Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

The Three Wise Men from the Orient

You don't have to imagine the conferences of the TV-programme directors in Mainz and elsewhere, but if you do it leaves you feeling pretty depressed. Even in February it's all about December. As every year, the festive season is looming. What, for Christ's sake are we going to put on for Christmas and the New Year this time? The same stuff, year after year? Perhaps we should give these poor gentlemen a hand so that they can spare viewers a repeat of the tedious review of the year and the hoary Christmas tale of the nutcracker.

That doesn't have to happen, of course. The demand for our advice is doubtless limited, but that doesn't bother us. Let's just think up a little show. It's 1989. A few decades either way don't matter and the Three Kings will hardly be bothered if they never appear on our screens again.


The Three Wise Men: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar are visitors from the Middle East. At first sight all viewers will identify them as ‘oil sheikhs’, for they will be wearing the haik, their typical white cloak, and the headdress that has by now become common in the streets of European cities; then sandals and, perhaps, daggers. Only at a second view will certain differences be noticed. Above all they will always be carrying presents in precious containers: gold in a bejewelled casket, frankincense and myrrh in a container like a monstrance or a bag decorated with pearls—designed after models from art, for example Dürer's Adoration of the Magi from the Uffizi. Fantasy divergences from the usual Beduin dress are a possibility, but should only be used sparingly so as not to make the Magi into figures of fun.

Following tradition, Caspar is the eldest, almost an old man; Melchior a man in the prime of life; Balthazar youthful and dark-skinned, a Moor.

The Three Wise Men hardly speak at all. They respond to everything they experience during their journey with unwavering dignity and naivety and never lose their regal composure. A minimum of gestures and expressions: a faint smile, lowered eyelids, a shrug of the shoulders or an upward movement of the head indicating negation or rejection. Perhaps one of them will clap his hands softly at one point to call a servant. When they speak they will do so slowly, majestically, in an incomprehensible language—a dialect of Arabic, perhaps Chaldaean or Aramaic.

Understanding more or less always indirectly, through the Majordomo, who whispers in their ear what they need to know and then negotiates with the German Interpreter, so that it gives the impression of talebearing. You can never tell whether this kind of communication works; perhaps everything that happens is based on a series of misunderstandings; that is even to be assumed.

The Majordomo is a small, fat but surprisingly nimble man of around 40. He might make one think of Sancho Panza. He has peasant cunning and is unscrupulous. He wants to amuse himself and is looking to secure his own advantage in everything, he has a certain insolence and bows down to no one. He treats the Three Wise Men alone with absolute respect and deep devotion. He has a very long and complicated name but magnanimously tells Europeans, ‘You can call me Malik, just Malik.’

His clothing is a motley collection of off-the-peg items, but gaudy and striking; he is wearing solid rings, a huge wristwatch and carries the latest mobile, etc. Dealing with technology is no problem for him—in contrast to the Three Wise Men who never pick up or use a machine or gadget.

The Interpreter, his German counterpart, is a shadowy, somewhat dubious figure. He tries to establish a pally relationship with Malik, which the Majordomo immediately susses out. The pair of them whisper to each other, give each other knowing looks. At the buffet the Interpreter stuffs delicacies and cigars in his pockets. He wears rimless spectacles and a rather shabby suit with a too-green tie.

The Head of Protocol, his employer, is an extremely punctilious civil-servant type, somewhat limited and apprehensive; he is constantly afraid of getting something wrong and therefore gets everything wrong. His problem is that he doesn't understand what the visit from the Orient is all about. He's not the only one but of course everything that goes wrong comes back to him. Grey tailored suit, regimental tie, so inconspicuous as to be conspicuous. Talks too much, tends to be a fusspot.

The Others are supporting roles or extras. It would be best to use amateur actors, as far as possible, and in general to see that the play be directed in a ‘documentary style’: real nurses, customs officers, officials and police.

