What Happened in Zurich

I rode my bicycle into Zurich with low expectations and modest hopes. I expected to see Inglourious Basterds on the big screen and Christoph would be there in some way. I hoped I might, not meet him, but perhaps be able to say Hallo.

The expectations were met. But here’s what I hadn’t anticipated: it was all in German. The parts of the film not in German had German subtitles; the brief interview he did afterwards was in German.

On the one hand that’s really pretty tragic – I rode over 800 kilometres across Europe to attend a screening and hear a man speak and I couldn’t understand but a few words of either. On the other hand, it is both comical and encouraging.

In the grand telling of Learning German with Christoph Waltz – the final tale of this project – that I rode to Zurich and it was all in German will be a funny twist. It is, frankly, too soon in this project for me to meet him, anyway. I hope to meet him when I’ve learned enough German that he can speak to me like a slow-learning three-year-old and I’ll be able to understand. Why he’d be willing to go along with such a request is something I can worry about later.

It also encouraged me to press on with my desire to learn German.  From the positive perspective – encouraging because I saw how cool it would have been to be able to understand even a little of the film and interview; from the negative – that if this wasn’t part of Learning German than it really was just a tragic moment of fandom. The ride must be redeemed by the acquisition of actual language skills.

To that end I’m now registered for three weeks of intensive German in Germany come January which I will follow with travel in Germany and Austria. If I take to it with gusto and seriousness that should help me along nicely.

Here’s a few photos from Zurich.


Ticket in Hand I’m off to Zurich for a Crazy Perfect Beautiful Finish to My European Bicycle Ride

I’ve sent an email to friends and family catching them up on my long bicycle ride across Europe and explaining why I have recently made some changes to my plans – namely why my front wheel is now pointed toward Zurich. Here’s what I said:

The announcement that made me change my route was this: Christoph Waltz will be presenting a screening of Inglourious Basterds at the Zurich Film Festival on 26 September.

Those of you who know me best will know I have an … interest in Christoph and his career.  This email probably isn’t the place to explain it in detail but it’s enough for you to understand he was cast in that film when he was 52 having toiled a whole career in German-language tv and film but always hoping for, and trying for, more. In interviews, he spoke of “edging towards bitterness” and having been “plucked out of negativity” by his casting as Hans Landa. I heard him say these things at a time when I was feeling stuck in the middle of my life, stagnated, and uncertain how, or if, I would manage to change. Through him and his story I was reminded that things can and do change. More on Zurich in a moment.

The other day I looked at my diary and realised I had miscalculated the number of days I have been in the Schengen Zone and I was at risk of being flagged for overstaying. (The Schengen Zone is the area of Europe with, generally, no passport controls at the borders. The UK and Ireland are outside the zone.) Because I am coming back to Europe in December I couldn’t afford the risk of problems.  More on my solution in a moment.

Between wanting to be in Zurich and needing to get out of the Schengen Zone I have made some significant changes to my plans:

Instead of riding out of France through Belgium and the Netherlands into Germany and across to Berlin I have ridden through France toward Germany and Switzerland.

Instead of finishing my European ride in Berlin I will finish it in Zurich. From there I will take the train to Berlin, spend a few days there, and then fly to Ireland for a week before flying back to Berlin to catch my flight to Chicago.

I actually feel really pretty emotional about how this has worked out – there’s a perfection in it and a joy and a giddy disbelief that this particular circle will close upon itself. Nearly three years ago I watched Inglourious Basterds on TV and was curious about this actor I’d never seen. My curiosity led me to seeing in him a simple truth of which sorely needed to be reminded.

These three years have been both extraordinarily difficult and momentous – and have included the hardest months of my adult life. Beyond Christoph becoming a sort of phoenix-like symbol for me, and finding simple joy in watching him do what he does so well – I also found him to be an interesting, self-aware, erudite, funny man. He distracted me when distraction was sorely needed, made me laugh when I really wouldn’t have thought I could, and inspired me to figure out a way to pluck myself out of negativity – to change, to do something big, to take this trip. That this leg of this trip will finish with my being in the Corso Cinema in Zurich, with Christoph, for a screening of Inglourious Basterds is crazy, beautiful, perfect.

