Heil Hitler Guys! Film Review: Jojo Rabbit

Johannes Betzler, aka Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), looks like a Nazi, walks like a Nazi, and talks like a Nazi. But his mum knows he’s not a Nazi – he’s a very naughty boy! A ten-year-old German boy, to be exact, in Germany, in World War 2.

It’s a good time to be a Nazi, hurrah!

Like all the best 10-year-olds, Jojo has an imaginary friend, only Jojo’s imaginary friend just happens to be Hitler (Taika Waititi, who also directs). He’s also got a real friend (although Jojo’s not too happy about getting friendzoned, but more of that later) – a Jewish teenage girl who hides in the attic. No of course she’s not Anne Frank, don’t be ridiculous! She’s Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), Jojo’s dead sister’s pal, stashed away in the attic walls for safekeeping by Jojo’s mum Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Apart from literally saving Elsa’s life, Rosie acts as a kind of substitute mum, complete with advice about growing into a woman: Look a tiger in the eye! Although Rosie tells Elsa she has never looked a tiger in the eye, we find out later that she does just that on a regular basis.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well. Quite a lot, actually, but in terms of filmmaking – not much. Kiwi multitalent and director extraordinaire, Taika Waititi, has achieved the impossible: an off-the-wall coming-of-age slapsticky fantasy wartimy satire comedy tragedy drama… thing. With themes of love, loss, friendship, belonging, courage, poetry (rather dodgily translated Rilke – but that’s a blog post for another day), oh and did I mention love. It really shouldn’t work but somehow… it does.

What’s the rabbit got to do with it?

 Jojo fails to kill a rabbit in a Hitler Youth initiation test – but then realises what he needs to do is be more rabbit himself. Yes, be more rabbit! You know, sneaky, agile, hiding in holes. Following an incident involving a hand grenade, this seems to backfire (literally) at first, but in the end turns out a successful survival plan. Bit by bit, the human side of (most of) the characters reveals itself. Jojo’s other real-life friend, Yorkie (Archie Yates), is a boy of Jojo’s own age at last, and, like his chocolate bar namesake, pure sweet, chunky delight. Demoted Hitler Youth drill sergeant Klenzendorf, aka ‘Captain K’ (Sam Rockwell), turns out to have a penchant for flamboyant uniforms, and in moments of increasing homoerotic tenderness, his beady glass eye on his Unter-Nazi sidekick Freddie Finkel (Alfie Allen). Who knew!



I knew those book-burning skills would come in handy one day

Through falling in love with Elsa, Jojo realises that he’s been brainwashed about the Jews, and about a whole lot of other things too. Good job he loves book-burning – he can start by torching his own opus magnus, the educational picture book ‘Joohoo Jew: An exposé about Jews’. Über-Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) (“Heil Hitler guys! I’ve had 18 kids for the Reich!“), and Herr Deertz from the Gestapo Office (Stephen Merchant – see what they did there?), don’t see the error of their ways, but then at least some of the Nazis need to stay baddies, so, fair enough. When the war comes to an end, we hit a crossroads: obviously, this is a good thing all round, but for Jojo it also spells the end of his time with Elsa. And seeing he’s in the throes of a major crush, he may be tempted to spin out the war narrative just a bit longer…

Fuck off Hitler

In Christine Leunens’ bestseller of 2008, Caging Skies, on which the film is based, Jojo doesn’t tell Elsa that the war is over for quite a while, so he can keep her all for himself for longer. Like in The Invention of the Curried Sausage (yes I know it’s also vaguely similar to Goodbye Lenin, but that’s about East Germany not WW2, so the Currywurst wins). Waititi teeters on the edge for a moment, but then decides not to venture into child kidnap territory (to be clear, that’s kidnap by a child, of a slightly older child. Wrong on so many levels). I was grateful for not having to watch Jojo’s sinister side unfold (not counting the unfortunate Nazi phase), but also just a tiny bit disappointed at the missed opportunity of a twist, and with it, complexity. In the end, people did what they could, looked a tiger in the eye, and danced when they’re free. Thankfully, Hitler didn’t dance – it’s not The Producers. He did fuck off though, as told to by Jojo. It’s a bad time to be a Nazi – hurrah!

JoJoRabbit cast

My PhD research on German uptake in UK schools

This summary of my PhD research first appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of The Linguist, the professional journal of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL).

Does the portrayal of Germans by the UK press stop pupils wanting to study the language, asks Heike Krüsemann

Working as a secondary school German teacher for over two decades, I became more and more aware of how difficult British students seemed to find learning languages. This was playing out against the background of declining language uptake nationally, which has affected German the most. Currently, fewer than half of all 16-year-olds take a language GCSE. The number studying German has fallen by more than a third since 2010,1 while German A-level entries have dropped by three-quarters since 1997 to just 3,000.2 Experts now hold that German as a school subject is “headed for extinction”.3

What my students heard about German, Germans and Germany often did not square with what they experienced in lessons, or through travel and contact with German people. This made me wonder whether motivation to learn German, including uptake at school, was related to public discourses around German. This question became a research focus of my PhD.4 The ’school’ part of my study involved just over 500 learners, their German teachers and head teachers from four English secondary schools; the ‘public’ part consisted of a large number of articles about German, Germans and Germany from a range of UK national newspapers.