The Mayor of Berlin only appears later on; if he is unwilling to take part himself, he will have to be replaced by a double who is as close to him as possible in stature, voice and bearing.

A Kuwait Airways plane: In the first class two of the three Wise Men are asleep. Balthazar alone is playing patience on the pull-down table

Behind him Malik, the Majordomo, is reading an Arabic newspaper. A stewardess brings a trolley with food and drink, that Malik refuses. She goes back to her colleague in the pantry.

‘They're refusing everything and demanding peppermint tea! Peppermint tea, I ask you! Has anyone here got some peppermint tea?’

The tea is made from a tube of Polo mints.

Malik whispers something in Balthazar's ear, who then looks out of the window. There's a huge star (cartoon) to be seen in the sky. Balthazar wakes the two old men, They all look out of the window, satisfied.

Things are getting hectic in the offices of the Berlin Senate. The Senate Administrator is calling the Senator in charge of domestic affairs, who is outraged that he should be woken by the ringing of the phone. The call is about an announcement that has just arrived from the overnight duty officer at the Foreign Office:

Top priority. The FO can announce the flying visit of three top-ranking guests from the Gulf States. More precise details of their diplomatic status are not yet available, enquiries are still being made of the embassy in Abu Dhabi; it is assumed they are emirs or heirs to the throne from Al Fujairah or Umm Al Quwain.

The Senate Administrator asks where the hell that is. The Head of Protocol has a servant bring an atlas. The FO emphasizes that vital economic interests of the Federal Republic are at stake. ‘Suggest full formal programme including exports, mining, chemistry, information technology, etc, after consulting the Department of Trade and Industry, Chambers of Industry and Commerce if at all possible. Grand reception in the Senate indispensable to complete supporting cultural programme.’ Unfortunately the Head of Section 3 has gone away for Christmas; nor have they been able to contact the relevant regional department. People are wondering whether the Mayor should not be woken. The visitors will probably be accompanied by a whole army of bodyguards and servants, possibly even a complete harem! Interpreters are being called but because it's the holiday period only one is available; he is being engaged immediately.

When is the plane actually due to land? And which national anthem is to be played at the airport, given that they don't know which of the Emirates their visitors actually come from. They have no recording of the anthem of the United Arab Emirates, moreover the police band couldn't play it. Do they have a national anthem at all, anyway? Eventually a secretary suggests they send the Schöneberg Boys' Choir to the airport. General sighs of relief: that's the solution.

It's snowing at Tegel Airport. The terminal is a riot of Christmas decorations. The reception committee is waiting. Security is everywhere, some in uniform with machine pistols and crackling walkie-talkies, some in trench coats. A red carpet is rolled out. The first of the paparazzi appear. The Head of Protocol is discussing with the Interpreter which form of greeting is appropriate. Handshake? Embrace and kisses on the cheeks? Or simply stand there, bow then wait and see what happens? Are bouquets usual in Arabia? If they are, who should present them? How should one behave if there are ladies in the entourage? The Interpreter, who puts on a show of being an expert, is horrified. Shake hands? For God's sake no! These people are sensitive.

Eventually the plane lands. The boys' choir is at the ready. The Three Wise Men cautiously hold out their hands to check the exotic snow, smell it and taste it. Not a word of the greeting at the gangway can be understood, The attempt at a kiss on the cheeks fails because the Head of Protocol gets the wrong person, namely Malik, who pushes to the front. The Choirmaster has his hands raised. We can see the choirboys' wide-open mouths but hear nothing until the jets have been switched off. The Choirmaster starts again:

Standing alone in the darkling night

in my yearning heart your stars shine bright;

far ahead my wishes have flown,

longing to be with you alone,

waiting for me, in my distant home.

Home! Your starry display

still shines for me

in this land far away.

Their message I gladly see

as the tender words of love.

The fair hour of morning,

the sky all ablaze

with stars in the dawning—

A promise of happier days.

