by Harlan Kennedy



Midnight in Berlin. "Follow me!" a hirsute pal cried as we scrambled from the Kongress-Halle press show and hit the Arctic sidewalk where festgoers wait for transport back to the city center. "Over here!" he called, dodging away from the mile-long queue for chauffeured festival minivans, into an all but empty double-decker public bus. Ah! Warm, comfy, spacious ... and (Torn Curtain music, please, Mr. Hitchcock) headed the wrong way, bearing us straight into East Berlin.

Half an hour later, after vainly hoping the vehicle would do a return loop, we were thrown terrified into the snow. Miles beyond the West; beyond the Brandenburg Gate; beyond even that Friedrichstrasse café – "Weel you be my spon-soors for United States of Amereeka?" – where Lila Kedrova once stood Paul Newman and Julie Andrews to Kaffee.

But then that's what happens when a Wall comes down: nothing stops you going in the wrong direction. With the East now a free-travel area, humanity can once more get hopelessly, wonderfully lost. (We finally caught a taxi back to the West; it was driven, we both swore, by Gromek, Hitchcock's kill-resistant Stasi.) And with film festival nations now one big happy family, are we saying goodbye to that defining ten­sion between cultures that used to hot­wire every Berlin film spree?

Near the start of the '94 fest I began to see the answer. It came during Alain Resnais's two films, Smoking and No Smoking. The titles, with their parlorgame adversarialism, indicate the Euro­filmworld's new flavor: Dialectics can be apolitical and fun. The new tension in pan-cultural pictureland is not between nationalistic blocs – the hell with them – but between opposed fiefdoms much more ancestral. Let us call them art and entertainment; or hedonism and hair­shirtism; or modernism and triplepost­modernism.

Resnais's two pix, the most heraldic of the festival, are a dazzling vacation to apocalypse country from the man who started by giving us serious business trips thither – Hiroshima, mon amour and La Guerre est finie. Take an eight­playlet cycle by Brit farceur Alan Ayckbourn, turn it into two 140-minute movies, and milk the multiple-choice narrative potentialities from a story in which we keep rewinding to earlier scenes to rewrite destiny! Here are headmaster Toby Teasdale (Pierre Arditi) and his wife Emma (Sabine Azéma), playing amours musicales somewhere on the northeast English coast, sketched in picture-pretty on a soundstage by designer Jacques Saulnier. She runs off with the gardener or has a nervous breakdown or starts a catering business or stays faithful to hubby. (Rewind for further possibilities.) He falls for the daily help or has a stroke or... etc., etc. Finally, fate is retraced to its primal hinge: back to Scene I itself, and did she or did she not light up that all-important cigarette?

Many, including me, found the films fun. Many, including me, also found them a touch long and maddening. But conflicted response is also an honorable form of dialectics. And admit it, you had the same dual reaction to Last Year in M'bad.

Anyway, that was day two and already we were picking up Berlin's tone and tempo. While Resnais got his antiphonal kicks from saying "It happened/It didn't happen" in never-never England, fellow Frenchman Jacques Rivette's gift to Berlin was a six-hour Joan of Arc epic Jeanne la Pucelle. Its two separate parts were called Les Batailles and Les Prisons but could equally have been called Voices and No Voices. Did the Domrémy peasant girl with the scrapmetal tanktop (Sandrine Bonnaire) have a hotline to Saint Michael or not? Part one says yes. Part two says, Hmm, well, let's hear what the sceptics said back in 1430 as they collected kindling wood while Joan did her courtroom number.

But Rivette's point-and-counterpoint approach doesn't just stop at the Big Question about the canonized cowgirl. His pendulum curiosity about every­thing gives this pageant its prankish intelligence. (It was the best film in Berlin, but shown out of Competition, so no Golden Bears.) Heroic Joan and human Joan get equal weight. Now she strides out to battle, features steeled with fearlessness; now she blubs over an arrow wound or screams at news of her imminent barbecue. Now we, the audi­ence, clamber up wartorn castles, dodg­ing spears and arrows. Now we loll in a castle listening to characters discuss bills or meal menus, or learning how to spit­roast a hare (first catch it, then kill it, then pass it to someone else for skinning and skewering).