The participants were students who were deciding whether to continue with German study. They therefore split into ‘continuers’ and ‘droppers’, as well as into the last years of Key Stage 3 (KS3; ages 13-14) and of Key Stage 4 (KS4; ages 15-16). Through lesson observations, questionnaires, focus groups and interviews, I learnt that adolescent German learners in England seem to be motivated mainly by enjoyment of lessons and a sense of personal relevance.

To measure learner motivation, I broke it down into three variables: self-efficacy (i.e. how well learners feel they are doing); learning situation (i.e. lesson-related factors); and perceptions of the value of German. I found that these three variables were positively correlated, meaning that an increase in one correlated with an increase in the others. This implies that to sustain motivation, German learners would need to feel positive about all three of the aspects of motivation I tested.

Another more indirect way I used to capture how learners felt about German was metaphor elicitation. Here, I asked students what learning German was like for them, and to think of it in terms of a food and an animal. This allowed me to access learners’ often complex, subconsciously held beliefs around German. They came up with amazingly creative and insightful metaphors, which I coded into ‘static’ (e.g. “Brussel sprouts – everyone hates it”), ‘dynamic’ (e.g. “eating a gobstopper – hard at first, but gets easier”) and ‘ambivalent’ (e.g. “football training – sometimes hard, sometimes fun”).

Ambivalent metaphors were associated with continuing German, static metaphors with dropping it. This suggests that even the most motivated learners did not think that German was unreservedly wonderful, but the less motivated learners felt that it was categorically bad, which raises interesting questions about learning expectations.


Attitudes towards german

To explore the relationship between the private, school-based attitudes around German and the more widely circulated public discourses, I invented a task which I called ‘Family Fortunes’. It was designed to probe learners’ perception of public discourses around German, as well as their stance towards these discourses.

The first part was an association task, loosely based on the famous TV gameshow, asking learners what they thought random British people might associate with German, Germans and Germany. The second part asked whether learners perceived public attitudes towards German to be positive, negative or neutral. Although more people perceived neutral public attitudes, those who perceived negative attitudes were only slightly smaller in number. The percentage of learners in KS4 who believed public attitudes towards German were positive was double that of learners in KS3. Although most learners agreed with public perspectives, the older learners tended to take a slightly more critical stance. In KS3, continuers disagreed strongly with negative public discourse, whereas droppers did not.

So is this related to German uptake? Apparently so: KS3 learners who perceived positive public attitudes around the term ‘German’ were more likely to continue with the subject, whereas those who perceived negative attitudes were more likely to drop it.


Impact on uptake

So far, I had been looking at perceptions of public attitudes, rather than actual public attitudes, and this is where the press comes in. The newspaper articles I collected formed the basis of a linguistic corpus: a large, digital collection of text, which can act as a standard reference of typical language patterns. The purpose was to provide a snapshot of discourses around German in wider circulation.

With the help of a corpus analysis tool, I was able to identify the contexts in which my search words were typically used in the UK press. I found that, for ‘German’, the top themes were 1) politics, 2) war and 3) other nations; for ‘Germany’, 1) other countries, 2) football and 3) politics; and for ‘Germans’, 1) war and (much less frequently) 2) other nations. When I compared these themes with learner perceptions of public associations, there were some clear overlaps.

One theme in my data that was reproduced across the private (school) and public (press) domains is a view of German as a threat. Using animal metaphors, learners described German as “scary and it hunts me down”, “vicious and always cruel to you” and a creature that “stabs you in the back when you think it gets easier”. The verbs typically used with ‘Germans’ fell under the same category: ‘invade’, ‘capture’, ‘attack’, ‘occupy’, ‘lose’, ‘fight’, ‘defeat’, ‘retreat’, ‘shoot’, ‘attack’, ‘surrender’, ‘invade’, ‘shell’, ‘evacuate’, ‘bomb’, ‘kill’. Here, the press theme of ‘Germans’ (the people) seems to have migrated across discourse domains to pupils’ conceptualisation of German (the school subject/language).

My findings suggest that there is a relationship between learner discourses in the school context and wider discourses around German, and that this affects motivation and language uptake. While continuers disagree strongly with perceived negative public discourse, those who perceive negative public attitudes are more likely to drop German.

It all sounds rather depressing, but there is hope. Intervention studies have shown that learners can reconceptualise negative attitudes towards language learning and reframe them in a more positive way. But they need help with that. Teachers tell us that, in the context of impending Brexit, attitudes to language study have deteriorated even further,5 and a discussion on the benefits, meaning and implications of language study is more crucial in the UK now than ever before.

In my study, teenage language learners have shown themselves to be thoughtful and creative thinkers around language learning and what it means to them. They are acutely aware of negative public discourses, and I believe they deserve better. Let’s not let them down.


Dr Heike Krüsemann is a post-doctoral researcher for Creative Multilingualism, a large-scale research programme led by the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on linguistic creativity in language learning. She is also a freelance writer and translator.



1 Tinsley, T & Doležal, N (2018) ‘Language Trends 2018’, British Council
2 Adams, S & Barr, C (16/8/2018) ‘A-level Results: Foreign languages suffer further slump’. In The Guardian
3 Weale, S (27/6/18) ‘Spanish Exam Entries on Track to Surpass French in English schools’. In The Guardian
4 Krüsemann, H (2017) ‘Language Learning Motivation and the Discursive Representation of German, the Germans, and Germany in UK School Settings and the Press’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Reading
5 Tinsley & Doležal op. cit.

