Sun May 29th, 2016 at 07:42:40 AM EST
ET first heard of German satirist Jan Böhmermann during the austerians' showdown with Greece's new government, in particular, when he trolled the entire German mainstream media with Varoufake-fake, a video claiming that a YouTube video used by them against then Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis was manipulated by his team. Recently, he earned international notoriety when he provoked a lawsuit from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with an intentionally offensive poem. But Böhmermann refused to be defined by the Erdoğan affair and returned on TV with an undercover piece exposing the malpractices of a trash TV show.
In this diary I attempt to give a more in-depth picture of the Böhmermann phenomenon, and give my view of what he's about.
Frontpaged - Frank Schnittger
Neo Magazin Royale
Jan Böhmermann's thin stature and fast-talking energetic style gives him a youthful look, but he is actually 37 years old, and – after a decade of trying – only rose to lasting fame recently, after the 2013 start of the weekly half-hour comedy show Neo Magazin Royale. The show runs late in the night on ZDFneo, a secondary cable TV channel run by public television ZDF, meaning that it's a niche product, achieving ratings in the 1% range. However, the show has its own Youtube channel which achieved a wider following.
I recount the Varoufake-fake story as a case study on some aspects of Böhmermann's modus operandi.
Last year, in the most heated phase of the austerians' fight against Greece's new government, Yannis Varoufakis was invited to the political talk show of top TV personality Günther Jauch. Jauch followed the rest of the German mainstream media in throwing any pretence of journalistic objectivity aside and acting as an attorney of "us Germans" (meaning, the consensus of the political establishment). This peaked in the showing of an out-of-context excerpt from a one-hour video of a lecture Varoufakis gave on the European crisis years earlier: Jauch only showed the part where Varoufakis talked about the debtor governments' option to defy demands from Germany and default, illustrated by showing his middle finger, and Jauch showed this with a manipulative voice-over, prompting Varoufakis to cry "fake".
In the ensuing media storm, the German mainstream media didn't bother with what Varoufakis said in the rest of Jauch's show, nor with what Varoufakis said in the rest of that one-hour video, nor with Jauch's manipulations, but, in the most superficial fashion, wasted an incredible amount of time and energy analysing whether the middle finger in the video could have been an image manipulation.
And then came Böhmermann. A year earlier, Böhmermann pranked the uncrowned king of German-language trash TV, show host Stefan Raab, by uploading an alleged unlicensed Chinese copy of Raab's own show on YouTube. Raab fell for it and played the video in his own show without checking anything (his team didn't even notice that the actors were speaking gibberish rather than real Chinese). Böhmermann wanted to play a similar prank on Jauch (surely also peeved by the fact that he found the video with the middle finger weeks earlier). This time, his team created a manipulated version of the Varoufakis video with the middle finger erased, and made up a halfway plausible back-story for how the real video (with the middle finger) was a manipulation they created. The result was spectacular: practically the entire mainstream media fell into disarray for a whole day, falling for the fake and trying to spin it.
What's really noteworthy about the whole Varoufake-fake affair is the ending of the video and its treatment. At the end, Böhmermann dropped the comedians' mask and explained that the finger doesn't matter and the real scandal was Jauch's superficial, biased and manipulative conduct as a journalist; half-admitting that his claim of video manipulation was fake. The mainstream media fell into disarray due to the same superficiality Böhmermann bemoaned: they failed to watch the video until the semi-admission at the end. The sad irony is that ultimately, Varoufake-fake had little practical effect due to the same superficiality again: to this day, many self-important mainstream commentators accuse Böhmermann of having made a pointless joke over a serious subject.
Having watched several Neo Magazin Royale videos since, I see some patterns there:
- Böhmernann is fiercely liberal and uses his show, including almost all of his calculated provocations, to make political points. For example, stuff like a sensual on-air kiss with an also hetero male guest.
- He often drops from the role to denounce those he satirizes. Especially the neo-xenophobes of the AfD party and the Pegida protest movement, who feature in practically every show.
- Although that's not always apparent (say due to under-the-beltline jokes), Böhmermann's satire is very intellectual and layered. For example, in his gangsta-rap parody titled Ich hab Polizei ( = I have [the] police), I counted four layers of meaning: he simultaneously argues that the police trumps small-time ghetto gangsters in every field of macho posturing, elevates law enforcement above the culture of lynch justice, decries police violence, and also the petit bourgois who want police to beat up the poor in their stead.
- Böhmermann thinks his talents would deserve much more prominence, to the extent of self-parody.
Here is another of Böhmermann's more recent stunts: the bizarre song video Be Deutsch.
The inspiration for this video was the mis-appropiation of the 1989 East German protester slogan "Wir sind das Volk" ("We are the people") by the Islamophobic-xenophobic Pegida protest movement. Böhmermann's idea was to take away that slogan by claiming it for all the aspects of modern Germany not in line with the Pegida people's völkisch vision of German-ness, from the imagery of German rock band Rammstein through same-sex unions to birkenstock shoes. He mixed that with history lessons to other countries where demagogues with bad hair rise high. (I could write a whole diary just about all the associations in this one video.)
