Teaching German With Homer
How to spice up lesson plans with The Simpsons
As an educator, I always want to add an extra element to my classes, a "gotcha" moment, a nice memorable song, poem or relevant movie clip; something that gets my students’ attention and is so unforgettable, they’ll always remember the point of the lesson. I add these references to emphasize an objective, to reign in their attention right when class starts, or to finish class on a positive note, which makes them want to learn more. Adding episodes of The Simpsons is an easy way to not only grab students’ attention and focus on the lesson, but actually to add some intellectual commentary on social, historical, political and modern events from both American and German viewpoints. The Simpsons often has many different episodes in which German culture, grammar, history, politics and philosophy are embedded into the show. Mostly, the German references are a minor side note, such as a quick definition of a German word or grammatical statement, a mention of some important German philosopher or philosophy, a German character such as an exchange student or perhaps someone more important like Beethoven, or even an important historical reference. Just occasionally, however, there is an entire episode in which the main storyline follows some major German characterization. Here are a few examples of how one can incorporate The Simpsons into interdisciplinary daily lesson plans.
During the last few moments of class, emphasizing the cultural point about how much Germans eat chocolate, the 1994 episode, Lisa on Ice, can be used to illustrate this simplistic stereotype. During the show, Homer is lecturing his hockey team about not treating Lisa any different from the rest of the team just because she is a girl when he spots the German exchange student Uter changing out of his hockey uniform. "I don’t want anyone giving her a hard time just because she is different. No jokes, no taunting . . . " He is mid-sentence when spots Uter and proclaims, "Ha! Look, that kid’s got bosoms. Who’s got a wet towel?" As he chases Uter trying to snap him with a towel, Homer yells, "Come here you butterball." Uter pleads with Homer as he desperately tries to escape, "Don’t make me run, I’m full of chocolate." Of course, Homer’s hypocrisy is truly what makes this hilarious, not the stereotype of Germans, who, by the way, do consume prodigious amounts of very high quality chocolate!
Sometimes, The Simpsons actually allows one to teach a grammar component as is the 1993 Cape Feare episode where Sideshow Bob is paroled out of prison and tries, once again, to murder Bart. At Bob’s parole hearing, the prosecutor begins to grill Bob, "Well what about that tattoo on your chest? Doesn't it say ‘die Bart die’?" Bob opens his shirt and shows off the tattoo while calmly explaining, "No, that's German for ‘The Bart, The.’" As members of the audience laugh in relief, a member of the parole board says, "No one who speaks German could be an evil man. Parole granted!" Many of my students immediately protest that Bart should in fact be the masculine marker "der" not the feminine "die" as illustrated in the show. When that happens, the goal has been accomplished. After showing this clip, rarely does a student ask why certain nouns are der, die or das! Added to this is, of course, the slight toward Hitler that most students immediately understand. This in itself opens up many different routes to discussion history.
When teaching German history, for example lessons on the Berlin Wall, it is sometimes a nice icebreaker to simply show a few moments from the 2001 episode, Children of a Lesser Clod. Lisa is yelled at by her "Russian" gymnastics coach, Lugash. The Lugash character is a parody of the famous gymnastics instructor Bela Karolyi. Lugash states that he immigrated in 1983 to the United States by "cartwheeling over the Berlin Wall." Lisa’s gym teacher, Ms. Pommelhorst, however, states that he "defected into the East." A nice commentary on eastern/communist culture and geography starts conversations in classrooms that can go almost anywhere. In addition, during the 2002 episode Jaws Wired Shut, Abe Simpson rambles on about his life, "Three wars back we called Sauerkraut ‘liberty cabbage’ and we called liberty cabbage ‘super slaw’ and back then a suitcase was known as a ‘Swedish lunch box.’ Of course, nobody knew that but me. Anyway, long story short . . . is a phrase whose origins are complicated and rambling." This tidbit allows the German teacher to discuss certain World War One language and cultural issues such as Wienerschnitzel transforming into Salisbury Steak, Sauerkraut changing to liberty cabbage and Beethoven and Bach being banned from high schools. Moreover, more recent events can be discussed such as George W. Bush’s infamous demand that the word French fries on the White House menu change to "Freedom Fries." Those types of connections allow students to remember information quicker and retain it longer than traditional methods of instruction.