Rivette moves his camera like a medi­eval portrait painter on casters. S-1-o-w parabolic glides in and out of faces or character groupings. And for dialogue scenes he favors the flat Bressonian beat with brief eruptions of emotion. A French critic I know, who loved Resnais's film, thought Rivette's "pedestrian." Mais oui, mon camarade! Absolument!! This is a feet-on-ground, face-to-face rendezvous with "legend." Never better than in part two's stunning coronation scene, where the higher lunacies of timeless human rit­ual meet the tiny discomforts of finite human endurance.

We filmfest veterans know all about that. We also applaud that in today's movie world a sore mind in a sore body is not regarded as an automatic guarantee of quality. If the de-Europeanization of cin­ema has achieved anything, it is the slay­ing of pretension. Any Emperor now caught wearing new clothes is carried away on indecency charges. Res­nais and Rivette – even they – are telling "stories," giving us a good time. And so are Krzysztof Kieślowski, Ken Loach, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

Kieślowski's Three Colors: White is part two of his Tricouleur Trilogy and a pace-change after Blue. It scam­pers out of Paris aboard a plot fleeing France for Poland, whither failed hair­dresser Zbigniew Zamachowski, now making it big in the Polish black market, wants to lure estranged French wife Julie Delpy. Fake passports, dead bodies, used guns: these are all deployed in Z's scheme, as Kieślowski hurls seriocomic abuse at a New Eastern Europe where anything can be bought, including love.

Minor but masterly. Just like Gutiérrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate, co-directed – or rather, completed in TGA's absence through illness – by Juan Carlos Tabío. Maybe Gutiérrez Alea was ill. But maybe the grand old Cuban wanted to put a little distance between himself and this un-Castro-ish tale of gay passion. Artist Diego (Jorge Perugorrfa) falls in love with Young Commu­nist David (Vladimir Cruz), even though D2 is spying on Dl's counterrevolution­ary tendencies. Add a goodhearted whore (Mirta Ibarra), a set of wacky Christ statues, and much naming of the Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name, and you're surprised it ever got past Fidel – or that, in doing so, it re­mained brisk, witty, and humane. Come Bear-time, it also copped the Special Jury Prize.

Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird (International Critics Prize) is a beast of a different marking. Count the spots on this insect: they are the bruises inflicted on promiscuous, abuse-prone Maggie (Crissy Rock) by life, men, and British social services. Deemed an unfit ma, she has already been torn from her four­-kids-by-different-fathers when she meets Paraguayan political refugee Vladimir Vega. Will they find peace and secure parenthood? Not a chance. This is a Loach movie. Send in the state terror­ists – in this case, the welfare workers trying to protect tots from dodgy moth­ers – and wave court orders about like machetes. The movie has harrowing moments: poor Maggie seeing her new baby hauled off from the hospital only moments after she has given birth; or poor Maggie raving and wailing as the latest official "helper" (= welfare spy) drops by for tea and bikkies.

Yet how much is poor Maggie a con­fection of the movie? Loach, with Crissy Rock (Golden Bear for Best Actress) and screenwriter Rona Munro, makes her a great sad-sack heroine, with a raw singing voice to pump up extra emotion at karaoke evenings at yer local pub. But in this film "based on a true story" we wonder how much truth got sidelined in the desire to champion our lone mul­tiple mama against the apparatchiks of Loach's scarce-hidden antistatist agenda. The Paraguayan refugee gets what seems to be the key bit of dia­logue, about how authoritarian States "need" human suffering. Still, compar­ing British welfare bureaucracy, even on a bad day, to Paraguay, even on a good one, seems a bit thick.

Ladybird Ladybird, for all its tenden­tious tone and tellyish visuals, was at least a sit-up-and-react movie. Not so some other – indeed, many other – Competition flicks. Visualize, dear reader, those hope-filled minivan jour­neys out to the Kongress-Halle. The views of the birch-beautiful Tiergarten! The ice jewelled rivers! The statues to imperial glory with their poignant capes of snow! Visualize us entering the charming K-Halle itself, a building shaped like a funny hat, and saying good morning to Horst Benzrath, the patron saint and nonpareil of all festival press officers. And then picture us dumped in the Fassbinder-Saal to watch the likes of Aleksandr Sokurov's Whisper­ing Pages (bits of Russian literature drowned in sea-of-mud visuals), or Reinhard Munster's Back to Square One (German moviemaking satire that never leaves square one), or Mario Monicelli's Dear Goddam Friends (war­liberation Italian comedy that makes old Alberto Sordi movies seem like the complete works of Buster Keaton).

