JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Running a B&B in South Africa is no vacation and ...

... Frank and Karin Kühne want out of the B&B they run.

On the Internet, Detlef finds accommodation in Spain.

Leaving friends and family is difficult . . .

“Cambrils is located in Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain.”

“In winter, the temperatures range from 8 to 13 degrees C.”

The Reimers meet their new landlord with a polite “Buenos días” . . .

. . . one of the few words they know in Spanish.

The Reimers inspect the home for which they already have a three-year lease.

“Was this the Spanish coziness the Reimers expected?”

“From home, the photos on the Internet looked so promising.”

The ugly microwave is now the least of the family’s worries.

The Reimers are shocked at how small the row house is.

They had not known that Spanish property listings include the garden and terrace in the total square meters.

 

Sympathy alternation, or
Schadenfreude
and Reality TV

Although the emigration series participate in a peculiarly German public discourses, their editing, narrative form and address resemble an array of international formatted documentaries and reality TV. Take for example Goodbye Germany’s cross-cutting between successful and unsuccessful emigrants. This pattern is also a fixture among casting and gamedoc programs such as the various national iterations of Deutschland sucht den Superstar (Germany’s Looking for the Superstar, RTL), American Idol (FOX), Austria’s Starmania (ORF1) or Britain’s Got Talent (ITV). Typically, these programs follow scenes of truly superb performers with sequences of (intentionally or not) poor or bizarre performances. This design of variation, what I would call sympathy alternation, is vital to the shows’ narrative structure and rhythm.

Stella Bruzzi calls patterns of crisis and conflict in reality TV “the crisis structure” (2006: 127-128). In her formulation, this is how reality TV maximizes entertainment value:

“The inherently dialectical structure of many of these formats … leads naturally to conflict: personalities clash, individuals argue and assert themselves, reconciliations are reached and often broken. Conflict is also an important factor in the programs’ broad appeal and series … [which] are structured around a formalised series of collisions” (138).

To my mind we need to press this concept further. Surely, conflict is the basis of all drama, from Aristotle to classical Hollywood cinema and beyond. The more urgent questions are what kind of entertainment and what kind of crises? Why we find these outcomes so desirable?

The Kühnes are sick of pandering to their guests’ fickle whims. The couple will move back to Augsburg to escape their South African “nightmare," once their dream.

For me, the answer to these quandaries lies, for instance, in the subtle but scathing Goodbye Germany off-screen narration. The attitude (if not form) of Goodbye Germany’s voice-over finds comparisons with the snide heterodiegetic remarks on Come Dine With Me (Channel Four) and the “know-it-all” host figures and homodiegetic narrators on Britain’s Got Talent or in Property Snakes & Ladders (Channel Four). These figures and voices encourage the viewer—if the editing had not already been sufficient—into a position of pleasure in the subjects’ misfortune. Reality TV’s production of Schadenfreude clearly begins in the pre-production selection process and continues with prompts, interview questions and framing during filming, the editing of story arcs with (and into) crises and the attitude of the onscreen interlocutor and/or off-screen narrator.

In its most positive incarnation, Schadenfreude is a “love for justice” (Portmann 2000: xx). But is it truly this noble emotion that drives us to watch these tales of crisis en masse? It could be argued that a democratic mode of Schadenfreude rules for programs like Punk’d (MTV) or Anonymous (ITV), which treat high-status celebrities to embarrassment and humiliation and thereby brings them down to “our level.” But where, after all, is the justice in the destruction of a working-class family’s dream to move to Spain? To claim that these programs merely punish the stupid and ill-prepared would disavow what we know about the precise pre-programming of these failures.

Beatrix agrees: the house is perfect, except for the bright green microwave. The couple signs a three-year lease: “Was that perhaps a bit hasty?”
The Reimers’ journey from Dortmund . . . . . . to Cambrils . . .
. . . takes a whole day and night by car. After crossing the border to Spain, Detlef is satisfied: “I’ve arrived home.”

Indeed, the clear cues that make these crises seem inevitable appeal to our sense that suffering should have meaning, that it derives from the subjects’ “obvious” oversights and poor planning. Empirical psychological studies show that another person’s responsibility for a misfortune intensifies Schadenfreude (Van Dijk, et al. 2008). Reality TV therefore manufactures this sense of the subjects’ culpability for failure through formal means, lest the viewer feel sympathy or pity. The consumption of Schadenfreude encourages our sense of intellectual and moral superiority over the documented subject. The subjects’ failures are self-confirmations that soothe our self-esteem and excuse our inertia. When a dreadful singer bombs or the Reimers must return home, we feel better about our position on the couch watching them and our failure to act on our own aspirations.

. . . for Beatrix and Niklas . . . . . . and for Sarah, who is staying behind in Germany.

