Sunday, August 26, 2012

Berowne's 132

(Also for Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "G" is for "Gemuetlichkeit")
The prompt this week reminded me of the German word “Gemuetlichkeit”…
A word that, freely translated, can mean a sort of coziness; for example, a room in a home that induces a calm mood and peace of mind.
I found a town like that when I was making a film in Munich, back in the sixties. I had hired a very capable young woman to act as translator, facilitator, production assistant, etc. Once I asked her where in Munich she lived and she said she didn’t live in Munich, she lived in Dachau.
That brought me up short. Do people live in Dachau? It was as though someone had said "I live in Auschwitz." I was to learn that Dachau is a very pleasant, Gemuetlichkeitish sort of town, just north of Munich. That is what it is today and that’s what it was in the darkest days of the famous concentration camp.

It was in 1933 that Nazi bigwigs chose this village as the location for the very first of their concentration camps. Over the years, until 1945, it was a place where some 42,000 people were killed.
I asked my production assistant if I could visit; I’d love to explore Dachau. She volunteered to show me around.
Dachau is indeed a pleasant town, with a history that goes back more than 1,200 years. A hundred years or so ago it was an art center, famous for its impressionist painters.

But right down the road is this ghastly death factory. It’s still there. My assistant told me that, well after the war’s end, when she was in grammar school, there was a referendum that became a national affair: What should be done about the Dachau concentration camp? Should it be destroyed, all traces obliterated? Or should it be kept as a memorial to those who died there?
They have kept it as a memorial. You can visit it. It lives up to expectations; it is a powerful, moving experience.
Here’s a picture of some of the camp inmates, joyfully greeting the American troops who liberated them.
At this point I’d like to post a photo that I think is fascinating. One day in the thirties or forties a man who lived in Dachau took a picture from his window. I don’t know if he was pro or anti-Nazi. (I imagine taking such a photo was a rather dangerous thing to do.)

It shows a solid mass of people being herded along the main street of the town, heading toward the camp, just down the road, where so many of them would die. This must have happened a great many times over the twelve years of the camp’s existence.
If you visit the Dachau camp I’m sure you’ll be moved, as I was, by the phrase at the entrance – a phrase in five languages.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Berowne's 131

(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "F" is for "Furious")
The end of World War II brought about one of the largest population movements in history.
Many thousands of people who had escaped from the Nazi genocide, who had somehow lived through the conflict, found they were facing a new tyranny, Soviet style.

Needless to say, many tried to come to the United States. For them, it must have seemed that the years of drought would soon be over; they would be in the land of plenty. Those who had family here, relatives who would help them, received preference.

I remember those days when shiploads of refugees arrived in New York. In the months after the war’s end you would often see worried-looking folks wandering about the city, each carrying a worn valise or satchel; they usually had a little note pinned to their lapels. The note gave their destination and asked passersby to be of help.
All of which brings me to my train trip at thst time up from Baltimore, where my ship was docked.
On the train, seated across the aisle from me, was a gentleman who was obviously one of those refugees; he had the requisite note on his lapel.
In a spasm of Good Samaritanism I welcomed him to America and asked if I could be of help. I know a couple of words in a number of languages, but he understood none of them. (He must have been from Southeastern Baluchistan or some such place.)
His note read that he was going to his brother-in-law’s, who lived in New York; please help. Fine! I said to him, accompanying my remarks with gestures and appropriate facial expressions, I too am going to New York! I’ll see you get there all right!
He gave a sort of half-smile, as though he understood this odd person was trying to be of help.
We cruised up the coast of New Jersey, with as much comfort and amusement as the Penn Railroad of that day could provide. My friend across the aisle looked worried each time we stopped – Elizabeth, Perth Amboy – but I would assure him no, this is not New York. Pas encore, noch nicht, not yet!
He seemed to understand, but still looked worried.
As anyone who has made this trip knows, there is one last stop, Newark, before the train takes a deep breath and plunges under the Hudson to come up in the Big Apple.
As we pulled into the Newark station, the conductor opened the door and shouted the name of the stop as loudly as he was able. Unfortunately, he shouted “New – ARK!”
To anyone from Southeastern Baluchistan, or almost any other foreign land, it would probably have sounded like a guy announcing our arrival in New York. My friend got up and headed for the door. I grabbed his arm: No! This is not New York! No New York! Not!
Now he really looked worried. He sat back down, but eyed me with great suspicion. I seemed to be sincere, but perhaps he had been told about sharpies in America and how they would try to trick you.
The train waited for a few minutes in the station. Then, just before it started up again, the conductor stuck his head in again and repeated, in his operatic fashion, “New – ARK!”
My refugee was now furious; he excitedly shot me a glance of pure hatred, ran for the door and managed to get off just as the train kicked into gear.
I often wondered what happened to my friend, arriving in New Jersey completely confused, speaking no English and knowing no one. But hey, America is the land of opportunity, right?
It’s quite possible he wound up, years later, as the owner of the biggest night club in Hoboken. :-)
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Berowne's 130

