PUNK Kultur-East Germany’s Rebellion

Der Spiegel, 1978

DER SPIEGEL 23.1.1978

Punk: a rally call for revolution, candid emotion, and often a violent expression of anger and frustration. This is the face of punk, and it has been often and understandably met with fear and bewilderment. When the punk scene emerged in the late 1970s, it exploded throughout western culture and punk bands like the Sex Pistols achieved wild popularity in West Germany. But even communist East Germany felt the waves of the punk movement, and punk culture took on a special meaning for its disillusioned youth. By the time of Germany’s reunification, punk had made an impact that still endures today, more than 30 years later. Germany still celebrates punk culture in many concerts and festivals held throughout the year, including the annual Punk & Disorderly Festival.

Although the punk scene has come in slightly different forms over time and across geography, a common theme of rebellion, against an authority seen as oppressive or corrupt, has persisted. This is apparent in lyrics from punk-rock band across the board that criticize war, materialism, and political oppression in sometimes metaphoric and often explicit terms.

"The Clash" CD collection. Photo courtesy of _gee_ on Flickr.

“Forces have been looting
My humanity
Curfews have been curbing
The end of liberty”

-“This is Radio Clash” by The Clash

In 1979 in East Germany, young, teen-aged punks began to sprout up across the state with their pierced faces and ripped jeans, inspired by the Sex Pistols and their anger with their oppressive state. It was different there, in the East; to be punk was to face the real danger of a truly oppressive government with spies and stiff jail-time penalties or even exile for rebels. And the tone was a little different, too; as Jane Paulick put it in Deutsche Welle, “Broadly dismissed in the west as nihilistic, punk in the GDR (The German Democratic Republic, or just East Germany) was fueled by optimism and a desire to change society.” Under a regime that required musicians to apply for permission and audition for the state to perform, punk bands naturally refused to comply. And as the movement grew out of control, “punks in the GDR were no longer seen as disaffected teenagers — they were denounced as enemies of the state.”

East German punk teens, photo displayed in the exhibition on punk in the GDR. Image courtesy of theexplosivegeneration.com

Michael Böhlke (aka Pankow), who in 1979 began his punk-music endeavors in East Germany, has vivid memories of the GDR punk scene. “Punk was a cross-cultural phenomenon in the east,” Pankow said, “The ‘tristesse’ of the GDR unleashed a huge creative potential, and the minute you were on the margins of society you tapped into a network of other artistic activity.” In 2005, Pankow sought to memorialize the phenomenon in a first-of-its-kind exhibition of punk in the GDR. The show featured paintings, collages, photography, and rare pop-culture memorabilia that paints a fascinating picture of punk culture in East Germany.

If you are interested in reading more about the early German punk movement, read this fascinating piece from Der Spiegel, written in 1978 in the midst of its beginnings.

Komödie vs. Comedy – Understanding German Humor

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Germany is experiencing the end of an era with the recent August 22nd death of Bernhard Victor Christoph Carl von Bülow, pseudonym “Loriot.”  For decades, Loriot has characterized and personified German humor, as well as confused and confounded American and British comedians.

It would be a decently safe assumption to say that Loriot lead and directed German humor.  His influence is massive and lives on even after his death.  Dieter Wedel, one of Germany’s most famous television directors (known for shows like Tatort and Schwarz Rot Gold) once said, “The Germans don’t have any sense of humor — the Germans have Loriot!” However, such a broad, sweeping statement also asks the question, what is German humor and why is it so widely misunderstood?

Loriot is known for his live action sketches, but even more so, for his cartoons.  His work reflects the mindset and pervasive “German” perspective on life and human interactions.  Most of his humor stems from problems with communication between individuals during every day life, the comedy therein coming from the staunchly formal nature of the German language.  Loriot was, as per usual with all typically German writers, a stickler for grammar.  In this sense, Americans attempting to understand German humor often deal with the problem of the fundamental humor being, so to say, “lost in translation.”

Many German jokes are based on double meanings, coming from German’s favoritism towards taking many words, ideas and concepts and crashing them into one (sometimes absurdly) long compound word.  The German language has very strict grammatical structure and often relies more on humorous ideas opposed to English’s reliance on wordplay.  Loriot brought a sort of inanity to his work with the juxtaposition of his character’s dignified behavior against the exaggeration of their features.  This is typified in his short sketch Herren im Bad.

For the original version (auf Deutsch) click below

Herren im Bad (Men in the Bathtub)

Seriousness combined a focus on banal flaws is a stereotypical theme in German humor.  This is also seen in the way that Germans observe and perceive the world and people around them.  I mean, there is no serious data to prove this and I’m being entirely subjective, but in my experience, Germans do not focus on personality flaws as something you can easily change, but instead as something that is a basic part of a person’s being.  You aren’t dumb because you don’t study, you’re just dumb because you are.  They’re not going to shun you for being a bit socially inept, they’re just going to accept that you’re kinda weird and run with it.  Needless to say, Americans generally DO NOT get this.

The problem with German humor, is that you need to understand German to get it.  You can’t explain or clarify the nuances of German diction or the play of grammar in English.  Comedy doesn’t translate.  Loriot’s genius comes from the fact that he was exactly as meticulous with his words as he was with his physical comedy.  He made fun of the narrow-mindedness of and excessive formality of German while maintaining respect for the language’s tone and essence.

In response to Loriot’s death, Germany’s president of parliament, Norbert Lammert, captured von Bülow’s lasting effect on German humor and culture stating, “Vicco von Bülow put his stamp on cultural life in Germany for decades and, as Loriot, helped Germans to gain a more relaxed view of their mentality and habits.”

Stefan Kuzmany, a correspondant from Der Spiegel(Germany’s top newsmagazine) summed it up nicely: “Abschließend bleibt zu sagen, dass Loriots Tod absolut nicht nötig gewesen wäre. Unsterblich war er längst. Er wird es bleiben.”  (“Loriot’s death was absolutely unnecessary.  He had long since become immortal. And will remain it.”)