These, you see, are the layers of the Berlin festival that the Resnais-Rivette message has not yet reached. Art here comes with a socking capital A; enter­tainment comes with a thigh-slapping "Eee-heee!" And never the twain shall synergize.

On the keep-'em-entertained side, though, how anxious Europe seemed this year to play the jolly storyteller. Even the entry from East Germany (as was) turned out to be not the usually grim item but a passably potboiling thriller, Der Blaue (what is it with "Blue" titles anymore?), all about an ex-Stasi caught up in a web of guilt, murder, and swimming. And France's B-team trolled along a few miles be­hind the two Rs with Tonie Marshall's Pas Très Catholique. This policier redeemed its pulpy plot, somewhat, with a funkily played bisexual lady sleuth (Anemone).

We reckon there's a plan here. We reckon Europe, fighting out of movie doldrums, is saying, "Listen, any hi-fi yarnspinning America can do, we can do as well/better/much better?" And Fate or fest selectors, playing along, might have chosen the official U.S. pix as a deliberately dark trio to help lighten up the non-U.S. pix: Fearless (plane-crash trauma), Philadelphia (AIDS), Carlito's Way (getting done over by gangsters in Spanish Harlem). In the American Indpendent section, European audiences went wild for Pennebaker-Hegedus's The War Room, with its twelve-crises-per-minute peek behind the U.S. electoral scene, and got to scratch their itchy love-hate relationship with America still further on barbed noirs like Michael Correntes Federal Hill (Mean Streets goes to Providence), Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass (Badlands goes to Florida), and John Dahl's The Last Seduction (Body Heat goes to upstate New York and takes Linda Fiorentino towards stardom).

As for live Americans, how good to see Tom Hanks and Brian DePalma swagger into Berlin. They led Hollywood's Now-Generation deputa­tion. The first won the Golden Bear for Best Actor and was seen happily dancing with his drip-feed at the closing-night ball; the second was invited to cut the ribbon on a new gangsters bar in down­town Spanish Potsdam, done in chrome-and-cream by Dick Sylbert's German cousin Hilbert "Schmilbert" Sylbert. Or so it was reliably reported ....

But the two best things to come from Showbizland were the veterans: Sam Fuller and Sophia Loren. La Voluptuosa, sharing retrospective screentime this year with Erich von Stroheim, appeared looking like a billion dollars, allowing for inflation. And Sam arrived to squire his star vehicle Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made through the Young Film-Makers Forum.

This documentary directed by Ein­land's Mika Kaurismäki is a total joy. Room-filling Berlin audiences exploded with glee as they watched Mad Sam, smoking Havanas as if there were no mañana, de-boat in a patch of godfor­saken Amazon jungle. Here, forty years ago, Sam shot footage for a never­finished, indeed barely started, John Wayne actioner called Tigrero (you've seen some of it in the color-insert sequences of Shock Corridor). Now he's back, and with him is narrator-chum Jim Jarmusch, dressed in hepcat black, sporting shades and haute-coiffùre silver hair, and looking like James Coburn after a rejuvenation drug.

Sam reminisces. Sam and Jim meet the Karaja Indians who once appeared, or had relatives who appeared, in Sam's film. And Sam, Jim, and Mika screen the surviving footage so the natives can goggle – this is wonderful – at a moving scrapbook of their past.

Tigrero is not a movie, it's 90 minutes of sheer heaven. Fuller and Jarmusch make the cinema's best double act since Laurel and Hardy. And they end by joshing the very nature of these back-to-the-fount moviemaking docus. There (last scene) is Jim having his face daubed with tribal paint by a friendly Indian woman, and there is Sam moving towards the departure bank yelling time to go. But Jim says he's found peace and truth here (man) and he's gonna stay. Sam – great take – pauses; then rasps out Instant Understanding; then shuffles off into his chauffeured canoe; then cries, "Now I'll go back to the uncivil­ized world!" The movie fades on a piece of human and Hollywood history float­ing forth into the great cosmic mulch.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.