(Also submitted to Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "E" is for "Extraordinary")
Fortuitous, I believe, is what they call it.
Something happening by chance.
The above is a picture of and by Francesca Woodman, holding a shell as a talisman.
Thanks to my old friend Net Flix (an old high-school chum), I received a prize-winning documentary just a week or so ago titled “The Woodmans,” which told the strange, true, bizarre and ultimately sad story of the daughter of a family of artists, Francesca.
Both of her parents were artists; Francesca chose photography as her art form.
Back in the seventies, while still a teenager, her diary shows she felt elation at the work she was turning out, depression at the failure of a romantic relationship, the pressure because of the lack of appreciation of her extraordinary art and what might be termed her message.
I am poorly equipped as an art critic. I must leave that to others. What fascinated me about Francesca’s work, as a former cinematographer, were her methods, her experiments with exposure and composition, her constantly-recurring themes, even her props.
And perhaps above all, her exploration of the human body in space and of the genre of self-portraiture. In her work there are hundreds of pictures of the female nude, and the nude was almost always Francesca herself.
As one critic put it, she “demonstrated a desire to beat the code of appearances." Surely she did that – in such pictures as:
"…She flings her arms back at the camera, so that her upturned breasts and open mouth, screaming in fright or celebration, -- present an image of the liberated psyche in flight."
Or this one. “She physically encased herself in a museum glass case... We see Woodman's left breast and thigh pressed against the glass as she squats. ... Her head, moreover, appears cut from her torso... While her right hand exerts pressure against the glass, her left seems to caress the form."
On January 19, 1981, she committed suicide – at the age of 22! - by jumping out of a loft window in New York. An acquaintance wrote, "Things had been bad, there had been therapy, things had gotten better, but then…”
Today, so many years after her death, Francesca Woodman has become, in the art world, not just an artist of substance but one with an almost monumental reputation.
Her work is in the permanent collections of museums, here and around the world, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art — and her style has so influenced other professional and amateur photographers that effects she pioneered now appear in commercial and fashion photography.
In one of her photographs of a Victorian tombstone, you can read the inscription: “To Die is Gain.”
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Berowne's 129

(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "D" is for A Date With a Countess)
The picture above reminds me that back in 1884 the wildly different 1% and 99% sections of the population existed, just like today.
The 1 percent had most of the money and the 99 percent wanted it.
Or some of it.
Or any of it.
Now, I’ve always proudly been – well, maybe not so proudly – one of the 99 percenters. Yet it may surprise you that as a youth Berowne, an impecunious party, had a date with a countess.
Let me tell you the story.
We’re going back to a time, soon after World War II ended, when I was working in a small radio station in New York.
I’m sure you understand that at that time there was almost no television. Oh, technically TV existed, but few people had sets. Most of the folks throughout the land had never even seen television.
In the NYC area, there were several programs available for the few who possessed TVs; the shows were usually short and very inexpensive to produce, mainly because no one had any money for television production.
At the time, I had nothing to do with TV; I was doing a morning radio show, also inexpensive to produce – me playing old 78s of Perry Como and Nat King Cole, etc.
My show had a huge audience; there must have been 8 or 10 folks listening on any given day.
One of them, though I didn’t know it at the time, was a European gentleman who was quite impressed with American broadcasting. I learned later that he listened to my program almost every morning. He seemed to have come to believe that I was someone of importance in that field.
He was mistaken.
This gentleman read that a French countess had come to visit America, staying at the Waldorf-Astoria. I don’t mention her name because of privacy and because her actual moniker ran on for a couple of lines.
Anyway, this chap spoke with her and learned that she had seen one of the few American TV shows then in existence and had been very impressed. It was a brief interview-type program featuring Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, who chatted with various celebrities and political figures of the day.
The countess had a brilliant idea. She should have a similar TV program in America; she spoke English reasonably well and she knew quite a lot of upper-crust type folks on this side of the pond. “Meet the Countess,” it would be called, or something similar.
The fellow who listened to my show told her that he knew a man who was very important in the American broadcasting industry and who was wise about such things; he could set up such a TV show for her.
Guess who that was?
At the time, I was not only not influential in television, I didn’t even own a TV. I had watched television sets primarily by standing on the sidewalk and looking at those in store front windows.
This man got me on the phone and told me about the countess and how great she’d be with her own TV show; if I produced it I’d probably make a small fortune.
Nobody was making a small fortune in television at that time, not even those who knew something about it – which didn’t include me.
However, I was very drawn to the idea. Imagine. Me as a young TV producer, someone of importance, not someone who played old 78 discs of Perry Como for a living.
The countess called and invited me to visit her at the Waldorf. I wrote earlier that I had a date with her; it was actually afternoon tea. I was not uneasy; I had read my P G Wodehouse and I knew how to conduct myself with the titled classes.
I told her that to get her idea for a show approved she should submit a sample reel to the appropriate people. She told me she was glad to have someone who was an expert in such matters working with her on her project. Go ahead, she said, and set it up.
I called about frantically, seeking information. I was told that a brief professionally-produced sound film as an audition – there was no such thing as video tape at that time – would cost such and such an amount.
It was more than she had expected to pay. She asked, how much would it cost without sound?
That’s when I began to realize that the whole thing was crumbling and my dream of becoming a big-time TV producer was going up in smoke. The very idea that we might submit a sample reel for a TV interview program that would be silent and consist of just her sitting there smiling and pretending to talk with someone was something that even I could see didn’t have much of a chance of success.
Ultimately the countess bade me farewell and I left the dream world of television and went back to the hard, cold reality of spinning old Perry Como records on radio.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)
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