Tag Archives: television

How to Understand Austria’s Win in Eurovision 2014

The Eurovision 2014 song contest wrapped up this weekend with Austrian drag performer Conchita Wurst the unlikely winner. It was pretty exciting. I confess to never having had any interest in Eurovision until this year, indeed not until last Wednesday, when I unexpectedly found myself watching the semifinal. From then on I couldn’t turn away. People say Eurovision is like American Idol for Europe, but it isn’t. It’s far deeper and more revealing.

The basics of Eurovision are that each country runs an individual contest to send one musical act to a continent-wide contest, where all the nations of Europe compete. “Europe” here is loosely construed. Israel, Armenia and Russia are all part of the action. The contest therefore should speak to broad regional unity: the continent that in the last 100 years was twice riven by wars big enough to merit the descriptor “world” now celebrates its cultural differences in an annual sing-off.

Each nation gives points to the acts its people and appointed judges like best, but they can’t vote for their own country’s act. And to judge by the voting, you’d have thought we were all watching different performances. What else could explain the fact that Poland got 62 points for its weirdly sexist contribution? (Seriously, watch this. If you lack patience, start at 2:10 and/or 2:50):

The butter churning is a little over the top, no? Apparently the full video for the song says that it is intended as satire, but it’s not clear any viewers got that.

Quality is not the major determining factor in Eurovision voting. And this year we pretty clearly were watching a fault line develop between western Europe and Russia. This is not surprising, given the situation in Ukraine. But what was interesting was Wurst’s role in this, because it seemed that she allowed that fault line to be, on the part of the western European nations, constructed around the broadly popular notion of tolerance. That Wurst should win Eurovision seemed to be giving the Russians the finger in a way that simply not voting for their bizarre identical blond twins never could. (Though that happened too.)

Example: The spokesperson for Netherlands, as he offered that nation’s 12 points for Austria and for Conchita Wurst, pointedly described the Dutch as having invented tolerance. (Though the Netherlands’ derivative country-western song, which came in second, was anything but inventive.) On the other side of the balance, Belarus gave its points to Russia, Armenia and Ukraine, a bit like an anxious younger sibling hoping to smooth over family conflicts past and present.

It’s typical for Eurovision to reveal regional and political fault-lines within Europe; the former Soviet client states vote together, the western democracies stick together as well. The only nation to be honest about this was Slovenia, whose spokesperson cheerfully offered her nation’s points up to “our neighbor” Austria. But Wurst seemed to represent something new — a rallying figure to express a vision of Europe sharply contrasting that of Russian intolerance, dissimulation, and violence.

Let’s not overstate this, though. Eurovision has the nations split their points among several countries; the spokesperson for each nation announces the 8, 10 and 12 point choices on the pan-European television broadcast. This split-point voting means countries didn’t have to throw away their entire voice on Wurst; it means that Italy, for example, could both express its desire for European tolerance (12 points to Wurst) and Ukrainian independence (10 points to Ukraine) while remaining the Italy we all know and love and wish would stop groping us (8 points to Poland for farmer’s daughter porn).

All of western Europe celebrated Austria on Saturday night — little Austria, bastion of democratic tolerance. Spokespersons announcing votes for Conchita Wurst seemed to feel they were participating in something important, historic. All the more reason, therefore, to be pissed off at Germany.

Germany gave 8 points to Denmark for an adorable boy band that was my second choice. 10 German points went to Poland (my theory is that the Polish outfits looked a bit like dirndls, triggering some deep resonance in the collective German unconscious). And 12 went to the Netherlands for that horrible country song. Fair enough, we all know there’s no accounting for taste, let alone German taste. But in Austria the German vote tapped into a deep well of resentment. And it makes it far worse that the Germans are likely unaware of this.

You are, too. But you wouldn’t be if you lived here. If you lived here, you would be schooled in the ways that Austrian pride is deeply intertwined with Germany’s disdain. Here, look at this:

Cordobart = Cordoba + Bart
Cordobart = Cordoba + Bart

That is an article on the website of the Kurier, an Austrian newspaper. “Cordobart” is an ingenious mashup of Conchita’s beard (bart in German) with Cordoba. Never heard of Cordoba? Neither had I til I came here. Cordoba is the Miracle of Cordoba — the one occasion, in 1978, when Austria beat Germany in the World Cup. It was the first time in 47 years the Austrian national soccer team had beaten the Germans; it was to be the last, at least thus far. That every single person in Austria knows of it, and likely feels passionately about it, tells you a lot about the relationship between these neighboring lands. Germans are the largest population of immigrants in this country. They come here for holidays, for university, and for employment. But they pretty consistently forget the place exists.

When Germany gave Conchita Wurst no votes on Saturday, they seemed to signal they were above both the larger politics of the contest and the kind of mutual regard that generally leads neighboring states to vote for each other. Moreover, they signaled to Austria, once again, that they considered their littler neighbor with whom they share a common language to be beneath their notice. (Switzerland got no substantial German points either).

