I couldn't help but feel a little schadenfreude that Germany's big Oscar hope this year, Michael Haneke's dark period drama Das weisse Band, came up short at the Academy Awards.
Have you seen this movie? It lays the blame for two world wars at the feet of barbaric, turn-of-the-century German parenting.
Beside the fact that it seems a bit rich to have an Austrian director pointing a fat finger at the Germans, I don't think childhood elsewhere in the world was all fun and games back then. At least not according to my grandparents, who didn't start any wars, or, in fact, even fight in them.
Unlike Haneke, I refuse to presume what caused the worst conflicts of the 20th century. But I do have my own theory about what may be wrong with modern Germany. It's one I've developed after observing my German wife's difficult relationship with her father, and my own children's interaction with their grandfather. He spent his entire military career in the kitchen feeding the Bundeswehr. But as Opa never fails to mention, he was still trained to kill – if he had to.
Early on in our relationship my wife told me of her troubles with this man. It was based around a game of conquest, violence and humiliation. And that childhood pastime recently turned 100: Aggravation. Or Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht in German.
If you ask me, this Teutonic invention, coming as it did at the end of Germany's tenure as the world's think tank, is one of the greatest ills plaguing German society. As the daily Berliner Zeitung recently pointed out, Aggravation has but one compelling element – schadenfreude. Of course, this is such an inherently German trait that other cultures have simply adopted the unwieldy German word rather than coming up with their own to describe it.
Think about it for a moment: This game is all about chasing down and knocking your opponents back to the beginning, where they can only start over with great difficulty. This is because you have to roll a six to free a gamepiece from its homebase. The aim of the game is to not only win, but ruin your opponent's chances at the same time. A classic scorched-earth approach to life.
My father-in-law loves it. When my wife was was little, he often goaded his reluctant daughter into playing Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht with him. But the game always ended prematurely with her in tears. Every time he knocked one of her players off the board, he sang this little ditty:
And they carried,
Another dead one,
Just some nice father-daughter quality time in Germany. And he still does this. My kids aren't old enough to appreciate the pressure he's putting them under. They just think he's a funny old guy with funny old tunes. My wife fumes. I go get my hair done or pay fictitious bills.
And I can only imagine that this scene repeats itself hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day in Germany. My father-in-law isn't the kind of guy to have made up that song by himself – someone has to have taught it to him, probably while playing Aggravation.
Germany's love of this game brings up some disturbing questions. What do children – my children – learn from it? Hunt your opponents down, knock them back to the start, and revel in it? That not only is winning important, humiliating your opponents is a key part of the game of life? The game's German name speaks volumes – the onus for not getting upset when someone pees in your cornflakes lies squarely on the victim.
This may not sound like modern Germany's approach to world affairs, but have you tried commuting to work here in your car? It often seems all anyone cares about is getting through the next intersection – first. Or on my bike the other day I had a guy not only overtake me, but also dangerously rub his rear tyre on my front wheel. It wasn't about simply passing me, he was trying to aggravate me in the process.
So happy birthday, Aggravation! Perhaps Haneke had you in mind while making his other rather disturbing film “Funny Games.”
Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.