AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL – 1986
BOMBS IN BERLIN
by Harlan Kennedy
Stink bombs in the festival cinema! New unearthing of German atrocities on film! Journalist manhandled and interrogated by riot police! Six-inch snowdrifts and arctic winds choking the city!
Yes, it was business as usual at the 36th Berlin FilmFestspiele. Here in Europe's capital of culture shock, where confronta-tions and crises – political, artistic, meteorological – meet in an eternal apocalypse, the snow had hardly re-formed over the footprints of Anatoly Shcharansky on the Glienicke Bridge before Berliners had a fresh cause célèbre in their midst.
The cause was Reinhard Hauffs Stammheim: The Trial. This West German movie re-enacts the 196-day trial of the Baader-Meinhof gang in 1975. Not recognizing the legitimacy of the West German state, they of course did not acknowledge the authority of its court. All five main defendants died (at various stages) in prison: one by hunger strike before the Stammheim trial, one during, and three after. All, according to official accounts, by suicide.
Adopted ever since as an emblem for heroism by the radical Left, the Red Army Faction (as they styled themselves) has now reached the immortality of celluloid. The artistic quality of Hauffs film is pretty awful: hectoring, ham performances, failure to elucidate the historical context, a confusing structure that shimmies between dramatized trial transcription and "imaginary" re-creations of the group's cell life. But around this mouse of a film a mountain of controversy has grown up.
A Hamburg première was postponed due to protests and threatened demonstrations. In Berlin a stink bomb was let off in the auditorium before the screening (afterward would have been understandable); riot police combed the cinema for real bombs, and police vans ringed the building during the showing. Later, there was a tussle involving a journalist who had taken a picture of a cop. She was dragged down to the basement; it's against the law, we're told, to take pictures of anyone (!) in Germany without his or her permission. The arrival of festival director Moritz De Hadeln, brandishing stern diplomacy, sprang the reporter, and the "cop shot" was published next day in the FilmFest Journal.
Inevitably, these incidents gave the Right fresh ammunition to fire at the communist left, and the Left fresh excuses to witter on about the spread of state authoritarianism. Even with the nearby example of feudal despotism on the other side of the Berlin Wall, there is no restraining the knee-jerk radical response in Deutschland.
And the country's moviemakers can be as knee-jerk as anyone. The pity of Stammheim is that eluding it was the chance to bring to life the true character of terrorism and its emotional base: that "cold passion" (in Mikhail Bakunin's words) that puts ideologies before human lives, including the terrorists' own. No wonder the jury that awarded Stammheim the Golden Bear was split six to five. Jury president Gina Lollobrigida made it clear that she was one of the five. Her reason: "This film can only encourage terrorism at a time when the world is suffering increasingly from this disease,"
An East German friend detested the movie on different grounds. In his reading, director Hauff and writer Stefan Aust imply, by the relationships depicted in the cell scenes, that Andreas Baader prompted or perpetrated the death of Ulrike Meinhof, though the official version was "suicide" The film also suggests to my angry friend that the simultaneous deaths of the three last-surviving revolutionaries were not (as popularly supposed by the Left) state murder in response to the hijacking and hostage incidents designed to free them, but were, as in the official version, suicide.
My friend is, I think very wrong. The trouble with Hauffs film lies in other directions. The movie would be negligible were it not also negligent (or disingenuous) with the facts it selects and the way it presents them. It concusses us with modish clichés of anti-authoritarian alarmism – the biased judge, the conniving press, the quasi-paramilitary police – and leaves the actions and animus of terrorism itself not only unaccused but unexamined.
Half-baked political cinema was not confined in Berlin to Stammheim. As the early days of the Main Competition ground on, it sometimes seemed as if any movie was kosher for that event if it depicted the struggle against tyranny, whatever the time, place, or frailty of dramatic incident.
