AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN 1984 – THE 34TH BERLINALE FILMFESTSPIELE
by Harlan Kennedy
Any film festival whose main theater and meeting center sit bang next to the Zoo, with free views of bare-bottomed baboons and prowling bustards, has to have some heady symbolism going for it. In previous years, one has wondered exactly what the symbolism was. In 1984 the answer jumped right out of the bag. Berlin is a city where past, present, and future live together in mind-boggling intimacy as a continuous "Now"; and the compressed package tour of evolution that a Zoo represents is exactly what the city and the festival are all about.
In every Berlin street you see the pockmarked facades of prewar buildings jostling with the new or rebuilt. And in every new German movie this year more than ever before, you find traces of different aeons. The huge paw-prints of the Fassbindaurus Rex are all over films like Ulrike Ottinger's kitschy Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press), or Ein Mann Wie Ewa (A Man Like Eva), in which a bearded Eva Mattes impersonates the late R. W Fassbinder in all but name. And fossilized traces of the still extant Pteroherzog are discernible in Herbert Achternbusch's yearly fleet of Holy Fool movies – including, this year, one with a round screen.
Meanwhile, F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu jumped up and smote us on the senses with color tints and orchestral accompaniment. And that other Gothic legend Marlene Dietrich – her smoky drawl even more hypnotic with age – was interviewed by Maximilian Schell in his feature-length docupic Marlene.
Schell and Dietrich first collided, of course, in Judgment at Nuremberg, and goodness knows that Nazism is still a red-hot topic in 1984 Germany. Like the Berlin Zoo beasts, the specter of Hitler and his mob seems caged and safe, but it's nonetheless eerily close by. You feel they could throw a loose banana skin or a historical time bomb at you without so much as an "Enschuldigen, bitte." The result is that, even though the Berlin Filmfestspiele is floundering through a non-golden era, there are still rich seams of referential richness just below the surface.
Moritz de Hadeln, who's been fest chief for five years now, is still in charge in this revolving-door job, so someone must think he's doing OK. Considering the world film famine, he is. Learning from last year's ill-fated would-be banquets at Cannes and Venice, he hasn't packed the Competition with veteran VIPs, so that we can all watch Wajda, Altman, Ichikawa and Co. approach the table and serve up warmed-over turkeys. He's backed relative unknowns and is at least trying for the new and revelatory.
Biggest revelation was Ah Ying, the fourth feature by Allen Fong – or, as he is fondly dubbed, Hong Kong Fong. The title heroine (Hui So-Ying) works in a fish market and dreams of being an actress. She signs up with an acting class, falls in love with the crusty teacher, and finds that by "acting" – empathizing with others' emotions and releasing her own – she becomes herself. This paradox gives the film both buoyancy and weight. There are surreal little scenes that seem completely naturalistic: A rehearsal on the roof-edge of a skyscraper suggests that stage fright is akin to vertigo. And there are naturalistic scenes that have a surreal snap. But the film's magic is in its refusal to force its tone or its symbolism. It's self-discovery without tears.
The critic who pans for themes and trends at an event as sprawling as a film festival is as likely to cry, "Eheu fugace!" ("Lost it") as "Eureka!" ("Found it"). But the anthropology of personal and political growth – prowlings through the zoo of human history – really did seem Obsession No. 1 at Berlin. Take a trio as motley as Alexander Rockwell's Hero from the U.S., Costas Ferris' Rembetiko from Greece, and Hector Olivera's No Habra Mas Penas Ni Olvido (Funny Dirty Little War), which won the Berlin Silver Bear. Each of these movies scouts through its country's recent history with machete and field glasses, mopping its brow occasionally with a copy of Marx or Levi-Strauss, and trying to find the confluence of paths where Past meets Present: where What-was became What-is. Like all good explorers they either find it (Ferris and Olivera) or die bravely in the attempt (Rockwell).