More history lessons can be found in the 1998 episode, Simpson Tide. Grandpa remembers, "I was the first to discover his terrible secret," referring to John F. Kennedy. JFK is seen standing proudly on the bow of his PT 109, whereby he states, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Abe yells to the crew, "He’s a Nazi! Get ‘em!" With this minor clip, one is able to reference Kennedy’s famous World War Two naval campaign as well as his speech about the Berlin Wall. Moreover, in an episode detailed more in depth below, Mayor Quimby states, "Ich bin ein Springfielder." Using either one of these snippets is an excellent way to start class and engage students with either historical or political ideas.
To discuss modern politics or society, one needs to look no father than The Simpsons’ character Rainer Wolfcastle. He is the reigning parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he talks in a thick Austrian accent. In most episodes he often discusses modern American political and social events. However, in the 1997 episode, Simsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D'oh-cious, he is shown as a young kid in Austria, mimicking the Oscar Meyer hotdog song. The show states that Wolfcastle got his start in acting with the following commercial: Sitting in his traditional German Lederhosen fishing on a dock and eating a Bratwurst, he sings, "Mein Bratwurst has a first name, it’s F - R - I - T - Z. Mein Bratwurst has a second name, it’s S - C - H - N - A - C - K - E - N - P - F - E - F - F - E - R - H - A - U - S - E - N. . . . " Although politics are not discussed in this snippet, one does have the opportunity to talk about Bratwurst, Lederhosen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and long compound words, to name just a few. Cognates or German words that are now part of the English language are easily identified by the teacher and adds to the lesson as well.
To introduce some of those philosophical German words that are in the English language as well as some philosophical thought, I very much enjoy showing the 1991 episode, When Flanders Failed. Homer is ecstatic that Flanders’ business, "The Leftorium" has almost declared bankruptcy. The family is at the dinner table when Homer triumphantly begins to berate Ned Flanders. Marge and Lisa are saddened at the news, and as Marge grumbles, Lisa complains to her father, the original is kept in dialogue form for best comedic value.
Homer: "Flanders’ store was de-serted. So what do you think of your bestest buddy now, Marge?"
Lisa: "Dad, do you know what Schadenfreude is?"
Homer: (sardonically) "No, I do not know what shawdenfrode is. Please tell me because I am dying to know."
Lisa: "It’s a German word for shameful joy, taking pleasure in the suffering of others."
Homer: "Oh, come on, Lisa. I’m just glad to see him fall flat on his butt! He’s usually all happy and comfortable, and surrounded by loved ones, and it makes me feel…what’s the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?
Lisa: "Sour grapes."
Homer:"Boy, those Germans have a word for everything."
This episode allows the German teacher to bring up not only Homer’s false pronunciation, (and Lisa’s correct pronunciation), but the entire meaning behind the word Schadenfreude. It is always a great learning moment when students come back after a few days and describe their own Schadenfreude moment!
Often, multiple angles are introduced, as one may have inferred from some of the above examples. In the case of "Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish’ Bart and his grandfather search for the hidden art treasure that Abe’s Army unit had stolen during World War Two. After fighting Monty Burns and winning back the art, Bart and Grandpa are quickly stopped by the FBI. The government agents give back the paintings to an heir of one of the original owners. Driving a Mercedes, (of course) the German receives all of the paintings, parodying the real life situation in which stolen art during World War Two is being slowly repatriated back to Germany. Here is the exchange:
FBI Agent: Baron von Wortzenberger, on behalf of the American people, I apologize for . . .
