Friday, 27 August 2010

Ein Grünspecht im Garten! German Garden Wildlife

I really love living amongst the forest, particularly when we get a visitor to the garden that you'd be unlikely to get in a city. Today we had a green woodpecker pecking around on the lawn, the first time I have ever seen one so close. We quite often get 'great spotted woodpeckers', especially up our tall trees, tapping away, but this is a 'green woodpecker' first!

We also had a small, cute hedgehog snuffling around. I gave it a spoonful of cat-food to eat, which it gobbled down noisily.

The most exciting creatures to pass through our small piece of woodland though, are the red squirrels. Not wishing to be racist, but they are so much more colourful, agile, and just damn sweet with their tufty ears, than the fat grey squirrels that have taken over much of Britain. Unfortunately they have proved too fast for me to get a good photo of them. When I do though, I'll post it here.

Luckily the cats were too busy sleeping to notice any of these trespassers!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Ve haff vays ov making you laff!

It seems to be a common stereotype of Germans amongst Britons that they have no sense of humour. And actually, there is a German stand-up comedian working in Britain, Henning Wehn, who bases his act on this misconception and bills himself as 'the German comedy ambassador'.

Here's a taste of his style. Note the stop-watch around his neck that he uses to time the length of audience laughter to his jokes: You see, Germans are all over-analytical - geddit? Vorsprung durch Humor.

Respect to Henning for exploiting this German stereotype, and for getting in some well-placed digs at the English. But the perhaps surprising truth is that Germans have a very well-developed and sophisticated sense of humour, Danke sehr.

I'm now going to post a few examples in support of this proposition, though I should point out that I don't particularly think these are the funniest; however, they are the best I could find on YouTube.

One of the best British TV shows recently has been 'The Office'. Could the Germans appreciate the humour of laughing at the embarrassing cringe-worthy antics of David Brent? You bet they could - they did after all coin the word 'schadenfreude' for the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

'The Office' inspired a hugely popular German version called Stromberg (after Bern Stromberg, the eponymous anti-hero) that caused a bit of friction between the producers and the BBC over how much 'The Office' influenced it.

However, rather than show you a clip from 'Stromberg' I am going to take it one step further and demonstrate how the Germans can ratchet the cringe value up a couple of notches more. Click here for David Brent as Adolf Hitler! (Don't worry if you can't understand the language, I think the visual comedy is enough to understand the main joke). This parody is from the ProSieben show 'Switch Reloaded', which spoofs German TV shows, which is funny if you've seen the originals, but a bit difficult to 'get' if you haven't.

Another show that makes fun of (rather than parodying) other TV shows is 'TV Total', created, produced and hosted by comedian Stefan Raab. Its format is to show clips from other TV shows and then slag them off - a bit like Harry Hill's TV Burp but with Doc Marts on. Unlike Harry Hill's often surreal commentary, Raab is more cutting with his criticism. 'TV Total' also has Raab interviewing celebrities in a David Letterman style format, but from a rather bizarre desk that moves across the stage. I've dug out this clip of a very weird interview with Adam Green conducted in English and German (p.s you don't have to watch it all the way through if you don't want to!).

'TV Total' is itself parodied by 'Switch Reloaded', and so it goes around. The 'Switch Reloaded' parody usually has a Raab lookalike absolutely wetting himself with laughter at his TV clips, to complete silence from the audience. This is quite close to the truth :)

Stefan Raab is also involved in the Eurovision song contest, to the extent that he was even the Germany entry in 2000 with the nonsense song 'Wadde hadde dudde da', which unbelievably came 5th. You can see and hear it being performed here if you really want to. Bored with the Eurovision, he as-arrogantly-as-usual came up with his own song-contest called the 'Bundesvision Song Contest', promoting German-language lyrics and with entries from each of the 16 German states ('Bundesländer').

