A Trip to BMW Werk Dingolfing
Paranoia und Verschwörung in Bayern
In December 2006, I visited BMW’s Dingolfing factory—where the 5, 6 and 7 Series are made, along with the Rolls–Royce Phantom—only to be told of their No Photography policy on site. I had a story to file, so I did what I could: made drawings in Crayola. All four thousand words and twenty-seven drawings are now republished here in English.
Words and Crayola: Peter Orosz
It is seven thirty A.M. in a sparsely furnished, glass-walled office on the top floor of BMW’s headquarters in Münich. The office is dominated by a great big oaken conference table. At its head sits a gentleman with his silver hair sharply parted. He is wearing a white dress shirt with BMW propeller cufflinks and a pair of Lederhosen with the BMW emblem embossed in the groin. He is dipping Weißwurst into Weißwurstsenf, chewing every bite in a measured manner. His name is Dr. Ing. Manfred von Schadenfreude, communications consultant for life. On the other end of the table squirm two of his underlings with coffee mugs in hand. The stout one is Alex. He is wearing a business suit and his hair sports unruly curls, while the thin Ralph is dressed in a striped banker’s suit and his hair is cut short. It is difficult to discern von Schadenfreude’s face in the low light.
“Grüß Gott boys, let’s hear it.”
“Grüß Gott, Herr Ingeniur!” Alex says to von Schadenfreude and he follows with a quick gulp of coffee. “We have a problem.”
“Cut to the chase, now, cut to the chase,” von Schadenfreude says, and he flicks his tongue at a spot of mustard drying on his lips.
“As you must be well aware, Herr Ingenieur, for three years we have been telling journalists visiting BMW Werk Dingolfing that the reason they cannot take photographs here is because 6.9% of our employees are Sioux and according to their belief system, photography steals one’s soul. Not two months have gone by before snickers emerged from the back rows of press conferences, then the bloggers started writing it up, and these days I cannot even begin a tour of the plant without half the busload of journalists chuckling. We have a team of Hungarians arriving today. A solution must be found.”
Alex splutters through his monologue then cuts a quick glance at Ralf.
“GOTTVERDAMMT! Is that the sole reason you have disturbed my breakfast? If this was Stalingrad, you would now have a hole in your forehead!”
Von Schadenfreude’s voice fills the room. Alex comes very close to dropping his coffee mug.
“Herr Ingenieur, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Coherently, my son!”
Silent until now, Ralf comes to his rescue:
“He is trying to say that no less has come into peril than the seriousness of our company. The strict rule of Ordnung.”
“I see! I see! And you couldn’t think of a solution?”
“None,” Alex says.
“Do not worry, my son, we will find one. Ordnung can handle even dullards like you. Would we ever have reached Stalingrad if every knucklehead had had the capacity to grind our war machine to a halt? Here! Catch!”
He slides a flat, silvery gadget across the conference table. Ralf grabs it and hands it to Alex. The device has a screen, a rubberized button, and above the screen, a model name: United Random Generator Works of Bavaria, Excuse Generator BR–2491, BMW Edition
“Herr Ingenieur, you think of everything!” Alex compliments.
“Press the button, now!”
The Excuse Generator comes to life:
“Dear visitors, welcome to BMW Werk Dingolfing! Unfortunately, the activating mechanism of our automated fire extinguishing system operates on the exact frequency of the sensor built into modern digital cameras. To avoid false alarms, please refrain from taking photographs. This is for your own safety.”
Ralf snuffs a titter.
“Thank you, Herr Ingenieur! We can handle it from here on!” Alex exclaims.
“Move it boys, move it, don’t be late from Dingolfing!”
Alex and Ralf scurry out of the office. Von Schadenfreude, his face still obscured by the low light as he continues his interrupted breakfast, mutters under his breath:
“You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Part One: Precise Hoarfrost at Münich Airport
Not thirty minutes have passed since I have arrived in Germany and the words Ordnung and Obersturmbannführer have already been uttered and neither by me. It is eight A.M., I’m heading towards the exit of Münich Airport with bags under my eyes borrowed straight from Horst Tappert.