(It’s hard to explain how an actor, a public personality, takes an important place in my middle-aged life without feeling a little ridiculous – but he has and that’s okay.)

Looks Like I’m Turning Toward Zurich

This blog has been quiet while I’ve been out riding my bicycle around Europe and (slowly) blogging about it at pushbikediaries.wordpress.com but this news calls for a post here.

Christoph Waltz will be a special guest of the Zurich Film Festival where he will, amongst other things, present a special screening of Inglorious Basterds. Here is the announcement from earlier this week.

I’m in France right now – not far from Amiens – but will soon turn my wheel toward Zurich. I never saw Inglorious Basterds in the cinema – simply seeing it on a big screen will be a treat but to do so in Christoph’s (surely distant) company will make it a highlight of the trip so far.

The rest of the programme is released on the 10th – I’m hoping I’ll get a few good films in from the visit.

Spectre Teaser in German

I have been remiss in my study of German and remiss in attending to this blog. Someday I will return to it. In the meantime here’s the Spectre teaser in German. With Christoph voicing Christoph’s role from 1m 10s … wherever I am on 5 November its safe to say I’ll be in a cinema.

On Letting Light Shine: Horrible Bosses 2, The Counterfeiters and Hanukkah

Hanukkah – the Jewish festival of lights – has ended. One reason I’m learning German is to better understand, and more clearly think about, my European Jewish heritage.  I’m not practicing, nor faithful, but the culture has come down to me through my family. And, as I like to say – I’m Jewish enough for Hitler.

So I’ve been thinking about Hanukkah and what it can mean to celebrate light and, especially, unexpected light.  I have concluded that, for me, a way to honour the story of Hanukkah is to honour that which brings light and joy to people’s lives.

What does any of this has to do with Christoph Waltz, Horrible Bosses 2 and The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)? Read on, bitte.

Two Saturdays ago a good mate and I went down to the Randwick Ritz Cinema to join a surprisingly sizable crowd taking in Horrible Bosses 2Hat-tip to Laura for her willingness to join me for a film neither of us would see but for my, um, committed interest in the career of Christoph Waltz.


So, without further ado, in German – my thoughts on this film

Wir sich trefft trinken von Hoffnung Sangria machen der Film gut. Ich erwarte der Film machen mich an wenig lachen und kriechen ein auch. Es ist gut es ist ein Kurzfilm.

Ich bin überrascht, wie viele Leute sind da. Dies sind nicht die Menschen, die ich in der Regel Filme sehen mit. Sie lachen und sie haben eine Zeit gut. Ich denke um warum sie lachen und warum ich bin nicht lachen.

Die Drehbuch hat etwa gute Augenblick und viele schlechte Augenblick. Die Schaunspielkunst ist fein, Christoph macht Spaß in seinen wenigen Szenen. Die Geschichte ist unglaublich. Ich weiß nicht, ob das macht die Schauspielerei härter oder einfacher machen.

(See end of post for the English version.)

The audience I watched Horrible Bosses 2 with seemed to enjoy themselves and that’s not a small thing. Recent weeks have brought so much sad news to Australia: the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, the situation at the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place which ended in three deaths, the news earlier this week of the murder of eight children in Cairns. Further afield was the unimaginable horror that befell those students in that school in Pakistan. Whatever brings light into peoples lives – if it’s not born of hate or the humiliation of others – is a good thing. Horrible Bosses 2 is just not a movie for me, Christoph or no Christoph – but I’m happy others in my audience enjoyed themselves – that it was a small, perhaps unexpected, light in their lives.

My desire to learn German is sincere and while Christoph’s guidance is helpful it’s only one thing in many I am doing to study the language.  This week I watched The Counterfetiters (Die Falscher) (courtesy of SBS’s fantastic On Demand service).


This 2007 German-Austrian film tells the story of a group of skilled men selected from amongst those held in Nazi concentration camps to work on a counterfeiting scheme. It was directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and won the Best Foreign Language Film at the 80th Academy Awards.