A Tale of Two City Guides: multilingual identity, writing, and translation


Image of inscription: A Translation from one language to another


I was asked to to write a city guide in my native language, German. Then it was translated into English – badly…

This post first appeared on the Creative Multilingualism site , followed by the European Literature Network. Third time lucky – now you can also read it below!

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. I have been writing pretty much non-stop since I was a child, for the simple reason that I love it. Writing is not just what I do, it’s what I am.

When I moved to the UK from Germany at the age of 21, my writing began to change. At first, only now and then, but later more and more, I began to write in English. Nowadays I very rarely write in German. With one notable exception: I was commissioned to write a travel guide to an English city. In German. A German publishing house had found me via my (English language) blog and guest blog posts (again, all in English), and invited me to submit some samples. A short time later, the job was mine. I was delighted. They liked my style! I would be a published author! It was a win-win.

From then on, I spent every weekend and every holiday doing research and fieldwork in the city which the guide book was about. I enjoyed it, but it became all-consuming. In the end I lived and breathed the city. Every day I got up early, wrote bits towards the guidebook manuscript, did my day job, worked on my PhD, edited the manuscript, and then wrote some more. My family hardly saw me. It was a labour of love. I wrote myself into this book with my heart and soul, and the publisher loved it.

Then I heard that the book was going to be translated into English. By someone else. As soon as I heard, I asked if I could translate it myself – but it was too late, the contract had already been signed by a translation agency. I asked if I could look over the translated manuscript before it went to print, but they said no. When I finally got to see the finished product, I was excited, and then … appalled. The translation was terrible. It was littered with mistakes, clumsy expressions, and jarring Americanisms. Puns and subtleties were literally lost in translation. In places the translator had added incorrect details, in others they had left out essential information.

False friends – words which look the same in both languages but have different meanings – were translated literally, which made no sense in English. Where I had written about the city’s university using the German Hochschule (university), this was rendered, word for word and incorrectly, as ‘High School’. Where I had written about a famous historical artefact being preserved for posterity (Nachwelt), in English this was now apparently on display for the ‘after world’. Some of the changes were even more bizarre: ‘inside’ became ‘outside’, nine statues were cut down to three statues for no apparent reason, and parts of guided walks were missing so that you were left stranded in the middle of nowhere. The city portrayed in the English version is not one I know. And it’s not one I would recommend visiting. It’s certainly not the one I wrote about in German. If it wasn’t so sad, it would almost be funny.

But as much as I try, I can’t see the funny side. I don’t think I have delusions of grandeur about my writing, or about the scope of the project. Many of the mistakes – however horrifying they seem to me – might not even be noticed by readers who don’t know the city, and who don’t know the original text. And yet, I just can’t make my peace with what happened, and certainly I can’t bring myself to take part in book signings and other promotion events, as the publisher has asked me to. And that’s because through our language, we construct out identities. Multilinguals build their identities in more ways than one, and it’s a conflicted and precarious process. My writing is part of me, and I feel like this part has been misjudged, misappropriated, and yes, violated. I know it’s only a little guide book and it won’t matter to most people, but I feel I need to protect my sense of who I am, and its representation to the outside world.

I’ve learnt a lot through this ‘tale of two city guides’. Mainly, to consider more carefully which publisher to trust with my work in future. Maybe the publisher has learnt something too: if you want a writer’s personality and heart to shine through, you’ve got to accept that the writer actually has a personality and a heart. And if you’re lucky enough to have a bilingual author, use their skills! For translations, at the very least you should have someone compare the original with the foreign language version before the book goes to print. Even for something as seemingly simple as a guide book, as soon as you go beyond a mere list of locations and opening times, a run-of-the-mill translation is not going to cut it. In the age of TripAdvisor and Google Translate, it’s even more important to trust your author’s expertise in the subject content, and – if you’re lucky enough to be able to draw on it – in the translation too. Otherwise it’s a lose-lose all round.

Wer bin ich – who am I?!

It’s not often I get called a guru so when it happened I just had to link it below (thanks, Oxford German Network ;-)! More soberly described, this is my write-up of the Creative Multilingual Identities conference, Feb 2018.

Oxford German Network

This week, regular guest blogger and guru of the OGN newsletter ‘Joining up German teaching in the UK’ Heike Krüsemann brings us an update from the Creative Multilingualism project, which is part of the Open World Research Initiative and recently held its second conference…

Wer bin ich – who am I?!

Well, only you can answer that! Our identities are shaped in highly individual ways – and if you have more than one language, probably even more so! Academics, teachers, students, artists, poets and other interested parties came together in early February at Reading University’s Institute of Education to exchange ideas on creative multilingual identities. The conference was part of the Creative Multilingualism programme, spearheaded by the OGN’s director and language enthusiast, Professor Katrin Kohl.

IMG_8915 Katrin Kohl opens the conference

The first day kicked off with some splendidly varied presentations by early career researchers on topics such as translation…

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Does the image of Germans in the UK press affect whether pupils want to study the language?