(Text by Erik Knauf. Music by Werner Bochman, 1941, from the film Quax der Bruchpilot)

The style of the boys' choir is, as is usual in Advent recordings on German television, to be scrupulously respected: completely serious delivery, as if they were singing a Christmas carol. Only the intercut shots show the bustle of the airport, Malik picking his nose, the Head of Protocol nervously looking at his watch and the Three Wise Men listening politely, though astonished and baffled.

The Three Wise Men have withdrawn to their suite in their lodgings. In the sitting room Malik is seeing to their luggage. Carpets are unrolled, hookahs set up, daggers hung from the walls. The room takes on the look of a tent.

It proves impossible to shake off the German Interpreter. He's particularly interested in the caskets and vessels with the presents. May I? He sniffs the frankincense and myrrh to see whether its hashish. He tries to do a deal with Malik and rummages through his briefcase, taking out all sorts of things he offers: mobile, CD player, porn magazine. Malik shows no interest. Out of a bundle he pulls half a lamb, firewood, a poker, a copper pan, a large tin sheet and a trestle. He turns out his pockets looking for matches. The Interpreter immediately produces his lighter. Malik takes it, paying for it with a gold coin out of his pocket. Then he lights the fire. It smokes. Outside the Interpreter is whispering to the security officer. The alarm is given. Firemen and reporters with cameras appear in the corridor. The firemen, who have brought axes, break open the door. Malik is dancing round his little fire. The Three Wise Men in their beds don't notice anything. They sleep on.

They are given the tour of the city in the morning. It is snowing. The Three Wise Men are in a stretch limousine, accompanied by Malik, an official from the Protocol Section, the Interpreter and a Guide who rattles off his spiel in English. What can be heard is a recording of a normal bus journey. The translator repeats what the Guide says in Arabic. The Three Wise Men show no reaction. They simply smile and give each other meaningful looks.

All that can be seen of the Reichstag is some builder's fence with graffiti; by the Gedächtniskirche above all the homeless, souvenir shops and hot-dog stands. They are driven to one of the few remnants of the Berlin Wall; the Three Wise Men have no idea what it's all about and refuse to get out of the car. The protocol official tries to explain. Via the Interpreter Malik announces the guests' response, ‘Very excellent! Beautiful city.’

In the zoo they're taken to see the camels, that make a sad impression. On the Kurfurstendamm beggars with self-made signs; alms are immediately distributed to them. There's not much call for frankincense and myrrh. One or two trippers try to stuff the weed in their pipes. Malik distributes gold coins out of the casket, which causes a riot. The car drives on but keeps getting stuck in traffic jams and held back by snow ploughs and other vehicles clearing the streets.

As they drive on Malik discovers a few skateboarders and insists on trying out this unknown sport; he's also interested in jugglers and people selling toys such as fluorescent yoyos or Mutzi the Magic Worm. The Three Wise Men look on patiently while the man from protocol is getting nervous and urges them to continue.

The Europa Centre with the Mercedes star (large). Malik feels at home in Kreuzberg. He sniffs at a falafel stall and whispers with the Three Wise Men. The guests express the wish to go over to it in order finally to eat a familiar dish.

Last stop on the tour of the city: the mosque in Wilmersdorf. The Three Wise Men seem to have no desire to visit it. Inside it looks dull and bare. As they hurry out the see, poised outside in front of the building, the inevitable boys' choir, shivering in the snowstorm. They sing:

When there are grey skies,

I don't mind grey skies

You make them blue,

Sonny Boy.

Friends may forsake me.

Let them all forsake me,

Sonny Boy

(Sonny Boy, 1929, Text and music: Bud de Sylva, Lew Brown, Ray Andersen, Al Jonson.)

The lecture theatre in the House of World Cultures is far to big for the sparse audience. Present are officials of the Senate, Orientalists, students, the occasional veiled lady, plus a German convert in Islamic dress. On the platform are an expert on the Middle East, representatives of the Senate, a professor of Religious Studies, a politician from the Green Party.

