Intern: Hanna

My name is Hanna and I am the new intern in the Cultural Department at Deutsches Haus at NYU. I arrived here in New York about two weeks ago, and I am still overwhelmed by the abundance of opportunities this city has to offer. Particularly when it comes to culture, New York is such an incredibly inspiring environment that I barely know where to start exploring. This is my third time in New York, but living and working here changes my perspective of the city, which is a huge benefit for me – from a professional as well as from a personal point of view.

Originally I am from Bonn, where I am working on my Ph.D. in German Literature. Before I came to Deutsches Haus at NYU, I had just finished my postgraduate studies in German as a Foreign/Second Language, so I thought this would be the perfect time to support my new-gained knowledge with some practical experience in the field of intercultural communication and cross-cultural exchange. I chose to apply at Deutsches Haus because to me, the cooperation between the language, the cultural and the kids program, the incorporation of the Deutsches Haus into the academic environment of the NYU, and last but not least the diverse, interdisciplinary cultural program presented in such a fast-paced, cosmopolitan surrounding as New York is particularly intriguing.

I am very excited to spend the coming weeks with such a nice team in such a fascinating city, and I am looking forward to many exciting events this fall.

German Language Instructor Becky

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How would you describe your teaching style?

That’s a tough one to answer. You should ask my students! I guess I would say my teaching style is demonstrative and facilitative. Learning takes observation and imitation, which is especially important in foreign language learning, since cultural norms are always embedded in the way people speak. At the same time, students learn best by taking initiative and actively applying knowledge to new situations and tasks. In my teaching, I therefore try to act as a demonstrator of useful methods and skills while being a facilitator of student-centered, active learning.

What do you like about teaching German?

What I like about teaching German is immersing myself and others in the language and culture of the country that I love and call home. Aside from that, I have always loved grammar, so German gives me lots of options to choose from!

What is the hardest part about teaching the language? What do your students struggle with?

The hardest part is probably trying to convey the “soul” of the language - explaining subtleties in meaning, idiomatic phrases, and everyday language use, etc. Students may know all the rules of grammar, but still have a hard time speaking fluently and naturally. The four cases and three genders always tend to be a bit confusing as well. Other than that, there are words like ‘Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän’… need I say more?

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding part is working with people. There is nothing greater than engaging with students, getting to know them, and helping them along their personal journey. Every student has their own specific reasons for wanting to learn German, so it’s great to hear those stories and watch students improve their knowledge and skills and put them to good use.

What do you like about teaching at Deutsches Haus specifically?

I am still very new to Deutsches Haus, but what I have enjoyed so far is the very diverse group of students of all ages and backgrounds. It makes teaching all the more fun and interesting! The staff and colleagues have also been so kind and helpful, so it’s been an all around pleasurable experience. It’s great to be a part of a close-knit German community right here in the hustle and bustle of New York City. I feel very much at home!

Are there any languages you would like to learn?

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, so Spanish was the first language I learned. My family moved to Germany when I was 3, however, so I forgot it all. I would therefore love to learn Spanish and visit Venezuela again. I haven’t been back since!

Juri Rechinsky

The first feature-length film by Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Juri Rechinsky, SICKFUCKPEOPLE is a shattering, immensely powerful portrait of a group of homeless, drug-addicted street kids, whom Rechinsky found sheltering together in a squalid Odessa cellar, apparently left to their own devices by their families and society alike.

Taking the form of a triptych, the film follows the path of two of these young men (as well as an equally tragic young woman who becomes involved with one of them) over the course of a couple years, chronicling their attempts to salvage their lives as they emerge into adulthood. But the legacy of their drug addiction – both in terms of their identities and their physical health – forms a nearly insurmountable obstacle: documenting their interactions with their families and neighbors, SICKFUCKPEOPLE paints a portrait of a society, suffused with hatred and brutality, that refuses to give a second chance to those who inhabit its margins. Turning an unflinching gaze on a reality we’d prefer not to confront, Rechinsky invests his film with a profound affection for his struggling protagonists.

Please join us this Thursday 8/7/14 at 7:30 pm for a screening of Sickfuckpeople and a Q&A with the filmmaker, Juri Rechinsky, at Anthology Film Archives.

