Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dubbing Trouble and the German Kino

Das Kino, Berlin style.
When I moved in Berlin for the first time in 2010, I met a guy who had set the lofty goal of visiting every Kino (movie theater) in Berlin at least once. An ambitious and time-intensive undertaking to say the least, given that there are no fewer than 275 movie theaters within the city limits (about 1 in 7 movie theaters in all of Germany is located in Berlin!). With this high number of theaters, along with the increasingly popular Berlinale Film Festival, the film business is alive and well in Berlin, and indeed in Germany at large.

I haven't had a chance to meet up with my Kino enthusiast acquaintance since 2010, so I have no idea whether he's on the home stretch or whether he's given up on his Kino-quest (if I remember correctly he was working on his 40s when I met him), but I have had the chance to poke my head into a few of Berlin's many interesting film houses myself. Being a major European capital, Berlin of course has the typical massive and sterile theaters located at Potsdamerplatz and the Sony Center. These 15-plus screen behemoths often host major premiers and shamelessly bombard you with up to 45 minutes (!) of advertisements. This might be the one rare case where Germany actually trumps the U.S. in unabashed consumer capitalism – though the U.S. has ads at movies as well, they've never exceeded 15-20 minutes in my experience. Apparently the ad men and women at the Cinemaxx think that everyone who watches 007 films is obsessed with cars as well, because they were hawking everything from Fiat 500s to Fords to Porsche 911s until we were almost ready to walk out and waste our 12,50 entry fee and purchase any kind of transportation vehicle that wasn't a car. The most painful thing of all, though, is that you can generally forget about seeing an American or non-German movie in Germany without subtitles or dubbing, unless of course you want to support one of these behemoth cinemas.

Despite appearances and the prominent signage
suggesting otherwise, this is in fact a Kino.
Hippies and History in Berlin's Small Kinos

So once you've developed the advanced skill – as I have – to resist the temptation to verbally abuse the distracting subtitles gracing the bottom of the screen at your favorite film, you can begin to discover the best side of Berlin's film scene: the host of small venues that have fewer than 100 seats (and often fewer than 50) and fewer than 5 screens – places where Hollywood blockbusters live peacefully next to art-house and independent films in an interesting and organic environment. I remember in particular one of my earlier experiences with Berlin's small movie theaters. We cycled down to the self-styled "oldest Kino in Germany," Moviemento in Neukölln, to see Gaspar Noe's Into the Void (which ultimately turned out to be about 2 hours too long and a tick heavy on the gratuitous porn scenes but that's beside the point). The foyer and ticket counter reminded me more of my grandma's living room than a movie theater, and the pierced, tattooed and moderately medicated cashier sold us our organic colas and Gummibärchen with a subdued smile. The screens aren't all that much bigger than the biggest flatscreens at your local electronics store, the plush 70's-style seats are bolted into carpeted concrete floors with a .003% grade, and I think my home speaker system just might be better than theirs. But I can say with full confidence that I enjoyed the experience far more than the impersonal, cavernous atmosphere at the commercial-happy Cinemaxx. You can find these little gems in virtually every district in Berlin if you're willing to wait a bit for the latest releases to come out. One of my other favorites is Central-Kinonestled into a grungy alley near the otherwise-posh Hackescher Markt.
The DDR's Kino International, lording over the pavement
desert that is Karl-Marx Allee.

For a more palpable sense of history, though, Kino International might be the most interesting theater in Germany for my money. It was the movie theater of the GDR that hosted all of the glorious premiers jenseits der Mauer (although one would imagine famous east-of-the-Iron-Curtain stars strutting along a red carpet to be particularly fitting at Kino International, I personally imagine a more spartan and egalitarian grey one). All of these interesting old theaters in Berlin – and their continued success – just confirm for me though that the newest, most advanced theater technology (I'm looking at you, disappointing 3D-tech) isn't necessarily what movie-goers are always looking for. These quirky spots offer much more of a movie experience.

Randy Marsh, video rental entrepreneur.
Death of a German Movie Salesman?

At first glance, the home movie experience also seems to be alive and well in Germany, or at least in Berlin. As far as I'm aware there is no equivalent to Netflix or Blockbuster's online service in Germany that is killing the brick-and-mortar establishments. I've also heard from many that torrents and illegal downloading is pretty strictly monitored on German networks.  As we strolled around the city, we also couldn't help but notice that Videotheke seemed to be on every corner and were often full of customers. This is starkly different from the U.S., where independent movie shops, Blockbusters, Hollywood Videos and Family Videos disappeared in a matter of months after online services and downloading exploded. Just ask Randy Marsh from Southpark: he bought a Blockbuster franchise in hopes of making it big, and instead promptly went insane while pacing the empty aisles in his rental shop. While Germany's shops seem to be hanging on a little longer than those in the States, a closer look at Berlin's video scene reveals that there really is only one major player (Video Center) in the city's rental market, and that the larger market is also experiencing an inexorable decline. In other words, I'm not looking to pull a Randy Marsh here in the Hauptstadt anytime soon.
Video rental is still hanging on – for now – in Berlin.

