French and German remakes of the BBC's Office. 

What you're watching.
Sept. 20 2006 5:31 PM

Foreign Office

The French and Germans have remade the BBC series. Why?

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But Americans have more of a sweet tooth. Michael Scott's single status is presented with sympathy. His childhood goal, we learned in a recent episode, was to "get married and have 100 kids, so I can have 100 friends, and no one can say 'no' to being my friend." And the writers have also granted Michael a bit of ego-sparing female attention. In last season's closer, Michael accidentally ended up on a double date—that is, on a date with two women—who seemed open (if warily) to his blundering charms.

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But the heart of all but the German Office s is not the head man's love life, but the submerged passion between the engaged receptionist (Dawn/Pam/Laeti) and an appealing young drone (Tim/Jim/Paul) who doesn't have the guts to unseat her fiance. If you are fond of the British Office, you will feel warmly about Dawn and Tim, the doughy-faced, out-of-shape pair who pine for one another. In the American show, Pam and Jim are the equivalents, but, having been raised on a healthier diet than Ribena and crisps, they are far more appetizing and their love affair progresses with more conviction. In the French version, Laeti and Paul are played by gorgeous, dark-haired, full-lipped young actors who could be the incestuous brother and sister in Bertolucci's The Dreamers. But in Stromberg, erotic tension has been thrown out the door: Blond Tanja and goofy Ulf are actually dating and often duck under their desks for groping sessions. In one scene, Ulf lays his head in Tanja's lap and pulls grapes with his mouth from a cluster above his head.

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Watching all four versions back-to-back is not only a strangely unmooring experience—like seeing the film Groundhog Day over and over—it's a crash course in national identity. And if any conjecture could be made about the cultural differences that these subtly contrasting programs reveal, it might be this one: These days, Germans and Americans are doing much of their living in and around their offices, while the Brits and French continue to live outside of them. Here, in broad strokes, are the chief differences. In the British version, nobody is working, nobody has a happy relationship, everyone looks terrible, and everybody is depressed. In the French version, nobody is working but even the idiots look good, and everybody seems possessed of an intriguing private life. In the German version, actual work is visibly being done, most of the staff is coupled up, and the workers never stop eating and drinking—treating the office like a kitchen with desks. Stromberg continually calls his staff "Kinder," or "children," further blurring the line between Kinder, Computer, and Küche.

While Michael Scott also sometimes calls his American office a "family," his staff knows he's the kid brother, not the father, and that if there's to be any Kinder in their lives, they're going to have to get busy with one of their fellow prairie dogs, because really—who else are they likely to meet, given the stretching parameters of the U.S. working day? We may still talk of "working like a dog," but the Russians lately have coined the expression, "to work like an American," reflecting our 24/7 on-call mentality. These days, for Americans, "home office" is not just a place, it's a state of mind. And it's perfectly reflected by our version of this global sitcom—in which work is ostensibly cared about (though skimped on), romantic tension simmers on numerous fronts, and the whole enterprise is gently inflated by a mood of eventual, possible progress in work and love—like a bowl of dough that could have used a little more yeast but is doing its best to rise. Vive la différence.

Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based arts writer.

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