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There’s (Another) American Series Starring Berlin

I didn’t even know there was a broadcaster (channel? station?) called EPiX and, had I known, I probably would have thought: If you call yourself EPiX with a little “i” and an “X”, you are probably anything but epic. Do people even say “epic” anymore? Hasn’t it been replaced with “legit” or an emoji of a poop unicorn? Or an emoji of poop and unicorns? I’m so old.

Anyway, turns out this new channel/station/broadcaster has made this new series called Berlin Station about – wait for it – American spies in Berlin. The creators were really going out on a limb on this one. Really taking a risk with the concept.

But anyway my little Roku pitched me this series one Portland night during a deep bout of homesickness and both my German wife and I thought: Let’s watch this teaser episode and see how much it sucks while seeing a bit of Berlin. Sentimental Schadenfreude, if you will.

Berlin series
This is an actual publicity photo from Berlin Station. It’s just Berlin. They get Berlin. And they’re taking the M2.

And we were surprised when it didn’t suck. Well not so bad as naming your channel/station/broadcaster “EPiX”. It was surprisingly intriguing, even though it treads across a carpet more worn than the rejection line at Berghain.

What Berlin Station does really well is show Berlin. Like all the time. I watched Homeland in Berlin and it could have been filmed anywhere with a few establishing shots below the Fernsehturm or on Oberbaumbrücke. The point of Homeland in Berlin – beyond capitalizing on the Hauptstadt hype and covering the tired ground of a spook past – seemed to be seeing if Carrie could look even more anguished in a country known for its anguish.

Berlin was an afterthought to Claire Dane’s furrowed brow.

Another real Berlin series

But Berlin Station seems to be filmed by people who know and love Germany’s biggest city, rather than creative types on a stopover from London or Hollywood. As someone who misses his Wahlheimat (adopted home), Berlin Station does an amazing job of showing diverse corners of the city.

It also lets its characters speak German. Like, whenever there would be an interaction in German in Berlin, that’s the language the characters speak. However, this also underlines the film as a work of fiction since the American dude played by Richard Armitage speaks almost fluent German. An American speaking German! Nice joke! But bilingual programming is a refreshing upgrade.

Of course they go out to the tattered radar domes of Teufelsberg but they also spend an amazing amount of time on Kotti – including a chase scene through those elaborate balconies and staircases above and around Kaisers, Monarch, Paloma and West Germany. You know, the ones you’ve always sworn you would explore more but never did out of fear for your personal safety?

We liked the teaser episode so much we watched the second one. The season debuts Oct. 16 — wherever you can get EPiX.

“It’s like sightseeing,” my wife said. “If you want Berlin, here’s your series. If you want story, not so much.”

But the creators’ knowledge of the bear city goes even further: In one scene especially poignant for Wahlberliner (voluntary Berliners), a spy operative played by Rhys Ifans notes that the avocados at the Turkish grocer aren’t even ripe.

It’s like the producers of Berlin Station know our pain. They are us. And they’ve given up on good guacamole too.

There’s plenty of overacting and goofy plot turns and a bit too much time spent in the sort of slick, high-priced nightclubs Berlin doesn’t have, but the thing has a great feel – and (did I mention?) a lot of Berlin. Though lacking depth, its texture is reminiscent of A Most Wanted Man – one of my most favorite Berlin films next to the 1985 Anthony Edwards spy epic, Gotcha!.

I’m going to have to subscribe to EPiX long enough to watch the other eight episodes.

And then epically cancel my subscription.

Look Who’s Back: Writing jokes for Hitler

I just finished reading Er is wieder da. For those not in the know, Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) is a fictional take on Hitler coming back to life in central Berlin in 2011.

It’s humorous fiction. Really.

And for those doubly not in the know, they made it into a movie in 2014. And that movie will debut on Netflix in non-German-speaking parts of the world on April 9.

Look Who's Back/Er ist wieder da
Photo thanks Constantin Film Verleih GmbH.

And for those triply not in the know – I’m in the movie. So, like, my Netflix debut is Friday.

Back in 2014 I got a call from an acquaintance in the movie business. He asked if I had any interest in playing comedy coach for a mysterious someone. My answer was: Not really. I’m only skilled at two things and neither of them is comedy coach.

He then asked if I, instead, had any interest in writing jokes for the mysterious someone.

“Maybe,” I said.

“With pay.”

“When should I be there?”