Baron:Ja, ja, ja, mach’ schnell mit der art things, huh? I must get back to Dancecentrum in Stuttgart in time to see Kraftwerk. Hey, und dummkopf! Watch out for the CD-changer in my trunk, huh? Idiot.
Not only can one discuss the current repatriations, but there are a plethora of leads one might take. Kraftwerk is a famous techno band from the 1970s and 1980s, and one could play a few songs and discuss the accompanying lyrics, which would then provide some opportunity for grammatical or cultural discussions. Von Wortzenberger’s nobility, the technology of the then high-tech CD changer in his Mercedes, the emotional wounds that are on display by the flippant attitude of von Wortzenberger, and perhaps more could be of some benefit. The entire episode, by the way, is a parody of many different World War Two films.
One entire episode that illustrates the many different angles one could take is the 1991 episode, Burns verkaufen der Kraftwerk. Lower level students may not understand that this original title is incorrect German, but that is just part of the fun. Obviously one could simply end with that grammar issue, but there is so much more to work with.
The entire episode centers around Mr. Burns’ desire to sell the power plant. Wealthy German businessmen are in town and want to buy the plant. While Homer is at Moe’s bar celebrating his recent stock winnings, a couple of German business men overhear Homer saying he works at the nuclear power plant. "Have it up, boys," Homer shouts. After a small exchange in which the Germans belittle American beer, Homer notices, "Hey, you guys aren’t from around here are you?" "Ach nein, we are from Germany, he’s from the East, I’m from the West," one German explains in a heavy accent. The east German tells Homer, "I had a big company, and he had a big company, and now we have a very big company. Eventually the west German asks Homer, "We are interested in buying the power plant. Do you think the owner will ever sell it? Homer responds, "Well, I happen to know that he won't sell it for less than $100 million!" The Germans open their briefcase and one count out loud, Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf . . . Oh, don't worry, we still enough left to buy the Cleveland Browns." When this episode aired, the Cleveland Browns were, in fact, up for sale. Notice also that in the year this episode aired, 1991, the Germans were in the midst of combining many of their companies throughout the newly unified Germany. The economic discussions could go down any path the teacher wanted. Helping students understand the year that this episode aired is paramount to understanding the content of the show helps students understand how history works. Now would be a great time to discuss the meaning behind and context of the word Zeitgeist!
Homer is concerned the Germans will fire him so he wants to learn more about Germany. He goes to his best source for information, his daughter Lisa.
Homer: "Lisa, your father needs your help. Do you know anything about Germany?"
Lisa: "Well, it's a country in Europe."
Homer: "Good, good, I'm learning."
Lisa: "They are a leading economic powerhouse."
Homer: "Because we send them money?"
Lisa: "No, because they're efficient and punctual, with a strong work ethic."
Mr. Burns is talking to reporters about how he will never sell his plant to some foreigners. "You'll see the Statue of Liberty wearing Lederhosen before you see Germans running my plant!'' A reporter asks, "Then why are you talking to them?" Mr. Burns responds, "So I can look them in the monocle and say, nein!" As he walks into The Hungry Hun, to finalize the sale, Burns talks to them in German. The entire dialogue is subtitled into English on the show.
Burns: Der Sauerbraten schmeckt köstlich.
Smithers: Oh, you never cease to amaze me, sir.
Burns: Mein Kriecher sagte mir, dass ich bin nie aufhöre, zu erstaunen.
German: Wir denken, wir haben ein sehr gutes Angebot.
Burns: Du verspielst deine Zeit!
There are plenty of mistakes and mispronunciations, but the fact that a teacher could simply introduce vocabulary here is important. There is much to work with; the name of the restaurant, polka music plays in the background, the proper use of the formal Sie with the informal du, or perhaps just simple pronunciation issues.