The Senate official is so cautious in the way he talks about the Three Wise Men that no one has any idea who they actually are. Applause and catcalls in the hall. The professor has to be interrupted because he's threatening to deliver an extensive lecture on his research into the origins of Oriental religions in antiquity. The expert on the Middle East sees the origin of the region's problems in the lack of water. The Green politician brings up the justified demands of the Palestinians, supported by students in the audience holding up placards. There are shouts condemning the manipulations of the oil conglomerates.

The young blond convert in the front row grabs the microphone and recounts how he came to the West from Grimma in the GDR, saw the futility of consumerism and read the Koran. At the end he introduces himself: he is now called Abdullah Salam Al Hakim. All of this in the Saxon accent of East Germany. Protests and mocking laughter from the left-wing group. A shot of the podium: the Three Wise Men have fallen asleep.

When the drive continues they park outside one of the typical Berlin educational refineries, a huge concrete block with pipes painted red, yellow and blue on the roof. In the corridors daubed with many colours, the cries of children can already be heard. The security officers see to security. There is a different kind of chaos going on in every room: adolescents who have tied their female teacher to the map-stand; kids in the first year throwing books, satchels, and bits of school dinner at each other. Only the fourth door opened turns out to be the right one. Everything has been prepared there: an oasis of peace: a kindergarten teacher with delightfully dressed, well-mannered four- to five-year-olds, who jump to their feet as soon as the visitors enter and intone ‘Good morning, dear visitors from the Orient.’ The girls curtsey, the boys bow. A decorated Christmas tree is shown. The children dance round it and sing in falsetto tones:

We three kings of oil and tar

tried to smoke a smelly cigar.

It was loaded, it exploded,

now we're all orbiting Mars.

The teacher looks on proudly. For the first time the Three Wise Men, completely baffled, turn tail and flee.

For the following scene the best thing would be to use archive film of a genuine state reception. Even better would be to sneak the Three Wise Men, Malik, the Head of Protocol and the Inter- preter into a genuine Senate reception; then the curious stares and comments of the invited guests at the exotic strangers could be recorded on the spot. Alexander Kluge's camera work could be used as a model.

The reception is intercut with shots behind the scenes: the bodyguards refusing to hand in their weapons at the cloakroom, the kitchen, the severely disabled janitor etc. What is shown are the typical events and non-events of that kind of reception: the permanent good-humoured expression on the Mayor's face, the starlets and their managers, businessmen discussing tax-efficient operations etc. As always, the buffet is descended upon and cleared in a matter of minutes, not least buy Malik and the Interpreter. A few scraps from the speeches of welcome off-camera, none of the speakers is seen: ‘Bearing in mind the traditional friendship between our countries … ’—‘…it gives me quite particular pleasure … ’—‘…in the hope of even closer collaboration in the political, economic and cultural field…’ The Three Wise Men are offered champagne, which they refuse with thanks and a weary raising of their eyelids. A man from the Chamber of Industry and Commerce offers a present and a token of respect from the economic partners in Berlin. It is almost the height of a man and is unveiled by two women: a huge china camel from the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin (cartoon of plaster model). At first the Three Wise Men don't realise the camel is for them but graciously accept it after Malik has explained. For the first and only time they make a speech, each with one sentence in Aramaic which Malik, this time absolutely serious, translates into perfect German.

Caspar. ‘Take the treasure of wisdom by which thou wilt rule in justice over thy people; for the honour of a king is as gold.’

Melchior. ‘Take the frankincense of humility and quiet gentleness; by these wilt thou raise up those in need.’

Balthazar. ‘Take the myrrh of penitence by which thou wilt curb the enticing lures of thy greed.’

The gentlemen from the Chamber of Commerce are dismayed. The Head of Protocol tries to rescue the situation by getting the band to play Berliner Luft. Then he turns and says to Malik in confidential tones, ‘And now, my dear Herr Malik, we have something very special for Their Excellencies. For our city also has its enjoyable side. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, eh? Joie de vivre is in the air in Berlin. Therefore to complete their day our guests will see how Berlin enjoys itself.’