If all goes smoothly, a bus will pick me up in a few minutes and fly me straight to BMW’s Dingolfing Works, where I will be given coffee and a look into the heart of where Five, Six and Seven Series BMW’s are born.
I step outside the airport to study a white Five Series estate.
Before I get any further than thinking white is the new cool, the fusion reactor hanging on the horizon nukes both of my retinas. Just before I run for cover, I give the car one last squint. Only to realize that for the first time in my life I find an estate appealing and, also for the first time in my life, I find one of Chris Bangle’s BMW’s pretty. All of which are disturbingly ugly cars.
The double exhaust tips emit white smoke. I lean in for a closer look. It’s very pretty, especially in this unlikely harsh morning light. As if my plane had not landed and we were still cruising at 38,000 feet in thin air.
Some complication with the bus is resolved and we set off for Dingolfing. The driver is an expressionless, mustached Bavarian who places the speedometer on the one hundred kilometers per hour tickmark with micrometer precision. Flanking the ruefully Porsche-less Autobahn are hills covered in hoarfrost which melts at the exact line the Sun traces across their flanks.
Slabs of lead hit my eyelids then.
“Ralf, this has got to be the best thing since the Tiger tank. Check this: ‘Dear visitors, welcome to BMW Werk Dingolfing! Unfortunately, the light emitted by camera flashes interferes with our plant’s silver-painted walls in a way that causes interference with our automated barcode reading system, so please refrain from taking photographs. This is for your and our customers’ protection.’”
“No more will we be laughed at! Beginning today, every group of visiting journalists will get their custom-built excuse as to why they cannot take photographs. We shall crush them!”
“Hurry, pick one! I have spotted their bus coming in.”
“How about the one with the fire extinguishers, the one we generated in von Schadenfreude’s office? That one’s still my favorite.”
“Awesome. Let’s do it. Alex, is my tie straight?”
Part Two: Buttered Pretzels, Sprawling Logistics
An immensely wide access road takes us to BMW Werk Dingolfing. The bus comes to a halt by a vast logistics hall. We disembark and cross the road to enter an office area. A long table is set with a simple, delicious breakfast. Stout Bavarian pretzels spread with thick butter, cold orange juice, hot drip coffee with a healthy load of synthetic whitener, grapes.
I take a seat to wolf it all down. The thick butter makes the flavors bloom. A few minutes (or a few hours?) later I make my way into a conference room, gripping my refilled coffee mug. German men in suits are lined up by the projector, I try to remember their names, there is an Alex, a Ralf and maybe a Wolfgang (but he could be a Rudi for all I know).
(It must be said of Alex that when we was a child, he once dropped a stone on his father’s Leica and he felt no shame.)
Horrible PowerPoint diagrams tower over the heads of the journalists slowly coming awake. They are filled to the brim with lines and numbers. Here are some of the numbers:
The PowerPoint is wrapped up and Alex mentions that photography is forbidden on the grounds of BMW Werk Dingolfing.
(It must be said of Alex that when he was in kindergarten, he used the word Canon as a curse.)
He cites some ridiculous excuse. That camera flashes interfere with the fire extinguishing system. Or something. I could certainly use a smaller camera! I am holding a pocket Nikon, unpleasantly thick. The lens protrudes. I try to bend my palm across its bulk.
We are approaching a glass corridor which arches over an empty truck lane and we pass an Interlagos Blue M6 coupé. Not an hour and a half has passed since I last felt lust for a Bangle BMW. I also feel lust and lust and more lust. The Bavarian air is undoubtedly thick with hallucinogens.
The Six Series is an unwieldy, lopsided manatee of a car. With a baffling, humplike behind. Here though, at the bottom of a glass and metal staircase in M trim, it undergoes a transformation. Into an object of desire. I yearn into the carbon fiber roof with my eyes in macro and I sniff. It is a wonderful machine. It is here to show the workers the output of the Byzantine machinery they serve as cogs. And to make them crave. We go on.
The logistics hall is abyssal. Something like four hundred by four hundred yards. Even Michael Johnson would take minutes to sprint its titanic circumference which holds forklift operators with handlebar mustaches and a sea of boxes in order. They ship BMW parts to every corner of the world here, from screws to carbon fiber hoods. Boxes line the hall with destination tags on their sides in stacks which tower fifty feet high.
