From Hamburg to Calgary: The fascination with all things German

Text: Bernadette Calonego

Portrait of Florentine Strzelcyk Enlarge image (© florentine strzelcyk) Calgary is a good place to be for a professor in German Studies. Especially for one who spends a lot of time explaining to Canadian students why they are so fascinated with good-looking actors who play German Nazis in Hollywood movies. Just ask Florentine Strzelcyk. She teaches the “Holocaust on Film” and her expertise is the “Afterlife of Nazis in the Movies”. But we will get to this later. Florentine is excited about the number of Canadian students who want to learn German, and how many relationships, research networks and exchange programs with Germany are in place in Canada.

Outside of University of Calgary Enlarge image University of Calgary: Doesn`t this make you want to go to school again? It looks like a fantastic playground for students! (© susanna niederer moeini) “Compared to the U.S. where many German programs have been cut, that has not happened in Canada to the same extent despite the economic downturn”, she says. Florentine has recently changed career tracks and become vice-dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary.

Considering that Calgary was not her first choice when Florentine came to Canada, the city has been very welcoming to her. Twenty-five years ago, when she received the offer to become an exchange student in Canada, she went for Vancouver.

Not that she knew very much about Canadian cities like Vancouver or Edmonton - or Toronto, for that matter. But for a young woman who grew up in the German city of Hamburg and completed her MA in German and history at the University of Göttingen, she was very practical. “I looked at the map and thought Vancouver was nice”, Florentine recalls. She was in her mid-twenties when she traveled to Vancouver in 1990. “I had planned to stay one year, but I liked Vancouver a lot.” She completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia. And stayed and stayed. She met her husband, a Canadian-Ukrainian from Saskatchewan, in Vancouver. They married and today they have two children. But then Calgary beckoned and and now they have lived there for 16 years. Florentine has grown to appreciate the city – despite the long winters. “We love the mountains that are so close, and being able to ski and hike. The city is not too big and it is a good place to raise children.”

Children in Calgary – there is lots to discover there for kids Enlarge image Children in Calgary – there is lots to discover there for kids. And one day, they will discover German as a foreign language (© b. calonego) And obviously Calgary is also great for her career. Before becoming the vice dean of the Faculty of Arts, Florentine was the head of the department of Linguistics, Languages and Cultures. Why, I wonder, is Germany held in such high esteem in the fourth-largest city in Canada? To Florentine, it is simple: “Germany is the motor of Europe, economically, scientifically and culturally.” And this does not go unnoticed by young Canadians.

Together with China, the Middle East and Mexico, Germany plays an important role at the University of Calgary`s internationalization plans. “Many students want to be in politics, science, engineering”, Florentine says. “It makes sense for them to learn German because there are huge opportunities.” German gives them the extra edge over the competition in the job market or whatever their focus is. And don`t forget, says Florentine, German is widely spoken in many parts of Eastern Europe, and in Switzerland and Austria.

Bookshelf and studyhall inside the University of Calgary Enlarge image Inside the University of Calgary. Can this sculpture be used as a bookshelf? For German books, for instance? (© susanna niederer moeini) But what about her courses dealing with film Nazis? I think it is high time to ask Florentine Strzelcyk some Crucial and Curious Questions (CCQ):

Florentine, why are your courses always full when you talk about the “Afterlife of Nazis in the Movies”? 

The Third Reich is still one of the most puzzling eras in world history. The Nazis themselves had invested much time and effort into crafting their image as irresistible and invincible. It is their media image that still radiates fantasy, sexual desire and fascination with uniforms, power, control, beauty and masculinity.

When you see this in movies, don`t you have to cringe?

Of course! Film Nazis are a predictable and reliable stereotype. But audiences love them because they revel in the thrill of flirting with evil.

Inside of Calgary University Enlarge image I wish I were a fly buzzing around the table! Maybe these people have a heated discussion about good and evil. (© susanne niederer moeini) When you analyze this phenomenon in your courses and dismantle the picture, how do your students react? 

They are always amazed by the vast difference between fantasy and historical reality. They often complain that I have ruined their naive enjoyment.

What kind of students do you have? The grandkids of German immigrants?

Some are. But my students have all kinds of backgrounds. Calgary is an ethnically and culturally diverse city. So are my students. My courses are extremely popular. Students find Germany interesting precisely because of its rocky history, its past national challenges and its present-day accomplishments that set it apart from other European countries.

Outside of Calgary University Enlarge image Where are all the students? They are studying diligently German inside the buildings, of course! (© susanne niederer moeini) What about German films? Do they register with young Canadians?

Oh yes. In the last ten years, films from Germany have had much more international appeal. Think of features such as “Run, Lola, run”, “Untergang” or “Das Leben der anderen”. 

Do your children speak German?

Yes, they do. We travel at least once a year to Germany to visit. I usually go more often to do research.

When it gets hot, students go to the Olympic Plaza in down-town Calgary and chill out. Enlarge image And when it gets hot, the students go to the Olympic Plaza in down-town Calgary and chill out. (© b. calengo) One last question: Can you remember what you did on the day when the BerlinWall fell (November 9, 1989)?

Yes, I do. I was still in Göttingen, working as a research assistant for a professor at the time. I was walking home from work, and people cheered in the streets and yelled and screamed. We went to a bar and watched the events on TV. It was exciting and exhilarating. Göttingen was not far from the border with East Germany. The next day, Trabbis, the outdated East German cars, rolled into town and got lost in the medieval core of the city! Both my parents had family in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or East Germany) but it was difficult to visit. The border guards and the process of crossing the border were scary. You needed permits, people and cars were searched. One third of West Germans had relatives in East Germany. Our East German relatives never visited us, and as a young child, I thought that was strange. After the wall came down, all that changed, of course.

Florentine Strzelcyk

Visa stamp by Immigration Canada

Bernadette Calonego, author of immigrant portraits

Bernadette Calonego

Most of our immigrant portraits are written by Bernadette Calonego, a freelance Canada correspondent for European German-language newspapers. Writing about German immigrants in Canada made me realise to what extent they helped to shape this country – and still do," she says.