by Harlan Kennedy


Dateline: Berlin. Evening, no gloves, the town is Arctic, stores are closed, my hands are ice. I take this personally. Es­pying a street vendor on the Kurfursten­damm, his tray chock-full of home-made hand puppets, I begin bar­gaining hard, haggling even, until ulti­mately Deutschmarks pass hands and I walk away wearing a "Snowy-Bear" puppet on each hand. Festival attire complete, I soon discover it's possible to meet some quite startling Berliners while wearing puppets for gloves.

None more startling, though, than Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who this year sported chrome-link chains across an ever-increasing circumference. The Teuton wunderkind – well, at 35, not quite a kind but still a wunder – clump-clumped into his press conference, char­ismatic and bellicose. His film Die Sehnsucht Der Veronika Voss had just un­reeled to noisy boos and claps and was to go on to win the Berlin Golden Bear. Herr F. was vigorously giving question­ing newshounds the impersonation they wanted: an enfant terrible at bay.

Veronika Voss is not, heaven knows, Fassbinder's best. But in a merciless Berlin competition this year, which chomped away at the audience's for­bearance with mediocrity, it at least reared up to be noticed. R. W F. must have eaten toasted cheese after a late-night TV screening of The Snake Pit to have gestated this weirdo tale of a faded movie diva who is struggling with the twin horrors of drug addiction and dwin­dling celebrity. Rosel Zech plays Veronika, whose story is based on that of a real-life Ufa star. Peter Martesheimer and Pea Frohlich, Maria Braun's co-scripters, wrote the screenplay. And Fassbinder shoots it all in high-explosive monochrome like one of those Holly­wood films blanc set in mental asylums, where the walls are all in a holocaust white that makes you reach for you sun­glasses.

There may be an allegory in Veronika Voss – a dying Germany doting on her former glories? Guilt and sickness guised by the mask of glamour? Then again, there may not. But though the thesis is opaque and the performances oddly dour for a Fassbinder movie (es­pecially Hilmar Thate as the holy-fool sports journalist turned investigator with his Parsifal-like "Ich weiss nicht"s), it's still fun to sit tight and snap out a chame­leon tongue whenever the chewy bits come along. A stunning rain-slashed for­est at night lending expressionist weltschmerz to raincoated Veronika's own tears; some juicily exotic chiaroscuro; and odd moments when white-faced Austrian star Rosel Zech, looking like Delphine Seyrig after a vampire at­tack, looks set to be a hypnotic Fassbin­der follow-up to Hanna Schygulla.

With a Curtís Bernhardt retrospective in full swing at the Astor – reports ran that Fassbinder solicited it as the condi­tion for fest-premiering his own film – and with noir-ish bows to vintage Hollywood in movies like Christ Petit's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Amos Poe's Subway Riders, 1982 in Berlin was the year of melodrama redivivus.

Bernhardt's work began with flair in Germany, then fell away in Hollywood. But if there's not much Sirk-scavation of style for cine-archaeologists in films like Million Dollar Baby, Sirocco, or A Stolen Life, Bernhardt was undoubtedly a great Pygmalion to his female stars. Davis, Stanwyck, Crawford – marmoreal god­desses all – stalk with tremendous power through silly plots, much like Veronika Voss striding the debris in Rainer Werner's own drôle de melo­drame.

The best modern make-over of film noir and heyday Hollywoodism was Brit­ain's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Director and ex-film critic Chris Petit has dunked a P. D. James murder novel in sumptuous, prickly gloom. It's like a Penseroso English flip-side to Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat. Throttled emo­tions. Taut tense dabs at transvestism and role-swapping: the murder victim is the "gay" son of a rich property devel­oper; the private eye is a lady in a man's job. Thrilling camerawork by Martin Schäfer (ex-lens-wielder for Wim Wen­ders) gives exteriors the hothouse flush of studio sets and interiors the eerie ge­ometry of a Feininger painting.

Film noir nightmare and Berlin, of course, are natural bedfellows. Schisms past and present spook the city, ghosts of political horrors rattle their chains, and the old German kinship with Art of Cru­elty – the hellish side of the visionary skills of Werner Herzog, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, et al. – pops up from any trapdoor left unbolted.

As if to underline the point, one of the mightiest spectacles at Berlin was a new staging of Lulu at the Opera. And Götz Friedrich's production is the kind of to­tal theater that shades into total cinema. Berg's dodecatonic menagerie of human cries and lusts and greeds is not so much noir as pitch-black, slashed by lightning and howls of thunder. It's the full cry of German schadenfreude, from whose fount Teutonic helmers sip their more measured poetic angsts.