The Germans have, in fact, bought the plant from Mr. Burns and suddenly all German things are accepted in Springfield. The German flag flies from the exhaust stacks, a willkommen banner greets the workers and Mayor Quimby says, "Ich bin ein Springfielder."At the plant, the Germans have started to put their own spin on management. Burns’ office has become a daycare. Horst, the unassuming light-spoken German is addressing the workers when he asks who among the employees is an alcoholic. A few employees respond affirmatively and Horst tells them, "You will be given a six-week treatment at our drying-out facility in Hawaii, after which you will return at full pay." This can be used to discuss Germany’s labor movement, labor laws, and perhaps even when discussing a Kur, the famous health spas where ill Germans go to recuperate and recover from medical issues. This is also an excellent starting off point for a lecture concerning the history of the Roman settlements in Germany and how they often had their own Kur in Germany after battle. These old Roman towns are today usually the Kurorte.
One of the most beloved scenes in The Simpsons history occurs during this episode. Fans of The Simpsons rate it as their most favorite scene. As management asks Homer for a few suggestions about how to improve safety at the plant, he can only muster a pathetic desire to fix the vending machines, "because a lot of workers really like candy." The Germans are understanding, because as they admit, "we are from the land of chocolate." This leads to a wonderful dream sequence where Homer is running through a fairy tale village full of chocolate. He is able to eat raining chocolate balls and take a bite out of a chocolate light post and even a chocolate yipping dog. He then notices a sign on the candy store, "Chocolate, half price." This is a very teachable stereotypical moment which could be linked backed to Uter and the Lisa on Ice episode
One of my personal favorite lessons uses the episode Mom and Pop Art, which aired in 1999. Only a small portion of the show deals with German culture, but the episode is a fabulous gateway to a larger presentation concerning one of Berlin’s most important landmarks. Homer has become an artist, but his work is not well received as he is only recycling his old ideas. Lisa, (of course), tells him to do something outlandish, something that would get him noticed, something perhaps like what the famous Christo would do.
Lisa: "Well, Dad, if the museum didn't inspire you, maybe you should do something reallyradical like Christo."
Homer: "Is he that jerk that revealed the magicians' secrets?"
Lisa: "No, Christo is a conceptual artist who does huge outdoor projects. He once wrapped the Reichstagin plastic."
Homer: "Not the Reichstag!!!"
Lisa: "Oh, yes, and he also set up hundreds of yellow umbrellas along the California highway."
Homer: "Why did he do that?"
Lisa: "To make the world a more magical place, I guess. Although they did blow over and kill some people."
Homer: "Killer umbrellas! Of course! Exquisite."
This small but wonderful excerpt allows one to introduce art appreciation and interpretation, the history of Berlin, Christo’s art throughout the world, and the Reichstag, not only historically, but also artistically. I personally start by showing the above clip, then I show them pictures of Christo and those killer umbrellas in California, then I move on to pictures and a quick lecture of the Reichstag. I discuss the construction of the building, the burning which led to Hitler’s eventual takeover, the iconic photograph of the Russian soldiers on the Reichstag, the fact that it became a history museum after the war, and how after reunification the Reichstag was repaired and is seen today as a main symbol of Germany’s democratic strength. Finally I show a few pictures of the Reichstag all wrapped up. Although it is a good twenty minute lesson, it is one that incorporates many disciplines; art, architecture, history and German.
A final interdisciplinary lesson is developed by showing another long episode. In the 2005 episode The Heartbroke Kid, Bart eats too much junk food and becomes overweight, which in turn forces his parents to send him to a fat camp to regain his health. To pay for it, the Simpson’s house is converted into a Jugendherberge, or youth hostel. Jugendherberge are a primarily German invention from more than 100 years ago. In 1909, an elementary school teacher named Richard Schirrmann took his students on a class trip. The annual class trip also is a very German tradition, whereby the students and teachers travel to some foreign destination to celebrate their graduation. Richard and his class were caught in a strong thunderstorm and received shelter in a barn from a local farmer. While the class slept out the storm in the barn, he came to the idea of the youth hostel: a simple, cheap, safe place for young people to spend the night. Eventually he wrote an essay promoting decent accommodations for hikers, backpackers, travelers and school groups. In 1912, the first Jugendherberge opened in a beautiful castle in Altena, Germany. Today, youth hostels are a permanent feature for young people who travel all over Germany, and anyone who has backpacked through Europe has probably stayed in one.
