AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN 1979 – THE 29TH BERLINALE FILMFESTSPIELE
THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING: THE RUSSIANS ARE GOING!
by Harlan Kennedy
The 1979 Berlin International Film Festival was only two days old when, in one of the strangest displays of collective. self-deprivation ever seen at a film festival, the delegates from six Communist countries walked out, taking the films with them. The departing countries – the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Cuba – not only took two members of the festival jury (Czech director Vera Chytilova and Hungarian director Pal Gabor) but also four features entered in the main competition.
The loss was theirs as much as the festival's: partly because Berlin '79 proved to be one of the strongest in the festival's recent history, partly because the reason for their departure – a showing of The Deer Hunter – might more profitably have been aired and debated within the festival than consigned to an indignant letter aimed at festival director Wolf Donner.
With the six-country departure, a rearranged festival was suddenly possible, and a new timetable was posted with miraculous efficiency the next morning. To eyes that had not yet fully devoured the complexities of the original schedule, the new one looked hardly less Byzantine.
The main competition in the cavernous Zoo-Palast still boasted a rich and heavy program, with films by Truffaut, Fassbinder, Herzog, Tanner, and others. The International Forum of Young Cinema, the competition's youth-oriented counterevent, promoted itself busily at the spacious Gloria-Palast. There was an information show at two smaller cinemas and an anthology of new German films at a third, plus the free-for-all of the festival market and the retrospective, this year paying homage to Valentino and to Nazi-era musicals.
Of the young German directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the most prominent, with two new movies. One, Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun), opened the competition, while the other, In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year With Thirteen Moons), was showcased both in the German Cinema '79 and in the International Forum of Young Cinema.
In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden has the rawness, if not the simplicity, typical of Fassbinder, and its color photography is like a spectrum of hell. Vivid reds and oranges and purples and yellows jostle together in this story of Elvira, a Frankfurt transsexual living a life of elaborate remorse and agonized recall as she looks back on the events that shaped her history.
Elvira is played by Volker Spengler, who played the red-bearded artist in Despair and who is here called upon to sport a series of outré female costumes. If the film is less labyrinthine in plot than Die Ehe der Maria Braun, its feelings seem much closer to the nerve of reality. And its photography is a stunning anthology of frozen tableaux, swirling tracking shots, and jigsaw composition shots deploying windows and doorways.
Maria Braun, by contrast, is a sprawling, television age soap opera about a young bride whose husband goes off to World War II the day after their wedding and is soon missing, presumed dead. The heroine, played by Hanna Schygulla (who won the best actress prize), runs a Fassbinder-like gamut of low-life opportunism until startled one day – in flagrante delicto with a black lover – by her husband's reappearance. The story then goes from eccentricity to eccentricity; the characters are destined to live apart from each other until years later when each has made his fortune.
Does all end happily? Not at all. Fassbinder suggests that in the methods they have used to gain the whole world, the characters have lost their souls several times over. And so, to finally rob them of their ill-deserved happiness, he contrives, godlike, a nasty accident with a gas stove.
Maria Braun is an odd, rambling movie filmed in pale, bloodless color. It is only the second film that Fassbinder himself has not written – the screenplay was by Peter Märthesheimer and Pia Fröhlich – and like the first, Despair, it lacks the forthright rawness and simplicity of his best work.
The same can be said – within that filmmaker's oeuvre – of Werner Herzogs Nosferatu. This is perhaps the most circumspect, least red-blooded Dracula movie ever made. Herzogs visionary madness needs room to whirl and gesticulate, but here he has straitjacketed himself in his respect for Murnau's 1922 vampire classic. The film is like a silent movie with the titles missing. Individual scenes are full of magic, but there is nothing to propel the story forward.
Herzog scatters the film early on with promising thematic motifs and images, especially when Bruno Ganz's Transylvania-bound hero approaches the Land of Silence and Darkness in which Nosferatu lives, and where the still canals of the Nordic town he has left are exchanged for rushing rivers and sounding cataracts. But once the action returns to "Wismar" on the Baltic, the languid, azure-hued beauty of the film's surface and a lack of aim or urgency in the editing rob the story of surprise and momentum.
Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu looks magnificent – bald, bony head, bat-wing ears, rat teeth. And he speaks with a fetching, Peter Lorre-like purr. But until Isabelle Adjani's climactic death, there is little bloodletting. What the film surely needed was at least one moment of terror early on, in which the vampire's awesome powers are seen in action rather than taken on trust.
The sleeper among the German films at Berlin was Edgar Reitz's Der Schneider von Ulm (The Tailor From Ulm). Set at the end of the eighteenth century, the film re-creates the true story of a German tailor with an extramural passion for flying. Building himself primitive wings, he would go up into the hills surrounding Ulm and leap off optimistically, either to glide gracefully into the valley or to crash a few feet from takeoff point.
Reitz is concerned not only with painting a tragicomic portrait of this flying tailor (beautifully played by Tilo Prückner) but also with showing how his special scientific skills and joy in invention were competed for by rival factions of the time, for political and military ends. Both as a picture of the tailor and as a parable of exploitation, the film is a gem.
Elsewhere the new German films were a heady mishmash of the good and the bad, the conventional and the experimental. A special retrospective was devoted to Hans W. Geissendörfer, a prolix young German director with a close-framed style somewhat indebted to television naturalism. His new movie, Die Gläserne Zelle (The Glass Cell), a tense, intricate murder thriller based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film.