How did the idea for the film Sickfuckpeople come about? Where did you meet these kids – did you see them on the street and think: right, I just have to make a film about them?

JR: I had a very shitty situation with my family. I spent time in different hospitals in Kiev … but I have already told this story a number of times, I don’t know if it will be interesting to repeat it because it will have appeared somewhere anyway. Let’s just say I had certain problems inside my family and inside myself and as soon as I knew where to find such kids I went there. I didn’t have any plans, any ideas. I talked with these kids for a while and then they started shooting up drugs, and when I came out of that basement I realized that the only thing I could do in this situation was to film it and maybe something would come out of it.

The film has a very professional look. On the one hand there are all these beautiful images and on the other hand you see these horrible scenes. The vast beauty of the landscape and the narrowness of the cellar and the social perspectives of your protagonists …

JR: A woman once said to me that my movie is very baroque in that we are showing ugly things in a very beautiful way. For me it was just natural. I was not trying to invent anything. I was just filming and framing as I saw it, because there was beauty all around this filth and misery. It may also be one of the points that everything around you, even nature, doesn’t really care about your condition, your suffering.

The film at times reminded me of a wildlife documentary where you always ask yourself: Why didn’t the film crew help the motherless fox cub, why let it die …?

JR: This does not apply to our way of shooting because every time we had the choice to either intervene when something bad was happening or someone was in danger of dying or to simply keep shooting, we always chose to step in without even thinking about it.

But you could have made the decision to show how you and your crew get involved in the film, use a voice-over and so forth…

JR: I do not think that my person is interesting enough to be in the movie. Although in the end I actually do appear in the movie when I start asking questions and begging this guy to move his ass and go to the hospital.

Were you ever worried about crossing the line of what to show and what not to show? There is the expression “social porn”, for example…

JR: When Joseph Brodsky received the Nobel Prize he said some very interesting things about poetry. According to him there are three ways of cognition: analytical, intuitive and the way that was known to the biblical prophets – revelation. And what distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature is that it uses all three of them simultaneously. I like this definition a lot because I think it also describes some forms of documentary filmmaking. You can plan a lot of things. You can try to analyze things and expect certain things to happen, but in the end that’s a waste of time because the most important choices are made through intuition and revelation. I just relied on my instinct to help me decide which character to follow. But there were no rules: This is what we are going to show, and this isn’t. The only rule probably was: If we can help somehow we will stop shooting and intervene.

How did you deal with all these impressions? After a day in the basement or on the road with a boy looking for his mother and nobody seeming to care, I guess it wasn’t easy to go home and put it all out of your mind. How did you keep your distance?

JR: Well, it was impossible to keep my distance because we spent so much time with them. And in a lot of situations we were also directly involved - not only personally but physically. You mentioned this trip to the village with the boy. That was extremely depressing. It was a shock, immensely frustrating. We were confronted with so much anger and hate in this village. Especially from his two stepfathers who were just trampling on this boy’s feelings and even enjoying it. It was very hard not to start a fight. We did have some breaks, of course. But after each break, when you come back you are completely overwhelmed again with the same strong feelings in the first three days. You can’t get used to it. Then on the fourth day the protective system of your psyche kicks in and your brain starts to cut off your feelings. It was hard and it took a long time to recover. After the last shoot I needed like three month to start feeling something again.

Did you notice any similarity between the kids? Do they come from the same social background, do they share similar experiences?

JR: Of course there are certain similarities. They all come from very poor families. Mostly from families with only one parent still alive or families where there are problems with alcohol, crime or violence. What they have in common is that most of them took a very serious decision at a very early age – the decision of an adult person: “I cannot stay here anymore. My limit of pain is reached. So I will better live alone.” But most of the kids still really love their parents and all their relatives from the homes they have run away from.

What is the situation of such kids like in the Ukraine? Are there any organizations, clubs or volunteers for them to talk to and find help?