So we had Ingemo Engström's long, wordy, and anemic Flucht In Der Norden (The Flight North), with its Thirties German heroine (Katharina Thalbach) wavering between romance in Finland and the call of anti-fascism; Wolfram Paulus' glacially dull Heidenlöcher (Hide-Outs), about a Nazi deserter holing up in the wintry countryside, where there's little food, less warmth, and almost no conversation; George Panassopoulos' crackpot Mania (Mania) from Greece, in which a career woman throws off the bourgeois yoke by going all Bacchic in a public garden; and Miklos Jancso's tail-chasing L'Aube (The Dawn), with Sabras fighting the Brits in Forties Palestine and arcane dialogue matching Jancso's eternal circles of actors and camera movement.
Berlin has become a soft touch for any movie that wags a finger against ruling classes, creeds, or dogmas. The best competition films were those that set about the finger-wagging most individually and poetically. Don't be deterred by the title of Masahiro Shinoda's Yari No Gonza (Gonza the Spearsman), which sounds like The Muppet Show gone samurai. The film is a parable of the old order yielding to the new, set in a visually dazzling 17th-century Japan: lamp-lit, golden interiors whose geometry is lyricized by the swirl of multicolored robes and kimonos. We are poised between the dying fall of samurai martial traditions and the emergence of the tea ceremony as the centerpiece of Japanese honor.
This tea ceremony and its runic secrets, which prove the undoing of the adultery-accused hero and heroine caught poring over the scrolls, will prove a puzzle to Westerners. It takes a while to appreciate that what seems like a mad obsession with gustatory trivia (What if you prefer coffee? Are tea bags allowed?) was in this shogunate a symbol of samurai self-discipline, social delicacy, and dynastic solidarity. Shinoda, whose Double Suicide also infused domestic minutiae in the boiling water of tragedy, turns the screen into a bubbling pot of conspiracy and hieratic passion. The ending especially – with blood, horror, and showdown on a triple-humped wooden bridge – is as devastating as anything from the Japanese since Yojimbo.
The other competition triumph was Nanni Moretti's La Messa E Finita (The Mass Has Ended), which won a Silver Bear. Signor Moretti is a ta11 and melancholy Italian comic who resembles a good-looking gondola pole. Here he plays a young priest transferred from a remote island to a parish in the Roman outskirts where he was born and brought up.
Now don't all run away screaming at the word "priest; thinking of Bing Crosby or Fernandel, or flock into church either. This cinematic Mass here is funny, unpredictable, and tousle-rhythmed.
Moretti's great skill as a performer is in alternating scenes of doggy passivity with berserk tantrums in which he beats his fists against the whole world. This man's rock is faceted by his abortion-prone sister, his dad who has decamped with a young girl leaving mom in the lurch, and a former school friend and ex-radical who has now curled up into an Oblomov-like coma. "I am at home; says his answering machine, "but I don't feel like talking to anyone anymore" Catholicism becomes comically human, trying to pick its way between the yapping dictates of dogma and the anguishes of private emotion.
Berlin began on a grace note with Federico Fellini's Ginger e Fred (Ginger and Fred), the gala opening pic, shown out of competition. Saint Federico – his-more-than-mortal talent surely now deserves official canonization – has us all join him on cloud nine (8½-plus) in this glorious, funny, sentimental vaudeville.
Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina, ex-hoofers reteaming for an Ed Sullivan-like variety telethon 25 years after they split up, ride high through the stations of Fellini's wonderland. Ah, and the stations of the lost and found: a luxury hotel with magical studio landscape out back where the artistes gather – dwarves, transsexuals, Kojack and Woody Allen look-alikes; the television studio where monitors disgorge a Rabelaisian stream of pasta commercials; and the stage where Mastroianni and Masina finally re-create a moment of love for each other and a second-rate career that at least had integrity – give or take the odd pratfall and power cut.
Gloriously funny, very touching, and carelessly profound, the film works to stir one's feelings for both Mastroianni and Masina, as well as their failed characters. "Why look for miracles?" says a levitating monk who refuses to levitate for the Tv cameras. "The miraculous is all around us."