This is my post for Creative Multilingualism, a large-scale research programme led by the University of Oxford, which explores linguistic diversity and creativity. Head over to read it there, or scroll down below! 

As a German teacher in English secondary schools for many years, I became more and more aware of how difficult students found learning languages. Most started keen but got disheartened somewhere along the way, and even those who sustained their enthusiasm often did not opt for languages post age 14 (the end of the compulsory stage of language learning in England).

Students also shared with me what they had heard about German, Germans and Germany, which often didn’t square up with what they experienced in lessons, or through contact with native speakers on trips and exchanges. So I wanted to know what’s going on – and what better way to find out than to do a PhD? Don’t answer that, because three years and a lot of data, number crunching and tearing out of hair later, I handed in a veritable word-fest of a thesis at the University of Reading. Hurrah! So if you want to know what I found out, you can either email me for the whole thing, or you can read on (I wonder which option you’ll pick).

Heike Krusemann photo

Yes I wore a sparkly jacket to hand in my thesis – doesn’t everyone??

Now it’s a little bit hard to summarise 100,000 words in a few bullet points, so I’m just going to pick a handful of key findings. Here goes:

  • Teenage German learners in the UK seem to be mainly motivated by enjoyment of lessons and a sense of personal relevance, as opposed to career-oriented motives. Who knew? (Well, anyone with an ounce of common sense, really!)
  • Although teachers and head teachers seemed to have an understanding that learners choose languages for reasons of enjoyment and personal relevance, promotional messages tended to focus mainly on practical rationales. So here a discrepancy became apparent between educators’ insights into learner motivation for language learning, and how this translated into practice.
  • When I looked at how Germanthe Germans and Germany were represented in the UK press, I found that for German, the top three themes were 1) politics, 2) world war I and II, and 3) other nations. For Germany, they were 1) other countries, 2) football, and 3) politics. What about the Germans? Here, I found only two themes: 1) world war I and II, and, much less frequent, 2) people of other nations. And this came from a corpus of more than 40,000 UK newspaper articles from the last three years. Hmm…
  • What about representations of German in the school context? Here, I found that they were very similar to the themes found in the corpus. In discourse analysis terms, the themes were reproduced across the two discourse domains.
  • This may be so, but, does it make a difference to learner motivation for German? Apparently so, yes. I found that pupils who chose to continue studying German disagreed strongly with perceived negative public discourse, and that there was an association between perceived negative public attitudes and dropping German.
  • So… who goes on to study German then these days? Really, it’s more and more only the privileged few. The growing elitification of language study in the UK very clearly manifested in my data. And you don’t need me to tell you that this a very, very bad thing for society.
  • When I asked learners to tell me what learning German was like for them, they came up with amazingly insightful metaphors, including: a Brussels sprout – because everyone hates them (allegedly); a coconut – because it starts hard but then it gets easier; and a lemon – because it can be sour but also delicious. I coded these metaphors into static, dynamic and ambivalent views of German. And guess which view is associated with uptake? It’s the lemon: ambivalent. So now you know what to do: if life gives you lemons, learn German!


Heike Krüsemann is a post-doctoral researcher on Linguistic Creativity in Language Learning (Strand 7 of the Creative Multilingualism project).

Short story: German Cinnamon

Delighted to find my short story German Cinnamon was picked up by the European Literature Network! To read it, head over there, or just scroll down. Serving suggestion: Enjoy while nibbling a lebkuchen biscuit. Find out why:


German Cinnamon

The smell hits her instantly: cinnamon.  A flush of memory, intense, almost painful.  She is sitting on a stool in Oma’s kitchen, surrounded by wood and earthenware.  Her hands in a bowl on her lap, she squeezes brown dough through the gaps between her fingers.  She loves that bowl, it has been passed down the family for generations.  She closes her eyes and traces the pattern on the outside with both hands.  Groove ridge, groove ridge, closer together at the bottom and fanning out towards the rim, groove ridge, groove ridge.  Oma bends down to take a tray of lebkuchen out of the oven, setting it down to cool on the thick pile of crosswords she cuts out of the newspapers.  The hearts are laid out in neat rows, one up one down, their curves nestling into each other but not quite touching, apart from one pair, conjoined twins.  She looks forward to picking up the double heart in one piece, a gentle twist and pull will be enough, and the two halves will come apart with just the slightest whisper of a crunch and a soft shower of tiny, spiky crumbs, leaving no wound along the edge but a matching scar, already healed, telling the story of their making.  For the next batch, she is still to knock the dough into a ball, roll it, and cut out the hearts – the best part – but she pauses and breathes in deeply through her nose.  The air is warm and heavy from the hot oven, rich with the anticipation of the grand ball of the spices:  Cheeky ginger takes a bow and leads cardamom out on the dance floor.  Honey starts to flow and, in pairs, more revellers join in.  Allspice tangos with nutmeg, coriander flirts with star anise.  Clove and mace discover a liking for each other.  And soaring above it all, heady top notes, an aroma like no other, frozen in time, etched into her being forever: cinnamon.  Oma turns to look at her and smiles.

‘Oi, you! Get back to work!’

She flinches under the voice’s sudden harshness, fired straight at her like an arrow sure to hit its target.  As she crumples up the envelope, it feels as if scented clouds puff out from it, saying smell me, taste me, I have a message for you.  She slips the letter into the folds of her gown and keeps stirring the murky slosh in the pot in front of her.  Preparations are underway for the banquet tomorrow, and she is in enough trouble already.

