AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL – 1987
DANCING WITHIN WALLS
by Harlan Kennedy
Picture so arbitrary a schism as The Wall in any city other than Berlin, and you'd think you were in a bad sci-fi fantasy written by Stephen King (on an off day), directed by Lewis Teague or Wolfgang Petersen, and shelved by Universal. East Berlin puts up with West Berlin, which must be like living with a splinter under one's fingernail and not being allowed to remove it. And West Berlin makes the best of being marooned.
No wonder the film festival takes its political location seriously: Each year it engages both sides and tries to show the common ground. Both sides duly meet in Berlin, check the ground out with mine detectors, and then discuss their films at press conferences. Each year the Berlin FilmFestspiele probably accomplishes more in the way of low-level international entente than is gained at a decade of high-level talks like that at Reykjavik.
Even the failures at Berlin have a valorously crusading stature. The movie advance-publicized as the "event" of the 37th festival was Peter Watkins' The Journey, a 14½-hour documentary about the peace movement. The Brit helmer (The War Game, Punishment Park) has gone about the world with camera and microphone to record a giant patch-quilt of interviews with different families from far-flung countries. Watkin quizzes them about: war, racism, aggression, manipulation, economic exploitation, objectivity and truth, centralization of power, overcoming barriers, the first glimpse, information, the journey, process.
We touch down in Australia to meet Mr. and Mrs. Average Liberated Aussie. We meet the Smileys of Scotland, whose views on peace and detente are captured on video and then presented to the Kolosovs of Leningrad. We witness the protesting voices and faces of Polynesian natives angry about French atomic testing on Mureroa. We are as confused as the participants in a mock civil defense exercise in Norway, set up by Watkin to expose the insanity of government guidelines in a nuclear crisis. We goggle at the underground nuclear shelter in Hamburg, designed to house over 1,000 people sustained by four electric rings for cooking. We tut-tut at media manipulation in the Canadian T V coverage of Reagan's state visit to Quebec and the accompanying anti-nuclear demo. We hear a German lady's horrified memories of the British bombing of Hamburg.
Says Watkin in a special accompanying newspaper (yes, newspaper) that goes with the film: "May I ask you something? Please do not think of The Journey as a narrative film in the traditional Hollywood meaning, or as many of the story films in the cinema today.
"The Journey does not have a beginning; then an early 'attention-grabbing' violent scene; then a middle slow-scene; followed by a sub-climax; final slow-scene before the ultimate climax (which is often violent), and the final soft landing at the conclusion."
All power to any attempt to create a new syntax of cinema, although I never knew Hollywood scripts were written to quite such rigid specifications. More power to Watkins' bid to make us think rather than telling us what to think: A white question mark sometimes pops up on a black screen, and several seconds of silence ensue for further audience rumination.
Ultimately, The Journey's impact is the softest of soft landings: 833 minutes of parachute fall with a gentle "plop" just East of the Iron Curtain. Whenever the word "evil" crops up, it's usually accompanied by footage of Reagan; the USSR is never represented by film of its leaders, only of its lovable people. There is precious little debate in the film. For the most part, Watkin's witnesses are rounded up, positioned round a table, and then called on to find different ways to give the director the answers he wants.
Most of the dialogue goes something like this:
Watkin: "Lydia, would you say that there should be more discussion in schools and colleges about the amount of money which is spent on the arms race and which could be spent on things like welfare and reducing unemployment?"
Lydia [struggles to express herself]: "Yes ... I think it's true the world would be better if we spent less on arms and more on things like welfare and ... reducing unemployment."
The film's heart, as well as its head, may be in the right place, but its hand seems to be mostly up its contributors' backs, operating them like glove puppets.
So it is at Berlin. You whir all round the known world without getting up out of your seat. After two or three days of the FilmFestspiele, you think you are living either in a global village or in a Tower of Babel. You'll either be agog at life's noisy heterogeneity or see the world as a wondrous, lucid whole: a place where every prospect pleases and only the simultaneous earphone translations are vile.
