Dirk Van Weelden 1 Jan 1999

The Storyteller, his Village and his Irony

Florian Thalhofer's cd-rom small world presents a portrait of Schwandorf, a village in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz. Thalhofer knows quite a bit about this village; he was born and raised there. The opening screen shows a hazy image of the Earth seen from a spaceship. Thalhofer's voice tells us the Oberpfalz takes up but an insignificant bit of the Earth's surface, though he sometimes wonders if it really is part of planet Earth.


Small World -

A constant and supporting element is Thalhofer's storytelling voice itself, and that says the first and most important thing about the striking simplicity of this cd-rom. This is no historical document or socio-journalistic reportage, but an unaffected personal story. world is the work of a storyteller who presents images, sounds, documents and anecdotes from his hometown to an audience of outsiders. But world is not a naive apologia for village life, for all indications are that his gaze has become that of the outsider, thanks to a new life in Berlin.

A mere forty tableaux take the user to the town square, the school, the shops, the pubs, a parking garage and a number of places in and around the village with which memories are associated. The interactivity at the user's disposal is minimal. The links are announced in a small window at the upper right, but there is little more than a vague impression of what follows. The structure of the hyperlinks ensures besides that the user will properly visit all the scenes, whichever route is chosen. The medium is really nothing but a instrument in the service of storytelling calling the least possible attention to itself.

world is a story, but one with no plot, no main characters, no movement even. Thalhofer is the guide, the narrator, and although the selected texts appear in their entirety on screen, he does not push into the foreground, as befits a real storyteller. He lets friends, barkeepers, regulars and the parking garage guard speak, and tells the history of shops, bars and the objects and people found within. Though Thalhofer makes no attempt to restage the past, everything revolves around the time he spent as a youth in Schwandorf, dreaming with his friends of the big world outside. The big world that invades when the government wants to build a nuclear plant in the early eighties and activists and police units from all over the country advance on the town. The big world that can be detected in the American, New Zealand and Australian underground rock that friends import and listen to on the viaduct over the freeway in the middle of the forest, car doors wide open, volume at 10, a crate of Naabecker beer (the most important beer in the world) between them.


Boy -

So small is the world in Schwandorf that the presence of a single artist, who enjoyed an education in the big city of Munich thirty years before, explains the availability of his cigarette brand (Gitanes) in the bars he frequents. Thus retold, world seems a simple tour of the places, faces and anecdotes of someone's dull village youth. But it's not. What makes this cd-rom special is the atmosphere it evokes, first thanks to the compelling simplicity of the interface, which induces quiet and a laconic reflectiveness, and second to the harmony of details, places and memories. It is an atmosphere that can best be called bluesy.

Thalhofer engages in no hard or cynical criticism of his youth or of life in Schwandorf, but fortunately his illusionless wonder rules out any form of idealisation. The oppressiveness created by conservative, even Nazi undercurrents in the Oberpfalz and the police academy's strongly-felt presence in the town is touched upon gracefully and accurately. The minuscule life stories of a couple of friends who have stayed in the area and of others who have courageously attempted to begin new lives in Berlin or New York bespeak a melancholy and sharp observation.

Thalhofer portrays the smallness of his hometown keenly and unsentimentally, but also with sympathy and humour, for this work is pervaded by the realisation that the big world is not a whit better, just bigger. world is not for those who seek an experimentally or intellectually challenging use of new media. Rather, it is an exceedingly successful example of subjecting the new medium elegantly and precisely to Florian Thalhofer's story, which is of a song - a sober, ironic and tender song, the Schwandorf Blues.

translation laura martz