A German Short Film Festival: or, how I can’t not teach politics

For the Intro to German course I teach at the University of South Dakota, I like to expose students to contemporary German art, music, and film. If we only talk about Goethe and Mozart, as great as they are, students might get the impression that “culture” is boring and irrelevant to learning a language, when language and culture are in fact inextricably entangled. And of course, with a socialist like me teaching the class, my choice of teaching materials is bound to have political content as well, if only because that’s what I happen to be interested in – but then I also think it’s worthwhile to expose students to political ideas beyond the mainstream media/major party echo chamber. They don’t have to agree with me, but I hope I might be encouraging them to think for themselves in addition to teaching them verb conjugation.

So, for this past unit, I’ve taught three Oscar-nominated short films from the German-speaking world whose social and political themes end up reinforcing one another rather nicely. To wit:

The first short film is “Kleingeld” (“Small Change,” 2000). It tells the story of a banker at an unnamed investment bank and a crippled homeless man who stakes out the sidewalk below the banker’s office. Every day the banker gives the beggar Kleingeld, small change, and a relationship of sorts develops between them. The banker considers this money a gift, a charitable donation. The beggar, on the other hand, sees it as payment for washing the banker’s car in the bank parking lot, a chore he undertakes daily.

There is a stereotype in our culture, exemplified by recent battles over food stamps and other social safety net programs, that the homeless and the unemployed are homeless and unemployed because they are “lazy” or otherwise unwilling to work. The indigent man in this vignette challenges that perception, as he is clearly willing to work, but is for whatever reason–possibly on account of his physical disability–unable to find gainful employment.

Some students seemed to think it was unfair of the beggar to expect payment for washing the car – after all, the banker explicitly tells him not to do it! They didn’t sign a contract, did they? But few of them thought to question the financial systems that produce the structural unemployment of which our beggar is a victim, and of which the banker serves as cinematic representative. In challenging this perception of the poor, the film further challenges the Libertarian canard that charity is the answer. Maybe the poor don’t want your charity. Maybe they want an honest job – something our current economy is still incapable of giving them.

The second film was a silent one, “Copy Shop” (2000), following the Kafka-esque travails of a copy shop worker whose every day is–ahem–a carbon copy of the last, driving the point home with a production process that involved more than 18,000 individual photocopies. I won’t give it away, but this one looks more at the position of the “gainfully” but drearily employed – an especially relevant subject, given that most of the jobs added since the recent financial crash have been of the ill-paid, mundane variety, and that these are increasingly the kinds of jobs that prospective college grads such as my students have to look forward to.

And finally, perhaps my favorite of the three, “Das Rad” (“Rocks,” lit. “The Wheel,” 2003), traces the system that engenders such alienation to its logical (although, God willing, not inevitable) conclusion, through the eyes of two boulders. For them, the rise and fall of human civilization is no more than another day in the life – albeit a stressful one (they must be metamorphic – look, Ma, a geology joke!).

Apart from serving as a jumping-off point for an exercise on the accusative case, I also used the film as an opportunity to teach the German proverb Alles ist vergänglich – or, to put in George Harrisonian terms, “All things must pass.” For if/when the economic machine has ground to a halt and human beings have global climate changed themselves into extinction, the planet will sort itself out. As Canadian author Ronald Wright puts it (as quoted by Chris Hedges), “If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.”

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