Stefan is such an all-round entertainer that many people would like to smash in his smug face, which is in effect what they can do on the ProSieben TV show 'Schlag den Raab' ('Beat Raab'). The format has been reproduced on British ITV as 'Beat the Star', with the difference that the British show has different celebrities whereas on German TV it is always Stefan Raab. But we're getting slightly away from German humour, other than that 'Schlag den Raab' exploits the universal appetite to see someone with an over-inflated ego beaten by an underdog (another case of 'schadenfreude' perhaps?

An example of a straight-forward sketch show is 'Sechserpack' on the Sat 1 channel. Sechserpack is German for six-pack - as in a six-pack of beer - but here referring to there being six comedians involved. A higher level of language comprehension is needed here, but some of the gags are visual too.

A TV program where the comedy is more character-led is Ladycracher starring the multi-talented Anke Engelke (who was actually born in Canada). Engelke's humour is like the English comedienne and actor Catherine Tate's, and she has created a large range of distinct characters with their own quirks and mannerisms. Engelke also uses word-play and language for humorous effect, which makes it a bit difficult for non-German speakers to get into. Here though is one sketch anyone will get the point of (it's a helpline for the deaf. Not very PC!):

Engelke also does a good stand-up, acts, sings, and provides the dubbed German voice for a number of English-language imports, including Marge Simpson on 'die Simpsons'.

A male comedian using character-led humour is Markus Maria Profitlich, best know from his Sat 1 program 'Mench Markus'. He too combines a mix of stand-up, pre-recorded sketches, and live sketches on-stage in his show. He reminds me of a German Alexi Sayle, and not just because they are both large and shaven-headed.

There are a number of comics who perform in only one character. On the stand-up scene, the main one to spring to mind is Cindy aus Marzahn, who goes to prove that Germany has its chavs too (Marzahn is a suburb of Berlin dominated by concrete high-rise flats mostly inhabited by people at the lower end of the income bracket).

Ilka Bessin has created a monstrous Vicky Pollard - like character in Cindy, but rounded out into someone more potent: we don't laugh at Cindy just because she represents the tasteless excesses of the Unterklasse (though there is that), but because she has licence to say the things that we're all thinking but social convention means we can't say. In this respect she is similar to a drag queen, which is also reflected in her rather large and masculine build and overdone make-up.

Here she is slagging off the people down the Arbeitsamt (JobCentre), and sorry non-German speakers, but Cindy's humour is very much language based:

Cindy represents a particularly Berlin kind of comedy, a very much in-your-face attitude which has its own name: the Berliner Schnauzer, translatable as something like the Berlin gob. Another very Berlinisch comedian of a different kind is Kurt Krömer (real name Bojcan Alexander). His 'Internationale Show' on the local RBB channel is a surreal mix of inept chat-show host, amateurish local reportage, and couldn't care less interviews where he generally seems to be getting more and more drunk. He does for Berlin local television shows what Alan Partridge did for Norwich, except Krömer is much more likeable as a character. Here he is 'interviewing' cabaret singer Ina Müller (note how the set, and Krömer's clothes, are reminiscent of East German deco):

Edit: oh bugger! YouTube have taken this one down. Try Googling 'Krömer' or something - it's worth it!

A comedian who is expert in creating many dozens of comic characters is Hape Kerkeling. His creations are too extensive to recount here, just to say he is the Dick Emery of German TV. Only much better and actually funny.

In this clip he is fooling former Bayern Munich footballer Stefan Effenberg by pretending to be an English Sports TV presenter interviewing him live. The effect of a German pretending to be Englishman talking in terrible German is quite effective (and embarrassing - maybe I sound like that?)

Ethnic minorities in Germany have their comedy expressed on mainstream TV too. The Turkish comedian Kaya Yanar is perhaps their best known exponent, with his televised stand-up show 'Made in Germany', and his sketch show 'Was guckst du?!' (which means something like 'what you looking at, mate?!'). Unfortunately, for the non-German speaker his stand-up comedy is somewhat inaccessible. Even for the native speaker it is a bit hard, as he uses a lot of 'Kiezdeutsch', which is a street slang mixture of Turkish, German, and other influences including Russian and American.