While the film had English subtitles I was pretty happy with the amount of German dialogue I caught as it went past. Despite finding some of the camera work weirdly TV-ish and the music occasionally odd, I really enjoyed the film. I especially liked the work of the actor in the lead role of Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics). He was really quite good and he has a fantastic face.

Karl Markovics – are interesting yet everyday-handsome (as opposed to Hollywood-handsome) faces a thing in Austria?

The Counterfeiters is especially interesting to me as it is a German movie set during World War II in a German concentration camp. How have these German-speaking movie makers depicted this time and place? On the one hand a certain amount of the humiliation, degradation, dehumanization, and mass murder of Jews is … seen a little and referred to more. The group selected to work on the counterfeiting operations are treated comparatively well with soft beds, clean sheets, access to proper food and hygiene – all of which they find amazing. They are overseen by an officer who believes he’ll get better work out of them with a carrot than with a stick; he checks the excesses of his less lenient underling.

I was left with an impression of looking at the Holocaust – not quite out of the corner of an eye, but not directly either. This group of Jews, while interred and manipulated, were spared the worst of the Holocaust. What was going on elsewhere is glimpsed and referred to but not brought front and centre. I suspect this is easier viewing for the descendants of Nazi-era German speakers.

If any readers can recommend other German-language films which look more directly at the Holocaust than this – please let me know by commenting on this post. This depiction, in The Counterfeiters, is not nothing. Relative to one person’s life 1945 seems a long time ago, but in the scheme of things, it’s a blink of time.

Here, in Australia, there are relatively few films that have directly confronted the treatment of Aboriginal Australians and in the US there are relatively few that have directly confronted slavery. Arguably one of the most notable in recent years was Django Unchained … nicely bringing us back to Christoph and this strange journey I’m on.

This, this is a thing I do — I like to get lost in a project, in an obsession, and follow it through to some sort of conclusion or fulfilment or just to a point where I weary of it and set it aside. It’s something I’m good at. I like the research and the thinking; I enjoy the immersion and the distraction; I like that while it’s important to me, it’s not really that important. I can set it aside when busy with other aspects of life and then return to it when I can.

Things come from these journeys – I’ve met amazing people, visited unexpected destinations, moved from one country to another and held interesting jobs.

Sometimes I wonder: what if I used these talents in a way that brought me … more. More of what society tells us we should want – titles, careers, cash, etc. But that’s not how these things work. I find a simple joy in losing myself in a state of blissful obsession and in the sort of ridiculous and fanciful projects that are and end in themselves.

Where will Learning German with Christoph Waltz lead me? Will I gain some actual fluency? Will it encourage me to visit places I’ve yet to hear of and meet people I would not have otherwise encountered? The future is unknown – right now I’m watching, I’m learning and I’m writing because it brings me pleasure.

And so at the end of Hanukkah 2014 I embrace that which brings light and joy to my life, I do so without apology or worry that it’s not a “career” or something making me money. I am a writer – so I shall write. If you should read what I write all the better but for now I choose not to worry about you or where this goes or where it will take me – but to simply enjoy the journey, to enjoy the light this little flame throws into my life.

A surprising light.
The first candle of the Europe’s largest menorah burns in front of the Brandenburg Gate on the first day of Hanukkah, in Berlin, Germany, 27 November 2013.

** What I mean for the German to say:

We meet to drink sangria hoping to making the film better. I expect the film to be a little funny and also cringeworthy. It is good that it is a short film.

I’m surprised how many people are there. These are not the people I usually see movies with. They laugh and have a good time. I think about why they laugh and why I’m not laughing.

The script has some good moments and many bad moments. The acting is fine, Christoph fun in his few scenes. The story is unbelievable. I do not know if that makes make acting harder or easier.

“Not bad for a boy from Vienna” – Christoph Waltz erhält Stern am Walk of Fame

Time for more translation! Last week Christoph was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his alma mater, the Max Reinhardt Seminar, shared the news on their website. I thought their take on the story might be a little different from other sources so I chose their article to translate.