These moods can also alternate daily. One day it can be, "Eureka! I've suddenly seen this wonderful connection between that Swedish film about violent wife-swapping, the Burkina Faso picture about striking coffee farmers, and the latest movie based on E.M. Forster, A Room with a Passage. The only connection is...." (blah blah, insert according to taste).
The next day, shortly after breakfast, you start to see holes in your zeitgeist large enough to drive a truck through. A visit to the New German Cinema section – where the latest Dorris Dörrie sex comedy jostles with a hagio-pic about Caspar David Friedrich, a kraut cops-and-robbers film with the new Kluge philosophical collage – reveals that there is no unity in the same country, let alone on the same planet. All is fragments! Tod und verklärung!
There's truth, of course, in both viewpoints: so speaks the Janus face of compromise. A film fest's purpose is to show how diverse the world is, but also how different countries can talk to each other with the language of cinema. And there are, if not giant waves that dominate cinema at one time, at least subtle currents that move between different cultures and countries.
Berlin 1987, for instance, showcased the cinema's current fascination with highly bizarre personal relationships. Is it because we're in the AIDS age, and bodily fluids are off the menu, that people are behaving in the wackiest manner? In Sweden's Demons, we've got two married couples having an evening together that makes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof seem like a White House dinner. They scream, agonize, dress up, undress, and attempt suicide. One husband then ends up being nailed to the floor by his jealous wife. Brazil's Vera won a Berlin Best Actress prize for Ana Beatriz Nogueira at sea in an overheated pother of orphanages and lesbianism. And Dörrie's Fantasies begins as a flighty sex comedy – a meek, suburbanite named Heiner Lauterbach falls in love with his wife's former schoolfriend, Katharina Thalbach – and then moves into l'amour fou, jealousy, and a climactic stabbing.
Two movies took the comical road to depicting weird liaisons. In Claude Chabrol's Masks, what bizarre currents of love-hate are going on between TV gameshow host Philippe Noiret and the girl (his ward) he's trying to poison in his country château? Or between Noiret and the other choice nutcases in his household: flame-wigged secretary Bernadette Lafont, vicious housekeeper Monique Chaumette, and the rest? Whatever the answer, this is a scintillating black comedy in the mystery mode – Agatha Christie goes Gallic – and Chabrol's best film in years.
Even funnier, though less intentionally, is Jeannine Meerapfel's The Lovers. In this Yugo-German folly, Barbara Sukowa and Horst-Gunter Marx trek across tourist Yugoslavia exchanging certifiable co-production dialogue. He's padding along in his dead father's WWII footsteps – was he a Nazi war criminal? – while she's also hunting up family roots. Of course they're both basically "searching for themselves." High-kitsch high spots (apart from such dialogue treats as "I can't take this much longer") include skimpily clad Sukowa going for a lone midnight punt on a lake under a moon-scudded sky, and Marx discovered playing a grand piano on a hotel terrace, mutating into Anton Walbrook in Dangerous Moonlight. The audience roared its approval almost without break in the film's final half hour, especially when Herr Marx stepped on a mine and was blown up.
There were seldom so many eve-of-war or edge-of-war pictures in one festival: the doomsday resonances of The Journey, the portrait of America hoist on its own gung-ho in Platoon, Kei Kumai's The Sea and the Poison from Japan, and Andrzej Wajda's A Chronicle of Amorous Accidents from Poland.
The apocalypse in Chronicle is World War II, a gathering storm on the horizon of 1939 Poland. Adapting a novel by Tadeusz Konwicki, Wajda is more interested in the gathering than the storm. His teenage hero (Piotr Wawrzynczak) is a butterfly-souled romantic who's fallen in love with a rich man's daughter (Paulina Mlynarska). He's so besotted with her that he climbs the drainpipe of her mansion at midnight, the dog barks, and the hero falls. Later trespassings are rewarded with gunshot in his rear from the girl's militaristic dad.