A couple days later – a Wednesday, I believe – I found myself sitting with comedy friends on the set of an unrelated TV show in a studio in southeastern Berlin. Near that airport that never opens.

The acquaintance who invited me introduced to us to someone who claimed to be a director.

The director reminded me of Animal from The Muppet Show. At the very least, they had the same taste in fashion.

He asked us if we knew about the book. He said he was making the film.

“We’re not supposed to tell you,” he said, “but it seems to work better when you know.”

We were going to be writing jokes for Hitler, he said.

I wondered if I was living in a Mel Brooks play. I debated singing Springtime for Hitler.

But soon Christoph Maria Herbst showed up. If you’re quadruply not in the know, Christoph Maria Herbst is a big-time German comedy actor who actually played the lead in the German version of The Office (called Stromberg, for those keeping score at home). Just think of some middle-aged comedic actor you’re familiar with.

Are you thinking of that actor?

Good. Christoph Maria Herbst isn’t that famous. Because Germany.

But you get what I mean: it was cool to see him.

He was in character. He said he had a guy with him who either was or was not Hitler but either way would be getting a TV show and we should write jokes for that TV show. Nothing was sacred he said and, during a group brainstorm, made clear the direction he wanted us to go with our humor.

It’s a direction everyone goes, just not in front of cameras. But if cameras, then probably for a lot more than they were paying us.

I was starting to get nervous.

I wasn’t sure the jokes that were forming in my head were OK.

When it comes to borderline culture questions in Germany, I turn to a select collection of Teutonic friends. They have similar political and humanistic leanings as I and I trust them to answer my questions in sticky German situations.

Like if it’s OK to participate when someone asks you to write jokes for Hitler.

One of those friends was sitting next to me on that set – a comedian and filmmaker named Georg – so I figured it was OK.

But it was more than just the day’s task that was making me nervous.

The entire time two beefy security guards had been circling the set, looking unhappy.

Were they part of the scenery? Or had the production company hired them just in case some lefty activists decided to drop in on Hitler?

They were either perfectly cast and were playing their part very well or were beefy security guards with questionable political beliefs.

I couldn’t stop sweating.

Christoph Maria Herbst (you couldn’t not write all three of his names every time either) had us each write five jokes and then he read them aloud. I don’t remember any of the ones I wrote. He then picked his favorites and left to get the man who was either Hitler or a man pretending to be Hitler.

In the book, he’s Hitler. That day on set, he was actor Oliver Masucci. But I still tried to imagine what it would be like if Masucci really were Hitler.

My imagination apparently isn’t good enough. Because I couldn’t.

Look who’s back: And he was

Hitler asked for our advice on his humor and was not amused when I suggested he go for self-deprecation. The Führer making fun of himself would be hilarious, I assured him.

He assured me that wouldn’t happen. Even though he wasn’t really Hitler he was still very menacing, like if Vladimir Putin was standing right there but without the ability to cause you to have a car accident on the way home.

About this time Georg started freaking out. He started telling everyone how he would have no part of this. That it was unfair to Germany’s past (or something like that).

I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. I decided that if Georg stormed out, I would storm out too, like two Clark Gables in Gone with the Wind. Or maybe Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

To hell with the money. I had principles (though I would be a bit disappointed because I’m pretty sure no one ever remotely as famous as Hitler would ever ask me to write jokes for them again).

But Georg stayed and so did I.

Animal the director showed up a few more times and I eventually got escorted off by the security guards for offending Der Führer with my self-deprecation suggestion.

This was a bit unnerving.

They say if you’re ever kidnapped you should make yourself more human to the kidnappers by telling them about your personal life. After finding myself behind the set alone with the hulking, clearly-miffed security guards, I figured humanizing myself might prevent any beatings they were contemplating.

“So, uh, are you guys actors or security guards?” I inquired.

Das hier ist alles scheisse,” the blonder of the two barked back (“This is all bullshit.”) I considered checking to see if my health insurance card was in my wallet.

I still have no idea what he meant.

Dude, Georg

Afterward, standing in the sun, I asked Georg if we were ethically OK or if the whole thing went too far.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“In there. You were freaking out.”

“That? I knew what was going down all along.”

“Holy shit! I thought you were totally against it! I was ready to leave with you!”

“Yeah,” he said, pulling on his e-cigarette. “It’s called acting.”

Months later, after my wife saw the film, I told her what I just told you.