JR: We have official structures that are responsible for them and we have NGOs. But the official structures are not working somehow. The system is too complicated and too bureaucratic, and actually it doesn’t really know what to do with these kids. They play Ping-Pong with the kids until they reach the age of sixteen or eighteen and then they can do whatever they want. From time to time they land in jail. With the NGOs it is also very complicated because I have the feeling that some of them, for various reasons, are not really interested in getting these kids off the street. It can be really long, hard work. And there are financial reasons, too, because some of them receive their money to help these kids on the street, and if there were no kids they would lose their source of income.

Do you think that these kids could live a normal life, go back to school, etc.?

JR: I’ve never heard about a kid from the streets going back to school. Maybe it is happening but it is really hard to imagine. I had to understand that they are living in a complete different way. For example there is no time in their world. There are no dates through the week. They even sleep in a different way. And of course they have a different perception of money and of physical, material values. I once read that life on the street – and it doesn’t matter at what age you started it – is one of the most addictive things because it completely changes your way of thinking and perceiving life. It is extremely hard to go back to a normal system of values; where you have to work, to earn money and so forth. This way of life is much more wild but it is also much more free. Free from fake responsibility. And of course it is destructive.

How difficult was it to find the kids again after two-year break in shooting? Did you stay in contact? Are you in touch now?

JR: It is quite difficult to find them not only after two years but even on the next day because their life and the places where they exist change very fast and without warning. It’s impossible to predict when this basement will be police patrolled, for example. Also the way they use their mobile phones is completely different from ours. But after spending some years with them you more or less know how to find them. I have contact with Anna and Denis. They have a phone number which they don’t change. They call me from time to time.

Who do you want to reach with your film? What reactions do you want to provoke?

JR: For me this film was a rather painful but also very important experience. Maybe someone will see it when he is in a situation to make a decision and this film can somehow help him make the right decision. I do not really believe that this film can help our street characters but I would like to believe that it can help its audience and, thus, in the very, very long run it may help to decrease the number of suffering kids and people in general.

How did your partnership with the Austrian production company Novotny & Novotny come about?

JR: I have a friend who showed them the short version of the film and then they came to Kiev and suggested shooting a feature-length film. And we started to work on it immediately. By the way we have just had a hearing at the Austrian Film Institute regarding our next project with Novotny and Novotny, and if all goes well we will start shooting this winter.

Sources: Interview with Wien International

http://www.wieninternational.at/en/aktuell/filth-and-misery-amidst-the-beauty-en

Student Worker: Yves Jean-Baptiste

Hallo zusammen! My name is Yves Jean-Baptiste and I am a part of the student worker team at Deutsches Haus this summer. I am a rising senior at CAS, double majoring in German Literature and Language, and Latin American Studies, in addition to being on the pre-med track. International travel, foreign languages and cultures, great food, exploring new cafés, biking, and anything related to Latin America (more specifically Argentina, since I studied in Buenos Aires for a semester) or Germany are great passions of mine. I began to learn German as an 11 year-old and have loved it ever since. Therefore, studying German in university seemed like an obvious choice. My German Literature and Language major led me to apply to work at Deutsches Haus and I am very fulfilled by being a part of this great team! I will also be a student of DH this summer to brush up on my German, since I could not use it very often in Argentina. It should be a very rewarding and pleasurable experience to learn with other students who are just as interested and passionate about the German language!

Student Worker: Christian Mendonca

Hi! My name is Christian Mendonca, and I’m one of the new student workers at Deutsches Haus for the summer. I will be a sophomore this fall at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts studying Dramatic Writing (screen/playwriting) and at CAS studying European Studies as a double major. I’m an incredible fan of theater, film, and television. Their innate ability to permeate ideas and connect with audiences is, to me, almost like magic. The European Studies came in to play when I read the works of Brecht, Ibsen, and other European playwrights. I knew that I had to go back to the roots of theater to really perfect my craft. Also, who doesn’t like a good German, French, or Italian film? Interestingly enough, I’m not only a worker, but also a student at Deutsches Haus for the summer. As a beginner, I’m anxious to begin this journey, which will open a variety of new doors for me not just linguistically, but academically, professionally, and creatively. This spring I plan on studying abroad in Berlin to continue honing my language skills and to get to experience the lifestyle and culture that most of my colleagues grew up with.