She knows she is lucky to have been smuggled out of Camp Z, very few got the chance, or they did not survive the journey.  The change had started slowly, hardly noticeable at first.  A few outbreaks of unrest here and there, beaten down by police.  At first, these were isolated incidents, then journalists who reported on it began to disappear.  Eventually, the papers stopped writing about it altogether.  The old leaders were replaced, one by one, first there were no more women left, then not many men either, now there is only the One True Leader, of course.  Apparently, the people had voted for this, for change, change is good, but not this change, not this.  People were afraid.  Who would be next?  Keep your head down and mind your own business, don’t talk about what really matters.  Truth is not what it used to be.  The walls have ears, nobody can be trusted, if you talked about the change you might never be heard of again.

They had come for her at night.  Startled, she had called out and felt for Alice in the makeshift cot next to her, but a hand covered her mouth and a muffled voice whispered in her ear to be quiet: ‘ We’re on your side, we’ll get you out but you must leave her, she’ll be safe, you must leave with us now, or neither of you will make it’.  She had gone over that moment countless times in her mind since.  Had she made the right decision to go with them?  She was alive, yes, but what did it mean to be alive if she did not have Alice, what was this life worth if she did not know if Alice had survived too?

Lying on her bunk in the dark, she reaches for the letter.  Again, the scent floods out and she is taken to a place that feels like a dream, not a nightmare as so often, but comforting, familiar: a dream about her childhood, only, this is real.  She feels a small, flat object, and, acting instinctively, pops it into her mouth, all in one go.  It is heart-shaped, smooth all-around, but with some sharp, ragged edges that stick out like tiny needles out of a pincushion.  She circles the tip of her tongue around the roughness until she has worn down the snags with movement and saliva, and the shape begins to dissolve.  She stops herself from swallowing until she is ready, directing the juices so they would coat the taste buds all over her tongue: the tip, the sides, the middle, the back, then around her teeth, the roof of her mouth.  It is only then that she begins to chew, pushing the thick, sticky mixture between her molars, making more saliva, feeling for chunks to break up, now, yes, swallowing, and at last, at last: tasting.  The sharp surprising spiciness of nutmeg, lingering warmth of ginger, citrussy accents of cardamom.  Clove and mace continue their tempestuous affair, star anise mingles, allspice sneaks forward with a kick.  And there it is again, the top prize, so achingly familiar, so very much longed for, the sweetness, the richness, the light that makes all the rest shine: cinnamon.

Her world now is grey, there is no colour, no flavour, no taste.  It is different for The One True Leader, everyone is the same and he is the same too, the same but different, they are told this twice a day in the morning and evening chants.  If you hear it often enough you start to believe it, even if it makes no sense.  Tonight, he will be in the Great Hall, eating the meal she is about to cook.  Sometimes she gets punished for sneaking in black market ingredients – a herb, a spice, some salt – a risky game.  Other times, no questions asked, they are just grateful that she can make the food taste of something, anything, to escape the blandness for second or two.  Tonight, it needs to be the best it can be for The One True Leader.  It needs to be special.

She wakes to the dull glow of the morning mist before the bell has been rung for the first chant.  When she shakes out the envelope over her mouth to catch any last crumbs, she notices some writing on the inside, faint, in pencil.  Oma’s handwriting.

Use just the outer edges of allspice for the first batch of lebkuchen and add the last of your German cinnamon at the end.

She reads it again, and again.  Oma had to be careful, she took a big risk by even trying to get in touch with her.  But what does it mean?  There are more ingredients in this lebkuchen than it says in the note, she can still feel faint echoes of their taste in her mouth, why just allspice and cinnamon, German cinnamon?  She has never heard of it, cinnamon is from Asia, everyone knows that.  She reads over the line once more, whispers it to herself as loud as she dares.  She looks at every word, feels for the letters with her fingers as if they could make the graphite swirls leave the paper and speak to her, relinquish their message.  Then, slowly, she lies back.  A smile begins to appear from somewhere deep inside of her, until, eventually, it reaches her face.

When someone opens the door, she catches a glimpse of the Great Hall from her usual place at the kitchen stove.  The glow of hundreds of candles, mounted on candelabras, is reflected in the silverware along the two long solid oak tables and benches, set out like a mirror image.  The High Table, on its platform, overshadowed by The One True Leader’s banner, looks down head-on.  She blinks – she is not used to seeing bright colours.  An ashen sea of women bustles about, dressed in hooded cloaks like nuns of the Untrue Ages, rising in peaks where there is still work to do, revealing troughs of shiny floorboards where there is none.  They bend in between nooks and crannies to brush away a speck of fluff, pick up a glass here and there to polish away traces of a fingerprint, straighten a piece of crockery so the One True Leader’s symbol is at the top, not a fraction out of line.  Today of all days, everybody wants to get it right, needs to get it right.  The stakes are high.

