by Harlan Kennedy 


The 45th Internationale Filmfest­spiele Berlin was wunderbar in terms of movies: riches from Hong Kong, bounty from Britain, Amer­ican indies in full cry. Four films a day. none a dullard. But where – the ques­tion kept asking itself – were the stars??

The festival poster showed a road stretching into infinity through desert sands. Berlin film buffs can "read" posters as keenly as they can movies, and by day eight they knew exactly what this one meant. Robert (Quiz Show) Redford had just no-showed; earlier we had dealt with nonappearances by the entire galactic cast of Nobody's Fool, and with a festival jury none of whose members anyone had heard of. (Dr. Manfred Hasselgruber? Olivia Letti-Condi? Colonel Mustard? Who were these people?) Ergo, that desert road was the invisible highway joining the Ku'damm to Sunset Boulevard and other showbiz El Dorados, and we festgoers were looking along its vastness waiting for Someone Recognizable to come into sight. For what are film festi­vals without stars but darknesses with­out light?

When two glitterati finally arrived, Berlin went ape. They were Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. The press conference for Wayne Wang's Smoke looked like the Ark shortly after Noah announced standing-room-only. Every Berliner times two was there, jost­ling against the bulkheads as Bill and Harve excellently entered. They were applauded, strafed by flashbulbs, quizzed about their philosophies of act­ing. Neither had much to say on this. Harvey: "Er, you have the technique, then you apply it." William: "I loved the script [pause], so when I was ah-ferred the role I pause, remove specs, sweep hand through hair] took it." But it was enough. We were having our fix of Hollywood glamour.

So where the hell were the other stars? Up on the screen and mostly in two movies. Wang's Blue in the Face, his improv companion piece to Smoke, rejoiced in Madonna, Roseanne, Michael J. Fox, Lily Tomlin, Jim Jarmusch, and anyone else who strayed into Brooklyn during the five-day shoot. And Agnès Varda's all-star birthday gift to the cinema, Les Cent Et Une Nuits, boasted Mastroianni, Depardieu, Deneuve, Delon, De Niro, De Harrison Ford, and anyone else who ever made a movie in Europe, preceded or not by a few in Hollywood.

This, remember – and only by emi­gration to another planet will one be allowed to forget – is the screen's hun­dredth birthday. So day three of the Competition gave us both Varda's pic and Edgar Reitz's Die Nacht des Regisseurs (Night of the Directors). Each rounded up a crowd of suspects – star, for Varda, German helmers for Reitz – and told them to explode with film buffery. The stars in Varda's whimsy detonated around Michel Piccoli as, "Monsieur Cinéma." holding audience in a mansion stuffed with movie mementos and a movie stuffed with in-jokes and old clips (Murnau, Godard, Fellini). The jokes are often funny, but there are too many. We needed a plot and/or thesis. As they say on TV, 8 ½ points for trying.

The Reitz stuff was a better birthday gift, and a better blueprint for beyond-the-birthday. Digitally faking a futuristic Munich "kinemathek," the Heimat man peoples the giant auditorium with Wenders, Kluge, Schlöndorff, Syberberg, and Co., all gabbing on about German cinema and the light it throws on the German/European soul. These star directors seem to be sitting together in the front stalls, but of course they aren't. They are pixel'd in! So Leni Riefenstahl is not really looking over Herzog's shoulder as he burbles sagely about his "orphaned generation." Nor does a thousand-strong audience really sit breathing as one while Hanna Schygulla touchingly remembers R.W. Fassbinder.

Chalk to cheesecake, this nonfiction cine-essay didn't belong in the Competi­tion at all. But we were glad for a film whose "form" looked forward even while its content looked back. It re­minded us of the vision E.M. Forster had in Aspects of the Novel, a crucial reference point for this year's fest. EMF, you recall, imagined- all the world's great fiction writers sitting in one room. Times change but values don't, he pro­posed. So Tolstoy could swap tips with Joseph Heller, Stendhal with Sagan. Cinema, too, is a space-time common­wealth, and the stars' absence made us see its truer, deeper values. Prompted by the Berlin poster, we realized (a) that all films are essentially road movies, and (b) that road journeys can be more exciting and unpredictable when the stars do not come out to guide you.


1 (EINS).


