by Harlan Kennedy



DATELINE GERMANY. Is there a festival in the world more devoted to free speech and thought than Berlin? While most non-German flickfests put the "er" into "liberal," treading gingerly across the minefields of sex, race, or politics in order to guard international goodwill, Berlin almost welcomes explosions of controversy. In the big Panorama sideshow especially, if twenty minutes go by without a gay or interracial sex scene, or a plea for greater understanding of AIDS, drugs, or sado-Marxism, you can go into the lobby and demand your money back.

This year, before anyone could say "Josef Goebbels would turn in his grave," he did. Just days before the fest began, the defunct Propaganda Minister's bunker was discovered during earth-turning in the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin's new city center and (soon) festival center. The concrete hole where the blot on humanity murdered himself, his wife, and his kids was punctured into; though probably it will soon be filled in, like bunker neighbor Adolf's own, to make a declarative non-memorial for history.

This is – at least for Germany's flagship festival – an age of tolerance. It's the visitors who are more likely to be overcome by nervous discretion. At the Big Lebowski press conference a German reporter put the filmmakers on the spot by asking, "Brothers Coen, please tell us why you gave the three black-leather-clad nihilist hitmen in your film German accents?" Ethan looked at Joel; Joel looked at Ethan; both looked at John Goodman. Their expressions said, "Help." Would any of them dare to utter the four-letter 'N' word? Finally Ethan mumbled something about "techno-pop references to a previous historical age" and the crisis passed. (Good one, Ethan).

So was it by accident or unwitting design that almost every Competition movie – or every good one – was about tolerance or intolerance? Having kicked off with a film touching on the Irish Troubles, Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, fest boss Moritz De Hadeln followed with another: Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy. And early on we had three fine tone poems about cruelty versus forgiveness, or closed systems versus openminded humanity, in the Anglo-Dutch Left Luggage, the Norwegian Barbara, and the Brazilian Central Station.

The Butcher Boy is Jordan in time-hopping mode. Introduced at age 12, his hero grows into a pudgy-face teenager (Eamonn Owens) who responds to the loss of his parents – suicidal Mum and alcoholic Dad – by instigating his own small-town reign of terror. Pigs' heads, sci-fly insect masks, horses of the apocalypse: Jordan mixes the surreal and B-movie-nightmarish as he adds drops of Bosch and Andre de Toth to Patrick McCabe's prizewinning original novel.

Drops – or dollops – of James Joyce, too. The film's religiosity has a high, arch ambivalence. Though visions of the Virgin Mary appear to the boy at reform school (Jordan wanted Marilyn Monroe but settled for Sinéad O'Connor), they provide him less with spiritual reassurance, more with a garish love object urging him on to greater self-excess. The Butcher Boy is what a fable of the Irish Troubles should be – Irish and troubling – while also appealing for a deeper gut understanding of national schism. To no one's surprise, Jordan carried off the Best Director prize.

Since religious zealotry and sectarianism also got duffed up in Barbara and Left Luggage, we were all free-thinkers by the end of the festival's opening week. The first flick is a sumptuously lensed epic based on a novel written and set in the Bergman-beloved Faro islands. There is much buy-by-the-meter melodrama: a man-hungry woman, a weak-willed young priest, sex, storms, and religious censure. However, director Nils Malmros puts a twist of feral farce into the angst-scapes and coaxes performances that measure up to the elements, especially Anneke von der Lippe's Streep-like heroine.

Left Luggage is more demure but also laser-sharp in detailing. It tells parallel tales of two Jewish families in Antwerp held hostage by the past. While Max Schell and Marianne Sagebrecht dig for World War II family loot hidden in two suitcases, their daughter hires out as nanny to the mute, semi-traumatized child of an overstrict Hasidic couple (Jeroen Krabbe and Isabella Rossellini). As director, Krabbe never melodramatizes. Instead we get Rembrandt colors and subtly adventurous mise-en-scène. A camera craning down stoically past an apartment block's windows, as if through the striations of a time and society, tells more about the tragedy that has broken inside – its geology, meaning and imminent communal repression – than any amount of mugging and shouting.

Mostly, though, if you showed Berlin a no-go area this year, it was sure to enter it. That included stylistic keep-out zones as well as religious ones. Though the world jury is still out on the movie musical's comeback, even (or especially) after Evita, what does an old avant-gardist like Alain Resnais care? In On connait La chanson (The Same Old Song) – the popular smash of the festival – he has Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi, and André Dussollier "singing," i.e. miming to play-back, snatches of Piaf, Aznavour, Johnny Hallyday and Co. The plot is a boulevard trifle about love and misunderstanding. But it has a dapper cartoony grace and pinpoint timing, and the songs work a treat. Many now wait for the 75-year-old regisseur to remake as musicals those solemn masterworks of yesteryear, starting with Marienbad! and Hiroshima!