Here is the original:

Christoph Waltz erhält Stern am Walk of Fame

“Not bad for a boy from Vienna”

Der ehemalige Student am Max Reinhardt Seminar zählt mittlerweile zu den gefragtesten Schauspielern in Hollywood

10690102_10153546467250656_502455384647109482_nDas internationale Medienecho zu Christoph Waltz ist momentan groß inklusive Amüsanter Bezeichnungen (die 2. Überschrift ist ein Zitat aus dem verlinkten Artikel der Daily Mail).

Der 58jährige gebürtige Wiener studierte 1975 bis 1978 am Max Reinhardt Seminar Schauspiel und 1979 am Lee Strasberg Institute in New York City. Die Kunst lag in der Familie: Sein Vater arbeitete als Bühnenbildner, die Mutter als Kostümbildnerin. Bereits seine Großeltern mütterlicherseits spielten am Burgtheater.

Nach dem Studium spielte Christoph Waltz schon bald in Theaterproduktionen im ganzen deutschsprachigen Raum. Daneben war er auch in zahlreichen TVProduktionen der damaligen Zeit vertreten. Es folgten reiseintensive Jahre, die ihn durch halb Europa und die USA führten.

Neben seiner Tätigkeit als Schauspieler führte Christoph Waltz im Dezember 2013 auch MusiktheaterRegie beim Rosenkavalier von Richard Strauss an der Vlaamse Opera in Antwerpen, Belgien.

First I tried translating it without help — made easier by knowing the general facts of the story:

Christoph Waltz gets Star on Walk of Fame

“Not bad for a boy from Vienna”

The former student of Max Reinhardt Seminar … actor in Hollywood.

The international media … Christoph Waltz is moment big inclusive … .something about an article in the Daily Mail.

The 58 year old from Vienna studied from 1975 and 1978 at Max Reinhardt Seminar Showschool and in 1979 at Lee Strasberg Institute in New York City. The something runs in the family: his father was a set builder, his mother a costumer. Something about mother (grandmother?) something at Burgtheatre.

While a student Christoph Waltz already … theatre production … German-speaking. Something about TV production. He something something year … half of in in Europe and half in the USA.

Something about having directed Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier at the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerpen, Belgium in December 2013.

So, to be honest, I was kind of happy to have gotten that much but it’s still pretty poor – I reached for my new larger print dictionary and cracked on.

Christoph Waltz got/received Star on Walk of Fame

“Not bad for a boy from Vienna”

The former student of at the Max Reinhardt Seminar (zählt) meanwhile (in the meantime) to/toward/at/for popular(something) actor in Hollywood.

The international mediaresponse to Christoph Waltz is moment big including Amusing(er) Characteristic (the second headline is a quotation from the (verlinkten) article in the Daily Mail).

The 58 year old born in Vienna studied 1975 to 1978 at Max Reihnhardt Acting Seminar and in 1979 at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York City. The art/skill runs in the family: his father worked as a stage designer, his mother as a costume designer. (Ready, prepared) his maternal grandparents acted in the Burgtheatre.

After his theatre studies Christoph Waltz was soon in Theatre Productions in Germany. At the same time had his also in numerous TV productions the then (time, era, age) (substitute for, replace). He/it followed journey intense years, the (ihn) divided half Europe and the USA (führten).

(Besides/next to) he had work while actor leader Christoph Waltz in December 2013 also music theatre direction at Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss at the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, Belgium.

The syntax was still pretty messy and some bits made little sense so I asked Google Translate what they thought and the Max Reinhardt Seminar web site had an English option, so I looked at that too. Between my go and those versions I made a final translation:

Christoph Waltz receives Star on Walk of Fame

“Not bad for a boy from Vienna”

The former student of at the Max Reinhardt Seminar is among the most popular actors in Hollywood.Polishing

The international media response to Christoph Waltz is big at the moment including amusing terms (the second headline is a quotation from the linked article in the Daily Mail).

The 58 year old, born in Vienna, studied 1975 to 1978 at Max Reihnhardt Acting Seminar and in 1979 at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York City. The theatre arts run in the family: his father worked as a stage designer, his mother as a costume designer. Even his his maternal grandparents acted in the Burgtheatre.