H.K. was tops at this fest, in quality and quantity, and the three best films unspooled in order of merit. Stanley Kwan's Red Rase, White Rose is an old tale given Formula One treatment. Respectable, ambitious young man (Wedding Banquet's Winston Chao) falls into passion with married femme fatale (Joan Last Emperor/Twin Peaks Chen). He forces himself to give her up, only to carry the remembered love, like a virus, through his ensuing marriage to an icy, ideal child-bride.

This journey's only landscape is the human face, but Kwan uses light and color to convey time and change. He must be the classiest pulp-melodramatist since Sirk. Compositions alter­nate between the stylishly skewed and the high-gloss stately. Shadows crawl voluptuously over characters like a sweet sickness. And the hero's cold noon of marital "bliss" is almost hilari­ous in its kitsch (look at the wedding-cake-style pink moldings on the walls of the newlyweds' home). Kwan has been around a while, but as with Sirk, critics can take decades to honor a prophet who transforms pulp. They are too busy being superior to the pulp.

Kim Yo's The Day the Sun Turned Cold showcases a marooned colony's talent for spreading its imagination: for giving dramatic and scenic breadth to "claustrophobic" subjects. Kim's pic, which won Best Film at last year's Tokyo-in-Osaka fest, fills its moody, tight-lanced interiors with a tale of fam­ily poisoning. Did adulterous Mom (Siquin Gowa) spike (dead Dad's stew with rat poison? Does Sonny know – and if so, will he grow up to forgive? Not on his life; or rather, hers. Out of the film's visual safari through the snows and years, through smoke and fear and weathering faces, the story crawls towards tragedy.

Li Shaohong's Rouge is the latest from the director of Bloody Morning and Family Portrait, films that broke ground for a new, somber Chinese style. Li Shaohong drives in the slow lane, but that way you get a closer look at the scenery – in this case, the social minu­tiae of China under Mao. Two Peking ex-prostitutes have their acts cleaned up for them during the grim Communist 1950s. They seek meaning in convents, factories, marriage, motherhood: but the meaning never comes. Instead, hope is locked in intimacy with disap­pointment. This is that most poignant road movie of all: one whose characters know they will never quite reach jour­ney's end.

Other Eastern filins at Berlin – Ann Huff's Summer Snow from Hong Kong, Im Kwon-Taek's The Taeback Mountains from Korea – reaffirmed that road movies of the soul are no different from those of the tarmac. Good storytelling is a matter of holding the narrative line, while allowing every possible crisis or cross-accident to jump out from the side roads, testing the strength of your steering.


2 (ZWEI).


The three high-impact British movies at Berlin were oop-north comedies in vary­ing shades of black. The people's choice was Peter Chelsom's Blackpool-set Funny Bones, a sort of high-speed chase along Highway Vaudeville. It begins with a body cut to pieces by a boat propeller and climaxes in an even more brutal scene: Jerry Lewis giving us a lecture on comedy. The stuff in between was a bit too warm 'n' wonder­ful for my taste (when not being too fre­netic), but audiences adored it.

Moving south, we stumbled first on two Catholics wandering thru Mersey­side discussing God and sex – Linus Roache and Tom Wilkinson in Antonia Bird's Priest – then on two hitchhiking women roaming the motorway killing truck drivers. These last are Amanda Plummer and Saskia Reeves in Michael Winterbottom's Butterfly Kiss. Handed a virulently nasty (but fun) script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Winterbottom directs like a trainee snake-charmer sent out to his first cobra. Sometimes he makes enough soothing flute noises – lesbian romance, off-kilter comedy – to keep the creature quiet. At other times it is all blood, horror, and whatever is the opposite of misogyny.

I liked the film's mix of Tarantino ter­ror and wacko-Dostoevskian religiosity. The script suggests that Plummer per­forms her horrors to try to coax God into showing himself, even as her pun­ishes. (She hardly needs assistance: get a load of her nipple-locked body chains.) Other festgoers, less bitten by the movie's venom'd charm, said "Fangs but no fangs." They preferred Priest, with its rip-roaring simplicities about How to Deal with Dogma If You Are a Vocational Catholic. Be a young gay priest (Roache), suggests the film, or an older, fornicating straight priest (Wilkin­son). That way, you can let it all hang out, including your few remaining hangups, right there in front of your Liverpool congregation. And when the stuffy old Bishop walks out in disgust, he will be cheered by the Berlin audience.