The banquet is nearly over.  The One True Leader did not reject any of the courses she cooked, a careful balance between what was possible to conjure up with the scarce ingredients, and what she could get away with adding from the black market, without attracting attention.  A pinch of salt on the watery porridge, a twist of pepper on the boiled eggs, a charred twig of rosemary stroked over the potatoes.  The assembled dignitaries relax enough to start breathing normally again, the skirts of the helpers carrying trays in and out of the kitchen settle into a less abrupt rhythm when they swish along the floor, turning a corner.  But she cannot relax yet.  Ever since she felt the explosion of flavours from Oma’s lebkuchen and read the single scribbled line, passed to her by unknown allies, she has been sure that she cannot live like this, a world without tastes, without flavours, and she knows she will have the strength to do what needs to be done.

She starts to knead the dough for the dessert.  Mainly plain flour, eggs, honey – it is but a pale imitation of the rich and fragrant doughs of the past, but it will have to do.  Then she opens the small glass jar.

‘It’s cinnamon,’ she had told the guard at the kitchen entry checkpoint.

‘Doesn’t smell like cinnamon.’  How would he know?  He was bluffing.

‘It’s…’ she hesitated.  ‘German cinnamon.  A present from my grandmother for the One True Leader.  I have a permission slip.’

She had begun to fumble through her pockets for the fake note, but there was queue building up, and the guard had waved her through.  She rolls out the dough, then, holding her knife at a steep angle, she cuts in an unbroken line, twisting the tip as she makes her confident incision: the shape of a heart, just one, a special treat for the One True Leader.

Ischler_Lebkuchenherz_unverziertWhen she is called into the Great Hall she trembles, but on the inside, she is firm.  She carries the heart on a silver plate in front of her.  It is still warm from the oven, she can feel the metal sending the heat from the middle to the outside.  Tiny droplets of sweat form underneath.  All eyes are on her as she walks straight towards the One True Leader, seated in the middle of the High Table, his brutal banner behind him assaulting her senses, covering up the paintings of the scholars of the past.  Knowledge is not what is wanted these days. As she walks through the middle of the Hall, the men on the benches turn to follow her progress up the aisle.

There is silence as she places the heart in front of the One True Leader.  In one swift move, he clutches her arm.  Alarmed, she looks straight into his eyes.  A barely audible gasp lower down the Hall is stifled as soon as it erupts.  He runs his thumb over the tattoo on the inside of her wrist, almost a caress, but not quite: his symbol.

‘I hear you have baked me something special today?’  Still fixing her gaze, he picks up the lebkuchen from the plate and begins to chew.

‘Yes.  It is made with cinnamon, a valuable treasure of old, sweetness and spice, fit for the Gods, the Kings and Queens of the Untrue Ages, and now for my One True Leader.’

Chewing, swallowing, he takes another bite, nodding approval.  A relieved murmur echoes around the Great Hall.  She curtseys and starts to back away, but still, she looks at him.  Now.  Surprise begins to surface behind his eyes.  He grabs his throat, his chest, the arms of the men either side of him.  With both hands, she pulls her hood up over her head, flicking it like a whip.  A whooshing noise, everywhere at once:  suddenly, the Hall has filled with hundreds of female figures in grey cloaks, outnumbering the guests, hoods over their heads, indistinguishable from each other, part of the plan: the women.  In the confusion that follows, she slips away unrecognised.  She runs towards the woods, things will never be the same again, she did it, she did what she could do, what she had to do.  In her mind’s eye, she sees the One True Leader on the floor, a commotion, desperate attempts to bring him back to consciousness.  But there is nothing anyone can do to stop the poison from working its way into his heart.

The outer edge of allspice: al, ice.  The first batch of lebkuchen: leb. German cinnamon: zimt. The last of zimt: t.  Al-ice leb-t.  Alice lebt.  Alice lives.  Alice is alive!  Oma knew that even after so many years, she would not forget the language of her childhood, the crosswords they used to do together.  Alice is alive – this is all she has ever wanted to know. Even if they never meet again, she now knows she has everything to live for.

She has made it into the woods, and she can make out a column of smoke amongst the trees.  This must be the cottage she heard about.  She recognises a faint flicker of a feeling long buried, but never given up on: hope for a future worth living.  As she picks her way towards the cottage, a roe deer turns its head to watch her.  After a moment of stillness, it bounds away with effortless leaps, white flashes in the dark like a signal from a torch, long after the deer itself has disappeared.


When Sandi Toksvig complimented me on my German

2017 all 15 to 1 screenshot

I was on TV…again! Last year I went on the TV quiz show Fifteen to One, presented by the marvellous Sandi Toksvig (read all about it here, if you must :). Not long after, they asked me if I wanted another go – hell, yes! I love Fifteen to One! And so I set off again to the Glasgow studios, ready for another day of quiz-filled fun and banter in the green room. My make-up artist also does Amy MacDonald’s make-up,  and when I was done, I looked… sadly, nothing like Amy MacDonald, but like same old me with half a ton of make-up on my face. Ah well. Then, bizarrely, on my show one question after another was German-related! Questions come up randomly, so it was all one weird coincidence, and, unfortunately, I didn’t get any of them (I mean I wasn’t asked the question, not that I didn’t know the answer :).

2017 last round no trophy

Eins: What name, derived from the German word for bone, is usually given to any of the inter-phalangeal joints of the hand?

Zwei: In 1985, at the age of 17, which Tennis player became the first unseeded player in the open era, and also the first German to win the men’s single title at Wimbledon?

