Saturday, 8 September 2007

The weakest of all parties

The Internationale is still regularly sung at the gatherings of some European Social Democratic / Socialist parties, or at least their youth movements. Translations vary, but in German and French, the beginning of the last verse reads:

Ouvriers, paysans, nous sommes
Le grand parti des travailleurs

In Stadt und Land, ihr Arbeitsleute,
wir sind die staerkste der Partei'n

(In English-speaking countries there has traditionally been little reason for such optimism, so the English version never makes any claims about how workers are the strongest of all - quite wise, given the state of European workers' movements today.)

The optimism radiant in the German text could, however, not be more dated. This is especially true in the East of Germany, where pressure from both the new Left-Party and populist right-wing extremists are all-but eclipsing support for the Social Democrats (SPD).

In the important state of Saxony, which includes cities such as Dresden, the situation is particularly dramatic. According to a recent opinion poll, the SPD can expect to receive only 8 % of the vote at the next state elections. The NPD, a neo-Nazi party, is likely to receive 9%!

Far from being the biggest party, then, the Social Democrats are once again gathering less support than outright Nazis in this part of the country. Equally worryingly, even a coalition with the stronger Christian Democrats (CDU), who rate at 39 %, would not grant a majority to the two "Volksparteien", Germany's traditionally dominant mass parties. It is as though Tories and Labour in England failed to muster a majority, with the BNP eclipsing Labour.

Changes to a country's party system are of course normal, and not automatically a reason to worry. But - far from indicating the advent, predicted by sociologists, of a depoliticised era when politics is more about style than substance - the new data implies that the fundamentals of our political system are again being questioned.

In Saxony, the fringes are now so strong that the only possible government constellation would be a coalition including practially all democratic parties. The left-leaning parties - SPD, Left, and Greens - are far from a majority. The traditional parties of the conservative establishment - CDU and the "Liberals" (FDP) - equally fall short of a majority.

The so-called Jamaica coalition, including the CDU (whose traditional colour is black), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens has repeatedly been floated as a long-term perspective. But it would be a revolution of German politial culture, which has been shaped in large parts by the stance parties took towards the 1968 student (and cultural) revolution. The CDU combatted it as though it was the demise of civilisation, whilst the Greens are its product. The experiment would therefore be of questionable longevity. It would need a solid parliamentary majority - with the meagre 51 % mustered by the Jamaica-coalition according to the Saxony poll dooming it from the start.

Which leaves as the only possibility a Grand coalition of CDU and SPD, with either the FDP or the Greens, or both, added in. Without precedent, such a constellation would all but eradicate the competition of ideas between mainstream political parties in Germany. The opposition would consist in the main of parties more interested in populist than constructive criticism. And more than likely further weaken the democratic system.

For the time-being, then, there is no alternative - whether you are a lefty or righty, Conservative or Liberal - to hoping that the Social Democrats will regain in strength. Germany, like most European countries, needs a recognisable and strong left-of-centre party to balance the political system. For the moment, the dramatic situation in Saxony is an exception. Let us prey to God - or, if you prefer, invoke Uncle Charly Marx by singing The Internationale - that it will not become the rule.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Not a blessed country

As I was rushing across Harvard Yard a few hours ago I cought a beautiful snippet of conversation:

American, desperate to impress German blonde: So how do you say "God bless you" in German?

German, taken aback:
Erm... Actually, I don't think we have that expression in Germany

Monday, 3 September 2007

An American and a German comedian...

Thanks for Henry over at Westminster Wisdom for unearthing this wonderful video of Tom Lehrer singing about Wernher von Braun, the principal German engineer behind the V2 bombs which destroyed much of London and later father of the NASA space program... (for a more detailed biog, see here):

There is a German comedian, Georg Kreisler, who has a very similar, and equally devastating, brand of humour. So for the German-speakers, here is a sounds-and-text version of Kreisler's beautiful song: But who's there to defend the police?

Paris, je ne t'aime pas (the film, at least)

More still than the city of love, Paris is the city of cliché.

By comparison to Paris, even London is pretty safe for avoiding cinematic vulgarity. Just stay away from Big Ben and 'droll' Englishmen reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes or – worse – Mr. Bean and you'll be fine. A film depicting an average London neighbourhood might lack in style, but avoids the pitfalls of universally recognisable kitsch. But then, who outside England knows about Stoke Newington or even Camden Town?

Try shooting a film about Paris, by contrast, and your troubles increase exponentially. The universally shared image of Parisian life is stunning people walking down a picturesque street, or sitting in an atmospheric cafe. Problem is: Most actors are stunning and streets in Paris unfailingly are rather pretty. Even the city's cafes all eerily resemble the Platonic form of the atmospheric Parisian cafe any filmgoer will have in mind.

No escape from received ideas, then, for a film forebodingly called Paris, je t'aime. A succession of 18 short films, each was realised by a different famous director and with a different star-studded cast. Billed as a film about love in Paris and a love declaration to Paris, Paris, je t'aime, in truth, unwittingly becomes a cinematographic ritornello revolving around cliché.

