs and marching songs and drinking songs in the Twentieth Century. 'Die Lieder' perhaps found their greatest expression with the Romantischen aesthetics of composers such as Schubert (e.g. his 'Der Tod und Das Mädchen'). So try and keep all this in mind when you listen to the first track: it's not just a 'song' but carries with it a whole baggage of folk-tales and romantic themes of love and tragic death and marching with your comrades to battle. Now let's get on with the album!

[The track begins quietly. Low ominous rumblings in the distance, getting louder and closer. As if emerging out of the mists of time, a chorus of monks with synthesized voices become clearer to sing a pair of rhyming couplets in strophic plainsong ...]

Wer wartet mit Besonnenheit,
Der wird belohnt zur rechten Zeit.
Nun das warten hat ein Ende,
Leiht euer Ohr einer Legende.

[this is all a bit Corvus Corax. Hmm, hope they don't start with the Dudelsäcke next]

Whoever waits calmly and patiently
Will be rewarded at the right time.
Now the waiting has an end,
Lend your ears to a legend.

[There is a sudden loud burst of guitar chords and drums and the loud chant of ...]

RAMM [beat beat beat] STEIN!

[Oh yes! This is more the Rammstein sound! Snare drums start up a rallying tattoo which march beats through most of the rest of the song]

RAMM --- STEIN!
[electronic keyboard plays a simple looped rising and falling progression of four notes]

[to the marching rhythm of drums and cymbal clashes, Till barks out almost in monotone:]

Manche führen, manche folgen
Herz und Seele Hand in Hand.
[plainsong chant: 'Hand in Hand']

Vorwärts, vorwärts, bleibt nicht stehen
Sinn und Form bekommt Verstand.
[chant:'komm Vertsand']

Some lead, whilst others follow
(but we're) bosom buddies (i.e. soulmates), side by side.

Forwards, forwards, never halting (as in the commands 'Forwards March!' and 'Halt!')
Form and function are given meaning.

(btw 'Sinn & Form' was the title of a DDR literary review and poetry magazine that Bertold Brecht wrote for in Berlin, and which reviewed works banned by the DDR such as by Sartre and Kafka. I don't think that is significant here, but what the lyrics are getting at is unclear).

I like to think that they are alluding to the sentiment:
"Geh nicht vor mir, ich will dir nicht folgen.
Geh nicht hinter mir, ich will dich nicht führen.
Geh neben mir und sei mein Freund!"

i.e. "Don't go in front of me, I will not follow ('folgen'). Don't go behind me, I will not lead ('führen'). Go beside me ('Hand in Hand') and be my friend ('mit Herz und Seele')!"

[Till then barks out this concluding rhyming couplet:]

Wenn die Freude traurig macht
Keine Sterne in der Nacht.
[chant: in der Nacht]
Bist du einsam und allein
Wir sind hier, schalte ein!

If pleasure brings sadness
(And there are) no stars in the night.
Are you lonely and alone?
We are here; tune in (as into a TV or radio broadcast).

[The guitars and drums charge up again to belt out...]

RAMM --- STEIN!

RAMM-STEIN!

[keyboard note progression loop starts again, moving the song rolling inexorably forward]

[snare drum tattoo begins again, calling the troops to muster]

RAMM-STEIN!

Manche führen, manche folgen
Böse Miene gutes Spiel.
[chant: gutes spiel]

Fressen und gefressen werden
Wir nehmen wenig, geben viel.
[chant: geben viel]

Some lead, whilst others follow
Pulling a sour face even when there's nothing wrong
Devouring and being devoured ('fressen', used here, is how animals and babies eat. Humans 'essen').
(whilst) We take only a little, (and) give lots.

[Till concludes with another pair of rhyming couplets...]

Wenn ihr keine Antwort wisst
Richtig ist, was richtig ist.
[chant: richtig ist]
Bist du traurig und allein?
Wir sind zurück, schalte ein!

If you lot don't know the answer
What is correct is what is right (so don't worry about it).
Are you miserable and alone?
We are back, tune into us!

[back to the chorus and drums and guitars]

RAMM --- STEIN!

RAMM-STEIN!

[electronic keyboard loop, which is stating to become something of a Leitmotif]
[snare drum and cymbals]

RAMM-STEIN!

RAMM-STEIN!

[then the snare drums beat out a call to listen up, punctuating each bullet point and accompanied by clashing cymbals, as Till shouts out the Rammstein manifesto...]

Ein Weg!
Ein Ziel!
Ein Motiv!

RAMMSTEIN!

One path!
One destination!
One reason behind it all!

Eine Richtung!
Ein Gefühl!
Aus Fleisch und Blut
ein Kollektiv!

One direction!
One feeling!
Out of flesh and blood- One community!

This part sooo reminds me of Milan Fras's style of delivery on Laibach's 'Geburt einer Nation' (itself a genius reworking of Queen's 'One Vision'), right down to the snare drums. See this YouTube clip for a comparison. 'Ein Mensch, ein Ziel, und eine Weisung. / Ein Herz, ein Geist,
nur eine Loesung. / Ein Brennen der Glut. /Ein Gott, Ein Leitbild.'
Awesome! But ye Goddess, I can just see those who fantasize neo-Nazi sentiments on Rammstein picking up on this. Wrongly of course.

[The tempo and sound level slows right down, replaced by a single guitar. The dramatic tension that has been unrelentingly building up is released, and we have the monk's chorus of plainsong again ...]

Wer wartet mit Besonnenheit,
Der wird belohnt zur rechten Zeit.
Nun das warten hat ein Ende,
Leiht euer Ohr einer Legende.

Whoever waits calmly and patiently
Will be rewarded at the right time.
Now the waiting is at an end,
Lend your ears to a legend.

[finishes with a rising crescendo of keyboards and staccato drums, the chanting of RAMM-STEIN, the keyboard loop again, and finally a guitar chord, drum and cymbal attack that doesn't want to let go. Finally, silence.]



Phew! As an overture to the album Rammlied does a magnificent job. It seems to call the band back from the mists of legend, marching into your lonely bedroom and inviting you to march with them in common comradely purpose to - well not quite sure where but it will involve lots of loud drums and great guitar and electronic sounds.

This track promises a great album (and it is great, as it turns out!), as well as amazing concerts ahead. For the concerts I can just see the guys marching out of the stage-fog along to drummer-boy Schneider. Or maybe not, but it will surely be a new theme tune calling their fans to the flag, if not to arms.