The snide poem against Erdoğan
In March this year, a satire show on north German regional public TV channel NDR made a song listing all the anti-democratic policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which led to an official protest from Turkey, which in turn led to public outrage in Germany at an attempt to limit domestic press freedom.
Böhmermann commented that the press freedom discussion was too limited: Erdoğan claimed to be insulted while the NDR song wasn't really insulting (it mostly listed facts, while showing actual news reels in the video), but satirists are allowed to actually insult. To demonstrate, he prepared and read a provocation titled "Snide poem" which was deliberately meant to be on the edge of the legally permissible.
While I understand and approve of the intent, I must say I think he made a major mistake in its implementation. The central smear he used was the accusation of carnal relationships with goats, which is a common anti-Muslim stereotype, and contributed to the darkly ironic situation that the Pegida crowd (clueless about his earlier attacks against them) championed Böhmermann and his poem for a while. (To his credit, he allowed just-retired Left Party leader Gregor Gysi to admonish him for using an anti-Muslim stereotype in his first post-Erdoğan show.)
Böhmermann also mis-calculated the scale and nature of the reaction:
Although the video of the 'snide poem' was quickly put off-line by ZDF, Erdoğan did launch a lawsuit, and could do so on the basis of a long-forgotten but still in effect German law criminalising insults against a foreign sovereign (lèse-majesté in English-language law).
The application of the above-mentioned law is dependent on the approval of the German federal government. However, chancellor Angela Merkel, who wants Turkey's cooperation in "solving" the "migrant problem" (that is, blocking the stream of refugees), publicly denounced Böhmermann and let the lawsuit go ahead.
An attempt in parliament to abolish the lèse-majesté law with immediate effect was also blocked by Merkel's CDU.
Böhmermann's family received death threats and was put under police protection, prompting Böhmermann to disappear from the media for one month.
A CDU backbencher, claiming to want to support Merkel's take on Böhmermann by putting the subject of the controversy on record, read the entire 'snide poem' in parliament.
The first instance court granted Erdoğan an injunction against 95% of the 'snide poem'; the legal fight will go on.
When Böhmermann ended his media abstinence and came back on-air in Neo Magazin Royale, everyone wondered how he will react to the Erdoğan affair. Well, he basically didn't. Instead, he dropped a bombshell on a wholly different subject: trash TV shows exploiting people with problems.
On German-language private TV channels, there are dozens of fake reality TV shows using common people as de-facto lay actors: some of these shows accompany policemen, others go into courtrooms, still others 'help' farmers seeking a wife. Böhmermann's target was among the lowest of the low, a show titled Schwiegertochter gesucht ( = Looking for a Daughter-in-Law) on biggest channel RTL in which moderator Vera Int-Veen is (or pretends to be) trying to find a match-up for unattractive people.
Böhmermann hired two actors to play a mentally deficient fan of plastic turtles and trains (sigh...) resp. his alcoholic father, rented an apartment "decorated" as the run-down home of a broken family on social benefits, put hidden cameras and microphones everywhere, and had his actors apply as candidates for Schwiegertochter gesucht. The result was beyond their wildest imagination. Vera Int-Veen's people haven't just taken the bait, but exposed all kinds of improper conduct: they easily flouted the requirement to check the applicants' documents, the "moronic boy" had to sign a declaration that he is not mentally deficient, the "father" was marked not an alcoholic in spite of claiming to drink eight beers a day, the two were offered a pittance of 150 for 30 days of filming, the actors weren't given copies of the contract until after the end of filming, all the boy's and father's lines with Vera Int-Veen were scripted by her production team, and the production team also re-arranged the house to make the boy look even more moronic.
This piece of investigative undercover journalism framed as satire (presented with the hashtag Verafake, a hint at Varoufake-fake) drew almost universal acclaim (even from commentators who resent Böhmermann ever since Varoufake-fake) and led RTL to fire the production team (though the show itself wasn't cancelled).
Insulting Old People
In his latest show, Böhmermann did it again. On the surface, he delivered a hateful 7-minute monologue against old people who are ugly, worthless, cause problems and suck up tax money. What he quite obviously did (this time leaving hints at the start already) was to present the hate speech of the Pegida crowd, but with Muslims/immigrants replaced by old people. To add insult to injury, he titled the segment Bewusst Verletzend ("Intentionally Insulting"), which was how Merkel characterised his anti-Erdoğan poem.
:: :: :: :: ::
I don't approve of everything Böhmermann does (for example, he allows his guests to smoke in the studio). Even in terms of showman professionalism, he isn't perfect yet (for example, he has a tendency to cut short interview partners). However, I think he will become an (even more) influential figure in the German media, and probably an influence for good.