Here is a taster from 'Was guckst du?!', the point of the joke being that the Turkish couple in the car (supposedly) have little German and deliberately misinterpret the German cop's words to make out he is a Nazi:

One of the funniest sit-coms on German television also makes hay from Turkish cultural clashes, and also the universal problems of family life and teenagers. 'Türkisch für Anfänger' or 'Turkish for Beginners' has a great deal more depth than most sitcoms, and is at times emotionally moving and explores taboo subjects, as well as being very well acted and very funny. Here's a clip from right back at the beginning:

Germany has its fair share of bigoted comics too, of which Mario Barth is probably at the summit (or the depth) of opinionated male-centric egoism. Somewhat like a German version of Jim Davidson. But like Jim Davidson he has a big following, so even though he's not my cup of rooibos, here's a taster (with English sub-titles):

At the other end of the intellectual scale, there are lots of satire programs on German TV. I am unfortunately not near enough the end of the scale myself to even begin to understand a lot of it, particularly as it requires a deep appreciation of German politics and current affairs.

One satirical program I sort of get is Extra 3 by NDR. Here's a clip where they are taking a dig at Tom Cruise (with English sub-titles):

A comedian also labelled as 'intellectual' is Harald Schmidt, who has had success with his late night shows on ARD and with the very much anti-intellectual Oliver Pocher. Watching Extra 3 and Harald Schmidt I think that here 'intellectual' seems to mean one or all of 'so above our heads that it must be funny, but we're just too stupid to get it', 'totally off-the wall experimental but likely to fall flat', or 'so close to the edge of bad taste that it hurts.' In the latter category, Schmidt has on many occasions made jokes about Hitler (here he is looking quite Spike Milligan), and does shocking sketches such as this 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? For the Dead' which are almost Python at their blackest (the Dead Granny sketch).

As my example though, here is Harald Schmidt over-analysing the different kinds of Rock Metal (chosen because it has English subtitles). Hmm, maybe Henning Wehn is correct about the analytical German mindset?

But don't let me give you the idea that Germans have only recently learned the art of laughing. For example, one long-running sit-com from the 1970's is 'Ein Herz und eine Seele'. This had more than a passing resemblance to the British 'Till Death Us Do Part', though the far-right patriarch whoi looked like Hitler of course had more resonance in a recovering Germany than Alf Garnett did.

A simpler kind of comedy is expressed by the cartoonist 'Loriot', real name Vicco von Bülow. And yes, he is a descendent of the aristocratic von Bülow family that for example included the Prussian general who alongside Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Vicco himself was awarded an Iron Cross in 1943. Here's an animated cartoon of his from way back when that characteristically for him deals with the problems of communication between a married couple:

I have concentrated on TV shows for my examples. Of course German humour is prolific in all genres, from the jokes told down the corner Kneipe, through humorous novels, cartoon strips, satirical magazines, comic opera (Mozart's 'Die Zauberflöte'!), 'Cabaret', and so on. Here, for example, is a clip from the musical comedy 'Der Schuh des Manitu' performed at Berlins Theater des Westens, which compares to anything on NY Broadway or London's West End.

I've come to the end of this brief overview of German humour. In conclusion, I think it is proved that Germans do have a well-honed and sophisticated sense of humour every bit the equal of the British.

Of course, you might argue that Germany never produced a show comparable to Monty Python, and you would be correct. But that doesn't mean that Germans can't laugh at Cleese and the gang, otherwise the Pythons wouldn't have produced 'Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus' especially for the German market.

I leave you with a totally daft feature film 7 Zwerge – Männer allein im Wald (7 Dwarves - Men Alone in the Wood). So get out the popcorn (or the Bier und Wurst) and enjoy! No English sub-titles I'm afraid, but the jokes are pretty visual or at least not hard to guess. You might spot that Nina Hagen is playing the Queen and Harald Schmidt (see above) is The Best Jester candidate.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Karl-Marx-Allee - Socialist Realism in Stone