This is particularly insulting because Conchita Wurst is intensely Austrian. In her full garb she makes an exotic impression, looking perhaps Armenian or Azarbaijani. But Conchita Wurst is the stage name of Tom Neuwirth, a name as Austrian as a Schnitzel, who grew up in a tiny town near Gmunden, Austria. In a profile show leading up to Saturday’s finale, the ORF followed Conchita home to visit her family and film a joyful reunion with her parents, both of whom were dressed from head to toe in Tracht (dirndl for mom, lederhosen for dad). The Neuwirth parents run a Gasthaus, and hosted the entire town, most of whom were also dressed in Tracht, for a party to celebrate Tom/Conchita’s success. Everyone was delighted. The sight of Conchita’s father, in lederhosen, beaming with pride and standing with an arm wrapped unabashedly around his son (dressed in a pencil skirt and midriff-baring top), was unbelievably cute.

Austria has come a long way. Against such an auspicious backdrop, it hardly matters whether one even likes the song:

 

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5 Reasons to Love Tatort, And My 3 Top Teams

My dad likes to Skype on Sunday. He’s in New York, six hours behind me, so this often puts our call into the early evening. This week I replied to his email of the subject line “Wanna Skype?” with a brief reply: “Anytime before 8:15pm my time.” So there we were, on Skype on Sunday evening when I said, “Ok, Dad. It’s 8:10. We are in the last five minutes of this conversation. ‘Cause Tatort starts in five. And now you’re going to ask me, ‘What is Tatort?'”

“What is Tatort?” my dad obligingly asked. So where shall I begin?

Tatort_Logo.svg

I told my dad that Tatort is like the German version of Law and Order, only better. But I said that because by now it was 8:11 and things were getting tense. The first rule of Tatort is that if you miss the beginning you will never, ever get caught up. But the fact is that Tatort is not like Law and Order, except in the sense that it is a Krimi, and that it often has rather famous actors. It is unlike Law and Order in all of the following ways, which essentially constitute its peculiar appeal:

1. Tatort is only on on Sunday night. Nothing else of any importance is on on Sunday night. It is on everywhere in Germany and Austria, on Sunday night, at 8:15pm, without fail. It is never pre-empted. It is never not there. It is an institution. It even still uses its opening music and graphic from the 1970s (and you can really tell).

2. Tatort does not have commercials and is an hour and a half long, making it more of a movie than a TV show. The crimes are complex, as are the characters, and the longer timeframe means that the narrative twists several times in the course of an episode. It is truly unpredictable, every week something entirely new.

3. Each week’s Tatort is set in a different city, with a different pair of Ermittler (investigators). There are around a dozen different teams, and they come from places ranging from Berlin to Dortmund to Frankfurt to (proud to say) Vienna. Each team has its own peculiar dynamic and range; some are male-female teams, some old-young teams, some male-male teams. The investigation unfolds according in part to the character of the team — but since you don’t see them every week, or even every month, you don’t get sick of them. And when your favorite team shows up in the previews for the next week, you jump up and down a little. If you’re that sort.

4. Importantly, because Tatort is not dubbed from English (unlike the ubiquitous episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds and Law and Order and The Mentalist and Life and….you get the idea), it is extraordinarily difficult for a person learning German to understand . The pace is different, the phrasing, the rhythm of the conversations — I can’t explain it, but Tatort is just much harder to follow than a dubbed American show. It is therefore my personal goal to get to the point where I can watch an entire Tatort through from beginning to end without needing help. Currently, watching it is more like wrestling a snake than watching TV. After every exchange I have to hurriedly demand that my spouse tell me what the hell they just said even as more talking is going on — because there are no commercials, and so no chance to catch up. It leaves me utterly exhausted. But it’s that good.

5. In Catholic Austria, where everything is closed on Sunday, Tatort is folded into the pace of life. There’s no shopping to be done, no hurrying around, nowhere to be. Sunday is a slow day. You go for a walk. You tidy up the house. You cook dinner early, and settle down to watch Tatort at 8:15. It’s like the America of my childhood. But in German. And with better dinner.

Next week’s Tatort will feature Til Schweiger, who is like the German version of Tom Cruise in that he’s very famous and very, very short, but not like Tom Cruise in that he’s a good actor and not insane. Christoph Waltz was even supposed to be a Tatort Kommissar at one time (he did one episode). (He also did an episode of Kommissar Rex, by the way.) But these all pale in comparison to what I consider to be, listed here in hierarchical order, the very best Tatort investigative teams:

#1 Team Vienna (Eisner and Fellner): This team combines a hilarious middle-aged female investigator with a grumpy old male one; they crack a lot of jokes and have a companionable relationship. He, Moritz Eisner, is totally deadpan. His partner, Bibi Fellner, has this long, incredibly expressive face. They’re adorable, and they go all over Austria, meaning they offer plenty of opportunity to hear dialects from Viennese to Tyrolean.