Rub-a-dub Dub, Dubbing is Rubbish

Though I've really enjoyed exploring some of these unique spots to see movies and am happy to see that rental shops are at least giving it the old college try at surviving, I don't view all aspects of the German Kino experience through rose-colored 3D glasses. The continuing scourge of movies (and television!) in Germany is Synchronisierung, or dubbing, whereby the original actors' voices are replaced with ill-fitting and vanilla German voice-overs. While I'm sure these are all very talented individuals, it is enormously frustrating to hear the same voices, accents, expressions applied to the vast variety of amazingly talented actors in world television and film. My latest scream of frustration came when watching the trailer for the latest Star Trek film, where the venerable Benedict Cumberbatch is reduced to an insipid Hochdeutsch (see video) that I swear I heard on the Simpsons at some point. I grew up thinking of dubbing as something of a joke, having been exposed to some of the classic kung fu films and their hilarious sound-video mismatches. However, when I saw my first television shows in Germany, I realized it was actually a serious way of watching foreign shows. In fact, most of the countries in central Europe – with the exception of the Netherlands and Scandanavia – still dub a large portion of their video entertainment, and Germany is king of them all.

Dubbing is a huge industry employing thousands, but the actual number of voice actors is surprisingly limited. The more prolific voices can be heard voicing a host of famous actors from all over the English-speaking world. For example, Gert Günther Hoffmann dubs Sean ConneryPaul NewmanRock HudsonLex Barker and William Shatner. Even more ridiculously, Thomas Danneberg plays Sylvester Stallone (American), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austrian-American), Dan Aykroyd (Canadian) and John Cleese (British). My immediate question was, what happens when two of these people happen to play in the same film, but fact is, I don't think people would necessarily even notice. Second thought is, how the hell do they choose the same guy to play the quintessentially American actor Paul Newman and the quintessentially Scottish actor Sean Connery?! John Cleese and Arnold Schwarzenegger, seriously?

I asked a German friend at one point how people can tolerate the mismatched mouth movements, poor translations and lack of variety in the voices. They replied that because they grew up with it, they barely even notice it. I've also met people who say they heard Bruce Willis' real voice and were quite disappointed because they had grown used to his German doppelgänger's voice. I'm no huge Bruce Willis fan, but it's all pretty sad, really. To boot, all this dubbing means that Germans always have to wait months before new releases make it to market. Seems like a lose-lose-lose-lose to me. Maybe I'm just being a selfish English native speaker by demanding less interference in my movie experience in a foreign country, but I think the case for subtitles over dubbing even for non-English-speaking Germans is a pretty strong one. The good news is that younger generations have had far more exposure to international languages and original versions of film and television via the Internet, so original versions (OV) and versions just with subtitles (Original mit Untertitel, OmU) are becoming more and more popular. Maybe those German-dubbed English language films will eventually be the jokes that dubbed kung fu movies have become in the U.S.

Update: Another topic that I consciously left out for brevity's sake – but had to tack on to the end here after stumbling across this great little movie blog – is the ridiculous translation and renaming of movies in the German market. I'll let the "Madmind" blog speak for itself, but basically, the Germans are obsessed with the "Title: this is a pointless phrase" movie title format. My favorite: American movie "Signs" becomes "Signs – Zeichen". In other words, "Signs – Signs" (!). Doing this in virtually every case results in some pretty solid (and tragic) comedy. Enjoy.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spargelzeitgeist: the German Penchant for Seasonal Food and Drink

The sun is shining in Berlin, winter jackets are being stowed away, city park lawns will soon be trampled into dirt, and all that means it's Spargelzeit in Germany! I can still remember my very first Spargelzeit as if it were yesterday. As Spring sprang in Freiburg im Breisgau, I heard whispers of the beloved Spargelzeit among the public, and soon I started spotting small stands throughout the city selling bundles of the thick, phallic white stalks stacked precariously high on foldable tables. Then, I noticed that every restaurant in town that wasn't hawking Döner was making appetizers, main courses, soups – and yes, desserts – using what appeared at the time to me as unripe or poor quality asparagus that had been allowed to grow for far too long. As far as I was concerned, asparagus was green, the best ones having a very tender quality and being only about a half centimeter thick. How much I had to learn about the world of asparagus. This is the obsession that is Spargelzeit in Germany (which could be translated as "asparagus season", but I think "asparagus-time" better encompasses the child-like excitement surrounding it), and it turns out it's actually just one of many seasonal food and drink "events" in Germany throughout the year.