I imagine that most tourists alighting at Alexanderplatz Bahnhof will spend a bit of time exploring the square - the Fountain of International Friendship, the World Clock, and the fall of the wall exhibition - before maybe shopping at Galeria Kaufhof or Alexia, then perhaps booking a slot to go up the Fernsehturm TV tower. They might then wander off towards the Nikolaiviertel or the Museumsinsel by way of Rotes Rathaus, the Marienkirche and the Neptunbrunnen. I'm guessing of course, but I don't think many tourists will be heading towards Karl-Marx-Allee for a stroll amongst the best display of Socialist Realist architecture outside the USSR. Which is a great shame, because to really understand DDR Alexanderplatz and the large parade ground joining it to the previous site of the Palast der Republik on the opposite bank of the Spree, you really need to see it as the culmination of the wide processional show-piece of Soviet might and progress that is Karl-Marx-Allee.

So, if you have a stout pair of walking shoes, or a bike, or a motorised wheel-chair, then I would recommend a trip up Karl-Marx-Alee (it's about 2km long). Just don't go up it in a Soviet tank - that kind of thing is frowned upon nowadays.

The starting point is the Haus des Lehrers (The House of the Teachers), next to the domed Kongresshalle. This was the first high-rise building to be built at Alexanderplatz (opened 1964), replacing a building from 1908 which was kind of a club-house and restaurant for the Berlin Teachers Association. Of particular note, on what is otherwise a boring tower block, is the frieze encircling the building (apparently like a 'cigar band') between the second and fifth floor. Called 'Unser Leben' (Our Lives') it was designed by Walter Womacka in the Mexican mural style and is supposed to show everyday, happy and fulfilling life in the DDR.

I might sound cynical, but really I quite like this style: it has a lot of movement, colour, and joyful innocence. The Haus des Lehrers has also been the canvas for more contemporary playfulness: in 2001 (and at other times since) 'Project Blinkenlights' has used the windows as individual pixels on a giant computer screen and created, for example, a way to play 'Pong' using mobile phones. Sounds crazy, and as this video shows, it probably was.

Not far up Karl-Marx-Allee itself is a contemporary of the Haus des Lehrers, the Kino International (opened 15th November 1963).

This cinema was used for many premiers of films coming out of the state-owned film studio DEFA (Die Deutsche Film AG) based in Babelsberg. I particularly associate DEFA with the production of the children's stop-motion animated adventures of das Sandmännchen, but its mission statement was to "help in the restoration of democracy in Germany, to unshackle German heads from Fascism, and also to nurture socialist citizens." ("Helfen, in Deutschland die Demokratie zu restaurieren, die deutschen Köpfe vom Faschismus zu befreien und auch zu sozialistischen Bürgern erziehen."). To this end, about 700 movies filled with happy, smiling, socialist workers were produced. More socialist realism like the Haus des Lehrers mural then. Honecker and the SED party elite had their own party room for after-show drinks, and even a private bunker underneath the cinema just in case WWIII broke out whilst they were watching a film about joyous tractor production.

Nowadays the Kino International is still used as a cinema, and plays a prominent role in the Berlinale Film Festival, mostly thanks to its cool retro architecture and deco.

Near to the Kino International you can still see Soviet-era advertisements on the roofs of buildings. They are in fact protected monuments of historical significance. This one advertises Tatra Motors, which is the third oldest car maker in the world after Daimler Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot. Unfortunately you've likely never heard of them, because they were based in what became communist Czechoslovakia which crippled their export to the west somewhat. They seem to have been big in East Berlin though, and according to their Tatra website it looks as if they are still going.

This far up Karl-Marx-Allee, apart from a few Sixties era buildings like the Kino International, (and you might have seen the Cafe Moskau and Bar Babette, which however retain little of their original style), there is little by way of architecture to SMS-Text home about. However, just take a look back towards Alexanderplatz (that's the Park Inn in the centre) and marvel at the sheer width of this boulevard. Why would anyone build a street this wide? Especially as we don't seem to be heading anywhere major. Au contraire; you are heading East. East towards the homeland of the soldiers who ploughed through this way in the final stages of World War II. This was one of the main routes for the tanks and soldiers of the Red Army, fighting street by street, constantly under fire, advancing through the rubble of bombed out buildings in order to liberate Berlin from Fascism. There, now I'm getting carried away by Socialist Realism too!