Gustav Deutsch

Gustav Deutsch is key figure in contemporary Austrian avant-garde cinema, and has established himself as one of the greatest practitioners of experimental found-footage filmmaking. In such acclaimed works as the feature-length World Mirror Cinema (2005) and his multi-part Film ist. series (1998-2009), Deutsch and his partner in life and art Hanna Schimek have mined the world’s film archives to create visually and rhythmically masterful collages showcasing the astounding beauty and mind-boggling range of moving images created since the advent of the cinema.

Deutsch has worked almost exclusively in this mode since 1990, but with his new project, Shirley – Visions of Reality, his preoccupation with ‘found’ material and his fascination with the history and phenomenology of image-making takes a distinctly new form. A quasi-narrative film inspired by Edward Hopper, it tells the story of a young woman’s experiences in mid-century America by means of a succession of precise, painstaking reconstructions of particular Hopper paintings, created by means of specially fabricated sets and props. The result is a unique work, uncannily poised on the brink between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality that draws a link between multiple forms of popular visual art: painting, cinema, and the pre-cinematographic forms that historically bridged both mediums.

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In your found footage series Film ist. you examine the nature of montage and cutting. However, in your current feature film Shirley your “found object” is Edward Hopper. What fascination does he hold for you?

There are two things about Hopper that fascinated me, which weren’t clear to me at the beginning: firstly, as an avid cinema-goer he was strongly influenced by film. He clearly references film noir by the way he uses lighting and frames his subjects, and he also had a strong influence on filmmakers through his paintings. When Alfred Hitchcock shot Psycho, he was clearly guided by Hopper’s House by the Railroad. Even today, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders refer to him. Secondly, Hopper is considered a realist painter, which is not something I found to be true upon closer analysis of his paintings. Hopper does not portray reality but stages it. The staging and assembling of reality is also the nature of film.

You have not only stepped away from found footage material to painting, you have also moved from essayist, experimental works to fictional narration. What brought you to fiction?

There were the paintings. Albeit, just the paintings and not the context.

In my previous work, I established a connection between the images of diverse films. Through montage, I managed to create meaning contexts by attempting to unearth something that was not the original intention of the filmmakers.

I wanted to narrate new stories, and this is also true for Shirley – Visions of Reality. I tell “other” stories with Hopper’s pictures as well. By means of a character, which for Edward Hopper is usually a woman, I intended to narrate thirty years of American history, the same time period that coincides with the creation of the pictures: through the reflection of this woman and through her eyes. That way, I can introduce elements that are not shown in the pictures. What is fascinating about Hopper is that his protagonists experience or observe something that they do not share with us, because it is not depicted. Many of the pictured women look out of the window, observe something, react to something and we do not know what it is, and this is of course something I can invent. I can introduce it through sound or the woman’s inner monologue.

What did the screenplay for this film look like?

In my oeuvre, I am again and again concerned with the reflection of the history of cinema and film. The tableau vivant is a precursor of cinematography. It was a popular social past time to re-enact famous paintings, and film in its early stages also assumed this form of entertainment. My main idea was to “vivify” the pictures. I wanted to imagine what happened shortly before and after the moment that remains frozen in Hopper’s painting. At the beginning my thoughts turned to the sequence of moves the woman would do – does she sit down or enter the room? Very early on, my idea was to work with a dancer, rather than an actress, because this work is much more about gestures and movements. Only later did I start contemplating her character. What is her profession? What are her interests? I started to think out thirty years of this woman’s life. I was merely interested in these thirty years of her professional and private life, not her earlier experiences. The professions of my protagonists – there is also a principal male character – should reflect the theme: the discussion, reflection and staging of reality. This is why my protagonist is an actress and her life partner a photojournalist.

But this woman is not only an actress concerned with getting parts, in these thirty years she is also politically minded and involved?

I wanted a strong female character, who acts uncompromisingly, and who takes an approach supported by the idea that one is not born into a given destiny but that life can be created as it unfolds, even in these times, and as a woman. Regarding her profession, it was important to me that she would achieve this not on her own but within a group. In theatre, back then, there was the Group Theatre, inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski, who also developed “method acting”. These methods require the actors to live together in closely- knit communities, rather than only meet up on stage and during rehearsals. 