Adele Neuhauser, who plays Bibi Fellner zu Gast bei der Verleihung des Nestroy-Theaterpreises 2010 im Burgtheater in Wien on 8 November 2010, as photographed by Manfred Werner - Tsui under a Creative Commons License)
Adele Neuhauser, who plays Bibi Fellner (photo credit: Manfred Werner – Tsui, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

#2 Team Ludwigshafen (Odenthal and Kopper): To be honest, were it not for patriotism, I would make this my #1 team, entirely because of Ulrike Folkerts who plays Lena Odenthal. She’s fabulous. She’s gorgeous, gay in real life, and a terrific actress, with a loose-limbed physicality that’s very appealing. I like her German, too. Her partner, Kopper, speaks Italian, which is a bonus, and is a sort of greasy, hardened cop. They also have a great relationship — like Team Vienna, they’re both single, and buddies who occasionally crash at each other’s places. They’re adorable. Though none of this helps me understand where the hell Ludwigshafen might be, nor why they have so much crime there.

Ulrike Folkerts at the SWR Sommerfestival 2013 in Mainz, photo by René Kirchhoff under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ulrike_Folkerts_beim_SWR_Sommerfestival_2013_in_Mainz_zur_Tatortpremiere.jpg
Ulrike Folkerts at the SWR Sommerfestival 2013 in Mainz, photo by René Kirchhoff under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

#3 Team Berlin (Ritter and Stark): Technically, it’s not a list until there are at least three things on it. So I’ll pick a third here — Ritter and Stark — entirely because it is so entertaining that they are men of similar age but around three feet apart in height. Stark is tiny, and Ritter is a lanky, slightly older guy who spends the entire episode looming above his partner. As far as I can tell this inherently comical element is never mentioned, which is refreshing. You would literally never see casting like this played this way on American television. Ever.

You there in America. Yes, you. You too can watch Tatort, on YouTube! But, um, it’s not dubbed into English. Best of luck with the German. It kicks my ass every week.

 

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Cultural Differences, Television Edition

Europeans have a higher tolerance for government intrusiveness than do Americans. I don’t think anything in that statement will surprise my American friends, nor yet my European ones. But there’s saying that, and then there’s the ways it plays out. This brings us to the example of the ORF—that is, Austrian public broadcasting. Specifically, the TV and radio.

Americans, familiar with PBS’ sad-sack pledge drives, weepy pleas to “get up off your good intentions and get to the phone,” and tote bags that look like they came with the dinginess pre-applied, will find the behavior of the ORF unrecognizable. Basically, if you have a television or radio in Austria—even if you literally never turn it to ORF (which is impossible, because ORF has multiple channels, including regional ones for each state in the country, plus a sports network)—you are obligated to pay up. It’s not that cheap: somewhere around 30 euros per month. And you pay that even if you are also paying for cable.

Ok, you say, that’s fine, my American tax dollars go to pay for PBS even though I hate Garrison Keillor (as you should). And that’s true, they do—but the IRS collects those dollars and gives them to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Here, the ORF come to your house and demand to inspect the interior, and if they find a television or theoretically even just a radio there, they can slap you with a fine (which can be up to around 2,000 euros) and then make you pay monthly for all eternity. In principle, they can even fine you if you just have a computer, since you can watch or listen to the ORF online, though the TV is the biggest target. All this for the dubious privilege of watching Dancing Stars (yes, it’s the same show, and no, the stars are not any more famous).

Let me reiterate—inspectors roam the city, insisting on entering people’s private homes and looking at their media devices. And not only that! If the ORF has reason to believe you are malingering on your dues-paying duties, I am told by a semi-reliable source that they can return to your house with the police, and force you to let them search the place for televisions!! I have even heard a rumor from a highly reliable source (that being my spouse, who is German, not Austrian) that the ORF has special television-detecting vans in which they drive around the city, searching with their TV-dedicated radar vision for apartments that have televisions but are not paying the monthly fee.

I know. 

A couple of thoughts on this. First of all, what the fuck, Austria? The whole benefit of the European method of taxation is that it’s supposed to be more efficient than ours—everybody pays a giant load of taxes in return for a whole bunch of services. Why, of all things, is the ORF the one form of payment done piecemeal? They should just do what we still (barely) do in the US, and tax everyone on the grounds that the shared airwaves are a limited public resource. Also, how inefficient is it to go house to house and ring doorbells, especially since every single person in this country by now knows better than to answer the door during the day? (The foreigner is of course the last to learn. Sigh.)

Lastly, can you imagine anything like this in the US? Just how many PBS inspectors would have to get shot in the face on people’s front porches (or in the back, running down their front steps) before we would call it off? Even I—a law-abiding citizen of quiet habits—would under no circumstances let the police in my house in the absence of a valid search warrant and the advice of a lawyer. (Do bear in mind, however, that the Austrian police are much less violent and terrifying than their American counterparts. Even so.) And not just me; even dedicated right-wingers would start believing in the virtues of the search warrant.

Seriously, Austria. Throw off the chains of ORF oppression. You should not have to hide your televisions!!

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