Book Report: John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes

I picked this up at a bookshop in Berlin for reading material, since I was sort of out of reading material, and it seemed like a good read. It was pretty entertaining. It was supposed to be an autobiography, though the final 50% or so was finished by his wife after Peel’s death in 2005.

I won’t bother going into who he was, that is what wikipedia is for.

What I came away feeling was that there’s just not a place in the current media universe for someone like that. Despite how little choice we get from the tepid, bland mediocrity of coast-to-coast ClearChannel and Infinity stations, despite how much infinite and overwhelming variety we get from the internet, there’s nobody out there who has a pulpit, and an audience big enough to make the pulpit credible, where they can challenge people to listen to things they might not otherwise have listened to. You can get more of what you already know, you can spend all your time trying to find new things on your own, or you can listen to the same 10 songs everybody else is listening to.

Also, he was an extremely clever writer; was not surprised to hear him say that he admired Wodehouse.

Filmmuseum, Berlin

Sony Center atriumThe only time I’d seen Potsdamer Platz before seeing it in real life was in Wings of Desire, where the old poet is looking for the once-bustling plaza, and finds only a decimated square right on the border between East and West Berlin.

In 2007/8, it’s again a bustilng plaza, albeit with sparkling glass towers sporting the logos of mutinational corporations. Despite this, it still seems to actually be used as a viable public space. While we were there, a small Christmas market (with an artificially snow-covered intertube sledding hill!) was in operation, and less seasonally, it is also the site of a major U-bahn and train station, and the Sony Center, a gigantic pavillion housing many offices, restaurants, bars, shops, and museums.

Filmsmuseum basementOne of these is the excellent Filmmuseum, which houses rotating exibits and a permanent exhibit of the history of German film. Two special exhibits were on while we were there. There was one moderately interesting one about the introduction of sound to German film; several films were playing in little rooms, and these were mostly cute musical comedies. There was another one devoted to the work of Ray Harryhausen, the famous stop-motion animation special effects artist (of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans fame, among many many others (and as I write this, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is on TCM!)) which included many of his stop motion models. The coolest display in my opinion showed how live action was mixed with stop motion using a combination of projectors and cameras and models; a loop of Jason and the Argonauts was playing with a live actor fighting a stop-motion monster, and the setup showed how the loop had been filmed. Also, the model for Bubo was there!

marlene_dietrich.jpgIn the permanent museum, Marlene Dietrich had at least three rooms devoted to her. The collection included letters, her outfits (both dresses and tuxedos), costumes, photos of fellow stars, and other mementoes. The displays went into great detail, with a seemingly positive slant, about how she was fiercly anti-Nazi and discussed the many ways in which very actively supported the American war effort. Two rooms were devoted to the Nazi period. One room discussed Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, concentrating somewhat on the technical aspects of how it was filmed (with a model of the olympic stadium showing the different camera locations and scaffolding), and how well orchestrated / propagandistic the entire 1936 Olympics were. Another room had other Nazi-era films, from light comedies to out-and-out hateful propaganda (including the notorious Jud Süß); each film was playing in a morgue-like drawer. As you pulled out the drawer, the film clip was already playing, but the sound would become audible; as you pushed in the drawer, the sound would disappear. The message embedded in this presentation seemed to be “there is too much here for us to pretend it didn’t happen, but look at these for what they are, and leave them dead in their drawers”.

One of the saddest things for me was to find out that Emil Jannings appeared in Nazi films; there was a photo of him smiling with Hitler and Göbbels. He had come to Hollywood in 1926, but went back to Germany in 1930 or so, realizing that, like many non-Anglophones who had enjoyed fame in the silent films, he had no future in the Hollywood talkies. He was so unbelieveably good in Murnau’s The Last Laugh, it’s just hard to stomach that he was a Nazi collaborator.

After we went through the Filmmuseum, we had a drink at the nearby bar in the Sony Center, Billy Wilder’s. And watched people curling on a refrigerated indoor ice rink.