“They’re really good,” she said. “You can totally see that that’s what you’re thinking. But your joke is one of the best in that section.”

I can’t wait to see it on Friday.

I hope my wife is right.

My Jedi Wife

Germans don’t like to talk. But they love to discuss. Just turn on German TV on a Friday night. Everyone is discussing. Actually, they’re diskutieren.

And no one likes to discuss more than bureaucrats (German: Beamte).

If you run into a Beamte in their natural environment – an office – a refusal is often not actually a refusal. It’s an invitation to discuss.

My Jedi wife
Photo thanks Amira_a via Creative Commons

Das können wir leider nicht für Sie heute erledigen,” a Beamte might say: I’m sorry, we can’t do that for you today. That might be the literal translation but my wife has taught me some Beamtish and what they’re really saying is: “Give me a good reason to do that for you, if possible supported by several official-looking documents and a legal precedent or two.”

Even crazier than that statement: People actually do this and it works.

My wife is a professional diskutierer. She should be, she’s German. But even Germans should pay her to square off with Beamten. She doesn’t go into a government office to get something done. She goes in to create art. In a municipal building, my wife is a Jedi Knight among a sea of Imperial soldiers: “These are the documents you’re looking for.” (yes, I avoided the words “Storm Troopers” because, history).

Jedi at the Bürgeramt Rathaus Mitte

Shortly after the birth of our second child we moved and had to register our new address, as everyone in Germany does. This was in the days when everyone used the Internet except the German government: You couldn’t get an appointment and you couldn’t do it online or even through the mail. We had to go to Bürgeramt Rathaus Mitte and we were immediately confronted with a waiting room full of annoyed Bürger (anyone not a Beamte).

“We need to register our new address,” my wife said, rocking a baby in a Maxi-Cosi on her chest. “How do we do that?”

The woman behind the counter seemed to delight at the question. I thought because she was going to turn us down but now I know it was because it was a chance to discuss.

Photo thanks the Grafs via Creative Commons
Photo thanks the Grafs via Creative Commons

“Normally I’d give you a number and you would go upstairs and wait your turn but there’s no point. They won’t get to you today. There are too many people here.” My words sound much nicer than hers. She made it sound like we had just asked a pilot if we could fly the plane ourselves.

“I realize that, but my husband took the afternoon off and we’ve got the baby asleep so maybe we can just get a number and see what happens,” my wife said, as cool as, well, a Beamte.

“There’s no point, they won’t get to you. I’m not giving you a number,” the Beamtin replied. I’m pretty sure she hissed this. It may have even been in a reptilian language everyone knows somewhere deep in the primitive portions of their brains.

Beamten may be a different species entirely.

It incensed me. I was preparing a lambasting about taxpayers and public servants that could possibly have won me an Oscar, or maybe a Nobel Prize. But my wife raised her hand as if to say: ‘I’ve got this.’

“OK, but my husband took the afternoon off and we’ve got the baby asleep so maybe we can just get a number and see what happens. It’s our problem.” My wife, I laughed to myself, how optimistic! And dumb. I started fuming inside. It was clear this Beamtin wasn’t going to help us.

“Well,” the Beamtin said, “Do you have all the paperwork? Let me see it.”

“Oh!” I thought. “Clever trick!” I assumed she would tell us we didn’t have all our ducks in a row and send us away with a condescending smirk.

“Nice try, Frau Beamtin,” I thought to myself. “We know what we’re doing! We’ve got everything! Check mate!”

I was really proud of us.

The Beamtin took the paperwork, turned around, typed something in a computer, placed a stamp on another piece of paper and handed everything back to us.

“There,” she said, “I did it for you. Have a nice day.”

Let’s just pause for a moment. Because the moment was that good. It was one of the best in my life. Maybe even ahead of the birth of my children or the first time I saw Star Wars. I felt like we won life that day. We defeated all of Berlin.

“I can’t believe you did that!” I said as we left victoriously, new registration in hand.

“Did what?” my wife said. “Sometimes you just have to have a discussion with people.”

 

Magical Germany: Playgrounds

Germany has the best playgrounds.

They’re so good at it, they even have categories of Spielplatz (playground): Bauspielplatz (building playground), Naturspielplatz (natural playground), Wasserspielplatz (water playground) and the most promising sounding, the Abenteuerspielplatz (adventure playground). Linguistically you’d think children wouldn’t even need a roof over their heads – they could just hang around on the various types of Spielplätze depending on whim and weather.