Above all, take Sally Potter's The Gold Diggers from Britain. In fact, take it from Berlin, many cried, perplexed purple by the picture's elliptical doings and dashings. Julie Christie and Colette Laffont scamper about the world, from the Yukon to the London Stock Exchange, enacting an allegory about human values vs. consumerist values, plus society's patriarchal dictatorship over both morality and the market place through the ages. (Phew!) The film is in black-and-white, was made by an all-female crew, turns Christie into a gorgeous spell-struck Ophelia, and is for cryptogamists of all ages.
Elsewhere the movie wild life Britain brought to Berlin couldn't be faulted for lack of contrast. At one end sat the fat commercial cats like The Dresser and Champions, with their teeth-and-claw sentimentalism and "performances"; Albert Finney scooped Best Actor prize for The Dresser. At the other end were plucky small fry like Carry Greenham Home, a haste-and-scissors documentary about anti-Cruise Missile protesters, and Mike Leigh's Meantime, a no-star comedy about British working class life made in Leigh's vein of if-it's-gormless-it-must-be-funny.
Midway between, like a Missing Link in petticoats, was Christine Ezard's fascinating Biddy: another zoological plunge into times past, giving us a Victorian nanny's memories and reveries in a 90-minute inner monologue that's like a Virginia Woolf story visualized by Max Ophuls. It's the thinking man's Upstairs Downstairs.
From the Zoo-Palast, home of the Main Competition, it's an icy trek to the Delphi Filmpalast, where the Young Filmmakers Forum unfurls under a lofty peeling roof. And it's a positively Polar plod to the Astor, with its Spanish balconies and time-warped usherettes, where the twin retrospectives this year were early Ernst Lubitsch and near-complete tributes to Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri. There was also a big New German Cinema program at a corner theater which catches near-lethal blizzards; an Information Section at the Atelier (nesting in the bowels of the Zoo-Palast); and a prolific Market section housed in a honeycomb of beige screening-rooms in the festival's main office building (overlooking the baboons).
Somehow this chaos of cinemas is far less chaotic than Cannes, and the secret is probably the incredible non-shrinking ubiquity of fest chief de Hadeln and his partner Ulrich Gregor, who runs the Forum. The first is a generous-girthed chevalier who will always lend an ear (provided you return it), the second is a tall thin Teuton with piercing eyes who is gifted with the ability to materialize on every sidewalk. Festivalgoers have been known to be half dying of frostbite and lost bearings on the way from the Zoo-Palast to the Delphi, and what seems to be a convenient lamppost turns into Ulrich Gregor.
Jean-Marie Straub's Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations) sheds a more cryptic light. Is this version of Franz Kafka's Amerika, filmed in Germany, about America or Germany? Of course it's about both, and neither. True to the form of their Othon and Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Straub and his wife-collaborator Daniele Huillet have filmed Kafka's tragicomic New World Candide in black-and-white and in long static takes. For an hour Straub's film is spellbinding, with its plainsong dialogue-speaking and brilliantly deadpan approach to the hierarchic horrors of Kafka's mansions and hotels. And though the second hour doesn't quite match it, the film is still a triumph of mind over minimalism and of human satire that transcends geography. Plus great performances from Mario Adorf as an oily uncle and Andi Engel as a hotel head porter clearly trained by Attila the Hun.
The bewilderments of Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amours are less productive. Is Pialat's study of a sultry bed-hopping teenager (Sandrine Bonnaire), whose promiscuity is put down somewhat airily to a father fixation (Pialat plays Dad), meant as a Lolita-style comedy or a Mother and Whore-style psychodrama? No clues from Pialat, who allows his film to eddy into a whirlwind of inconsequence.
The only sure and recurring motif at Berlin was the fascination with pounding through history. Ettore Scola's Le Bal gives us a wordless whir of couples as fashions change and dance steps evolve in a single Paris dance hall from 1936 to 1968. Martin Donovan's State of Wonder from Britain is a perky parable of war and peace, sending out referential shoots into past, present, and future. And Raúl Ruin's Berenice goes back to the 17th century, grabs Jean Racine by the scruff of the neck, and pulls him into a Cocteau-surrealized present. Mystery-clad ladies and gents stand, or merely cast their shadows, against the walls of a crumbling Palladian mansion, while Racine's alexandrines roll on and on, mostly in voice-over. "Hypnotic," said a silhouette in the audience at curtain-time. Was it my own?