Quite right. First-time director Antonia Bird has a wonderful eye for faces in closeup. Lighting them like pop Goya portraits, she reveals every fissure of human doubt, each wrinkle of everyday agony. Should Roache break the seal of the confessional in a child-abuse case? Should Wilkinson take the straight and narrow by throwing over his house­keeper-mistress (Mona Lisa's Cathy Tyson)? Both leads give cracking per­formances. Roache is Hamlet in a dog collar; Wilkinson, Falstaff in a surplice.


3 (DREI).

If H.K. and U.K. took the main-event plaudits at Berlin, American indepen­dent cinema was the toast of the side­shows. You could call this collective road movie "Butch Kinofest and the Sundance Gift, or How They Brought the Good News from Utah to Ufa."

Here were the films, streaming across the Atlantic on that imaginary one-lane blacktop: Living in Oblivion, Crumb, Postcards from America ... spanking celluloid, screened in cinemas packed to the gills and purulent with enthusiasm. Even in the Competition we could hardly complain of U.S. stuffi­ness. Among the Bentons and Redfords we got Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and the Wayne Wang twofer: Blue in the Face, a Brooklyn jam session for Hollywood runaways, and Smoke, the Paul Auster adaptation Wang was in Brooklyn to do in the first place – a film whose air of Buddhist inconsequence conceals a definitive fable on chance, value, and meaning.

I loved Smoke. I seemed destined to. On the morning of its showing I stepped into what I thought was the festival minivan to travel to the screening center at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Only one problem here: I had plopped myself into a Volkswagen police van by error. In a terrorist-alert Germany, this is potentially fatal. The cops looked at me as if they were Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant and I was, or soon would be, William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Wide-eyed, I jumped out bab­bling in several languages and caught the right VW van. But the experience made me realize, as Smoke does, that chance encounters avoided or escaped have equal weight with chance encoun­ters embraced.

In the philosophy of another famous Wayne, we are the sum of our "Nots." A not-starry Berlin fest – or one where, even when the stars do crowd up on screen as in Blue in the Face – is a reaf­firmation that cinema's beauty and rich­ness really need no stars at all. For in the road movie that is filmgoing – HAVE AUDIOVISUAL WINDSHIELD, WILL TRAVEL – the real stars are ourselves and the interplay between our perception and the panorama before us. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be careful how we choose our routes ....


4 (VIER).

Paved with you-know-what. We are talk­ing now of European cinema. "Good intentions" equal artistic integrity and pushing-the-frontiers-of-expression. Ad­mirable in theory; in practice, sacré bleu.

You want to find that road that used to be called European Experimentation Turnpike? It has been up for repairs for about twenty years now, but as a special festival treat (only just don't say we didn't warn you), take a left at Robbe-Grillet Allee: Fred Ward in French, floundering through nouveau roman shenanigans in Un Bruit qui rend fou. Scream in boredom and deflect into Dystopia Drive: Christian Wagner's Transatlantis, an end-of-world fable shot in muddy colors at muddy pace. Twist the steering wheel into Under den Trotta: Margarethe von's new film The Promise, a banality-potholed tale of East-West suffering in pre-liberation Berlin. Finally hit the main Euro-drag to Hell with Varda's Cent Et Une Nuits, which is where we came in.

Ah, Europa. You tried to recall your past glory by having Alain Delon grace his Berlin retrospective. But graying, bespectacled Alain looked like a nice old prof who had accidentally stumbled into an orgy. (The other retrospective superguest was Eleanor Keaton, Stone Face's widow, who also looked a bit out-of-it when not firing the starting cannon for a 25-film salute to her Buster.)

But Europe had the last smile this year. Bertrand Tavernier's L'Appat (Fresh Bait) pushed past Smoke (Special Jury Prize) to win the Golden Bear. For reasons beyond my control I missed it. Few but the jury seem to have been excited, however, by Bertrand's second consecutive policier: a truth-based tale of teenage theft and murder. America was consoled with Best Actor and Best Director nods for Paul Newman (Nobody's Fool) and Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise).

Meanwhile, the Golden Bear for world's best press officer, an award given annually by the Harlan Kennedy Foundation for Festivalgoers in Need, went once more to (may I have the enve­lope?) ... Herr Horst Benzrath. How does the German poet put it? "As the winter ice on Berlin's River Spree subli­mates itself into a white vapor that drifts like a bridal veil among the stands of silver birches in the Tiergarten... ," so Benzrath's courtesy and grace, founded on icy efficiency, drifts like a token of communion among the lonely stands of silver-screeners.

So farewell Berlin 1995. Tomorrow is another year.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.