“We don’t keep the parts for Rolls–Royces here yet but eventually we will,” Alex, our leader says, then he flashes a sardonic grin. The lens on his cell phone camera is covered by a red sticker. I imagine a British veteran of World War Two with shrapnel in his hip bone as he reads the news about Rover’s bankruptcy and then his old Jaguar dies. I smile too. Can a man stand in the way of Vorsprung?
(It must be said of Alex that his father took part in Germany’s invasion of France in 1940, and at the Maginot Line he shot and killed the great-great-grandson of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre with his service Mauser.)
Numbers again, lovely, creepy numbers. Two hundred and thirty forklifts. Four hundred and thirty thousand recyclable containers. We arrive at a stack of boxes held to a pallet with heavy duty plastic roping. The pallets are ready for immediate loading into cargo 747’s to reach any location on the globe in 72 hours. The clock is ticking! Three cargo transport 747’s leave Münich every single day.
An hour has passed and we have covered but half of the logistics hall. We reemerge into the razor blade Bavarian winter sun.
“HAVE YOU NO EYES? HAVE YOU NO EYES AT ALL?”
Alex stands with his eyes down in front of a flat screen in a windowless conference room of BMW Werk Dingolfing. The screen is filled with the face of Manfred von Schadenfreude, twisting with rage. He must have a light directly on his face because it is hard to make out any of his features, save for his snarling teeth and his sharp mustache. Standing behind Alex is Ralf, examining the shiny tips of his shoes with great interest.
“Herr Ingenieur, who would have thought? That a disheveled, dreamy giraffe of a kid will not be scared into submission by our directives?”
“HE WAS PHOTOGRAPHING THE ROOF OF THE M6 RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU! IN MACRO MODE! IN MACRO MODE! I SHALL STRANGLE YOUR WIFE WITH THE STRAPS OF MY LEDERHOSEN! AND YOUR KIDS! BOTH OF THEM!”
“Herr Ingenieur, I shall have it confiscated from him as they go to lunch.”
“Gottverdammt, lunch! Hurry, you will be missed. But do not for a moment think you’ve gotten away with this! Once these steppe scum have left, you come to my office.”
“Yes sir, Herr Ingenieur, sir.”
The flat screen goes dark. Alex strides out of the conference room as Ralf sinks into a chair and stays there. On his way to the dining area, Alex presses the single button on the BR-2491 Excuse Generator.
“Dear visitors, welcome to the Rolls–Royce chassis assembly plant at BMW Werk Dingolfing! Unfortunately, the spectrum emitted by the focus assist light on digital cameras induces corrosive processes in the highly expensive Rolls–Royce Phantom chassis, so please refrain from taking photographs.”
Part Three: Lunch at BMW and the Glorious Place Where Rolls–Royces Are Made
I wouldn’t call it Bavarian but it is rich and tasty.
We begin with a good bowl of soup and German breads, followed by chicken, vegetables and colorful fruit. The meal forms a charming arc. And all this at the canteen of a car factory! Alex sits at the head of the table and tells stories about the plant’s history.
(It must be said of Alex that he showed up for his school photo in the seventh grade with a black bag on his head.)
This is agricultural country. They still have workers here who go home to work their pieces of land after their morning shift at the plant. A healthy union of industry and agriculture! I think, then reach for a slice of fresh pineapple.
Magic will now follow. Synthetic magic at that, nothing but a well-crafted illusion, a copy to put the original to shame, but magic nevertheless. The first sign of said magic is that our bus brakes, we emerge, and by the door is a car-shaped object the size of a Star Destroyer, covered with a blue tarp.
“Okay, we are heading into the Rolls–Royce chassis assembly plant now. I would like to ask all of you to please refrain from taking photographs,” Alex says and follows with a lengthy excuse while I practice one-handed exposure.
(It must be said of Alex that he is BMW’s sole employee who has never been photographed for the company newsletter.)
The lens can just about poke through the gap between my index and middle fingers. We enter.
