Sunday, April 29, 2007

About Me and This Blog

Finally, I came around into writing this, thanks to the advice of a friend. So, what is this blog all about?

Each individual is like an ice-cream parlour, with many flavours: I am a postgraduate student and a lecturer in Berlin (Germany). But I am also a former Google Answers Researcher (you can see my answers here). Google Answers used to be a main source of income for me, and was also one of the reasons I have started with My Eyes Online: I have found interesting sites, which I thought are worth mentioning, even if they are not relevant to my answer. Later on, I have also used it to wrote about my experiences as a budget traveller; a little about life in Berlin; and other things that happen to me, or that I find interesting.

After Google Answers shut down (in December 2006), my main source of income (besides a meagre stipend) has become AdSense.

Therefore, I decided to add some blogs about topics I am interested in: distance education, citiznship and immigration and dispensing advice on governmental/administrative help (tax, etc).

Monday, April 23, 2007

Fight Your Brethren

Passerby News reported on violent fights between Buddhist monks in Cambodia. This pehnomenon, of people who are supposed to be on the same side, but are fighting violently, is not new.

European history is full of blood shed by one religious fraction against members of the same religion. . This existed even in early Christianity. The Albigensian Crusade of 1208 is a first crusade, which was basically aimed at fellow Christians (don't worry, Jews have suffered too, as they always have during crusades).

In world history, Slave trade relied on the fact that some clerics allowed Jihad against Muslims:

[...], some Muslim leaders have justified Jihad (holy war) against Muslims that were perceived as "heathen" (basically, Muslims are not to wage war against another Muslim) and as the norm of the time was, captives were enslaved.

Interestingly, many of the pictures I found online are of Buddhist monks fighting each other, something that might contradict with the Western layman's notion of Buddihists as peace lovers (something that has to do with post-1960s images and ideas than with actual historical facts).

Korea: Fighting at the Chogye Sah Temple, Seoul
(More about temple violence in Korea:
Monks charged over temple violence )

Sri Lanka

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Capitalist City Lights, The Communist Interrogation Room

The Capitalist City Lights, The Communist Interrogation Room: Symbolic Space and Landscape in “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen)

The 2006 German production of “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen) has recently won the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Foreign Language Film. It is, indeed, a very good film and one of the first German feature films to discuss the impact of the dictatorship in East Germany, if possible not through nostalgic or humourist lenses.

The film tells the story of a Stasi officer sent to monitor the lives of two intellectuals: a beautiful actress and her partner, a celebrated playwright. He gradually gets more and more involved in their lives, which naturally brings about a dramatic ending.

Apart from raving reviews, the film has also raised some questions in German publicity about the role of the Stasi in public (and private) lives in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and whether or not East Germany was indeed a “Stasiland”, where everybody reported everyone. This is in fact one of the few points of critique expressed by some former East Germans: the GDR, they say, was not only a police-state; and the film’s depiction of the country as such is inaccurate. Besides, the filmmaker is a Wessie, a West German, and as everybody knows, dirty laundry is to be washed at home. It is also possible that this uneasiness of some old comrades and Party ex-cadre derives from the fact that both the director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and the main actor, Ulrich Mühe, have decided to name names in the DVD commentary. Henckel von Donnersmarck claimed that Gregor Gysi – a politician for the formerly-communist party and a lawyer of many East German dissidents – was an IM, an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (informal worker) of the Stasi. Gysi denied and threatened to sue, if the version will not be retracted, which it has.

Mühe decided to go closer to home with his allegations. Mühe is himself formerly East German, and his second wife was another East German actress, Jenny Gröllmann. In interviews around the German release, Mühe claimed that Gröllmann was an IM. Gröllmann denied ever cooperating knowingly with the Stasi. She took Mühe to court, and the fact that she was dying of breast cancer at the time did not exactly add to his positive public image.

These stories notwithstanding, it is a powerful film, even if it sometimes tends to be a little melodramatic. One of its strengths is the usage of original locations, and the way landscapes and environment are depicted in the film.

Dim East
Most of the film has a very distinctive feeling to it: a dark one. The film opens with an interrogation scene, followed by other scenes lit by artificial lights. It’s an indoor film, with very few outdoor scenes in general; however, even those scenes are usually dark, with grey weather and grey people. The Lives of Others is literally film noire.