Aside from being a bit put off by this different brand of asparagus that's exceedingly rare in the States, and reportedly had to be peeled before consuming, I was flummoxed at the sheer enthusiasm the Germans had for the vegetable. Many even religiously adjust their schedules and eating habits in the Spring to maximize Spargel consumption, and I'd bet big money that there's an annual hollandaise bubble around late April-early May, as it is the Spargel sauce of choice. Many lands tout their scenic wine or beer routes, but I reckon few can say that have a designated Spargel-route; Delbrück in northeastern Germany can make this proud claim, and they advertise their veg-specific cycle tour route on the Internets with the slogan "Pure cycle and asparagus pleasure." If I loved white Spargel as much as I love cycling, this would be a dream come true for my inner hedonist...but I don't, so it really isn't (to boot, there is nary a hill in the region, rendering the cycling equally marginal). Although my home province of Berlin/Brandenburg doesn't have its own Asparagus Pleasure Route as far as I'm aware, it does have its own epicenter of asparagus production located in and around the town of Beelitz, just southeast of city limits. In other words, if you're in Berlin and your asparagus didn't come from Beelitz, you've been had.
After 50 total hours of sunshine all Winter, Spargelzeit finally
shines its light on Berlin.

For those hard-to-convince readers needing more evidence of just how serious (or rather, giddy) the Germans are about the mighty asparagus stalk, the Spargelzeit phenomenon has also reached into the realm of television: one of the longest-running and most popular series in Germany was and is the crime show Tatort, and the 2010 episode called Spargelzeit (if you love Tatort and Spargel and have an hour to burn, you can watch the whole episode on YouTube) racked up the highest ratings for a Tatort show in 13 years (about 10.5 million viewers and a 29% share!), which puts it high in the running for the most watched show Germany-wide.

In search of some sort of concrete reasons behind this Teuton-Vegetable love affair, I found some information at germanfoods.org that points to the history of asparagus as a "luxury vegetable." Back in the day, it was almost exclusively available to the medieval rich and famous, and was therefore a rare treat for the humble plebs, who were drinking chunky-style beer and living in the otherwise-monotone culinary world north of the Alps. I think there could be something to this history playing a role on modern Spargel-eating habits, but I can think of two possible additional factors: first, Spargelzeit comes right at the glorious moment when the cold, grey winter of northern Germany gives way to blossoming flowers and trees and chirping birds. Asparagus, in other words, is just another happy indication that winter has come to a close. Second, and probably more importantly, I think Spargelzeit is really just the most popular example of the larger phenomenon of ingrained seasonal eating and drinking habits in Germany that emphasize the beginnings of a particular food or drink's harvesting season.

Erdbeerzeit is still the best Zeit of them all
as far as I'm concerned. (Photo: Hölker Verlag)
Case in point: On the heels of Spargelzeit comes Erdbeerzeit (Strawberry-time), and then as summer hits its peak (that is, if summer hits any kind of peak at all, which is far from a sure thing in Berlin lately), out come the Pfifferlinge for Pfifferlingszeit (chanterelle mushrooms), and of course any imaginable dish that involves mushroom cream sauce. In other words, lots of deliciousness. These seasonal events also stretch down to the southern reaches of the German-speaking world: When I first arrived in Styria, Austria, I quickly learned about Sturmzeit, which is centered around the grape harvest and the production of Sturm, a young and cloudy wine often drunk at the famous Heuriger (farm-to-table operations that serve meats, cheeses, wines, and vegetables that are all legally required to be produced on the premises). Along with producing prodigious hangovers, the drink represents a sort of a swan song for the friendly Fall weather in Austria. In the words of the Austrian, "Sturmzeit ist Herbstzeit!"

All of these Zeiten underline the much more prevalent tendency of Germans to eat seasonally. This tendency is part by choice, part out of habit, and part by general availability of produce. Any American who has lived in Germany or wandered into a German supermarket on vacation has probably noticed that the breadth of produce is far narrower than that found in its American counterparts (I've also read blogs complaining about the barren supermarkets of Germany). For many years in the U.S., I grew used to year-round strawberries, avocados, grapefruits and almost any other seasonal fare that was flown in from opposite hemispheres, so it took me a while to get used to the comparably sparse selection at the typical Rewe, Edeka and especially the increasingly numerous Bioläden (organic grocery stores). But when I got beyond this initial frustration, I realized that seasonal eating and the Germans' various food obsessions are actually one of my favorite aspects of German (and really, European) culture: it really is a wonderful way to enjoy the passing of the seasons and forces you to enjoy those foods even more when they're available and fresh. It also minimizes the shipping of food across hemispheres and oceans (see this article from the Local on this topic) or inefficient production in giant greenhouses. So enjoy your Spargel thoroughly (for now), and the strawberries will be here in no time flat.