Slabs of aluminum the size of barns stand in lines. And these are but the C-pillars! We move past the slabs and I walk by an aluminum framework as big as an assembly hall only to realize I’ve just passed a Rolls. The ethereal exoskeleton of a Phantom.
The effect is shocking. It is suffocating. The surreality of the scene is enhanced by the earringed, mustached, strawberry blond mulleted workers who bustle about. One would expect a moldy, creaking British workshop with mist swirling by one’s feet, not a well-lit hall. It is more complicated than that, of course, because here, too, the cars are handmade. With Bavarian hands.
The chassis is made of huge beams of aluminum which are nevertheless tranquil and they surround clipper sails of aluminum paneling. The Phantom is not a car. It is not even a boat. It is a place. Not a capsule, a bubble enclosing the human body’s every contour down to the millimeter, but a place. It has a horizon, parallels which meet in infinity, it has non-Euclidean geometry. To compare it with the human body would be to compare a flu virus with the Horsehead Nebula. It is a cave whose ceiling cannot be lit by even the most powerful floodlight. One can be swallowed in the space behind those C-pillars to plan wars, to describe worlds, to cross time and space incomprehensible to the human eye.
The Phantom makes you irrelevant. Two workers smooth the weld line between the roof and the body behind a glass door, using reflected light to spot imperfections, then they polish it some more. This is what costs such gargantuan sums, this compulsive pursuit of perfection. That dozens of people like them pour thousands of working hours into every single car, people who need homes, food and education.
And just where is the British character of the car? Maybe they’ll install it when they ship the chassis to Britain for final assembly. And does a German car have soul? I do not have a clue! I reach down and sweep a small pile of aluminum shavings into my palms which have been drilled out of a Phantom’s side by a robotic drill. They glow! They sparkle! They cut like the razor blades of the Bavarian sun in December.
“Agnes, how do you do! I’ve heard you’ll drop in by our Münich headquarters tomorrow.”
Even as heard through a cell phone’s tinny speaker, the voice of Manfred von Schadenfreude is imposing. Agnes, head of BMW Hungary’s PR, is responsible for handling the journalists from Hungary. She is talking on her cell phone a few feet away from the journalists, who—drunk on Rolls–Royce—do not pay any attention to her conversation.
“Look, Agnes, you’re a smart woman. Obviously, you will want to visit us tomorrow as an employee, not as a guest.”
“Of course, Herr Ingenieur.”
“Oh please! Call me Manny.”
“See? Easy as pie! So go and take that lanky kid’s camera. Alex is a dullard, he does not have the sense to use our BR–2491 Excuse Generator with style, but you have no need for such primitive tools. I see you’re on good terms with the boy. You surely can figure out how to handle this.”
“Herr Ing…I mean, Manny, trust me I can handle him.”
“All right then. Soon there will be an opening in upper management here at company HQ. But I’ll tell you all about that tomorrow! Do not let me down.”
The telephone goes silent. Agnes rejoins the journalists. Standing nearby, Alex is fiddling with the button on the BR–2491 Excuse Generator.
Part Four: Fire Truck, Factory, Sunset
I am looking at the world through a palm-sized LCD. Composing a picture of a fire engine red BMW 3 Series turned into a fire engine—to the side, a bit to the bottom—, I hear a sharp call.
“Peter! Please come over here.”
It is Agnes, our guide from BMW Hungary.
“Look, please don’t take pictures. They told you. These guys are Germans, their lives are governed by Ordnung. You will not be able to convince them that all you want to do is take a photo of a fire engine because you like how it looks. Give me your camera.”
Grinding my teeth, I hand it over. I fake a sorry to Alex.
(It must be said of Alex that when he was twelve, he extracted the lens elements from his uncle’s 500 mm Minolta telephoto lens and used them as skipping stones on the pond by their house.)
Am I going to sell my photos to Konkurrent C? Or is everyone employed here a Sioux who fears for the theft of his soul by camera? What a baffling place! And just think: they fly me to a factory where I can’t take photographs and then they tell me to use the press CD which shall be provided. The Bavarian soul is tortuous like the Autobahn around Münich. We dive into the last phase of our factory visit.
