by Harlan Kennedy


BERLIN – The Berlin Film Festival – Filmfestspiele '78 blossomed under skies of clearer gray than usual in what is euphemistically called a "Berlin Spring." Producers and directors were marketing their product to distributors and trying to ingratiate it with critics. A festival crammed with film began and ended with American movies, opening with John Cassavetes' "Opening Night" and closing with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The festival was divided into many sections, though the main competition was held in the huge cave of the Zoo Palast Cinema, where each year the coveted Golden Bear Awards hibernate until they are presented on closing night by the jury president, who this year was American novelist Patricia Highsmith.

American women were much in evidence at the festival. Gena Rowlands won the Best Actress award for "Opening Night." Her portrayal of a Broadway actress whose career comes to a climax just when her face is furiously relaxing into middle age is a tour de force. Also keeping the Hollywood fires burning in Berlin was Marlene Dietrich, whose retrospective, played to enthusiastic audiences such timeless works as "Desire," "The Garden of Allah," and "Touch of Evil." Dietrich currently is making anew film in Berlin and Paris, "Just A Gigolo," directed by David Hemmings and costarring David Bowie.

Presiding over the climax of the festival was Mae West in "Sextette." By the grace of the camera and her makeup man, Mae West still manages to look a sexy 70. But her  costar, Dom DeLuise, wearing only a gray suit and talent, stole the picture with his Fred Astaire number. The two have some camp moments, making the film worth the price of a ticket.

Teutonic solemnity was kept at bay in other corners of the festival. The Young Film-Makers Forum, normally a busy hive of experimentalism and political earnestness, was showcasing such decadent masterworks as the American "Lulu," a free adaptation by Ronald Chase of Franz Wedekind's play; and Jean Eustache's "A Dirty Story."

Eustache's "The Mother and the Whore" played in the U.S. some years ago, and the new film is a similar mixture of the introspective and the outrageous. A public-toilet voyeur recounts his experiences to a group of enthralled women – not once but twice. The identical recital is repeated by two different actors to two different groups of women.

Walerian Borowczyck's "Immoral Nuns" is another erotic extravaganza from the Polish director who made "Immoral Tales." The setting is a convent in Italy, and the characters; the color, and the camerawork unite in a dizzy and intoxicating dance of religious subversion.

The low point of the festival was the Main Competition, where one eagerly awaited film after another bit the dust. The festival jury, as if embarrassed at having to award any prizes at all, split the Golden Bear between the two Spanish films. Jose Sanchez's "The Trouts" was a threadbare farce about a group of Spanish gourmets gorging themselves into a decline in a swank restaurant. Emilio Lazaro's "The Words of Max" was the gloomy portrait of a middle-aged man fondly recalling his youth.

No better as movies but far more interesting as documents were the German films ''Moritz Lieber Moritz" and "Deutschland Im Herbst." The first tells the story of a boy who rebels against his Middle-class background – some of his acts are real, some imagined. His real deeds include bashing a cat to death. Sewing wasps inside his schoolteacher's stomach is a grotesque fantasy.

The spirit of anarchy was also alive and well in "Deutschland Im Herbst," a multi-episode film directed by nine leading German filmmakers. It attempts to convey the social and political mood of the country in the late '70s. Recent political causes celebre are aired and commented on – the kidnapping and murder of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the raid at Mogadishu, the suicide of Andreas Baader.

The movie is a defense of terrorism thinly disguised as a feature film. The best episode is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's autobiographical vignette about his relationship with his male lover. Private and public themes are united in a powerful account of how political ideals, like charity, often begin at home – and not necessarily in a happy one.

There was a bitter treat from Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. "The Serpent's Egg" stars former Kung Fu king David Carradine as a wandering Jew in the Germany of 1923. Bergman's favorite actress, Liv Ullman, takes the female lead and between them the two players evoke a harrowing world of poverty, fear, and encroaching tyranny.

Shown out of competition was "The Last Wave," by Peter Weir. The film's Australian aborigines, with their concept of a "dual life," captured the interest of filmgoers bored by Zen and weary of astrology. For them the sleeping dreamlife contains events that are valid and real. Weir's seductively terrifying feature explores this theme in a story about a Sydney attorney (Richard Chamberlain) who begins to experience the dream state.

From Australia's "Last Wave" to Germany's New Wave, the country's current movie renaissance, dubbed "Die Neue Welle,"is the most exciting flowering of young talent. Already its leading directors are taking giant strides into internationalism. Fassbinder's new film "Despair", for example, stars Dirk Bogarde and is written by Tom Stoppard from a story by Vladimir Nabokov.

Fassbinder's leading rival in German cinema is Werner Herzog, and he, too, is working outside his native country. His next two projects are a remake of the vampire movie "Nosferatu" (shooting in the Netherlands and Eastern Europe) and a visit to South America to make "Fitzcarraldo," an action story set in Brazil at the turn of the century. His last film was the wistful, Wisconsin-set "Stroszek."

The third of Germany's big directors, Wim Wenders, is the most American of all in style and taste. His last film "The American Friend," starred Dennis Hopper and was based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. His next is a film biography of Dashiell Hammett, the American writer portrayed in "Julia," and Wenders is going to Hollywood to make it.

The vitality and popularity of American cinema has clearly been a big factor in forming the taste of the new German directors. The biggest box office hit in Germany last year was Sam Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron," and a recent survey shows that 40 per cent of the public goes to see American films.

German cinema is buttressed against any potential commercial collapse by the state and the television industry, which provide as much as 80 per cent of a film's budget. The increasing stature of the Berlin Festival also bolsters cinema here.

The director of the festival, Wolf Donner, blitzed his way through opposition this year and succeeded in changing the festival dates from July to March, making it the first important festival of the year.






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