Friedrich staged it all as a human zoo in motion. The cast is sardine-packed in a cage for the Prologue; American so­prano Karan Armstrong uncoils from a snake-skin as Lulu; a dinosaur skeleton towers over the whole production. And you come away wondering what growl­ing, primal carnivore will next jump out at you from the German jungle of ata­vism? Try these fine monsters!

Fucking City. All right, so the lot of us turned up wrapped in raincoats and car­rying newspapers for this film about four Berliners – two guys, two girls – and the fun they have making home porno movies. But if we came to drool we stayed to applaud. There are no hard­core gymnastics in Lothar Lambert's film; and if there were you couldn't see them too well through the smear and sizzle of black-and-white 16mm. Just a raunchy-spoken comedy full of bull's-­eye truths about the power of lust and the collisions it causes between dream and reality, supply and demand, sense and sensuality. In sex you can't make an omelette without breaking egos, and Fucking City says it in twelve tones of bitter-funny comedy. It's like Lulu under laughing gas.

Die Beruhrte (No Mercy No Future). Christ-like progress through the stations of sacrificial sex by a schizophrenic girl. Set in Berlin and based on the real-life diaries of "Rita G.," who co-wrote the screenplay, Die Beruhrte is the tale of a "divided" woman in a divided city. Rita G. gives herself to a series of men – society's castaways, the old, the de­formed, all believing they are incarnations of Christ – in a grisly round-the-clock martyrdom that's like Christianity seen through the wrong end (or maybe the right end) of a proctoscope. Fierce, searing, visionary: the test of an "eternal" creed on a particular need and emotional anguish.

Director Helma Sanders-Brahms spoke briefly about her film: "I wanted Rita G.'s story to parallel the process of filmmaking. She offers herself and her love to a series of different men. And in the same way the filmmaker with each film gives herself up to something new, 'risks' herself in encounters with some­thing outside society's norm."

There is a harrowing scene of bloody and prolonged lovemaking between Rita G., not yet recovered from an abor­tion, and a black gastarbeiter she picks up and brings to a hotel room. "I knew that this scene, in normal film terms, goes on `too long,' " says Sanders-Brahms. "But I did it deliberately. I wanted the audiences to become caught up in the spiral of suffering, that Rita G. is in. In real life, that lovemaking actu­ally lasted three hours. In my film, it's just three minutes. But the shock value, the relentlessness make it seem more."

Bolder than the film's individual scenes or details is the way Sanders-Brahms has defined a whole society – its bigotries, its neuroses, its authorita­rianism, its passion for superficial pro­priety – in the story of one tragic casualty. That there is a potent political subtext in the film, Sanders-Brahms leaves us no doubt. "The nightgown Rita G. wears and the knife she uses to cut her wrists belonged to Ulrike Meinhof."

Other new German films, steeped in reeky exotics, were a cassoulet of good and bad. Ulrike Ottinger's Freak Or­lando pushes Virginia Woolf's sex-swap­ping hero(ine) none-too-willingly through a fantasyland of German his­tory. Wacky Barnum-and-Bailey images; steadfast elusiveness of purpose. In Unsere Leichen Leben Nochfive Berlin women in search of Life, or Death, or something in between – Rosa Von Praunheim (Herr) takes another swallow-dip into lunatic-fringe Bohemian­ism. He picks up a fishy morsel or two and creates some splashy concatenations of Rousseau primitivism and slinky travestie.

Best of all was Werner Schroeter's Liebeskonzil which, though ball-and-chained to proscenium formalism in its filming of a banned play by Oscar Panizza (the Bavarian Rabelais?), has Schroeter's deadpan extravagance and chalky, outré makeup out of the Chez Lazarus drag club.

So there were films dancing about and keeping their feet warm in Berlin, though most of these – and all the five films above – were out of competition. The main competition iced the eyeballs with its yearly imitation of a polar zone where few but the brave or insane dare venture – and even those not without several layers of fur, snow-shoes, and a bottle of St. Bernard brandy.

How else could the ill-accoutred sur­vive such as Sweden's The Frank Murder, in which Gucci-clad angels help a village idiot to fight the local landowner; A Ger­man Revolution, wherein director Helmut Herbst tries, and gaspingly fails, to give Georg Büchner the kiss of biopic life; and Zoltan Fabri's catatonic Requiem, to which the only proper re­sponse would be the Hungarian for "Zzzz…"?