As each director uses his few minutes of screen time to decide whether his contribution will indulge in cliché, play with cliché or attempt to transcend cliché, a cacophony of styles hits the viewer. This, however, is not the problem. After all, coherence is overrated. If each director chose a different approach, and they each added another little stone to a colourful mosaic of Paris, the result would be glaring, yet beautiful. The problem, on the contrary, is that for all their incoherence, the 18 shorts making up Paris, je t'aime are disappointingly repetitive.

Gus van Sant's short about the "Marais" is a good example of the recipe most of them share. First, feebly attempt to transcend cliché by making your film really 'stylish'. The easy way to achieve this is to show some minority or subculture – in this case, gays. Second, you have them act a little weird, lending your film that certain art house feel... For example, you could ask the male lead (Gaspard Ulliel) to rant, egotistically, about his deep connection with another character (Elias McConnell) who, being American, doesn't even understand a word of what's going on.

Last, you reward yourself for your attempt to sidestep banality with a little indulgence. Have the good American discover his love for the enigmatic soliloquist, rushing out into the street to track him down and start a beautiful love story. This, incidentally, has the added advantage of being able to show, in the last frames of the short, all the quaint sights any tourist hopes to spot in the "Marais": Some more gays, a couple of orthodox Jews, and the sickeningly pretty Place des Vosges.

Even though some shorts at least go so far as being mildly self-ironic, the 'different perspective' on Paris they all self-consciously seek rarely goes very far. "Quartier Latin", directed by no other than Gérard Depardieu, for example, depicts Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara in a Parisian café. Far from romantic, however, their rendez-vous – twist! twist! – on closer inspection turns out to be an awkward reunion on the eve of their divorce.

The secrets which emerge as Rowlands and Gazzara enlist all their psychological weaponry and charme against each other are mildly entertaining. But the short's ambition to shock by showing how cruelly lovers can wage war on one another could not have been called innovative even back in 1962 – when Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, of which "Quarter Latin" is evidently derivative, triumphed on Broadway …

As Paris, je t'aime progresses, the catalogue of failed shots at originality becomes longer and longer. In "Père Lachaise", directed by Wes Craven, Emily Mortimer is having second thoughts about her engagement to Rufus Sewell. It takes an unbearable guest appearance by Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne) to save their relationship – poor Oscar is wheeled in to teach the overly earnest Sewell how to have a good laugh, rescuing Mortimer from "a life devoid of humour".

Only Joel and Ethan Cohen, in "Tuileries", manage to attain any degree of virtuosity in deconstructing commonplaces about Paris in an entertaining manner. Steve Buscemi, playing another American tourist – a mid-sized battalion of them populates the film, probably quite enough to stop genocide in Darfur if only they weren't loitering around in the streets of Paris – reads his guide book in the "Tuileries" metro station. It tells him that Paris is the city of love and, true to the promise, there they are, two French lovers on the opposite platform, in a tight embrace.

"Eye contact should be avoided", the guide book warns him; a little too late, for he has just caught the eye of the striking girl (Julie Bataille), and attracted the consequent wrath of her lover (Axel Kiener). What follows is a dizzying succession of surprises. The Cohen brothers switch realism on and off – as unpredictably, one imagines, as the ebbs and flows of Buscemi's testosterone whilst he goes from being gratuitously attacked by Alex Kiener to being gratuitously snogged by Julie Bataille.

When, surrounded by hundreds of Mona Lisa postcards, Buscemi is finally left alone on the platform, we, along with him, are a little bewildered: A sustained tour de force of Paris could have been breathtaking after all…

Perhaps the many flaws of Paris, je t'aime just are the flaws of modern-day Paris. Crushed by all the beauty it hopes to preserve and all the tourists it hopes to attract, Paris can be a stifling place to live. In London, historic monuments are the reassuringly constant background to rapidly changing life. Paris, by contrast, can feel like individuals are the worryingly ephemeral extras for a never-changing protagonist, la France.

Paris, therefore, is much more than a pretty setting to live in: it is an ever-competitive primadonna. Living in Paris, you have only two options: take the back seat, enjoy the beauty of the primadonna bestowing her presence on you, and give up hope of ever doing anything with your life. Or fight the city, with all the energy and every dirty trick you have at your disposal. Perhaps that's why Parisians – just like the shorts making up Paris, je t'aime – can seem so earnest and self-obsessed behind their ironic veneer. Don't blame them: they're weighed down by an uphill struggle…

So, of course, is Paris, je t'aime. For the film to succeed, eighteen directors would have needed to overcome the pitfalls inherent in telling a love story about Paris. A few worthwhile shorts, such as the Cohen brothers' "Tuileries" or Walter Selles' and Daniela Thomas' "Loin du 16e" thankfully show that these obstacles could have been overcome. One or two out of eighteen, however, sadly is not enough for a good, or even just entertaining, full-length film.