As Marge and Homer turn their house into a youth hostel, who should spend the day but German backpackers. Typical youth hostel furniture is in the room. Clothes hang from the beds to dry, a sleeping bag is stowed on top of one of the bunk beds and a couple of teenagers sleep away the afternoon. A young man wearing a T-shirt adorned with the German flag is addressing Marge as she tries to clean up. In an excellent German accent, he grouses, "Problem number 35 with America: no universal health care. Number 36: no metric system. What is this? The time of Charlemagne? Answer me! Answer me now!"
This is not just The Simpsons’ writers complaining about social problems they themselves believe in. These are typical complaints by many Europeans. One could easily discuss European attitudes toward Americans, health care in Germany, the metric system, or the importance of Charlemagne. Moreover, both a systematic measurement system and a generic set of health rules were both instituted by Charlemagne during his reign from 735 - 814. Knowing these connections makes The Simpsons that much more entertaining and intelligent.
During dinner, Homer comes into the dining room and says, "Guten Abend my brave Bavarian overlords."As he places a plate of sausages on the table, he states, "The best Wurst in town." The Germans respond with, "Here's your tip, Baldylocks, if you want it, dance and sing." So Homer sings Nena’s famous 99 Luftballons from 1983, in the original German. Quite accurately, it must be added.
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Hielt man für Ufos aus dem All
Darum schickte ein General
As all the Germans cheer and yell, "Ooh, ja, das ist gut!" Homer continues,
'ne Fliegerstaffel hinterher
Alarm zu geben, wenn es so wär
Dabei war'n da am Horizont
Nur 99 Luftballons.
Bart eventually goes back to the elementary school and breaks the vending machines. Coins spill out which Bart takes and the family uses to pay for the fat camp. Now Homer gives the Germans, in Marge’s words, "Das Boot." Pronounced "boot" by Marge, the writers have hit another cultural icon. The1981 movie Das Boot is about the life and death situations of a German submarine crew during World War Two. Homer kicks the Germans out of his house, but not without a last minute cynical statement.
Homer: Now to take out the Eurotrash!
German backpacker: Now where else can we go to spend our parents' money and look down on the Americans and criticize them?
Second German backpacker: To Disney World!
This is what make The Simpsons so unique; the ability to add relevant historical, political and cultural references to their episodes. Not only that, but auf Deutsch! This episode alone alludes to a fairy tale; (Goldilocks), a movie; (das Boot), a popular song; (99 Luftballons), social events in Germany; (sausage, beer, youth hostels, traveling, dialectic arguments), world history; (Charlemagne), and more.
With more access available to teachers with modern technology, these snippets are quite easy to obtain. YouTube is popular for finding snapshots of episodes, while Google is an excellent source for written dialogues, pictures and some insight into the meaning behind the episodes. More importantly, one can often find sets of the episodes for sale at local book and video stores.
Students truly want to know the meaning behind these episodes and statements. No one likes to be left in the dark, and a full explanation help students "get it." Cultural awareness is extremely important for advancement not only in society but also for successful university studies as well. So much can be accomplished with one small clip of The Simpsons. German philosophy, culture and history pervade American life, and our students are grateful when we show those connections for them. Teachers must engage their students intellectually, and, if we give them the chance and present it to them in their preferred medium, they too will start to make their own connections. The Simpsons are a gold mine of German lessons, and there are many more examples not discussed here. As Lisa once said angrily to Bart, "It's amazing how I can feel sorry for you and hate you at the same time. I'm sure there's a German word for it." Although many of these characterizations are stereotypical, the writers of The Simpsons integrate relevant historical, cultural, social and political ideas into their episodes. Modern controversies, tied with historical perspectives, combined with comedic hilarity, make The Simpsons the Best. Show. Ever.