What is it that sits like an incubus on the Berlin competition year after year, draining its soul and hindering respira­tion? Is it truly the retro-extended shadow of Cannes, clawing like a movie-fest Mafia for early option on all the top films? In the mid-Seventies and after, a dull Berlin competition was at least off­set by the latest from the New German Cinema: Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Alexander Kluge, and Syberberg kept billowing forth genie-like at the rub of a projector-lamp. But their reinforce­ments today are weak and slow-footed.

Nonetheless, Germany has too strong a cinematic heirloom not to warrant a yearly film festival. And that Berlin itself has the flair for the big-event screening was shown by this year's unfurling of Walter Ruttmann's 1927 silent classic Berlin: Symphony of a City, with live ac­companiment by two pianos and as­sorted percussion.

Not quite your Napoleon perhaps, with Carmine Coppola, color tints, and orchestral tuxedos stretching beyond the earth's curvature. But it was another chance for silent cinema to show that it could still crow fortissimo, and for Rutt­mann's day-in-the-life-of-a-city to prove itself a marvelous whirl of movie invention. The humming flux of hu­manity, the wax and wane of a working day, the Léger-like beauty and bustle of factory machinery, the street-life asides as witty as Chaplin.

If Ruttmann's nonfiction classic was the best revival at Berlin, the best new documentary was La Guerre d'un seul homme by Argentinian-born, Paris-based Edgardo Cozarinsky. Cozarinsky's film also bows to Germany's past, though a more inglorious and bleeding chunk of it. Pasting-and-patterning together archive footage and newsreels from the Nazi occupation of Paris, the film has the purr-purr rat-a-tat of a perfectly tooled machine.

On the screen: parading Paris manne­quins, French soldiers trooping off to Germany's Eastern Front, Adolf Hitler paying a call. On the soundtrack: speeches, jolly newsreel commentary and the overvoiced diaries of Ernst Junger, a senior German officer whose pensées purl out with a degagé precision peculiarly at one remove from the grisli­ness of the times. "A last haircut, a fare­well look at Sacré Coeur" are his adieu to Paris when the Nazis are booted out. And elsewhere he samples executions with the same fastidious connoisseur­ship as "lunch with Arletty" or cocktails with Cocteau.

Cozarinsky's film, shown out of com­petition, delineates not so much the ba­nality of evil as the what-the-hell-life-goes-on accommodations people make to it. Look happy or look down a rifle barrel. Lulu – the survivor, the tou­jours gai – would have recognized the smiling jungle, the entente of life-or-death hypocrisy.

Lastly, a brace of films – one short, one long. Hans Sachs and Hedda Rinne­berg's Camilla Horn Watching Herself Play Gretchen in Murnau's Silent Movie Faust! Magic. Fraulein Horn, aged 75 and looking not a day over glamorous 60, played Gretchen in Faust back in 1926. In this fifteen-minute film, Age and Youth gaze eyeball to eyeball. We watch her watching her own cygnet-song as an Ufa ingénue talking to and through a screening of Murnau's silent master­piece: recalling, explaining, reminiscing with memory-minted vocal footnotes. Just before a lunchbreak half a century or so ago, Murnau, she tells us, gave her his only direction: "Be Gretchen, day and night, be Gretchen" – then he locked her in a cage. "But Emil Jannings secretly brought me some grapes," she whispers.

On screen she continues watching Gretchen, now fighting her way through a blizzard. "The sound-stage was white with a fake snow... they started the wind machines and little sticky pieces of snow blew into my eyes, my nose, my mouth ... but with Murnau you couldn't stop... and it was cold to show my breath." Reels continue to unspool, the screen is lit showing Gretchen being car­ried to a stake, then tied, and Camilla Horn says, "And now it will be fin­ished." I hope it won't. Cinemas all over the world, book it now as a supporting program. You have nothing to lose but your Trout Fishing in Quebec.

And the feature film from Poland, Woiciech Marczewski's Dreszcze (Shivers). This bildungsroman of a boy's brainwashing days in a Fifties Stalinist training school is like Angi Vera with the shower cap off. Prickly, tingling, relent­less, direct, it shows us an orphaned mind being seductively bombarded with new dogmas. Its characters are thumbnail-sketched with pinpoint pre­cision; the satire is fresh, never facile. And thirty years after the time of the film's story, Eastern Europe still needs the message. Yesterday Stalin, today Brezhnev. The circle continues.