More chilling and momentous was another movie at Berlin redigging the past: Memory of the Camps. This 60-minute "mute" print represents five reels of a 6-reel documentary about the Nazi concentration camps. It was filmed in seven days by British cameramen in 1945 and has sparked interest in Europe because of a passing connection with Alfred Hitchcock. Apparently Hitchcock, who was not present at the filming, was in Britain in the early summer of 1945 and, after seeing some of the footage, advised the editors not to get too tricky in the editing process, because people would have a hard time believing what they were seeing anyway.
Here in Berlin, they believed. Since the print was "mute," a lady read a German translation of a commentary prepared by one of the original editors. The footage itself revealed no new enormities, but the cumulative effect of such horrors – quarries full of dead bodies, charred remains in the crematoria, plumply impassive female SS guards, men who did only "what they were ordered to" – is harrowing beyond words.
As soon as the lights went up we found we had a media event on our hands. NBC-TV was filming the discussion that followed and the "presenter" wanted a question put for a Vox Pop show of hands. "Should the film be shown more widely in West Germany?" The terms of the question were debated, fretted over, shredded, found wanting, and finally evaded. The only real dash of revelation came from a German student who said he had never been taught about these atrocities at school; and that even though he had once participated in a school trip to Bergen-Belsen, the history and horror of the place had been given to them in strictly abridged form. He had never seen anything like the material in the film before. The discussion's moderator jumped in to reply that there wasn't much of this material available in Germany!
The awareness of the power of cover-up may be one reason why the political conscience in modern German cinema is so excitable. Norbert Kuckelmann's Morgen in Alabama (A German Lawyer), the best German film in competition, storms around its cityscape investigating an apparently unmotivated shooting at a political meeting. Was it masterminded by the Left? The Right? The Center? Or by nobody but the young man with the gun (Robert Aldini), who's been arrested and insists he acted alone. Lawyer Maximilian Schell is our appointed sleuth; the clue trails and the sidelights on today's political sensitivities in West Germany are fascinating.
Schell does more investigating on Deutschland's behalf in Marlene, for sheer enjoyment the treat of the festival. The Berlin-born goddess speaks but is not seen, on her own insistence. So director-interviewer Schell has to be content with filling up the screen with heady doses of newsreel or movie footage, while the Dietrich voice purrs forth her memories and apothegms. She's wistful, she's witty, she's sentimental, and she can also give a nasty bite if approached without caution. Touching on her history as an expatriate, Schell asks her if she sometimes feels she "doesn't belong anywhere." Dietrich fires back briskly: "No, I don't have such kitsch feelings."
Elsewhere the rag-bag of one-liners is a collector's delight. On Orson Welles: "People should cross themselves before they speak his name." On the lipstick execution in Dishonored: "Oh that was tewwible kitsch." On favorite reading: "I read Günter Grass, I read Handke, that's all." And on death: "Ohh, I don't believe in an afterlife. No. That would be tewwible. All those people up there, hovering!"
Afterlives of a more temporal kind are an obsession at Berlin too. All those Gold and Silver Bears waiting there, hovering, until the lucky director and his runners-up get their push into kudos. This year, after we had been instructed and entertained for twelve days – entertained mostly by the Hollywood fleet of Terms of Endearment, Star 80, and Testament, all shown noncompetitively – the Golden Bear raised its paw, growled thoughtfully for a minute, and then thumped it down on the shoulder of John Cassavetes. Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands have a whale of an indulgent time in his LoveStreams thrashing through fairly shallow waters. But it was the closing night film. Maybe the rapture of star charisma had been missed too long.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1984 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.