Drei: The Head of the German government is known as the Bundeskanzler, or Bundeskanzlerin. This term is usually translated into English as what?

After a while Sandi stopped and turned to me:

“I don’t know if it’s you being on the programme Heike, but this is about the fourth time I’ve said the word German on the show today“. Then –  there was another!

Vier: What name that translates from German as ‘Foam of the Sea’ is given to the soft, white, clay-like mineral, sometimes known as sepialite, that has been used since the 18th century to make smoking pipes, often carved into elaborate shapes?*

Cut – everyone in stitches!

Then I had a question about the phrase in The Shining that Jack Nicholson types out on his typewriter over and over again.

“Incidentally”, Sandi reads off her all-knowing iPad type thing, ”this has been replaced in the German version with the saying what you can do today, don’t wait until tomorrow to do. Would you know what that is?”

Silence. All eyes on me. All I can think of is the mickey-take version which says exactly the opposite: If you can do it today – wait until tomorrow to do it. Then it comes to me:

Was du heute kannst besorgen das verschiebe nicht auf morgen!

2017 last round 3 with Sandi

“That was lovely”, gushes Sandi. “Absolutely lovely! I love languages!”

Aww! Now whilst in the past I’ve occasionally received nice comments about my English, never in my life have I been congratulated on my German before. But there’s a first for everything and I’m being complimented on my German by Sandi Toksvig (unfortunately that bit was lost on the cutting floor – maybe they thought they already had enough German for one show!). Nothing could top this experience, and from that moment on everything else turned into a bit of a blur. Apparently I went on to win the show, but if I didn’t have a trophy sitting on my mantlepiece, I really couldn’t be too sure about that.

 “It was kind of your show, really,” says Sandi to me at the end.

“They should call this one The German Show!”

Indeed! And Sandi can’t know what happened earlier, when my fellow contestants and I lined up in the corridor ready to walk on set. One of us 15 hopefuls remarked that

“This is a bit like lining up to be shot”, and then added,

“Where’s the German?!”

“Don’t know what I should have to do with that”, I grumbled.

And that should have been the end of that one. But the reply came:

“Because you would be the one shooting us!”

Before I could say anything back, it was lights, camera, action. I tried to concentrate on the show, which was a surreal enough experience even without me trying to process the fact that someone had just said a stupid, unfunny and, yes, offensive thing to me. In my previous, very happy almost three decades of living in the UK, nothing like this had ever happened to me, which means so much more than this one-off questionable incident – but, still… And then, in the most bizarre turn of events, The German Show happened, and the person in question knocked out of the game quite early on. Everybody else was extremely lovely and fun, as was the all-over experience. And the rest – is history!

2017 PhD  2017 leaderboard

*answers on a postcard – or: watch the show (26 April 2017) on catch-up –  sponsored, classily,  by Earex Earwax drops – yes, it’s an afternoon show!

From the Sea to the Night – but mainly in the Desert. Review of Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf

An edited version of this post was published under #RivetingReviews on the European Literature Network website, 12 April 2017

It was also reblogged by the Oxford German Network, 3 May 2017.


North Africa, 1972. A man with no memory wakes up in the desert with a massive hole in the head.  So far, so yawn: please, not another one of those lost memory characters stumbling around the plot trying to solve a mystery slash crime, been there, done that, keep your T-Shirt.  Not so fast!  Carl (named so after the label in his suit) is not your average unreliable narrator.  In fact, although we’re trapped inside his head most of the time, he’s not the narrator at all.  Somewhere, someone’s sitting at a desk writing all this down in the first person, someone who was there as a seven-year-old, dressed in ‘a T-shirt with Olympic rings and short lederhosen with red heart-shaped pockets‘.  Who’s he? Not sure – everyone in Sand is reliably unreliable, apart from the author, Wolfgang Herrndorf, who’s reliably, erm, dead.

After being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour in 2010, Herrndorf churned out some literary gems – including international bestseller Tschick (English title: Why We Took the Car) and Sand – and then, in 2013, shot himself.  Perhaps fittingly, Sand is stuffed full of pain, gallows humour, false hopes, dead ends, absurd coincidences, misunderstandings, senseless chance events, torture, and death.  It’s set under a desert sun so merciless, that a mere glance at the cover triggers an inverse Pavlov’s dog reaction of dry mouth for the reader. Sounds offputtingly soul-crushing?  Not so!  What’s holding it all together, over 68 chapters and five books from the Sea to the Desert, the Mountains to the Oasis and on to the Night, is the search for meaning, never mind the answers, it’s the questions that matter.  Of those, there are many – and it makes for a hilarious, intriguing, heart-breaking, and ultimately gratifying read.

‘And now Lundgren had a problem. Lundgren was dead.’

A young simpleton murders four Hippies in a commune (it is the 70s…), a mediocre spy doesn’t survive a handover, a pair of bumbling policemen investigate – to not much avail, what else – a dangerously smart American beauty muscles in on the act, a fake psychiatrist tries to get to the bottom of Carl’s subconscious, a small-town crook and his henchmen get involved in the odd bit of kidnap, torture and blackmail, and the hunt is on for a man called Cetrois, who may or may not exist.  A mysterious centrifuge makes an appearance, or it might be an espresso machine, who knows.  More important seems to be a mine – this could mean a number of things, a bomb, a pit, a cartridge for a pen, … a cartridge for a pen?!