No sooner had the festival closed its gates and festivalgoers vamoosed than news whispered through the jungle of the German night that Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo was to get a quiet and tiny screening at a preview theater.

It was. I went. Herzogs Amazonian epic, which has had the gestation period and labor pains of two elephants and was swathed in myth long before anyone had seen it, tumbled forth from the projector beam and hit the light of a Berlin screen.

First impressions herewith. The print was ungraded and some postsynching was shaky. But Cannes Film Festival audiences are in for a celestial treat when Herzogs opus opens there in May.

"Klaus Kinski Rules" must be scrawled on countless jungle trees down South America way; for ex-Aguirre Klaus is at it again, this time trading Spanish armor for the tropic-stained white suit of the title's opera-crazy German-Irish rubber baron and ice-maker.

His golden hair is all akimbo like war­ring wheatfields, his mouth is gashed in an imperious sneer, as he paddles and steams up the Amazon bringing Verdi and Bellini to the wilderness. He plays Caruso on wind-up 78's and makes con­tact with the Indians more profound than language can. His transport is joy, his destination is communion.

Kinski-Fitzcarraldo buys, repairs, and hauls up river – and over mountain – a steamer, the Molly Aida, which becomes his very own floating La Scala: with or­chestra and singers and a production of I Puritani played to the river and the pass­ing jungle.

Herzogs genius lies as ever in using wild incongruity as a way into Panthe­ism. Extreme opposites are yoked and the shock of the surreal startles you into a Paradise of possibility.

Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt together at the mid-jungle Manaos opera-house? Herzog provides them in his opening scenes; with the Divine Sarah wildly and wordlessly emoting while the King of the High C's holds high the suicide dagger at the climax of Ernani. (To pile on colliding anomalies, Sarah in the film is played by a man, and the ultra-styl­ized staging is by Werner Schroeter, Herzogs compatriot.)

Everywhere in the film irreconcil­ables are reconciled. There's a stunning scene later in the movie in which the Molly Aida, purling Caruso across the ether, is overtaken by a gliding swarm of native canoes backed by a crescendo of toppling trees. The Indians pull along­side and gently, tickle the side of the boat with their fingers before quietly scrambling up, drawn to the white man in the white suit on the white boat. Kinski holds out a nervously firm hand to shake. The silent Indians answer it with their own greeting: a delicate scrab­bling of fingertips on the inside of Kinski's fingers. Then they glide and skitter around him, touching him, ex­ploring him. They finger his blond hair, peer up agog at his blue eyes. Kinski, all the while, magisterially, preposterously aloof, pupils glaring.

Fitzcarraldo is a movie about commu­nion between worlds, the transportabil­ity of rapture. There are no hindrances too Herculean if the will is there. One of the film's most spectacular showpieces – its central metaphor – is the scene of the boat being hauled over a mountain. This folie de grandeur is conceived by Fitzcarraldo as the only way he can get his floating opera-house to his own stretch of water, and it's like a DeMille let's-build-the-pyramid-right-here scene given a crazy centrifugal poetry.

Straining ropes, screaming winches, pole-axed pines, crushed Indians. But far from being an expense of in a waste of soles, it pulls the movie's plural threads and themes together in one su­preme imagistic conjunction. Music and mathematics unite, expressions of each other. Meaning is born from surreal adja­cency (of boat and mountain).

Herzog builds his film from the raw elements – earth, air, fire, water – and melds them in ever startling combina­tions. In one scene a long shot shows red tongues of flame licking the steamer at night. Conflagration? Indian sabotage? But as the camera moves closer, the flames are seen to be watch fires sur­really scattered on the wooden deck among the sleeping Indians.

Water is the primal element and the magical thread of Fitzcarraldo; the liq­uid highway which connects worlds and cultures. It glints and snakes between green spurs of jungle, it rolls like molten silver at twilight, it floats in pockets of mists; it's changed into ice by Kinski and given as a cool, solid block to the In­dians; it catches the demountained steamer in a wild and welcoming whirlpool.

Fitzcarraldo is a film which takes as its protagonist the greatest hybrid form in all art – opera – and spreads the message of its celestial incongruity through all the fibers and fabric of its story. Caruso sings in the deepest Amazon. White men and Indians commune, with touch and trust. The will to connect moves mountains and makes miracles.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.