Thursday, 19 December 2013

Film: Ultra Culture (and impressions of Hamburg)

I was in Germany recently for ein langes wochenende (and that's where the random inclusion of snippets in German starts and stops, I promise). I was there partly for the beer and currywurst and partly for a dose of the famously vibrant atmosphere at German football (which in turn, is at least partly due to the abundance of beer and currywurst). 

Aforementioned commodities aside, I was also there to continue the production of Ultra Culture, my film which explores the inspirations and motivations of some of Europe's most diehard football fans.

If you know football you probably know of the German club FC St. Pauli, based in Hamburg's port-side district of the same name. It's also likely that you owe your awareness of the club to the notoriety of their supporters rather than their success on the pitch. And therein lies the reason that somebody not so into football may not have heard of them: they've never won the German title and currently play in the 2nd tier among even lesser-known clubs such as Erzgebirge Aue and Ingolstadt 04. Their fans, though, are famous, and for a very good reason.

During the mid 1980's - in the pre-reunification days and around the time Boris Becker became famous for being good at tennis - fascist-inspired football hooliganism was all the rage in Germany. In response to this, recognising that football was in a dark place, St. Pauli became the first German club to ban right-wing nationalist activities inside its stadium. This sparked the beginnings of a huge cult following and average attendances rose from a couple of thousand to nearly thirty thousand (not quite over night: challenging an embedded culture takes time and stadium upgrades were necessary to house all the Lefty new-comers).

Today, St. Pauli have a huge following with over 600 supporters groups based around the world. From New York to Indonesia. Their fan base is made up of mostly politically left-leaning supporters who stand vehemently united against racism, sexism, homophobia, commercialism, and all those ugly things that continue to plague the otherwise beautiful game elsewhere. In short: they're a wonderful bunch of people.

A clear message inside the Millerntor-Stadion, home of FC St. Pauli © Ryan Chapman

I arrived in Hamburg on a bitterly cold November evening on a train from Berlin and immediately went to find the kebab shop that had been enthusiastically recommended to me by the ticket inspector. They, despite my desperately hungover state (Berlin does that to you), had seized the opportunity to practise their English and I, despite wanting to curl up against the window and wallow in self-pity, obliged. 

I've never heard falafel being described with such bountiful linguistic beauty, but let me tell you, it was entirely justified. The bad news is that if you're reading this with a trip to Hamburg in the pipeline I can't tell you where it was. Not because I'm sworn to secrecy or anything, I just can't remember (it was near a sex shop, but that really doesn't narrow it down in Hamburg). The point is, I had a delicious falafel. And satisfied, I headed off to explore the district of St. Pauli.

St. Pauli is full of those quirky little shops that have window displays so alluring you're physically unable to walk past without going inside. Think bizarrely dressed arm-less mannequins and things you look at and think they're 'retro-kitsch' without really know what 'retro-kitsch' means. 

They're the kind of shops you step inside but regret it immediately because everything that's remotely interesting is in the window - and probably not even for sale - and what you're left with can only be described as tat (which, annoyingly, you then rediscover is just a synonym for retro-kitsch anyway). 

Yeah, those shops. There's lot's of them, and I went in one. After idly browsing the contents for as little amount of time as possible that would not be deemed rude - all the time being watched by the woman at the till who wore a peacock feather in her hair - I looked at the time, made an exaggerated gesture to indicate I was late for a prior engagement, and hurried out the door.

Around the corner I was approached by a guy in his twenties who asked me if I had a minute spare to roll a dice or two. Hoping it wasn't an euphemism I reluctantly agreed and he handed them over. Bulky, wooden and painted green; each side had a word in German inscribed with golden letters. 

Suitably concerned, I rolled them on the pavement, secretly urging them to bounce awkwardly and disappear down a drain in order for me to avoid any consequences. They didn't. "You", he translated from one, waiting for the other to settle: "must learn something". He proceeded to announce that I should now go, as the dice had dictated, and do something educational.

He suggested I go to the Hamburg Harbour Museum and learn about the city's rich maritime history. I pointed out that it was Sunday and the museum was probably closed (I had no idea) and negotiated that, instead, I go to a bar and learn how satisfying it would be to sit down and drink a beer. He accepted my compromise and off he went; presumably to find other people to roll his die until they landed on 'we' and 'become friends'. 

Meanwhile, I made my way down to the harbour for that beer thinking it must be my destiny. Nothing happened. The beer was good though, thanks dice guy.

Port of Hamburg

The following day I headed to the Millerntor-Stadion armed with a plethora of questions for St. Pauli employee and fan, Sven Brox. He is head of match day security, and works closely with the ultra groups. My interview with him touched upon subjects such as the ultra groups' influence in the running of the club and the general all-encompassing sense of community. I've noticed this is more or less consistent across Germany: the relationships between football clubs and their fans are invariably rock solid. At St. Pauli, fans don't only have a say in what goes on behind the scenes, in many cases, it seems they make the final call.

To draw a comparison, the owner of English Premier League outfit Hull City has recently applied to change the name of the club to Hull Tigers in an attempt to make them more marketable, apparently. The majority of Hull supporters are against the name-change and have started a campaign group called 'City Till We Die'. In response to this, the owner hit back saying these fans "could die as soon as they want". It's an easy conclusion to make then, that this man is an enormous tw*t. Not only that, it's a sad reflection on how little fans are respected in this country and how poor the general club-fan relationship is.

In contrast, over in Germany, St. Pauli once toyed with the idea of selling the naming rights to their stadium (a move which could have generated millions of Euros in revenue). However, the fans said no, fearing it would compromise their proud identity, and so it didn't happen.

Sven Brox in interview mode © Ryan Chapman

Arriving at the Millerntor a few hours before kick-off, fans were already gathering. Inside the fan-run supporters' bar there was a raucous atmosphere and a DJ blasting out sing-along rock anthems. I could already tell this was not going to be a typical match day experience.

The game itself was worth a watch: St. Pauli emphatically brushing their visitors Energie Cottbus aside with a 3-0 victory. However, it was the ultras who put on the real show, suppling an unrelenting soundtrack comprising of reworked classics from songsmiths ranging from KC & The Sunshine Band to Bonnie Tyler. Beginning when the first players emerged from the home team's dressing room to begin their warm-up, and not ceasing until the very last victorious hero had left the field of play, they provided constant vocal encouragement. A display of support that any ultra would be approving of.

I was unable to obtain the relevant permissions to film inside the stadium, thanks to the media company who were covering the match and their unreasonable financial demands in return for the privilege. That, however, didn't stop me returning home with hours of material to be used in a way I haven't quite figured out yet. But, for as long as Ultra Culture is in its production phase I'll be looking to span the continent, watching football. So, to be honest, I'm in no great rush.