Sunday, December 07, 2008

Getting into the Christmas manhunt spirit

Although I'm hardly one to overflow with Christmas cheer, I think one of the nicest of this season's traditions is the 'Advent calendar'. When I was a child, we usually had one, and I still recall the (somewhat excessive, in retrospect) excitement about opening up a new little window on each day to see what tiny little image was behind it.

Yes, we were pathetically easy to please back in those kinder, gentler, simpler, pre-Xbox days.

I don't recall ever having one that actually gave you things on each day (and, you know, considering what a greedy little brat I was, I'm sure I would remember such undeserved largesse). It was probably for that reason that one particular calendar appealed so much to me in mid-November when I saw it at the local supermarket.

Thus it was that the Playmobil Advent calendar with the seasonal title 'Polizei auf Verbrecherjagd' (i.e., 'Police manhunt') ended up in our house.

Now, I must admit to an enduring (and, yes, somewhat immature) love for certain kinds of toys, such as Lego and Playmobil.

I spent far more time (outrageous amonts of time, really) with Lego as a child, but -- especially since being in Germany, the birthplace of Playmobil -- I have become more fascinated with the latter. This is not only because of Playmobil's strikingly didactic nature (these are clearly toys with a message) but also because they often do not shy away from the darker side of life.

Check out, for example, this Playmobil gladiator arena.

Yes, that's a lion.

It's unclear whether actual Christians are included, but I suppose the Familienspaziergang set could be quickly adapted in a pinch.

In this openness to presenting children with, shall we say, a somewhat pessimistic notion of what human relationships are (and, historically, have been), we might see Playmobil as carrying on a noble German tradition of, say, Grimm's fairy tales or the gory collection of stories starring a figure named Struwwelpeter.

You can get a taste of the kind of joyful childhood optimism contained in the latter via this Wikipedia summary of a few of the stories:

In "Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug" (The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches), a girl plays with matches and burns to death.

"Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar" (The Story of Kaspar who did not have any Soup) begins as Kaspar, a healthy, strong boy, proclaims that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days he wastes away and dies.

In "Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher" (The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb), a mother warns her son not to suck his thumbs. However, when she goes out of the house he resumes his thumb sucking, until a roving tailor appears and cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.

In "Die Geschichte vom fliegenden Robert" (The Story of Flying Robert), a boy goes outside during a storm. The wind catches his umbrella and sends him to places unknown, and presumably to his doom.
Painful death, maiming, and doom: that's what children's literature should be all about.

There's nothing quite so bloodthirsty about my Advent calendar (this is Christmas after all), but there are a few things about it that I think are worth noting.

Like: there's nothing that says Christmas like a 'manhunt'.

In case you're unfamiliar with Advent calendars, the idea behind this one is: each day between the 1st and 24th of December, a child (or, in my case, a childish adult) gets to open a numbered box containing one part of the whole play set.

They are thus opened in a specific order, that is defined by the company.

The figure, equipment or accessories revealed can then be added to a kind of cardboard urban backdrop that was also included. This enables a certain amount of creativity.

This is, by the way, a lot more fun than it sounds, especially if you are as juvenile as I am.

But I also noticed something interesting. Here, for example, is a picture of my Polizei auf Verbrecherjagd play set after five days.

You will note: there is no Polizei. No Jagd. Just a Verbrecher, seen on the left hand side of the picture, scaling his way down a building he has just presumably burgled.

Here, a close-up of the tiny little deviant.

I have decided -- in honour of another charming delinquent -- to call him 'Otto'.

What struck me is the particular discourse behind this sequence. Rather than taking the perspective -- common enough in modern criminology -- that the criminal justice apparatus creates criminals (by, say, defining and enforcing particular notions of 'deviancy' or whatever), Playmobil endorses an older, more positivistic notion of policing.

Instead of being interpellated into his criminal status by the powers that be, our little housebreaker, Otto, represents a pre-existing social problem. In some sense, perhaps, he stands in for the potential for disorder and violation inherent in human nature.

Then -- and only then -- it is in reaction to the very real threat he poses that a policing apparatus will (slowly, day-by-day) be built.

Otto, in short, is a problem.

(Although he may not be a serious problem: for all his building-scaling skills, Otto has decided to burgle a house right across the street from a police station.)

Nor are we given the sense that he's committing some kind of poverty-inspired social crime. Not only do we not know his motivation for stealing the case full of plastic money, but Otto bears all the hallmarks of the professional criminal, both in terms of his specialised knowledge (climbing buildings) and tools (the extensive set of keys he wears on his belt).

Given the promises on the box, I can tell that the power of the agents of the Staatsmacht will eventually grow to a rather impressive extent, eventually including motorised vehicles, a police dog and several guns.

Otto, I think, will not stand a chance.

However, the forces of law and order got off to a bit of a slow start yesterday, as the first police officer made his or her (I find the sex a bit indeterminate) appearance. However, it was not until today that he (or she) was given the tools to do the job: a radio and a pistol.

The gun, for the moment, is staying holstered. However: as one of the initial items that appeared, presumably intended for Otto's use, was an axe, I'm not sure how long that is going to be the case.

And, having cheated a bit and looked ahead at the kind of props that are on the way, I saw that the last piece to be opened, on Christmas Eve, is an ominous one for dear little Otto: a prison bed. (Thus ends the series that began with the criminal himself: a clearer way of expressing that crime doesn't pay is hard to imagine.)

I was, actually, convinced that that final item it was an autopsy table, until The Wife corrected me earlier this evening. So, Otto will perhaps be saved from an all too harsh fate.

Still, it's my toy and I can imagine what I want, can't I?

One way or another, this going to end in tears for someone.

I'm sure of it.

Happy holidays!


Anonymous said...

Oooh - Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter - I still remember reading the stories as a child (in English translation, of course) and being scared silly.

In 1999, we saw a "junk opera" based on these tales. It was a terrific (in all senses of the word) production. Sitting in the stalls and seeing the stories acted out brought all the feelings back - I was laughing and scared all over again at the same time - particularly by the tale of thumbsucking Conrad (who gets his thumbs cut off by a deranged tailor wielding a huge pair of scissors). The music was provided by the Tiger Lillies – a 3-piece band of street musicians. The singer was a pure countertenor, and shivers went down my spine as his steely voice sang:

“Snip! Snip! The scissors go;
and Conrad cries out – Oh!
Snip! Snip! They go so fast
And Conrad’s thumbs are off at last.”

The music of the production is available on CD, but it's a shame that there's no video record of it. It was wonderful theatre. A sense of it can be found in the review from the NYT available via Google...

Unknown said...

Someone told me today - after I'd picked Struwwelpeter as evidence for my argument that children's literature is far from pleasant and harmless - that the book was never intended for children, but had a clear political message.

She was quite adamant about that, so I went and checked, but the results of my preliminary research have been rather unimpressive. All sources say that Hoffman wrote the book for his son Carl as an in-yer-face alternative to the available moralistic tales.

Does anyone know anything about that?

Anonymous said...

Did you know that Mark Twain found the Struwwelpeter stories so creepily ur-Deutsch that he translated them? Pretty well, too!

As trains enter Duesseldorf train station from the south, they pass by a bordello housed in a large building direcly next to the tracks. The women pose in the windows, each of which features a large white number painted onto it to allow train passengers to remember which of the women they found so toothsome.

I'll give you one guess what that building is called in local slang.