Other new German movies to take the eye were Peter Lilienthal's David, which won the Golden Bear for its scrupulous, if rather lackluster, chronicle of a Jewish family during World War II; Klaus Emmerich's Die erste Polka (The First Polka), the story of a Polish community on the eve of the Nazi invasion; and Geheime Reichssache, an erratic but fascinating paste-and-scissors documentary built around "lost" footage of the trial of a group of anti-Hitler conspirators. Meanwhile, Bruno Ganz reared his head again in two beguiling new films: as a paranoid, master chess player in Wolfgang Petersen's Schwarz and Weiss wie Tage and Nächte (Black and White Like Day and Night) and as a victim of police violence in Reinhard Hauff s Messer im Kopf (A Knife in the Head).
Two motifs prominent in the festival – World War II and adolescence – came together in the Silver Bear winner, from Egypt, Youssef Chahine's Askndrie...lie? (Alexandria... Why?) and in Jeanne Moreau's second film as director, L'Adolescente.
Chahine's story of an Egyptian boy growing up during the last years of the war and nursing his aspirations to become an actor has a sort of whirlwind cheerfulness going for it but not much else. Moreau's film is longer on coherence, shorter on vitality. The story, sometimes winning, sometimes winsome, is of a girl discovering puberty in the French countryside during the occupation. Laetitia Chauveau is the girl, and Simone Signoret is her omnipresent grandmother.
Salvatore Samperi's Ernesto is a more compelling story of adolescence: Italianate and slightly nonsensical in its chronicle of a poor little rich boy who discovers sexual love; first with a hulking and handsome dockworker (Michele Placido, who won the festival's best actor prize), then with a pair of identical twins, one of each sex. All human life is here, as they say, and a good deal more that exists only in the mind of writer-director Samperi. But the film has a warm period glow (circa 1911) and an impressive fastidiousness of detail.
On the subject of things Italian, can one ever have too much of Federico Fellini's special brand of excess? The maestro, after one of his customary long silences, has come out with all cameras firing. Fortunately for his rivals, his new film, Provo d'orchestra (Orchestra Rehearsal), was shown outside the competition.
Fellini had the majestically simple idea of using a rehearsing orchestra as a symbol of social order and hierarchy. And of their fragility. No sooner does discipline break down in the orchestra – when its members stage a sudden, headstrong rebellion against their autocratic conductor – than Heaven itself seems to thunder in anger by pulling down the walls of the ancient Italian church in which they are rehearsing. Order is restored amid the dust and debris, but is it the same as before? The conductor seems to have gradually changed his brand of Italian autocracy for a more sinister Teutonic version, and as the screen darkens at the end of the film, a führerlike voice starts to bark forth in fluent German.
The natural heir to anarchy, the movie suggests, is despotism. Fellini's film describes the same teasing trajectory as many of those trompe l'oeil episodes from Roma: What begins as an apparently documentary slice of Roman life imperceptibly changes course and metamorphoses into a full-blown surrealist allegory. Provo d'orchestra plays with the audience's uncertainty and adds the Chinese-box, film-within-a-film complexity of a television crew filming the orchestra as well. Only gradually, like a slow-motion jack-in-the-box, does Fellini reveal the dramatic trick he is playing on us. The film's throwaway humor and eye-blink editing are a marvel, and those for whom seventy-five minutes of Fellini only serve to whet the appetite will be pleased to know that more is on the way: He is already at work on another feature film, La citta delle donne.
Most of the remaining films of the festival were dwarfed by Fellini's film. L'Amour en fuite (Love on the Run) is François Truffaut's farewell to Antoine Doinel: a resistibly sugary confection impaled with bits of Doinel films and special appearances by Doinel heroines (Marie-France Pisier, Claude Jade, Dani). Peter Brook's Meetings With Remarkable Men, based on the life and work of the philosopher Gurdjieff, is a search for Eternal Truth in roughest Afghanistan. It's rather like an up-market version of The Silent Flute, with handsomely mythic land- scapes ringing to the sound of cut-rate philosophical bromides. The third in a trilogy of distinguished disasters is Paul Schrader's Hardcore. Schrader's tendency to empurpled moviemaking – intermittently presaged in Taxi Driver and Blue Collar – is fully realized in this demented tale of a Bible-clutching puritan.
There was consolation in two late contenders in the main competition, each of which deserved a prize but didn't get one. One was Alain Tanner's Messidor, in which the Swiss director of La Salamandre and Jonah takes his camera into lush Alpine locations to film the story of two teenage hitchhikers (both girls) running from the law after one of them has bashed in the head of a would-be rapist. Women's Lib themes – female self-sufficiency and solidarity – are seamlessly woven into the fabric of a racy, suspenseful, often funny, and beautifully photographed adventure story.
Stanley Donen's pastiche two-hander Movie Movie proved to be a popular tribute to the golden age of Hollywood. Though the film does not exactly set one's IQ racing, it is made with a sumptuous escapist assurance all too rare in present-day Hollywood.
This has been the last and best year of Wolf Donner's three-year term as Berlin's festival director. Next year the director's post will be handed over, in partnership, to Moritz de Hadeln (formerly of the Locarno and Nyon festivals) and Ulrich Gregor (currently director of Berlin's International Forum of Young Cinema). De Hadeln will take charge of the main competition; Gregor will continue to preside at the forum.
Meanwhile, Donner's achievements have been, by changing the festival's dates from June to February, to take it out from under the shadow of Cannes and make it the first major festival of the year, to inaugurate the annual and invaluable anthology of new German films, and finally to create a filmgoing climate in which the competition and the forum no longer glower at each other from their entrenched ideological barricades, but freely exchange audiences, filmmakers, and ideas.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY 1979 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.