My protagonist also takes this approach and for a time does not live with her partner but with the group. Her partner supports her fully, his job as a photojournalist enables him to be more compromising, he has a steady income and, during the time when she is unemployed and the Group Theatre dissolves, he is able to take her in. Among the 13 Hopper paintings, there are a few that didn’t allow me to define Shirley as an actress – she then works as a secretary at her partner’s newspaper or as an usherette at the cinema. Her periods of unemployment coincide with the Depression of the 1930s, the crisis of which saw her out of work as an actress, but her political convictions also stopped her from pursuing certain trends followed by her Group Theatre colleagues, such as going to Hollywood.

How did you find your actress Stephanie Cumming?

For a while now she has worked as a dancer and choreographer with the Company Liquid Loft here in Vienna. But I also noticed her when I saw Mara Mattuschka’s films, which emerged on the basis of dance pieces choreographed by Chris Haring and Stephanie. Stephanie caught my eye not only as a dancer, but also as an actress. She is very active in Mara’s projects, sometimes also androgynous, while in my film she portrays a feminine, calm and reserved character. To my delight Stephanie said yes without hesitation.

You are known for your meticulous and precise work method. With your rigorous standards, how did you approach such elements as color, light and space? What strategies did you use?

Let’s start with color, since painting is our starting point here. In 2005 I began to work on the project with Hanna Schimek, my companion in life and art.

We both have our own projects, sometimes we work together on projects. In this case, I have asked her to be the artist, not just for everything that needs to be done painting wise, but also for the design of the overall color scheme and to help me pursue the question of why Hopper’s colors have such a fascinating effect. On a trip to the US, we went to the museums with the original paintings, from which we were able to determine the colors by using color charts. With the help of Hanna’s color guide, we then worked on the set. She determined the colors, which changed with the light, and when we watched the digitally shot images on screen, they had changed again. We were constantly discussing colors and color charts and this went on throughout the color correction and color grading processes. I wanted to transfer that which defines Hopper’s work, this fascinating play of cold and warm, light and shadow, onto the big screen.

Surely the transformation of space from painting to film was also a challenge for you as an architect?

Space is a play with the possible. In Office at Night, for example, Hopper uses an angle, which approximates that of a CCTV camera. In order to recreate what he painted, we had to tilt all the furniture to such an extent that the tilt left everything flying off the table. Of course, Hopper’s preoccupation with spaces was of great interest to me as an architect: How is it possible to recreate these rooms three dimensionally? I had to build several models in order to even come close.

Did many of Hopper’s subversive spatial arrangements only become apparent during the building phase?

Yes. The dimensions he worked with are unbelievable. Often his beds are three meters long. Then there are armchairs so narrow that it is almost impossible to sit in them. It was important to consider which elements were to be played on, what targets were viable. Things that are not used can be built so they look like they function but don’t. And everything is anamorphic, no furniture is placed at a right angle, no space is orthogonal.

What was the challenge regarding the lighting?

Lighting plays a major part, not unlike the characters, requiring as much attention as the mise-en-scène of actors or the color design of the set. The lighting design took up as much time as the shoot, about one to one and a half days. Jerzy Palacz, the cinematographer, and Dominik Danner, the gaffer, worked on the realization of Hopper’s world of light and shadows, ever since we shot the teaser. They were also obsessive in their endeavor to recreate the painted light in Hopper’s pictures as accurately as possible. With some pictures we were stretching the limits of possibility and we were frequently faced with questions such as: What should or shouldn’t we allow? Will our protagonist throw a shadow if she stands in front of the window or not? How can we make it look real, even if it is not in the Hopper painting? Evidently, our work has to be credible in a cinematic sense as well, like a Hopper painting has to work as a painting.

Are there only long shots in the film?

No. At least one moment in each episode is an exact match of the Hopper painting. We were not allowed to move the camera position, not even by three centimeters, because otherwise things would have looked out of place. But we were able to zoom in and out, change the shot size, and as far as possible, even pan. Despite his limited scope for maneuver, Jerzy Palacz got the most out of what was available…

… thus pushing cinema to its limits?