Tour buses outside a night club. ‘See Berlin by Night’. The security officers form a cordon. Entry of the Three Wise Men with their entourage. Catcalls and ironic cheers from the regulars. The end of one of the ordinary turns is seen, the dancers dressed in nothing but a few stars covered in glitter. Then, after the usual kind of announcement, a belly dancer appears on stage. Pseudo-oriental music. After her performance the belly dancer approaches the guests of honour. Although described as ‘Fatima with the miracle belly from the forbidden palaces of North Yemen’ she speaks pure Cologne German. Malik gets Fatima to sit at his table, but only when he's on his lap and his stage voice reverts to its normal bass does he realize that Fatima is a man. When the belly dancer shows too much interest in their caskets, the Three Wise Men get up and leave the night club.

The boys' choir has already appeared on the snowy pavement outside. Among their audience are rent boys, pimps, prostitutes and drunks. They sing:

Just look at those stars,

up there in the sky—

and now I must leave you

though I can't say why.

A day like today's

will for ever remain

locked in my heart

till we two meet again.

(German: So ein Tag, 1954. Lyrics by Walther Rothenburg. Music by Lothar Olias.)

The next morning there is a visit to the research laboratory of a pharmaceutical firm. The Three Wise Men, accompanied by the Head of Protocol and an official of the Senate economic committee. The only one who is interested in the technology is Malik who, as always, fools around, flirts with the female lab assistants and creates disorder. Conference room with tubular-steel chairs and a precisely arranged table: in front of each participant the same array of bottles, glasses, ball-points, brochures and notepads. The chairman thanks the visitors from one of the most important regions of the world economy, talks about the potential for development, petrodollars, venture capital, credit facilities and Federal guarantees. Possibly leading to a power-point presentation.

We only hear scraps of all this for it keeps being intercut with shots of men in the toilet. We hear initially cautious then less and less restrained complaints about the Three Wise Men's lack of interest: Do you know anything about this Emirate?—Do they have any oil?—They're not really listening at all!—And I specially skipped a meeting in Dortmund.—We're barking up the wrong tree here.—We're obviously talking to the wrong people. They've no idea. Most of the men speak standard German in the conference room but Berlin dialect in the toilet.

Finally they corner the Senate official: What were you thinking of? Who are these people anyway?—We were advised of their arrival by the Foreign Office.—So what? Have you checked what it's all about?—They've no intention of placing orders.—Bribes won't help either, on the contrary they were even offering me gold and some herbs.—Perhaps they're not the genuine article.— Conmen, perhaps, who're taking us for a ride. The Head of Protocol enters the toilet and now he's the scapegoat. When Malik arrives as well, he tells them that Their Excellencies have had enough of Berlin and want to leave. The Head of Protocol protests. He wants to stick to his programme: just one more visit to go.

A resolute Matron has taken up position outside the entrance to a hospital maternity ward, if possible a Catholic nun with a wimple. It's not visiting time, she says. The Head of Protocol exercises his authority. In the ward, behind glass, the Three Wise Men are shown a row of cots with newborn babies in them. They try to give the children presents but that is simply going too far for the Matron. Any objects that haven't been disinfected are out of the question, she insists. Doctor intervenes. Wouldn't the gentlemen like to take a seat in the nurses' common room, there was coffee on the go there. They are taken into a rather dreary place with waiting-room chairs, children's drawings and posters explaining everything that is forbidden there.

The boys' choir has taken up position in front of a glass door, behind which more infants can be seen. As a mother with a happy smile on her face and a child in her arms is led in, the choir starts to sing a song:

Sweetie, my little sweetie-pie

Sweetie, the apple of my eye

Sweetie, my darling sweetie,

I'm asking you, oh love me, do.

Sweetie, you look just divine,

Sweetie, oh were you mine!