Schadenfreude is not a new phenomenon, just as the narratological and emotional underpinnings of reality TV have a long pre-history in the medium and in the documentary. Nonetheless, this guilty pleasure does seem to be more readily available and to have become socially acceptable. In a recent poll, only one of every three participants admitted having a bad conscience for enjoying another’s misfortune (Wilkins 2009). John Portmann encourages us to see Schadenfreude “in terms of apportioning credit and debit” (12). I find this analogy appropriate at an historical point where another sort of credit has proved overdrawn. To my mind Schadenfreude is a symptom of the hopelessness that flourishes in times when the gap between the most and least successful is widest—and when the reminders of this disparity are most stark.

Emigration TV as a phenomenon

As noted above, Goodbye Germany is but one of a whole host of emigration programs. These include Mein neues Leben (My New Life, Kabel 1), Mein neuer Job (My New Job, Kabel 1), Auf und davon (Up and Away, VOX), Grenzenlos verliebt (Love Without Borders, VOX), Tränen am Terminal (Tears at the Terminal, Kabel 1), Umzug in ein neues Leben (Move to a New Life, RTL) and Die Auswanderer (The Emigrants, PRO7). Although the bulk of these series has appeared on private channels, the nation’s public and regional channels followed suit with series and numerous one-off documentations of their own (Deutschland ade [Germany adieu, ARD]). Additionally, long-running news formats (e.g. Spiegel TV) devote special programs to emigrants or instruct countrymen on how one might best become an expatriate. The sheer number of series is but one marker of their popularity among producers as a “ratings guarantee.” Audiences are similarly enthusiastic. Three episodes after its August 2006 premiere, Goodbye Germany boasted an 8% share of television spectators (and 9.3% of 14-49 year-olds) on Tuesdays at 8.15pm (Mantel 2006); in July 2007 VOX doubled the broadcast time to 120 minutes. Daily reruns make these shows inescapable for afternoon viewers.

German emigration TV is more or less interchangeable. The few distinguishing variations in form, style and subjects prove the rule. For instance, My New Job features a competitive element: three contestants must prove their worth to land a “dream job” abroad. The show then illustrates the first days of the subjects’ jobs. Typical examples are Bernd Mielke, an electrician in Mallorca or Maria Hahn, who works in a parrot nursery on Tenerife.

Up and Away specializes in shorter-term “emigrations” such as au-pair sojourns, school years abroad, or gap years. Witness Rükiye, a 20-year old woman who is doing an internship at a day care in Spain or Alex (20) and Lilli (18), groupies who follow the band “Tokio Hotel” on tour. In a typical episode it also depicts one subject who comes to Germany from a foreign country (e.g. a Romanian au pair).

Love Without Borders revolves around long-distance relationships, usually witnessing the resolution of this situation when the German packs her bags to move to an exotic locale. The public-channel contribution Nix wie raus (Nothing Like Getting Away, hr), although advertised in previews and suggested in its title to be part of the emigration-show wave, is actually a more traditional travel show offering attractive destinations within Germany and Europe. Kabel 1’s short-lived series Tears at the Terminal filmed groups waiting in airport terminals. Its presenter spontaneously interviews them and tries to provoke stories.

Finally, Die Rückkehrer (The Returners, VOX) takes a short cut to drama by featuring emigrated Germans returning to their homeland. A typical episode features a family like the Krejcis. Father Jens is teacher in the German school in Hermannsburg, South Africa, but misses his Bavarian roots. He comes into conflict with his daughter, who is in love with a local boy and does not want to come along with the family back to Germany, where she will not be able to have a horse.

This television format must be seen as part of a larger concern with emigration in the media and popular culture. In the mid- to late-‘00s, newspapers published a slough of articles with frightful statistics about emigration: “Every four minutes a German leaves his country,” the neo-liberal Cicero claimed, blaming high taxes and bureaucratic curbs on innovation for the exodus (Wolfram 2008). The quality Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel quoted government officials who said that the “crème de la crème” was leaving Germany (Der Tagesspiegel 2008). Munich’s left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung cited a poll by the prestigious Allensbach Institute (Berth 2008). It revealed that more than a fifth of Germans wanted to seek their chances overseas. Although the location and ideological persuasions of these publications varied, the message remained the same: Germany is experiencing a dangerous depopulation and brain drain and there are more people leaving than ever before. Many of the articles mentioned the television shows as symptomatic of an entire nation desperate for “anywhere but here.” The observations were not unfounded. The makers of Goodbye Germany and Up and Away released an instruction manual for emigrants with the Bertelsmann publishing house (Meier 2009).

In order to highlight how these programs respond to these discourses, the representation of the subjects and the shows’ narrative trajectories deserve closer examination. In the typical emigration shows, it is above all ethnic German pairs or families leaving their homeland. In the rule the subjects are frustrated, often unemployed, and want an end to their “bureaucratic life” in their homeland. Many speak accented German from eastern Germany (especially Saxony), Westphalia or Swabia. Their destinations tend to be either exotic locales like India or Bali or Anglophone countries. Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Canada, Sweden and Pacific islands are perhaps most often represented, in descending order of frequency. Many of the participants cannot speak fluently the language of their adopted culture. Although sometimes the participants travel with their career prospects secured, more often they have either vague ideas or risk entrepreneurial adventures in new fields. Exemplary jobs include work as a baker in Spain, ice cream entrepreneur in South Africa, architect’s assistant in Dubai, mechanic in Norway, cowboy in Texas, grape picker in Australia, caterer in Costa Rica, bellhop in New Zealand, crêpe-makers in Utah, hotel manager on Gran Canaria, Husky trainer in northern Sweden and sausage vendor in Italy.