The Pressing Plant
An automated machine press the size of an iceberg stands in the middle, its thundering-scraping sound fills the air, you can only scream and flail your arms in wonder. Big noisy machine! Big noisy machine! A little oil is trickling from its side, I step into it so my sneakers can leave a track of machine oil. Roofs of Five Series exit the machine press through a hole in its side.
The Welding Plant
Beautiful orange KUKA robots do pirouettes and swap heads midsequence to reach into every part of a chassis. But who makes the robots? And who makes the machine presses? Robot-making robots? And who makes them, robot-making robot-making robots? Is there a human at the end of the line? Is his name Dsuang Dsi?
BMW Seven Series fly overhead like monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico to overwinter. Every one of them will cost more money than what most humans will earn in their lifetimes. And compared to the Phantom, they are nothing but mass-produced consumables, products to be later discarded.
The Painting Plant
Twilight. Color samples on shiny discs line the walls. Robots open car doors, look inside, spray paint, close the doors to leave. A new Six Series glides by as we advance to the assembly plant.
“And now,” Alex says as he whistles the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, “the marriage. When the tops and the bottoms of the cars unite. Everything in the right order, according to our current orders.”
(It must be said of Alex that the reason why there are no photos of his parents’ wedding is that Alex stuffed a marzipan angel into the viewfinder of the photographer’s Hasselblad at the beginning of the ceremony.)
Mighty cross-drilled brake disks below a V10 engine emerge on the assembly line, followed by a propshaft, a differential and the rear suspension. A pearlescent white body of an M6 glides down from overhead, four men grab its nose, perform movements refined by thousands of repetitions, then another four men take over. At last they step back.
A new M6 is born.
A sticker on its side says US. It is going to the United States of America, where someone will pay a hundred thousand dollars to own it.
I look out the window at the parking lot. The sun is edging toward the horizon, its rays glinting off the twenty exhaust tips of five M6’s. The air is growing cold. Outside, in the light turning from yellow to blue, grand tourers with carbon fiber tops wait for their containers to deliver automotive rapture to a select few. To Japan, to America, to the Netherlands Antilles. In 72 hours, to anywhere in the world.
I walk downstairs and get on the bus. Alex waves goodbye. We head for the airport. I sit in the front and stretch my legs, looking for Lamborghinis from the direction of Italy. In the distance, the cooling tower of a power plant is giving off mounds of steam. The light is now only a narrow line between the gray sky and the gray road surface. I could be anywhere, on the East Coast, say, or in the Deep South, Tennessee, for instance, the world is four lanes of asphalt with cars on top, and if there were semitrailers as well, their lights would glow like Christmas trees.
The sun dips below the horizon. We arrive at the airport.
Running across the airport I am going to drop my Powerbook because I had no time to tuck it back into my backpack, no, my toothpaste has still not turned into a nuclear bomb and neither has my computer, I speed down the moving walkway, my speed relative to the wall is giddy and my muscles bleed lactic acid, it is dragging me down, my lungs are nitrocellulose on fire but still I run.
But what if I were to miss my flight? Perchance I could make my way back to the Dingolfing plant where somebody would say, hey, here’s a couple of M6’s bound for Hungary, wanna take them home? I would be riding shotgun, lay my head against the side and consider the recognizability of supercars at 155 MPH. We would scream eastward, cross the mountains on switchback roads, it would take only a few hours, the M6 is light and pressing the appropriate buttons endows it with 507 horsepower. Does its noise, over time, become like that of a Formula–1 race car?
I run some more, swing up from my hypoxic threshold and now the grip on the neoprene casing of my Powerbook is firmer, my steps more springy. I no longer need a moving walkway to attain great speed. I pass a well-groomed elderly gentleman who is sizing me up above his sharp mustache. Not slowing down, I steal a glance back at him, but he is now tapping away at a tiny PDA. His Lederhosen rule.
“Good evening, Mr. Orosz. Have a pleasant flight,” and I can’t feel anything now, only the purr of jet engines and the sudden acceleration on the runway.
I think of the chrome-tipped exhausts of M6’s and the arc of their Interlagos Blue doorsteps.
One is right underneath, gobbling up the Autobahn. The icy wind screams along its roofline.
∞ Published on Thursday, February 5th, 2009