Yes – now let’s talk language, and translation.  The characters in Sand are supposed to be speaking French, and thanks to Pushkin Press and translator Tim Mohr, we can now read it in English.  Think ‘Allo ‘Allo.  Tim Mohr, writer, translator, former Berlin Club DJ, and lucky owner of the coolest mini-bio ever, constructs an achingly immediate desert world by locating the English prose somewhere between 70s nostalgia and the contemporary.  In German and French, ‘mine’ can mean the inside of a pen, and Carl’s knowledge of this means that he’s a step closer to solving the puzzle, but is it close enough to see it through?  You decide for yourself, but really, that’s not the point.  He tried, he really did.  And in the end, that’s what matters.


written by Wolfgang Herrndorf (Rowohlt Verlag, 2011)

translated from German by Tim Mohr

published by Pushkin Press (2017)

Click here for my 30 second video review of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick

Linguamania at the Museum

This is my guest post for the Oxford German Network, reblogged

Oxford German Network

Consider this phrase: Creative Multi-lingualism. So many things right with every single part of this!  It’s also the name of a new, exciting, and high-profile project between six top UK and US universities, led by our very own, ever-enthusiastic language champion, Katrin Kohl.

Linguamania – going mad for languages

harry-potter-and-the-rosetta-stone Harry Potter and the ‘Rosetta Stone’ – students rewrite a children’s classic

Creative Multilingualism kicked off in style with Linguamania – another great name! On 27 January, the venerable Ashmolean Museum in Oxford pulled out all the stops – and even the disco lights! – for this packed “Live Friday” event, celebrating all things language with music, theatre, taster sessions, and interactive art. Language-lovers of all ages enjoyed writing a new, multilingual Harry Potter chapter, laughed as Ovid’s Apollo chased Daphne to Benny Hill music, and hummed-and-drummed away to Samba rhythms, before writing their own name in…

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Arrival – will Linguist Louise save the world through language?


In a departure from my usual choice of film – you know, the ones with subtitles and no plot – I went to see Arrival – and it’s got aliens in it. I know – bear with me! So aliens have landed, the world’s on the brink of blowing itself up – who you gonna call? A Linguistics expert, of course! Well to be fair they also called a Scientist, just to even things out, because of that, er, well-known Linguistics/Science paradigm split, with nothing much in between. But who’s better? Let’s look at how Linguist Louise, played by Amy Adams, got the job. Seeing in Arrival most conundrums are framed in an easy-to-manage binary pattern, there are only two Language experts in the world: Louise and the guy from Berkeley (if only it was that simple, the literature review for my thesis would be a hell of a lot easier to write!) There is some sort of academic micro-debate going on though: it all comes down to the dealbreaker question of the Sanskrit word for war. Louise knows ‘the better’ translation, and that’s the end of the line for the guy from Berkeley. Baam! Of course Louise also has another major advantage: a traumatic back story. Perfect! (I just kept hoping throughout the film she wouldn’t get it mixed up with the X-Factor and break into song. Without giving too much away: she didn’t. Phew.) Also in true ‘what people who know nothing about Linguistics think Linguists do’-fashion she speaks lots of languages – this will come in useful later. In contrast, we know nothing about Jeremy Renner’s Ian the Scientist’s recruitment process – he probably slept with someone important, you know those sciency types.

arrival1Brought in to figure out why the aliens – half giant spiders with a leg missing, half massive cracked heel – have come to Earth, Linguist Louise whips out a mini-whiteboard to facilitate communication. Primary school teachers of the world, rejoice, and keep up the good effort – your methods are working! Turns out there is no correlation between the eerie noises the aliens make and what they write. For all we know they may just have been farting. Luckily Linguist Louise stops short of asking Ian the Scientist to explain what correlation means (unlike when she says to her daughter: ‘if you want Science, ask your dad’ – adding in her head ‘how many times, Sweetie? Daddy’s Science, Mummy’s Linguistics!’) Now this is where it gets interesting: Linguist Louise wipes the slate clean (literally) of Maths (aka Science…) scribblings and explains the morphology, syntax and semantics of the question ‘What’s your purpose on Earth?’ in the most pragmatic way (ha – see what I did here?) She even knows how to explain stuff to Forest ‘Ah, now I get it’ Whitaker’s The Colonel, who clearly knows nothing about anything but is tasked with conveying key information to the guys with the finger on the red button. Risky. There’s a curious absence of The President – wouldn’t he (or she – but in the light of recent electoral events more likely he) be on the scene in this kind of Situation with a capital S? Of course – the concept of Donald Trump ever becoming president would have been too far-fetched to entertain, even for a Sci-Fi movie. Shame really, because he would have known just what to do – build a really, really high wall! Simples! As it happens it’s down to Linguist Louise to save the world – no pressure.

If you can suspend disbelief and put up with occasional pockets of ridiculousness, it’s a rare treat indeed to sit back and watch a Linguistics academic (female!) try and stop World (and beyond!) War 3. You don’t even have to be familiar with non-linear approaches to Language Studies, Whorfianism, or Determinism to enjoy how events unfold (but it may help). Personally, they had me at Linguistics.

Arrival, based on Story of your Life by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, is on general release in cinemas right now.