Notions that Italy was becoming the flavor of the festival were reinforced by the arrival of Britisher Derek Jarman's Caravaggio. The 17th-century brush-wielder, part-time criminal, murderer, and homosexual seems like perfect material for a roaring counter-Hollywood biopic. Instead of Charltonhestono hanging upside down by his smock-tails from the Sistine ceiling, we have this Mediterranean madman dragging pimps, prostitutes, and rent boys off the streets and transforming them into John the Baptist, Mary Magdalen, or Christ himself.
But dear, oh dear,
what does Jarman do? He goes all deconstructionist
on us. The film is told in a series of disjointed, time-chopping tableaux,
many of them loosely built around a Famous Painting, in which credibility and
continuity are butchered to make a Brechtian
The use of anachronisms (bicycle, pocket calculator, etc.) to
impart life and wit to a period setting is promising. But the gimmickry
If Caravaggio shows the British avantgarde at low ebb, the Berlin festival annually poses the question "Where have all the German wunderkinder gone?" Was it only ten years ago that the city's projection rooms fizzed and exploded with Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders? Alas, the German New Wave is no longer waving but drowning. Who would have thought that the most "modern" new German film at Berlin in 1986 would be, faute de mieux, one by the oldest New German of them all, Alexander Kluge?
His Der Angriff Der Gegenwart Auf Die Ubrige Zeit (The Blind Director) is a film essay, using a typical cut-and-paste combination of fiction and nonfiction. Bits of opera (Tosca) jostle with gobbets of learning (art, history, politics) and stretches of invented narrative (the adventures of an orphaned girl shuttled between foster parents). Theme? A warning against the spiritual tunnel vision of humanity today, its eyes focused on pragmatism, political and personal, and missing the panoramic lessons of the past. Treatment? Eclectic, darting, witty, and invigorating.
Though few other serious German films made an impact this year, there was a notable fight for best comedy between Doris Dorrie's Männer (Men), a merry trifle about a betrayed husband shacking up incognito with his wife's lover, and the extraordinary Otto – The Film. Otto is the biggest money-maker among West German movies since the war. Co-directed by Otto Waalkes and Xavier Schwarzenberger (Fassbinder's cameraman on Lili Marleen and Lola), it stars the wild-haired, stark-eyed Herr Waalkes as a catastrophe-prone Candide in a film that resembles Hellzapoppin' out of Airplane.
The succession of top-rate gags, pegged out on the flimsiest clothesline of a plot (Waalkes has to win a girl and find 8,760 deutschmarks and 50 pfennings to repay a brutal, satanesque moneylender), includes mad rabbits, exploding restaurants, Humphrey Bogart impersonations, and plenty else. To those pleading an aversion to German comedy, please try this one. It's probably the best conversion therapy since Ernst Lubitsch.
A Berlin under a half-foot of snow and cheek-smack winds made slogging into the outer regions of the festival even more formidable than usual. To make it to the Retrospective or the Young Film-Makers Forum you needed goggles and a St. Bernard dog-cum-brandy keg. Some critics never made it at all. A cry of "Which way to the Fred Zinnemann retrospective?" was the last that would be heard before a fur-capped head disappeared beneath a giant seven-inch snowdrift. (So all right, he was a short critic from a small newspaper.)
As for the Forum – held in the Outer Reaches and affectionately dubbed Ice Station Dziga in honor of Forum hero Dziga Vertov – surprises were in store. Impostors stalked both it and the main festival, posturing as representing FILM COMMENT. They didn't and still they swilled at the trough of festival hospitality, plundering canapés and guzzling booze at parties, lunches, etc. One had actually been invited as a "friend of the Forum" (What the hell is that?) "We don't care about FILM COMMENT," forum director Ulrich Gregor told me. Well, you can't argue with that.