After his theatre studies Christoph Waltz was soon in Theatre Productions in German-speaking countries. At the same time he was also in numerous TV productions. Years of intensive travel followed which led him through half of Europe and the USA.

Besides acting, Christoph Waltz directed the musical theatre production of Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss at the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, Belgium, in December 2013.



Kopfstand (Headstand) – 1981

I give Kopfstand 2 1/2, maybe 3 stars, out of 5

DVD Cover

First, the German (with a longer discussion in English to follow):

Kopfstand: oder wie einer zufällig mit dem leben davonkam  ist viel besser als Parole Chicago. Das ist einfach, dumm Fernsehen. Diese ist ein Film ernst und Christoph ist der Stern.

Er ist Markus Dorn – nicht ein Junge, noch nicht ein Mann. Er verbirgt sein Seele hinten eine Wand. Sein Mutter denkt er ist schlechter als er ist. Er geht zu ein psychiatrische Klinik und trefft Stinker – ein Freund neu. In ein klein weg, Markus beginnt, im Stich gelassen seine Wand.

Es ist Winter in Wien in 1980 (neunzehn achtzig). Der Film ist in schwarz auf weiss. Es fühlt ein klein kahl.

Der Film hat Defekts aber erzählt eine gute Geschichte.

In a 2012 interview Christoph said:

I don’t talk about the characters I play… I want you to see what it is you see… I claim that when we go to the movies we go to see ourselves.

Recently he paraphrased a quote from Harrison Ford saying:

My job as an actor is not to show you how close I am to the character. My job as an actor is to show you how close you are to the character.

It was with these ideas in mind that I watched Kopfstand, a black and white, 1981, low-budget, arty, Austrian drama. It has flaws: the story is a little disjointed and the acting stumbles here and there. There is, however, an honest story, reasonably well told, at its heart.

I am quite grateful for having found the whole film on-line and with English subtitles. I would have been very lost without them.

Christoph plays Markus Dorn. Markus reminds me of people I knew when I was his age: not quite sullen, but he wears his ennui – shown as a dismissive shrug – as a protective cloak. It serves as a barrier between his sensitive teenaged soul and the world of human relationships he wants to be part of but doesn’t know how to enter. He is no longer a boy but not yet a man.


It is perhaps a trait of the age (the cusp of adulthood) or of the times (that era when the punk ethos was taken up by black-clad kids in depressed cities like Manchester) but, even though this was shot in 1980 Vienna, it did remind me strongly of my city of Chicago, and my circle of friends there, in the mid to late 1980s.

We were smart kids, following new and misunderstood cultural trends; these were trends we were happy to have seen as harder, darker and more dangerous than we knew them to be. Kids who often lived on a constant edge of conflict with their parents and authorities. Adults often assumed worse was going on than was the case. For some, worse really was going on … hard drugs, suicidal thoughts, but they were the exception, not the norm.

If Markus had turned up at Evanston Township High School in the mid-1980s by his clothes and his attitude we would have spotted him as one of our own (these photos, by the way, were all shot in black and white).

Charlie at 19 or 20 (1988 or so)
Charlie at 19 or 20 (1988 or so)
Grey at 16 or 17 (1986 maybe)
Grey at 15 or 16 (1985 maybe)
Markus Dorn – that Austrian exchange student we nearly forgot about


Me at 19 or so.
Me at 19 or so.


Markus works in as a hairdresser, pines after the cashier at a games parlour and mopes about wintry Vienna in his leather jacket and long hair.

Vienna itself is a character in Kopfstand. It is not-quite bleak but at the hard end of the spectrum. It’s winter throughout the film – edging toward spring but still cold at the end – it’s snow covered, with leafless trees, and bundled figures in clouds of breath.

Markus accepts a worse reputation than he’s earned; a reputation which mostly lives in the mind of his mother. She doesn’t understand what is going on with her son and presumes the worst – that he’s on drugs, that he’s crazy.

The energy of his inner struggle and the passion he tampers with cool bursts into the spaces of friction with his mother and her boyfriend. A verbal conflict becomes physical and the police are called. Markus is roused from bed and taken to the station. He doesn’t think the situation very serious but his mother signs the papers to have him committed and so he finds himself in a mental asylum.