We had no idea of the greatness of German playgrounds until we started travelling with our kids. In Bergen, Norway, the hotel staff emphatically recommended a playground around the corner that was probably pretty novel during industrialization when mass-produced iron was new. In central Illinois we ended up on a playground where rusty bolts protruded from rough concrete at the base of a ‘60s-vintage slide. The afternoon sun turned a metal UFO climbing gym into a giant frying pan for unmarinated three-year-olds. It hadn’t changed since I played on it as a kid.

spielplatz

In Berlin, our go-to playground carried a circus theme and expanded as our kids grew. That’s partly what’s so great about German playgrounds: Most are custom-built wooden jobs that incorporate slides, climbing walls, elevated rope walkways and tunnels with some theme: A circus, a jungle, the deeper meaning of Jungian dream interpretation in pre-Weimar Stuttgart. That kind of thing.

Our backup was the Kleinkindspielplatz at Kollwitzplatz. A Kleinkindspielplatz is a little kid playground that ultimately gets over-run by slightly bossy, slightly too big kids who seem impervious to reprimands from strange parents. Kind of like what happens to any bar when the New York Times includes it in any dispatch about coolness.

But the variety of German playgrounds is amazing. At a Bauspielplatz, you let kids loose in a Robinson Crusoe landscape with hammers, nails and used wood. “Build a pirate ship!” the playground calls to the children. “Make sure you have your health insurance cards!” it calls to the parents.

A Naturspielplatz is just a nice way of saying: Overgrown, muddy playground with a few good climbing trees. It’s a cop out really. A playground maintained by an aging alcoholic who loves children but is busy just getting out of bed in the morning. The motto of Naturspielplätze is a German saying popular with lazy parents (not that that’s a bad thing): Dreck reinigt den Magen (dirt cleans the stomach).

And an Abenteuerspielplatz is like a mix of a Naturspielplatz and a Bauspielplatz with about twice the broken bones. In short: Fantastic!

German playgrounds even have something for the parents: You can bring beer to most (but not all). As my kids grew my hobby quickly became knowing the nearest beer-serving convenience store for each playground. I should have sold guides.

German playgrounds almost make me want to have another kid.

Almost.

Building Bowie in Berlin

Bowie, it always seemed to me, was more important to Berlin than Berlin to Bowie. But that’s what happens when you create greatness: It takes on a meaning independent of its creator. Like how a Hasselhoff song brought down the Wall. Or how someday, someone will finally open the Berlin airport.

But Bowie’s importance to Berlin should be honored in some way more than by just replaying his records (and replaying them and replaying them). Shortly after his death, everyone suggested renaming Hauptstrasse  where he lived in Schöneberg to David Bowie Strasse. RadioEins (Radio1) even had a street sign made.

A Bowie statue like this.
Pic: Michael Jackson and Bubbles from Jeff Koons (Versailles) via free images (license)

I’m against it. Hauptstrasse (and its extension Potsdamer) play a big role in my Berlin and they should keep their original names. I lived in Germany so long I’m afraid of change too.

And, anyway, the killjoys over at the Rote Rathaus (town hall) broke up that party: Streets can only be named after people who’ve been dead for half a decade. David’s only got a week. And since the city’s trying to give women their due, even if we could get a street named after him, he wouldn’t be high on the list.

But I have a different idea. Let’s honor David Bowie the way the city has honored tons of other Berlin promis: Let’s build a David Bowie statue. It could be at Hauptstr. 155 but it could also be north on Hauptstrasse at Kleistpark or next to the Schöneberg swimming pool in the adjacent park with a name I’m too lazy to look up.

Several years ago I was jogging around the Siegesäule (victory column) with a Danish friend and she asked me who all the statues represented.

“Dead generals,” I said. She was flabbergasted that Germany still celebrated the generals, partly because of Germany’s – you know – history and partly because the country had plenty of other people to celebrate.

Like David Bowie.

I muttered something about history and truth and Berlin’s history and truth and then wished she’d jog a little slower.

But it’s something that could be done without waiting five years, could be done through crowdfunding (I don’t need to hear another Berlin politician talk about finanzen) and would give all Stardustians (Bowenators? David Devouts?) a place to gather.

Anybody can get a street named after them in Berlin: Marlene Dietrich. Ben Gurion. Some guy named 17. Juni. But only generals seem to get statues. And hopefully David Bowie.