Wajda displays a surprising comic touch here. But by the time he has finished strewing the screen with the incandescence of a light comedy romance, and dancing a pavane to the idyllic past by smearing his lens with vaseline, there's no room for the coming storm. The ulan hussars stream briefly across the meadows on their way to the last cavalry charge in history, when Poland's quixotic horse soldiers were mown down by Germany's tanks. The lovers form a suicide pact as they linger by a river. And having given us 100 minutes of romantic prologue and character building, the film has cheated us of the film itself.
Kei Kumai's The Sea and the Poison turns on the incongruence of war and quotidian life. In May 1945, a Tokyo hospital experiences an influx of patients, an outflux of money, and a virtual moratorium on new medical research. However, professors Hashimoto and Gondo – whose motto is "Have Advanced Ideas About Lung Pathology, Will Explore Them" – insist on carrying out pneumo-surgical experiments, even if it means using captured American airmen as guinea pigs.
At worst, Kumai's movie sometimes resembles a splatter version of Dr. Kildare; with close-ups of palpitating innards under the op-theater lights and even that old schlocko favorite, the spurt of blood hitting the surgeon in the eye. Based on a true historical incident, the Aiharu affair, and shot in the most austere black-and-white, The Sea and the Poison at its best has a chilling air of authenticity: the story of one of those blinkered, messianic medical crusades in which ambition comes first, and conscience and compassion a joint second.
Berlin chief Moritz de Hadeln, with scalpel in hand and sweat-dabbing nurse at side, has been poring over the open body of the festival for eight years now, trying to improve its lung power, heart rate, intelligence, and general performance level. He's succeeded better than the yearly wrangles about his continuity of tenure suggest. This year he signed a three-year renewal contract – he wanted five, his enemies wanted zero, a bargain was struck – and it's about time the milling festivalgoers gave him his due.
De Hadeln has improved the non-competitive Panorama section, packing it with good films, especially from the Third World and Far East. And he's improved the once appalling Competition. Gone (almost) are the days when irresponsible critics could wake up each morning, loiter over their cheese-bratwurst-ham-salami-and-paté breakfast (nothing like it), and know they could skip (A) the morning film because it was a French-Canadian movie about sexual awakening during the seal-culling season, and (B) the afternoon film, because it was another Lina Wertmüller ballbreaker in which Giancarlo Giannini and a famous American actress make love in the pouring rain while trying to match lip movements to dialogue.
De Hadeln's 1987 master stroke was to double the usual number of both the American and Russian movies: Platoon, Children of a Lesser God, The Color of Money, 'Night, Mother, and True Stories in the main event, cheek by jowl with the pre-glasnost Alexander Sokurov's Heartless Grief, Gleb Panfilov's Theme, and Elem Klimov's Farewell.
Best of this year's Soviet pics, and Golden Bear winner, was Theme. Director Panfilov delights in his shambling egotist of a hero (Mikhail Uljanov), a playwright who leaves the hell of Moscow for a working holiday in the old Russian town of Suzdal. He hopes to find peace and recharge his inspiration. Instead, he discovers pain, love, madness, breakdown, and wit are in no smaller quantities here – indeed, rather greater – than back in the city. He falls in love with a girl (Inna Curikova). He's shaken out of his self-regard and forms new friendships. In the spirit of the old Carmen Miranda song, "You can't make amigos without breaking egos."
This eight-year-old, previously shelved film doubtlessly rubbed the Soviet authorities the wrong way: one of the characters is a Jewish dissident who decides to emigrate to Israel, and each character takes turns railing against Russian life and the state of its arts. The result is a high-power caustic comedy. Almost every new line in Theme's long central dinner scene is a rasher thrown into a pan to sizzle and spit. And, throughout the film, minor characters – an eccentric traffic cop, a woman literature teacher – are pillars of Soviet society who slyly, blithely leave their posts for a moment or two to see if the building will stand without them. What better film to mark glasnost? "The day of interesting meetings and open doors continues," declaims someone during the dinner scene, as the initially demure conversation round the table turns into a riotous to-and-fro of new guests and new heresies about Russia.
With Platoon as the Silver Bear runner-up to Theme, the impulse to acknowledge self-inflicted wounds may be prelude to less suspicious profiles. Berlin could do without a wall.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1987 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.