Achtung Deutsch! – What makes someone German?

Poster inscription: “Rich parents for everybody!”

What is German, and how does a German family speak, act, or look? You can find out by going to the theatre – of all places. Until April 24th, Theater and Comedy on Kurfürstendamm presents a play that by way of humour constructs and deconstructs stereotypes of multiculturalism, and of Germanness.

This year, Berlin Senate’s cultural mandate seem to be all about inter-cultural exchange, integration, and education; and while many cultural institutions are busy debating the differences and peculiarities of coexistence with a cultural other, it does not leave out the questions of what constitutes Germanness.

With great comic tempo and quick punch lines the protagonists of Stefan Vögel’s play “Achtung Deutsch!” deliver a masquerade, transforming their international student apartment, into a welfare-receiving multicultural “Patchwork” (a relatively new term, describing a less-than-nuclear family dynamic) family to fool the German social housing bureaucracy. In their efforts to keep their 800-euros-a-month social housing apartment, and at the same time to prevent the eviction and deportation of their Syrian roommate Tarik, the roommates become determined to pass as “real Germans,” only to be confronted with a list of clichés in their attempt to figure out what it actually means to be German.

Their “Being German for Dummies” list includes:

  1. Being punctual
  2. Being at home everywhere in the world except for Germany
  3. The car is more important than the wife
  4. Being proud of their country, but only admitting it abroad
  5. Wanting everything for free
  6. Being correct and keeping one’s promise
  7. To distance oneself from everything typical (except for soccer and beer)
  8. Being loyal
  9. Organize order
  10. German humour does not recognize irony, and they often laugh at their own jokes to indicate that they are funny

If you happen to be German and reading this list, and begin to recognize some of these clichés in your own behavioral patterns, or even think about them, the play did its job. If you take nothing else away (aside from a few situational comedy laughs) from this, next time you talk obsessively about cars and soccer over a punctually attended and orderly organized Stammtisch gathering, while laughing at your own jokes, you may wonder what that means.

The fact that the play is created for a German audience is evident, not least by the numerous jokes about Austrians (and to a lesser extent Italians and Turks) and their complexly interwoven relationship with the Germans. Yet, unlike the underlying thematic of L’Auberge Espagnole (dir. Cédric Klapisch, 2002) of celebrating otherness, differences, and diversity (in different languages), one leaves Vögel’s play with an impression that you can live in an affordable German apartment without being deported, and perhaps even granted German citizenship (if you pass the citizenship test and prove to be proficient in German language and cultural “Hintergrundwissen” – background knowledge) as long as you “act like a German” and “speak like a German” or at least pretend to (which, perhaps ironically, appears most difficult for the Austrian character).

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