More practically, Karl-Marx-Allee is as wide as it is because it was built for the May Day parades showing off the size of the army, their rocket missiles, and the patriotism of marching blue-shirted FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) kids.

The architecture starts to really get imposing as you approach Straussberger Platz. On the left of Karl-Marx-Alle as you approach the circular Platz is Haus Berlin:

On the right of the Allee is an almost identical building, Haus des Kindes (named thus because it housed a department store catering for the needs of children). This view is looking back towards Alexanderplatz, with 'The Floating Ring' fountain in the foreground (and some building works), and the two 'Haus's like guarding sentinels.

The Haus des Kindes has a quote from Goethe's play 'Faust' carved into the stone (and note the hints at socialist classicism in the columns and rustification):

It says:
Solch ein Gewimmel möcht’ ich sehn,
Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehn.

Or in translation, something like:

Such busy, teeming throngs I long to see,
Standing on freedom’s soil, a people free.

I'm sure this wasn't put there as a prophecy of the fall of the rather un-free East German Soviet state. Nor was it all that accurate in that there was hardly anybody around, let alone a teeming throng.

Here's looking across at the Haus Berlin again. After the common-place Plattenbauten of Karl-Marx-Allee thus far, Straussberger Platz does seem like you've passed into another country. The architecture lining the wide Karl-Marx-Allee from herein just gets more alien to your typical Berlin tenement blocks or pre-fab high-rises.

It's here that you'll also find a statue to the eponymous hero of the boulevard, Karl Marx.

It might come as a surprise though that this boulevard wasn't always known as Karl Marx Allee. From its rebuild in 1949 up until 1961 it was named Stalinallee (previous to that it was called Große Frankfurter Straße). By the early sixties, even the DDR was realising that Uncle Jo had personally caused the death of millions (variously calculated between 3 and 60,000,000) of Russian dissidents and that it would be better not to revive his memory with the main show-piece Socialist street of East Berlin. It will be interesting to see if Berlin continues with the name Karl-Marx-Allee post-unification, or whether at some stage it will be renamed Große Frankfurter Straße again. Watch this space.

Karl Marx Allee (okay, Stalinallee) from here onwards is the result of a national building program ('Nationales Aufbau Programm') and a competition for architects with a five year plan (how Stalinist!) to create the first Socialist street on German Soil (der 'ersten sozialistischen Straße auf deutschem Boden'). Or as SED Secretary-General Walter Ubrecht said: 'The Stalinallee is the foundation stone of building Socialism in Berlin, the capital of Germany' ('Die Stalinallee ist der Grundstein des Aufbaues zum Sozialismus in der Hauptstadt Deutschlands, Berlin.'). There are still commemorations to this five-year plan in the buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee (as usual on my blogs, click for a larger photo - all taken by me, by the way!):

Meanwhile, some of the 'foundation stones' of the SED survive in the entrance halls of the buildings, e.g. this by PM Otto Grotewohl:

Whether the architects succeeded in building Socialism, I find their creations amazing. Here are a few photos:

I particularly like the façade of the Karl Marx Bookshop. If you have ever watched the German film about the Stasi 'The Lives of Others' ('Das Leben der Anderen'), you might remember this bookshop near the end:

Just by here you will also find the excellent Cafe Sibylle, which apart from a good place to rest and have a cuppa after traipsing up Karl-Marx-Allee, also has a very interesting museum about the construction of the street.

As you approach the Twin Towers of Frankfurter Tor, you might notice another 60's style cinema; this is das Kosmos, and premièred all the other DEFA films that Kino International couldn't manage because of the high output from those studios of films about ecstatic communists.