Sweetie, my darling sweetie,

Be so fine, give me the sign

That you'll be mine.

(German: Püppchen, 1929. Words by Alfred Schönfeld. Music by Jean Gilbert.)

After that the camera will discover a manger in one corner of the room, set up with the stall, the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels, the ox and the ass, illuminated by a big star. It shows the adoration of the Magi. For the first time the Three Wise Men respond with lively, joyful interest. Now the truth begins to dawn on the Head of Protocol. He hurries into the corridor and takes out his mobile. ‘The Foreign Minister's office. Very, very urgent. It's about the three Arab visitors.’—‘No, please listen to me first.—I am Head of Protocol for the Senate, Minister, Lehmann's my name. No, we don't know each other, I'm new here, I used to be manager of the Cleansing Department. It's about the state visit.—We don't exactly know that ourselves, but the Foreign Office asked us for assistance, because of the holidays.—Three gentlemen from the Emirates.—We thought that too at first, but they've been behaving in a very strange way, I was getting quite desperate. Politics, no interest; industry none, nightlife, nothing. The Senate reception was a catastrophe, so we tried a maternity home. Human interest, you understand… No, please don't hang up, that wasn't a joke. The boys' choir has just sung Sweetie—What, you don't know Sweetie? Doesn't matter. Anyway, I had a look at the manger and who did I see there? Our visitors! To the life! The same build, the same clothes, the same get-up and holding the same caskets and presents.—God only knows what's in them.—So the Middle East Section has to help us out.—Exactly, Minister, it's more something for the Catholic side, I've already tried but I couldn't get through to the Archbishop. The Senate Manager begs you to help, it's a matter of urgency.—I'm also thinking of the press. The plane leaves in two hours.— Please, just a few appropriate words of farewell—No? Or your junior minister as a substitute?—Not him either?’

The Head of Protocol collapses in the corridor.

It's stopped snowing, instead it's raining heavily. The Three Wise Men are waiting in the departure lounge with their entourage.

Their plane can be seen on the runway. This time it's a private plane with Arabic markings. A pilot in a burnous salutes. The Head of Protocol, agitated, keeps consulting his watch.

A car with a blue light drives up outside. The Archbishop, in full regalia, gets out, hurries into the building and knocks on the glass wall behind which the Three Wise Men are sitting. The customs officials refuse to let the cleric pass through. Dialogue in mime with the Three Wise Men who want to hand their gifts over to the Archbishop. The priest thanks them, puts his hands either side of his mouth and shouts something incomprehensible to them and returns the blessing.

The Three Wise Men on the runway. The boys' choir is already lying in wait in front of the plane with their song:

Now the sound of war

rings out on Turkey's shore,

Europe's arming without cease.

Our hearts are gripped with fear,

our lips beg, loud and clear:

Will no one bring us peace?

Hear our plea we beg you all,

Don't turn a deaf ear to our call.

Fly away, O little dove,

beyond the dark'ning clouds above,

bring from the stars unfurled

peace unto the world.

(Flieg, du kleine Rumplertaube, 1912. Words by Alfred Schönfeld. Music by Jean Gilbert.) During the song the plane taxies and takes off.

In the cabin the Three Kings, relieved, with happy smiles on their faces, are smoking a hookah. Malik is playing with his acquisitions: Play Station, telecamera, film cassettes.

In the departure lounge the Head of Protocol wipes the sweat from his brow.

The boys' choir's third verse is relayed over the loudspeakers:

Rising in the sky,

Soaring up on high

Is a very modern dove.

As in Noah's days,

It sets our hearts ablaze

With its song of love.

Fly away, O little dove,

beyond the dark'ning clouds above,

bring from the stars unfurled

peace unto the world.

While the boys are finishing their song, the Archbishop watches the plane fly off. In the sky the star of Bethlehem is huge.

Our last sight of the Three Wise Men is of them going across the desert on foot with their entourage, getting smaller and smaller until they disappear.