Fresh from the shock of finding the first phantom double "representing this magazine, I then stumbled on two more. To wit, one Richard Traubner and one Ulrich Schmid. These reinforcement spooks rose up and hammered on the festival's doors, waving their press clips and request for accreditation. (In Herr Schmid's case, faked onto a photocopy of FILM COMMENT letterhead paper.) Still, it gave me time to read four good books, to watch the German dubbing problems of Der Denver Clan (Dynasty), and to catch up on the new American films.
James Foley's family-of-thieves pic, At Close Range, was the feisty competition entry from the U.S., firing at us pointblank Sean Penn, Christopher Walken, and the most hyped-up funky expressionist cinematography since. . . well, since Foley's last film, Reckless. And in the forum the star turn was Ross McElwee's Sherman's March, which caused raptures of delight with its dryly funny diary of a hero-filmmaker slogging it along the historic path of Confederacy defeat, while losing his own battles with love (unrequited), money (running out), and control of the movies structure (escaping like psycho-strands of spaghetti into subplots, digressions, and a 160-minute running time).
Also, a cheer, please, for Louis Malles feature documentary, Gods Country. Louis visits the small Minnesota farming town of Glencoe in two trips separated by six years. "'Ere I was in Glencoe, he says the first time round, "'aveeng a good time with the townsfolks." So do we. There are the redneck farmers cussin' the weather, Steve the cow inseminator cussin' the cow, and the banker's wife, who writes plays with titles like Much Ado About Corn, cussin' her sparse attendance. `But if it's a large cast, we get a big audience; she adds.
Six years later we are back in Glencoe and they are all cussin' again, in deafening unison, only about Reagan and Reaganomics. Malles film, looking at the political macro-picture through the social miniature, is a gem; it wins my personal best documentary prize.
Prize for the most rivetingly disconcerting new trend in subject matter must go to two West German AIDS movies. Rosa Von Praunheim's Ein Virus Kennt Keine Moral (A Virus Knows No Morality) stars the fearless Rosa himself (yes, himself) as a gay Berlin sauna owner who contracts the dreaded ailment. As suppresser cells multiply, the screen fills up with gallows gags, songsters in drag, high-camp hospitals, and the general air of a Lana Turner melodrama choreographed by John Waters. Though the mixture is bludgeoning, at least Von Praunheim goes straight for his subject. Hans Noever's AIDS – Love in Danger merely tacks the AIDS terror, like a catchpenny afterthought, onto a banal little thriller plot of drugs and racketeering. God help us all if AIDS is about to become a worldwide movie flavor-enhancer to help pep up dull scenarios.
Kudos for the top male achiever at this year's Berlinale must go to fest chief Moritz De Hadeln. With a courteous smile and a large spanner, he has tightened efficiency in all areas of the festival. The prize for top female achiever must go to La Lollobrigida, who as jury president looked like a million bucks (allowing for inflation), smiled for the cameras, and even managed to keep jury member Lindsay Anderson in order.
That she also fought to keep Stammheim and the Golden Bear apart showed wisdom and tenacity beyond the call of jury duty. Finally, those KO'd by the clinkers in the competition could find smelling salts in three fest-stealing films by a Taiwanese director. Hou Hsiao Hsien's name sounds like a cat fight, and he makes films to match: vivid, pugnacious, neorealist essays in which street life, teenage agonies, poverty, comedy, and romance are all rhymed in a helter-skelter social pantheism. Summer At Grandpas has already won praise and prizes (Edinburgh, London, Nantes); The Time to Live and the lime to Die grabbed much glory at Berlin, all epic, semi-autobiographical 155 minutes of it.
But the fizziest film is The Boys from Fengkuei, which won top prize at Locarno (formerly run by none other than – wait for it – Moritz De Hadeln). Had Boys been eligible for competition at Berlin, it would have knocked every other prize contender down for the count. It is a bubbling tragicomedy in which the old cliché of the youngster going to live in the big city (Taipei) is carbonated by a volatile camera, tough characterization, and funny-satiric human observation; viz., of how kids communicate more by hitting each other than by talking.
Sometimes people at film festivals feel like doing the same.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1986 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.