It is ironic that the five year plan to build 'the first Socialist street on German soil' was also the cause for the first demonstration by workers against the East German Soviet regime. But so it was when on the 16th June 1953 construction workers on Stalinallee, dismayed by increased productivity targets for no wage increase, went on strike, triggering mass uprisings across the whole of the DDR. Demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the Red Army and the East German Volkspolizei the next day in Berlin, during which they shot dead at least 55 protesters. It is for that reason that the former Charlottenburger Chaussee (the Western continuation of Unter den Linden) was immediately renamed the Straße des 17. Juni by West Berlin. It was a consequence of disaffected workers going to West Berlin for better-paid jobs that the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, before which the DDR had lost 20% of its 'happy' citizens.

Soon though you come to the domed towers of Frankfurter Tor:

These rise up like lighthouses either side of the boulevard:

From here on the road is now called Frankfurter Allee. There are further examples of the kind of architecture that dominates Karl-Marx-Allee, but they have missing tiles, heavy graffiti, and a general air of neglect. At Frankfurter Tor, money for renovation ran out. It is worth having a look though to see the state that the rest of Karl-Marx-Allee had descended into. The final irony of DDR Socialist Realism is that in the end East Germany was running on a bankrupt economy, and when glasnost and perestroika swept through the Soviet Bloc it knocked out the props from a subsidised DDR. The May Day parade of 1989 had Erich Honecker and an uncomfortable looking Mikhail Gorbachev celebrating 40 years of the DDR, as tanks and soldiers passed by them along Karl-Marx-Alle. By the end of the year, it was all over.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

On Yer Bike! - Public Bike Rental in Berlin & London

I was very pleased to see that Mayor Boris Johnson has launched a public bike hire system into London. Well, I say 'public' but it is called the Barclays Cycle Hire and the bikes all have the Barclays Bank logo on them. But a minor quibble - they have to be funded somehow. It's just that it would be preferable if it wasn't by a bank that had built itself up from investment in the slave trade, financed the apartheid regime in South Africa, and bankrolled Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Still, the bumbling floppy-blonde-haired toff done good!

(photo AP - used without permission, sorry! I'll take it off if anyone complains)

Berlin has its own Deutsche Bahn 'Call a Bike' scheme - as do lots of other German cities:

(photo Andie Gilmour - click for bigger)

Getting around by bike is surely one of the best ways to explore a city, though perhaps not so cool (though exponentially more expensive) as doing it by Segway. London and Berlin are both good cities for cycling around, being relatively flat and with lots of green spaces, and I imagine traversing the cityscape might be less popular in San Francisco, Seattle, or Rome.

I wondered what comparisons there were between the London scheme and the DB 'Call a Bike' scheme and here are my findings.

Accessing the Schemes
To access the two schemes; London's Barclay's Cycle Hire currently requires you to purchase a 'membership' key for £3, and then charges £1 for each 24 hour period. With a key you can release four bikes, for use by family or friends. Eventually you will be able to pay at the docking stations without requiring a membership key.

For Deutsche Bahn's scheme you first need to register on-line for a one-off fee of €5, of which €2.50 is credited to your on-line account. In both schemes you need to give your credit/debit card details and any rental charges are automatically debited from them. In this comparison, the DB scheme is cheaper, especially if you are going to hire a bike a lot. By the way, the London scheme is going to develop so that you don't have to purchase a membership key beforehand, greatly enhancing its potential for casual use by tourist visitors.

Hire Charges
For rental charges whilst using the bike, the London scheme is better for short periods, as it is free for up to 30 minutes usage. If you return a bike to a docking station in this time, you can continue using the bikes for as many times as you want during the 24 hours for free. For using the bike for periods greater than 30 minutes, the costs are: up to 1 hour £1; up to one and a half hours £4; up to two hours £6; up to two and a half hours £10; up to four hours £15; up to six hours £35; and up to 24 hours £50.

By comparison, the DB scheme charges a flat-rate charge of 8 cents/minute, which works out as a whopping €4.80 per hour. Much better that you rent the bike for a full 24 hours, which costs €9. For a week's rental, the charge is just €36. If you have a BahnCard then you are only charged 6 cents/minute, but it is clear that there are opposing philosophies behind the two schemes: London encouraging short journeys, whist Berlin's is clearly for all day use. By the way, the DB scheme in Suttgart allows one hour free usage. I don't know why this isn't the case for all the German cities, but it would certainly be welcome I'm sure.