We were limited. We could neither walk around with a hand-held camera, nor do a shot reverse shot. We were always in the position of the spectator. It is very much like Hopper to assume a voyeuristic and observant position.

In all departments of this project, it wasn’t about taking liberties but putting time into detail and working with what is available. The challenge is of course to avoid boredom and create suspense in a subtle way. How this works, we can judge now, after watching 90 minutes on the big screen.

Sources:
www.shirley-visions-of-reality.com - Interview with Karin Schiefer

Student Worker: Thomas Baldwin

Hi. My name is Thomas Baldwin, working at Deutsches Haus this summer. I graduated from NYU College of Arts and Sciences this May in Art History and German. I have been studying German since high school, where I even had the opportunity to participate in an exchange program with a school in Germany. 

I knew that I wanted to study both art history and German while at NYU, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year when I visited Berlin that my interests both collided. I became very interested in the Berlin Dada and the art and culture of the Weimar Republic. I revisited my experiences in Berlin my senior year when I decided to research a painting by Hannah Höch for a research paper.
 
I’ve enjoyed discovering vestiges of German culture in NYC during my years at NYU. From visiting exhibitions at the Neue Galerie to discovering beer gardens from Hoboken to Astoria, New York has plenty to offer. I’ve even found a currywurst place in the East Village almost as good as my favorite stands in Berlin. 
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Intern: Theresa

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Hello! My name is Theresa and I’m the 2014 Summer Language Program intern. I’m a junior at NYU studying Art History and German Language and Literature. I’m from the New York City area, though I spent the last two years (my freshman and sophomore years of college) in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.

I started speaking German mostly by chance: I’d taken Spanish in high school and at my former college continued with that; unhappy with the professor, I switched to German after the first week. Since then, it has been a joy to immerse myself in German language and culture, familiarizing myself especially with the literary canon. I’m quite pleased with the happy accident of haven taken up German, especially in conjunction with my Art History major: in the seminars, where we discuss works and movements in more depth, there is a large focus on German writers and thinkers.
I have not yet had the chance to travel to Germany - though I once spent three weeks in Vienna - but am looking forward to spending my final semester as an undergrad at NYU Berlin. Interning at Deutsches Haus offers me an opportunity to familiarize myself better with everyday conversational German as well as German culture before studying abroad. I’m looking forward to my stay here!

Professor Mark Ebers

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You were the DAAD Visiting Scholar at New York University for two months this spring. How did you experience the visiting scholarship? Was it a productive time for you and were you able to advance your research at New York University?

It was a great privilege to receive the DAAD Visiting Scholarship at NYU, and I am most grateful for the time I could spend at NYU and Deutsches Haus, in particular. NYU’s Management & Organization department was so kind to invite me to attend their research seminars and brown bag presentations. Top U.S. researchers presented and discussed their research, ranging from topics such as the drivers of diversification, legitimation practices in forensic laboratories, characteristics of great innovators, to patent appropriation strategies and patent infringement lawsuits, among others. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss cutting-edge research and to witness how the audience of scholars advances thought through discussion. I received inspiration for my own research and could forge and deepen relations with colleagues in my field. I also relished the time I could spend on my own research, preparing conference papers on goal-setting and goal-attainment in post-merger integration processes, the role of trust in project collaborations, and the organization-level institutional drivers fostering the intention of organization members to become entrepreneurs.

You held a very interesting lecture at Deutsches Haus at NYU about personal connections and the power of social capital. Do you think Germans and Americans forge connections differently? How about everyday interactions?

I observe two main differences between German and U.S. ways of forging connections. For one, there are more opportunities for engaging in a conversation with someone new in the U.S., as there is a comparatively greater openness and friendliness when making first contact. Second, at least in professional contexts in the U.S., the “what-do-you-do” and “what-is-your-project” questions regularly pop up early in the conversation, sometimes leading to an animated extended conversation and at other times ending the conversation abruptly (if the interests do not match).

When were you in New York for the first time? What were your impressions then?