Representation and reality

The representation of German emigration in these shows is out of step with real patterns of migration to and from the country. The most recent statistical reports—Auswanderung aus Deutschland ([Emigration from Germany], Sauer and Ette 2007) and the Migrationsbericht des Bundesamtes für Migration und Flüchtlinge 2007 ([Migration Report of the Federal Department for Migration and Refugees], BAMF 2009)—offer a prospect of migration which diverges significantly from the popular imagination. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority (about 82%) of those leaving Germany are non-Germans. Of the 11.6 million people who left Germany between 1991 and 2007, 9.5 million were foreigners (BAMF 2009: 146). This figure includes migrant workers, students returning to their home country and asylum seekers denied permanent residence. This majority group of emigrants is almost never depicted in the TV programs (Up and Away being the exception that proves the rule).

Even if we focus only on the emigration of German citizens from their home country, the true figures belie the media’s hysterical portrait of a mass exodus. In 2006, 155,000 German citizens left Germany (Schupp et al. 2008: 1-2). Although it is true that this figure represents an absolute increase in emigration since the 1990s and that 2005 and 2006 were the first years since 1968 during which more Germans left the country than returned, it is important to put these numbers into context. In 2006, about 100,000 Germans returned to Germany, making for a net emigration of about 55,000 Germans. At 0.01% of the population, this hardly constitutes a mass exodus. A European comparison puts these figures into perspective. In 2006, the same year that 155,000 Germans left Germany, 207,000 British citizens left the UK (National Statistics 2007: 1-2). Taking into account the UK’s 2006 population of 60,587,000 compared with Germany’s 82,300,000, we find that the UK experienced an 81% larger proportion of its citizens emigrating than German citizens leaving Germany that year.

It is not only the quantitative extent of emigration that does not correspond to the perception of German reality TV programs and newspaper articles; the show subjects are not representative of the actual demographics of emigration. A significant number of participants in Goodbye Germany are working class, uneducated and/or unemployed—think of the Reimers in Spain. They wish to leave Germany permanently and the shows emphasize their naïveté about the adopted culture as well as their lack of linguistic and professional skills. They often come from Eastern Germany or poor areas in the West and choose to embark for exotic lands or classic Anglophone immigration countries.

In actuality, German emigrants tend to live abroad temporarily rather than permanently. Indeed there is no true “brain drain,” but rather a brain circulation: the most highly qualified are especially apt to return to Germany (Schupp et al. 2008: 49). In the rule they are self-employed or businessmen (rather than businesswomen) between the ages of 16-40 (Sauer and Ette 2007: 38). Far from being ignorant about their chosen culture, the migrants have already spent time abroad and have contacts there; they typically speak the destination language “well” or “very well” (Schupp et al. 2008: 58). Their reasons for leaving are not only economic, but include social or cultural factors, educational or professional opportunities and the interests of retirees (Sauer and Ette 2007: 47-69). The emigrants come seldom from East Germany or relatively poor regions of West Germany. The highest rates of emigration are northern Hessen and southern Hessen including Frankfurt, the Lake Constance region and the Rhine-Palatinate province as well as Munich and Upper Bavaria. Indeed, excluding Berlin, the former East Germany exhibits the very lowest level of emigration (Sauer and Ette 2007: 34-37).

The destination countries of German emigrants have changed dramatically in the last decades; this has not been registered in the narratives of Goodbye Germany and its kindred programs. Whereas in the 1950s two-thirds of German emigrants moved to the classical immigration countries USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, there has been a steady trend towards intra-European mobility. By the 1980s, 40% of emigration was taking place to other European countries; by 2000, two-thirds of emigrants remained on the continent. The most remarkable trend since 1995 has shown a dramatic rise of migration to Switzerland and the UK, as well as a steady increase of moves to Austria. (East German emigrants—to 28%—are particularly apt to choose Switzerland or Austria as their destination countries.) The most popular destinations are currently Switzerland (15%), USA (9%), Austria (7%), Poland (6%), UK (6%), Spain (5%) and France (5%) (Sauer and Ette 2007: 31-34). These trends do not correspond to the stories of German emigrants on domestic television. Although Goodbye Germany and the like may be symptomatic phenomena of a postwall popular German culture which imagines a mass exodus of ethnic Germans, they present narratives which hardly reflect contemporary demographics of emigration.

Recent emigration patterns have seen dramatic rises to Switzerland and the UK and a steady rise to Austria—unlike on the shows, which tend to feature overseas Anglophone countries and exotic locales.

Unlike on TV, per capita emigration from Eastern Germany is lowest.

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