The Frisbee Jesus of Görlitzer Park
Herbert Schmidt on Life as a Kreuzberg Legend
Berlin is widely regarded as a city of constant change and renewal, but not everything changes here. Some things have been the same for years, shaping the city’s identity in a profound way. One such example is Herbert Schmidt, a fixture of Kreuzberg’s Görlitzer Park; a place both ugly and wild, free-spirited and unpredictable.
To many people Herbert is a legend and a mystery, because he is known for a very specific reason: every day, no matter the temperature and whatever the weather, you will find him in the ‘kettle’ – the dip in the middle of the park – practising his passion, frisbee. The fact that the grass has ceased to grow in the spot where he usually stands is but one impact Herbert has had on this infamous place. We meet with the tanned frisbee junkie to find out what motivates him to visit this place every day. It is late afternoon, Herbert’s favourite time to come here. He is articulate and relaxed, with a clear vision and a calling that goes far beyond having fun with a disc. And as we find out, he is not alone.
It seems like there is a whole group of people that gather to play with you regularly. Yes, this is the time when they all arrive, the frisbee junkies. Over the course of the years, many friendships have evolved. There are people here I’ve known for more than ten years. John for example, I’ve known him for 12 years. But he only plays the backhand, and that can get a bit boring after some time. Sometimes I need a forehand. So I am always happy to play with new people.
When did you start throwing the frisbee? I’ve known the frisbee sport since 1967, but it didn’t really interest me back then. Most of the people who played it knew only a few throwing techniques and I found that boring. I preferred playing soccer. I only started getting interested in it when I saw two frisbee players at the Englischer Garten in Munich who had some really cool throwing techniques. This is when I decided to learn it.
So you are originally from Munich? I am from Bavaria. I lived in Munich for five years and moved to Berlin in 1985 or ‘86 when I was in my late-twenties. The company I worked for at the time had just gone bankrupt, but the director didn’t want to shut it down, so they decided to move it to Berlin. Back then companies could get financial benefits if they moved to Berlin; the economy was so bad here because of the Wall. They asked the employees if they wanted to move with the firm. This was my chance – I had always dreamed about moving here.
What was it that made you dream of moving to Berlin? For me it was about the challenge. It had this really negative reputation. People told me: ‘Oh my God, why would you want to move to Kreuzberg? You will be dead within two years. You will become a junkie or someone will kill you!’ That’s what people told me, they were really scared of this place.
Did you start playing frisbee here right after you moved? I continued what I had started in Munich. For me playing frisbee means essentially being able to execute different throwing techniques and get the frisbee from A to B as precisely as possible. So I took my knowledge from Munich to Berlin and started to develop my own throwing techniques and tried to expand the whole thing. At that time Freestyle was coming up, a style of playing frisbee where you hold the disk and do different postures. I saw reports about freestylers in the US and thought it was amazing. Freestyling looked much cooler and eventually many people started doing it. But they also stopped caring about the throwing techniques. I was determined to push this aspect more. That was something I did first of all for myself. But today many people come here to learn these techniques. I would have never thought that what I do here would get such a big response.
Tell us a little bit about these responses. There are really a lot of people who come here to learn frisbee techniques, it is crazy what I’ve experienced here. There are even two movies that feature me: Der Adel vom Görlitzer Park [The Gentry of Görlitzer Park] and Open Souls by Berlin-based director Volker Mayer-Dabsich. And there are a whole bunch of YouTube videos about me with names like Mr Frisbee or Frisbee Jesus – these are the names they’ve given me. There is always something happening here. Just two days ago two younger guys, who were totally fascinated by what we are doing here, joined us. And we also have a lot of children who play with us. It is important for me to pass my knowledge onto the youth. It is in my own interest that there are always enough people here to play with. [Laughs]
I do it to have some balance in my life. And out of passion. It is also a kind of meditation.
What’s your favourite time of day to come here? I usually arrive around half past three. In wintertime I come at half past two, because of the time shift. That has to be corrected of course. If it gets really hot here in summer I sometimes arrive only around four or half past four, once the heat is gone.
So you really are here every single day. Yes, I do it to have some balance in my life. And out of passion. It is also a kind of meditation for me. And I really enjoy the fact that it is so international here, I constantly meet new people. It might all be connected to the fact that my childhood was a total catastrophe, so the whole thing might be more than just a game and a passion. “It is a place where I find peace,” to quote an English composer whose biography I recently saw on TV. He had a horrible childhood as well and found peace in music. And actually, I see what I do here as a dance. I even listen to music on my headphones all the time when I play: jazz, funk, soul, sometimes rock and electronic music. Whatever fits to what I’m doing here.
What do you do if the weather is really bad? Do you still come here, no matter what? We also play in zero degree weather. We just can’t play in the kettle when there is snow, because it gets too icy and once the snow starts melting it turns into a lake. So we usually play a bit further down the park, where the ramp is, next to Das Edelweiss. It’s just when it’s raining like crazy that it makes no sense to play. The disc has no grip then, which is important to throw it properly.
Do you have a regular job here in Berlin? I have learned several different jobs. I was trained as an information technician in communication technologies and additionally was trained to work in micro-processing technologies. Before that I had an education as a building fitter and welder, that was my first job. But I do much more today: I make music and do graphics. I am an autodidact, and I have a big interest in physics, astronomy and biology; these are fields I am really very invested in.
From your perspective, how has Görlitzer Park changed over time? Well, there is a lot that has changed. The ‘gentry’ is no longer here, for example. The gentry? Yes, that’s what we used to call the alcoholics who were always sitting here at the edge of the kettle and making a show. A lot of people came here just for the spectacle, and there was always something going on. Generally speaking, I would say that the people who come to the park have become much younger and there are more drug dealers here than ever. At the same time, fewer residents are coming here, most of the people here are completely unknown to me.
Did you ever consider playing frisbee somewhere else? No, I always stayed here. What has happened to me in this park has been a very unique experience. I have been welcomed here in a way that is completely different to anywhere else, and I have met a lot of people here. I have been received as a friend, and that’s what makes it so special for me. I had never experienced anything like that before.
You can enjoy watching Herbert throw his frisbee every day from around 3pm in Görlitzer Park, Kreuzberg.