Of mice and Portnoy

In the latest installment of Portnoy’s Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, Portnoy lauds the enduring genius of the country's very own cartoon mouse children's show.

Of mice and Portnoy
A mouse show on aviation from 1999. Photo: DPA

Years ago, the woman-who-would-eventually-become-my-wife was ecstatic when we woke up a bit early one Sunday.

“It’s only 11!” she said. “We can get some brötchen and watch the show with the mouse!”

“What show with the mouse? Mickey’s Fun House? They have that in Germany?” I asked.

Though I was more interested in finding other things to do awake in bed, I was eager to learn more about German culture, since it was looking more and more like I’d be staying here awhile. Plus, I’m American. I can always watch TV.

“Mickey’s Fun House?” she said incredulously. “No. The show with the mouse! It was my favourite show as a kid.”

“What’s it called? What’s the mouse’s name?” I asked.

She looked at me, confused.

It seemed odd to me that this woman had forgotten the name of her favourite childhood show and, moreover, couldn’t even remember the name of its main character. Though I never watched Mickey’s Fun House, I never forgot the name of my childhood faves. Blinky’s Fun Club. Mighty Mouse. Captain Kangaroo. M*A*S*H.

She grew impatient with me. “The show is called ‘The Show with the Mouse’. The mouse doesn’t have a name.”

After running across the street to get some bread and grabbing some cheese, Schinken and butter from the fridge, we hunkered down to watch what I thought was going to be either a half-hour animated series or thirty minutes of a bad sitcom with a stop-action rodent.

What I ended up seeing was a really cool educational piece on how jeans are made – interspersed with animations of an elephant goofing around with a mouse (yes, the mouse). Once the completed jeans had been loaded on a truck, the show ended with a small skit about Captain Blue Bear, a seagoing buffoon, and his first mate Hein Blöd, which translates to Hein Stupid. According to Captain Blue Bear’s stories, he’s had a hand in every major historical event in the past 2,000 years. His three grandchildren roll their eyes as he spins his yarns.

While the play on his name is obvious, Captain Blue Bear is also a bit of an homage to the German saying, “Don’t let him tie a bear to you.” It means to be wary of the storyteller’s lies.

As it turns out, Die Sendung mit der Maus was born the same year as my wife – 1971 – and has been on ARD nearly every Sunday since at 11:30 am (it used to get bumped for winter sports but now moonlights on Kids channel KiKa during bobsled season). The Show with the Mouse is so successful that it’s made mini-celebrities out of founder Armin Maiwald, who also narrates it in an air traffic control monotone, and one-time director Christoph Biemann. They both seem like your Uncle Phil, who spent too much time in the cellar with his remote control airplanes.

My wife just reminded me that while the show doesn’t have much of a real formal name, it’s also got a subtitle: “Lach- und sachgeschichten” which, translated, means “humorous and factual stories.” That’s the educational bits and the mouse and elephant, respectively, I guess. The show isn’t immune to progress – as long as progress is defined as one minor change in 38 years. For about a year, Shaun the Sheep, from the creators of Wallace and Gromit, has occasionally replaced Captain Blue Bear.

Although he’s the star, the mouse only plays a fleeting and insignificant role. Once you become a fan (as most of this country is), you realize the best bits are watching giant machinery spin shoelaces or a workshop in the countryside compress black powder into bottle rockets. The mouse is more a canard. Just as Armin and Christoph aren’t your usual animated kids’ show presenters, the Show with the Mouse is the exact opposite of a US children’s show. It’s all content with very little packaging save for a blue elephant and a orange mouse.

It’s just exactly the kind of show you’d expect the cliché German who always waits for a green crosswalk light to love. But it’s one everyone else can dig too because it answers questions everyone must have – just how exactly do they make things?

Since we’ve had kids, my wife and I get up early enough every Sunday to watch The Show with the Mouse. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to get the bread themselves.

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.