Naturally, there was light and colour in the German Democratic Republic. The East Berlin shared (and still shares) the same sky as the western counterpart. People went to the beach (in fact, there was a flourishing nudist culture in East Germany), to street fairs and to the park.

The dim artificial light and the grey landscape seem to be part of an intentional attempt to convey a message about the GDR and to let the user feel trapped in the East German reality. However, it is also a question of collective memory. Almost any West German who had visited or drove through the GDR claims that they remember East Germany as a grey country, with a distinctive smell. It could be related to the fear that one had when driving through the GDR, not to be arrested by the Vopo (the Volkspolizei, East German police); it could be that these were the most common descriptions, and people just accepted them (if you are familiar with suggestive psychology, e.g. writing RED and asking people what colour it is). It can be also grounded in reality: the smell was because most people heated with coal, and not with gas, as in the west; the dark, grey atmosphere, because of the relative lack of neon lights from advertisements and other ways commercialism shapes the public sphere. In any case, this was the image of East Berlin in West German eyes, and whether Henckel von Donnersmarck made a full conscious choice to display the GDR as such, or whether it had to do with his West German upbringing, the contrast between the lights of the KuDamm, the West Berlin showcase presented for a glimpse when the uncle calls and the dark street in Friedrichshain is evident.

You Are Where You Live In
In addition, the film also uses architectural forms as part of its expression of the contrast between East and West, between the Stasi and the intellectuals, and between freedom and oppression.

Again, Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (or, in general, West German) attitudes towards communist architecture play a role here. Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, live in a beautiful Stalinbau. These houses were built in the 1950s, at the height of idealism and as part of the plan to reconstruct East Berlin, which has been badly damaged during the Second World War. They were supposed to be a socialist flagship: luxury apartments for all, workers, intellectuals and functionaries alike. The wedding-cake style Stalinbau buildings are today listed and are considered (rightfully so) architectural gems of the socialist classicist realism style. The intellectuals live in what is considered – also today – as an aesthetic building.

What is even more interesting, is that the interiors of Christa-Maria and Georg’s apartment are not interiors of these classical Stalinist buildings, but of old building, Albau houses. These are considered today to be more romantic and aesthetic than new buildings, with their high ceilings (which are sometimes so high that you can’t reach them to hang a lamp, which makes Ikea’s standing lamps especially popular among young romantic students living in those Albau buildings), neo-classical decorations and bourgeoisie style. In other words, the director created a optimal aesthetic world for his intellectuals.

Stasi Haupmann (Captain) Gerd Wiesler lives in a totally different world. His world is not of the idealistic socialist architecture of the early GDR; he lives in a Plattenbau, a prefab concrete high-rise, where hundreds of families live. Such buildings have been built since the 1960s all over the GDR and East Berlin: it was a cheap solution for those East Germans who did not want to live in Henckel von Donnersmarck’s romantic idyll of outhouses and coal heating, and surprisingly enough preferred lifts, central heating, indoor plumbing and garbage disposal units in each apartment/floor (a novelty at the time, now obsolete in most houses, with the separation of rubbish). Unlike similar state housing estates in West Berlin (Kottbusser Tor, Gropiusstadt or Märkische Viertel), the Plattenbau areas were not intended to host socially weak population, and people who live there, or have lived there, are your Average Joes, from university professors to the cleaners of their offices. This could be part of the reason why Henckel von Donnersmarck chose to put Wiesler in such a building. However, the West German image of the Plattenbau as the anonymous, ugly, hell-on-earth, also plays a part here. Wiesler lives in a small, ugly, apartment, which is empty of anything “intellectual”, creative or personal, a complete contrast to Dreyman’s apartment.

For those of you who are interested in visiting these and other types of buildings (as well as to hear more about the historical context of the film), let me recommend a tour through communist Berlin.

In other words, in “The Lives of Others”, you are the place in which you live. You are shaped by your environment, by the anonymous concrete slab or by the warm old building; by the height of socialist idealism or by the hard ground of the dictatorial realities of the 1970s.

Friday, April 20, 2007

How to get from New York to Berlin

According to Google Maps:

Get to stage 24 here.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Viciously Funny

Who said that Germans have no sense of humour?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Huge List of Job Sites for Freelancers

Freelance Switch just published The Monster List of Freelancing Job Sites.

This is a wonderful list, and it is also well-organised. Here are several further places where jobs might be available:

Smarter Work could be added to the list of Job Bidding sites

You can also try Google Base

Search My Eyes Online