Pick up and Return
To rent a bike in London you need to go to a docking station, much the same as the Parisian Velib public bike hire scheme. There are lots of these, with more planned, and they can be located using this map.

By comparison, the DB scheme allows you to pick up and leave your hired bike at any road intersection. This map shows where all available individual bikes have been left at any particular ioment (click on 'Berlin' in the drop-down menu next to 'Stadt', and enter a street name if known). A good bet is that there are always plenty around places like Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz, as well as the major train stations, but really, you do see them everywhere and anywhere.
At the moment it looks like the Barclay's scheme is concentrated on central London, whereas the Berlin scheme extends well out into the subburbs. This may well change in the future for London of course, as the scheme becomes popular. On the Berlin map there is a red zone where bikes have to be returned to, but looking at some of the outlying available bikes it looks like this isn't always adhered to!
With the London scheme, you just pop in your membership key in the slot in the docking point next to the bike to release it. The DB scheme is a bit more involved, in that you have to phone the (freecall) number on the bike, which includes the bikes unique id. You will be given a four digit code. You tap this number into the LCD touch-screen on the bike, and away you go. Be sure that the digital display on the bike has a flashing green light that means it is available. A flashing red light means that it still in use; a neat feature of the DB scheme is that the bikes have an inbuilt bike-lock and at anytime you can use the touch-screen to lock it temporarily. When you have finished using the bike for the day, take it to an intersection of streets within the red-marked zone on the map, and lock it. You use the touch-screen to tell it you are done, and it gives another four-digit return code. This you need to phone in again, also giving the two street names of the intersection, thereby ending you rental period and updating the website locator map.
The London scheme then is a lot easier to use, provided you know where the docking stations are. The Deutsche Bahn 'Call a Bike' needs you to have a mobile phone (the clue is in the scheme's name!), but allows you a great deal more freedom; for example, you could cycle out to the Grunewald forest on the Western edge of Berlin, and confidently lock your bike whilst you went for a bathe in the Havel or stop off at a Biergarten.

The Bikes
Comparing the two bike models, they both look solid, sturdy affairs. I think I would prefer the DB bike if I were going off-track. Also it has a handy carriage seat on the back for taking a child along with you, or carrying luggage; the dinky front-basket on the Barclays bike doesn't look so useful and I wouldn't fancy hauling the bike over my shoulder.

Alternative Bike Hire
As an alternative, there are many private bike-hire (Fahrradverleih) companies in Berlin and London. One such company has outlets in both; Fat Tire Bike Tours.
This is a photo I snapped of their shop under the Fernsehturm near Alexanderplatz:

As a comparison, Fat Tire in Berlin charge €12 for a day, but their strength is in their great guided bike tours and friendly (English-speaking) service. There are of course lots of other bike hire places in Berlin.
So in conclusion, I heartily recommend both initiatives. The more bicyles we can get onto our traffic congested streets the better. It might also encourage the building of more cycle lanes, though I must say I find Berlin has quite a good network. With the tourist in mind, I think the DB scheme would be much more useful and cost-effective, but then with the free first 30 minutes charge of the Barclays scheme I think it might get more commuters getting on a bike instead of clogging up the already over-crowded Tube trains. A disadvantage of the DB scheme though is that it all seems to be transacted in German. On the other hand, I can only find English on the Barclays Cycle Hire website.
Of course, it would be even better if Amsterdam's 'white bicycle' scheme from the late sixties had caught on, fifty white painted bikes left around the city by the anarchist Provos that anybody could just pick up and use for free. Unfortunately Reality is at variance with such a hippy utopia, but it does seem a shame that it is Barclays that is sponsoring the London scheme. Mind you, if they took over the DB scheme it would be rather interesting to see the reaction of people cycling around Germany on bikes prominently displaying a Prussian-looking eagle!

Prussian War Flag

Barclays Eagle