It must have been in the early 1990s. We stayed with friends who lived in a building on Tompkins Square when squatters were still occupying the square and many houses in the neighborhood were empty shells, boarded up, and used as drug dens. Gentrification has progressed tremendously in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, with all its pros and cons.

How do you experience New York today? What has changed since your first trip?

New York has not changed its core DNA over the 25 odd years I have visited the city. The subway is still crowded, unbelievably noisy, and out of date technologically; the restaurants are noisy too, often over-priced, and over-rated. The art scene (theater, music, museums, galleries, and more) is overwhelming and unmatched in its variety and quality. Yet the main thing that has changed for me is that over time I could make many more friends in New York City, who I love to see and be with as often as possible.

What was your experience at Deutsches Haus at NYU?

I enjoyed the excellent programs offered by Deutsches Haus very much. I remember the Berlin-New York hair salon event as well as the “Stammtisch” particularly fondly. Deutsches Haus does an outstanding job of catering to extant expectations of what Germany represents (e.g. offering Kasperltheater, an Easter egg hunt, or the Stammtisch) and at the same time introducing representatives of the vibrant German cultural scene to a New York audience, be it through film screenings, readings, or discussions of current topics of general interest.

You’ve received professorships, fellowships and visiting scholarships from universities in Israel, Scotland, Italy, the U.S. and The Netherlands. Which place was your favorite place to live in and why? Which place are you the most curious about and which would you like to revisit?

I have fond memories of all of the cities I had the privilege to spend some time in. They all have something special. Glasgow surprised and fascinated me by how it turned its Merchant City of banks and trading houses into aesthetically outstanding bars, restaurants, and boutiques. Jerusalem, with its history, sites, and multicultural population is in a class of its own. In fact, I shall return again this year, as a New York friend invited me and my wife for his son’s Bar Mitzvah, which they decided to celebrate in Jerusalem. Milan surprised me as a wonderful mix of Italian and Austrian cultural heritages. New York City is like a second home to me, as I visit regularly and often see my New York friends, either in the city or abroad.

During your travels and lengthy stays in other countries, what do you miss most about Germany?

Since I always return to Germany, I know that will just have to wait a little before I can enjoy whatever I miss again. I believe the “thing” about home that cannot be matched is that it provides a sense of security and familiar order.

What are you currently working on? And what are your plans for the future? Do you plan to return to the United States?

Since term at university started immediately after my return form New York City, I have not had much time to work on my research. Yet just these days I could return to the conference papers I worked on in New York City. Since I shall attend a conference in Philadelphia in the first days of August, I’ll take the opportunity and spend some time again in New York City afterwards; I look forward to visiting Deutsches Haus again on that occasion. 

Bernd Rittersporn

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1. How did you come to Deutsches Haus? When did you have the idea of organizing a German-language book club?

I first came to Deutsches Haus in the fall of 1999. After spending some time in Germany and Austria, I was painfully aware that my college German had not adequately prepared me for everyday life kinds of things like buying food or understanding answers when I asked for directions. Feeling a need to improve my skills, I went to Deutsches Haus, took the placement test, and started at a relatively fundamental level. I have been coming back ever since.

The idea of forming a German-language book club was not mine. A former director of the Language Program, Kathrin Jonas, came up with the idea after some advanced students complained when no higher-level courses were offered for the summer semester. She asked me if I would be interested in organizing a literature group and I said I’d give it a try.

2. What is your personal background? How did you come to learn German?

I took German at Columbia University. I was studying Anthropology and creative writing, but I had to satisfy a language requirement. I had already taken French and Spanish in high school and was told I could continue with one of these languages, but I didn’t see any point in it because I had no idea how to speak or read either of them. I thought that since my Grandfather had come from Austria, I might try learning German. I had a really difficult time with it. Nevertheless, it made more sense to me than other foreign languages had, and I tried to keep up with it after leaving school.

3. Tell us a little bit about the book club. How often do you meet? What books do you discuss?

We meet on Fridays between 6:00 and 7:30 pm, but our schedule is always erratic because we have to plan around holidays and the other events that take place at Deutsches Haus on Friday evenings. For this reason, we may meet for several weeks in a row and then not get back together for two or three weeks. Members are given the exact dates before the beginning of each session. We try to schedule 5-7 meetings over the course of each 10-week semester at DH.