In the asylum he is drugged and given electric-shock therapy. But importantly he meets Stinker (so called for having shat at the head doctor’s doorway). Stinker is a middle-aged man who yearns for the wife who left him and, while clearly troubled, he doesn’t seem much more worthy of forcible commitment than Markus. He becomes Markus’s friend and a bit of a father-figure. It is in this relationship it seems Markus begins to lay-down his cloak, or at least open it, connecting with Stinker and, to a lesser degree, other men on the ward.

I will refrain from telling all, since this film is readily available on-line and if you’ve read this far you may be interested enough to watch it. But Markus is eventually released and while there is a thaw in the relationship with his mother it remains strained and distant.

Markus finds a new safe-space in taking on an assignment “from the welfare” to look in on an elderly recluse, Frau Mohn. Markus, who in his own way had been a recluse – hiding himself behind his cloak, refraining from close relationships – helps to draw Frau Mohn out of her shell.

As the film ends Markus has experienced closeness and loss. He is still figuring it out and remains a melancholy young man but he is much closer to a healthy adulthood than he was when the story began.

CONTEXT – 1981

In 1981 I was 12 years old. Presumably Kopfstand was shot in the winter of 1980/1981 – when I was still 11 and in 6th grade at Oscar M. Chute Middle School. Whenever I think of middle school I think of what truly shit years those were. I think it’s a difficult age for everyone – 11, 12, 13 – terrible, I wouldn’t repeat them for a million dollars and a private German lesson from Christoph.

This photo is undated but I look 11 and given the jumper there’s a good chance this was the winter of 1980/81.
This photo is undated but I look 11 and given the jumper there’s a good chance this was the winter of 1980/81.

The biggest, most memorable, news story of 1981 for me was the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. They kept the news of the shooting from us until final period. I was in a math class taught by a regular substitute teacher – an Indian woman who wore a sari. Just before the final bell she told us the president had been shot. At that point he was in surgery and his prognosis unknown.

I remember there being a certain frisson of excitement … not pleasure or joy but curiosity and wonder. The assassinations of the 1960s pre-dated us but the shadow of them stretched into our lifetimes. At 11 we may not have grasped the sadness of those events but we were well aware of the ground-shifting monumentalness of them. We all wondered what would happen if Reagan died and if we would be talking years later about where we were when we heard the news, as our parents did about the Kennedy and King assassinations.

(This is the raw video footage without commentary – which I’d never seen before. Its remarkable how chaotic it is and how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive.)

Other news from 1981:

  • The Americans held hostage in Iran were released
  • Walter Cronkite retired
  • Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt
  • The first recognized cases of AIDS were recorded by the Centers for Disease Control
  • Prince Charles and Lady Diana married
  • MTV was launched
  • In Australia, the State of Victoria decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults

 Births and Deaths:

  • Elijah Wood, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, Beyonce and Serena Williams were born – and, in Australia, Lleyton Hewitt, Michael Clarke, Lauren Jackson and Guy Sebastian.
  • Bill Haley, Joe Louis, Natalie Wood and Bob Marley died


Strangely, Vienna, Ultravox’s biggest-ever single, was released in 1981. The vibe of the song and video, inspired by the film The Third Man, fit Kopfstand pretty well.


Notable Austrian set designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen worked on a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannäuser at the Vienna State Opera in 1980. This is a painting from that design work which I liked and also sort of feels right for the vibe of Kopfstand

Tannhauser - Vienna State Opera, 1980
Tannhauser – Vienna State Opera, 1980


The Best Picture Oscar was awarded to Chariots of Fire which beat out Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Reds.

Henry Fonda won the Best Actor award (On Golden Pond) beating: Warren Beatty (Reds), Burt Lancaster (Atlantic City), Dudley Moore (Arthur) and Paul Newman (Absence of Malice).

As this blog is sort of about Christoph Waltz … Best Supporting Actor went to John Gielgud (Arthur) over James Coco (Only When I Laugh), Ian Holm (Chariots of Fire), Jack Nicholson (Reds) and Howard E. Rollins Jr (Ragtime).