Thursday, February 25, 2010


I had a pleasant return to Berlin. The Berlinale celebrated its 60th birthday. I had collaborated on the script and was one of the main protagonists of “New York Memories” shown in the Berlinale’s Panorama section. Despite the rigorous selection, the film was one of 50 selected from a pool of 3,000. Next to Cannes, the Berlinale is the most important European film festival. This year 300,000 tickets were sold.
“New York Memories” is the latest documentary by Rosa von Praunheim. Twenty years after filming “Überleben in New York (Survival in New York)” Rosa returns to determine what happened to New York and his former protagonists. “Survival,” a documentary about three German women in New York was his commercially most successful film. Rosa and the producers hoped to repeat this success.
Of the three protagonists, Uli no longer lives in New York; she has moved to California. Claudia and Anna are doing well. Eva, the lead from his film “Transgender Menace,” has survived. New material is interwoven with clips from his old films depicting the wild 70s sex parties, gay pride demonstrations and eccentric superstars like Andy Warhol. Rosa recalls the tragic 80s, the bitter fight against Aids, and the transsexual uprising in the 90s. Giuliani has cleaned up the city. Rosa muses that the city has become richer and duller. He questions what happened and to all the artists and homeless people.
I remember my first Berlinale in1975, the stars, the exhilaration of discovering new films and filmmakers. We stood in line for tickets in the freezing cold; the films sold out fast. We partied all night. The Berlinale provided a welcome respite from the long dreary Berlin winter. Woody Allen won a prize for outstanding artistic contribution for “Love and Death.” This time I did not have to stand in the cold; I did not have to pay for my ticket. I got treated to drinks and Häppchen at the ARD parties (the alliance of German Public TV) and watched Eva Mattes, an actress I greatly admire, devour Eisbein next to me at lunch. She liked the film. “I could have continued to watch these people’s lives for another couple of hours,” she said. I found my name and picture in the program, sat anxiously in the cinema at the opening and felt embarrassed watching myself on the enormous screen. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
This was my first experience writing for the screen and I learned a lot. I did research, interviewed the protagonists, found interesting characters and locations. I tried to write visually; to keep a good pace and to interweave the individual stories in a way that would create a unified whole.
The final film is very different from the original script. Thirty-five hours of footage were edited down to 84 minutes. Lorenz Haarmann, the cameraman, told me that for documentaries, on average, 20 hours are shot for each hour of film. In terms of writing a novel, that means writing 200 pages to end up with 10.
Rosa discovered new protagonists —the multitalented, quirky and vivacious Pohl sisters— and cut out others. The film was funded by two public television stations, a situation many US filmmakers can only dream off. The producers had a huge impact. Certain scenes and characters were considered lackluster. They had to go. This might be similar to an editor telling an author to cut or rearrange chapters, to develop the characters more.
The final showing at the Colisseum on Schönhauser Allee was the best. Rosa asked us all on stage after the screening. The audience was fired up. They had a lot of comments and questions. Many remembered “Survival” and were fascinated by all the twists and turns of our lives. We were running half an hour over time. The people outside were getting impatient. I took the microphone. “We’ll do a sequel in twenty years,” I said. Rosa who is going to be in his 80s 20 years from now turned to me and said: “You’ll direct it.”
He might be right. Having been accepted to the Maysles Institute’s Filmmakers Collaborative, I will begin documentary film training in September.

Collaborative work, accolades, and drinks at the Hotel Savoy are pleasant. Now I’m back to working ALONE at my desk, away from the hustle and bustle of New York and Berlin. Here in Görlitz, I started work started on a novel. It’s my first day and so far I have written 1,500 words. By the end of April, I will be back in Harlem, hopefully with the first hundred pages in my suitcase. I pray I won’t have to throw out 90 of them.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bipolar Predicament

In Germany for two weeks now, I dream in English at night and find myself walking the sunlit streets of New York, in a crowd of people of all races. In New York, the Germany of my youth often invades my dreams. It might be the melancholy landscape of the lower Rhine with its gray and rainy skies or Berlin’s Prussian architecture, its Häuser und Hinterhäuser, backhouses and backyards.
I’m never just in one place; I‘m constantly comparing. New Yorkers are nice to strangers. They engage them in conversation; they are polite; they show genuine interest. Germans rarely speak to strangers. It appears acceptable to be rude, or to sit next to one another on the bus or in a cafe without exchanging a word or a smile. I am always living in two places simultaneously, with two languages in my brain. My way of looking at the world gets me into trouble on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Germans attack the US for its position on Israel, the National Rifle Association, its use of military power and its lack of ecological awareness, I become a staunch supporter of the US and the Americans. I point out all that’s right and fair in the US: a leader in civil rights, more opportunities for immigrants and more diversity in the workplace and the academic world. In Germany, I long for the optimism, the straightforward friendliness of the American people.
When in New York, just as my peers in Germany, I complain about American ignorance and narrow-mindedness, the pro-life activists and the religious fanatics. I long for more Tiefgang, (depth), friends I can argue with without the risk of offending them or losing a friendship. I deplore gas guzzling SUV’s, especially the pompous Hummer. I complain that the US is technologically behind Europe. Why is it that when we’re too hot in winter, we open the window or turn on the AC? Why don't we have individual thermostats in our apartments like most of the developed world? Why do we Americans waste our precious resources?
I had hoped that this rift, which I so often perceive as insurmountable, would heal over time. But it has never left me. Maybe I need to embrace it like a permanent companion, without whom life would not be worth living. When I was younger, I enjoyed nothing more than this “in-between state.” At ten, in a bus filled with children from the Ruhr Valley traveling to a Bavarian summer camp to escape the pollution at home, all my troubles disappeared. I was happy as long as I was on the move; no longer at home and not yet at the final destination.
Recently I came across the work of André Aciman a writer and professor of literature at the City University of New York. Aciman was born in Egypt. His family were Jews of Turkish and Italian origin who settled in Alexandria in 1905. Aciman experienced double migration. He moved with his family to Italy at the age of fifteen and then to New York at nineteen. I found comfort in his book “False Papers, Essays on Exile and Memory” (2000). In his essay Pensione Eolo, he writes:
“The true site of nostalgia is therefore not a land, or two lands, but the loop and interminable traffic between these two lands. It is the traffic between places, and not the places themselves, that eventually become the home, the spiritual home, the capital.”
On the train to Berlin, I pass through my former home state. Nordrhein-Westphalia has turned into a snowy winter wonderland. I have left my mother and my hometown but have not yet arrived. Zwischen den Stühlen sitzen, having fallen off both stools and experiencing the world from the gap, being in the middle might just be my place of belonging. My capital.