We tend to focus on the works of contemporary German writers. Most of the material we read falls into the category of so-called serious literature, but we do make forays into the realm of popular fiction from time to time.

4. And who are the members?

Originally, the Buchclub was solely for Deutsches Haus students. We didn’t have a fixed schedule and simply took a vote at the end of each meeting to decide when we’d like to do it again. It eventually became necessary to establish some guidelines and come up with a timetable. We also found it necessary to open the group up to people who were not Deutsches Haus students. At the moment, the group still has registered Deutsches Haus students and former students in its membership, but the majority is people from the outside who are nevertheless interested in reading and speaking German. Many of them are intermediate speakers, but some of the members are fluent, and we even have a few native speakers. This is very helpful, because we often confront “Redewendungen” (idioms) that don’t make any immediate sense to us. It’s great having people who can shed light on the meanings.

The group seems to be evenly divided between men and women, and most of the participants are middle aged. We do have a few younger members and would like to attract more.

5. How are the books chosen?

In the beginning, Kathrin Jonas chose the books for us. This system was quickly replaced by a dysfunctional democracy. We spent more time debating which books we should read than we did reading. I finally seized the initiative and made it known that I was going to choose the books. There was some resistance to this idea, but now things run smoothly. Most of my choices have gone over well. Not everybody likes every book, but discussions go better when members have differing opinions, and everybody is welcome to express their dislike for a book so long as they can explain why.

6. How do the meetings work?

Participants read a predetermined number of pages at home and then we talk about it when we meet. Members are asked to save noteworthy passages and to read them aloud during the meeting. I encourage this because I want people to actually feel the language in their mouths and throats, and calling attention to particular extracts from the text stimulates discussion.

7. What was your favorite story or book to speak about in the book club and why?

My primary functions in the Buchclub are to choose the book, promote registration, and to act as a moderator during the meetings themselves. I sometimes have to pose a lot of questions to get the conversation moving, but my goal is to hold meetings where I don’t have to say anything. When the participants stop trying to talk to me, and start talking with each other, I know things are going well.

Not surprisingly, the books that everybody enjoys are the ones that inspire the liveliest discussions. Das Parfum by Patrick Süskind may have been the greatest success in this sense. This is the story of an 18th Century serial killer, but it has less to do with the various murders than it does with the main character’s unbelievably acute sense of smell and how it affects his life. Although the book is not regarded as a great work of literature, it is entertaining, thought provoking, and the language is interesting. All the participants were more than eager to discuss it, and I barely had to say anything.

8. What are you reading right now? Do you have any great recommendations for contemporary German authors?

We are presently reading Alice, a collection of short stories by Judith Hermann. She is not a very prolific writer, but I have thoroughly enjoyed everything she has written, and would recommend her to anyone who is interested in reading short German fiction. In a similar vein, I would recommend anything by Jenny Erpenbeck. She is my favorite writer at the moment.

9. What makes Deutsches Haus unique?

I don’t know of any better place to learn German. Everything I know about the language stems from what I learned here. 

Deutsches Haus also has a wonderful cultural program that serves as a platform for cross-pollination between the German-speaking world and America. Throughout the year, there are any number of readings, lectures, art exhibits, and film screenings that are open to the public. These events are sometimes held in German and other times in English. Four German-language authors are invited to Deutsches Haus as writers-in-residence, and they not only give public readings, but also visit the “Meet the Author” course during their stay.

10. How long have you lived in New York? What’s your favorite spot in this city?

I have lived here most of my life. I was born in a small town in New Hampshire, but my parents moved to Manhattan when I was a small child. As for a favorite spot, I am very fond of the Greenway along the Hudson River and have spent a lot of time riding my bike there over the past few years. The scenery overlooking the water is beautiful and one can ride or walk from one end of Manhattan to the other without having to contend with automobile traffic and noise. It is in my opinion a “must see” part of New York City. But if I moved somewhere else, the one place I’d really miss is Deutsches Haus.