You could almost set Central do Brasil (Central Station) to music. This feel-good movie about urban alienation is Paper Moon-meets-Pixote. Raddled con-woman Fernanda Montenegro – a dead ringer for Brigitte Mira in Fear Eats the Soul – takes grudging pity on orphaned street kid Vinicius de Olivera, and before you can say "picarescu" (which is obviously the Portuguese for picaresque) they are traipsing all over Brazil. Writer-director Walter Salles aims his blowpipe darts at both the country's welfare system and its network of fake charity (including purchasing kids for organ donation). But the film also explores escapist myths – the open road, the sertao as the country's soul – with a rich, scenic amplitude that indulges even as it gently indicts. The Golden Bear thought long and hard about embracing this movie, then did so. Señora Montenegro also copped Best Actress.

Like Salles's take on the tolerance/intolerance theme, Michael Winterbottom's I Want You – which unfairly went prizeless – pits human compassion against the impatient, generalized prescriptiveness of social bureaucracy. Its English seaside town is Hell on rollerblades: a jumble of sickly skies, peeling promenades, and stony beaches, patrolled by scuzzy youths. The film was lensed – we could almost have guessed – by Slawomir Idziak, who created the dystopic mazes of A Short Film About Killing.

Much of this grim, mosaic moodpiece is brilliant. Lives intersect without quite connecting: a young ex-con, his ex-girl and an immigrant Bosnian brother and sister – he a mute Peeping Tom festooned with watching and listening gadgets – who live in a cottage on Dungeness Beach, once home to Derek Jarman. (Reverb within reverb.) But screenwriter Eoin McNamee finally wrecks the plot's ambiguities even as he "resolves" them. The all-explaining melodramatic climax will satisfy thriller punters, while frustrating those who thought they were watching the spirit of Kieslowski touch down in the septic isle.

At least I Want You was brisk. One no-go area less happily breached in taboo-bashing Berlin was the CFFL: the Consensus Feature Film Length. Wasn't there an industry wisdom, once upon a time, that said a film shouldn't exceed two hours 10 minutes or so, apart from epics and roadshows? Okay, that was mainly for crude exhibition reasons, because it lost one perf per day. But wasn't there artistic sense, too, in such Aristotelian rigor?

Today – especially after Titanic – a movie's length is whatever you want it to be. So Berliners yawned through Jackie Brown, with Tarantino rewinding the narrative so often he resembled a shaggy dog with compulsive-repetition syndrome. (But Samuel L. Jackson nabbed the Best Actor prize.) We kept mentally scissoring the overplotted and undernourished The Big Lebowski, which should have come in at 30 minutes rather than 112. And there were signs of crisis even in humbler non-Hollywood movies whose reach exceeded their grasp.

Two were Pupi Avati's Il testimone dello sposo (The Best Man) and Guy Maddin's Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Both had shards of genius. The Italian tale of an arranged wedding wrecked by the bride's infatuation with the best man starts like a lost Visconti – velvety-sumptuous images and a supporting cast sketched with daguerreotype immediacy – and then gets lost down corridors of indecision. Mainly, it isn't sure whether to focus on the colorless inamorati or the rumbustious characters around them.

The Canadian pic, a fairy tale inspired by painter Gustave Moreau, has moments of kitschy rapture to rival Maddin's great Careful: including live ostrich necks to lend moments of pass-by perpendicularity in the foreground. (Female ostriches: don't ask me how I know.) But it is also stuck with a meandering script and two lost-looking stars in Shelley Duvall and Frank Gorshin.

Maddin himself appeared to answer questions (all ambiguity in that phrasing is intentional) when the wry, sly Canuck was pushed into the spotlight between his film and a goodish documentary about him by Noam Gonick. Maddin never lets on whether his film(s) are meant to be funny, but that ambivalence is half their charm. My hunch is: he will make a masterpiece if he can persuade the money-men to listen to him rather than to impose the compromises that led (Maddin seemed close to admitting) to Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

WHEN DISAPPOINTED, we could always flee the main-event cinemas for the Retrospective. The Siodmak brothers – late Robert and very-much-alive Curt – made movies that are so quick you can miss them if you look down too long at your popcorn. The Beast With Five Fingers, 88 minutes (less than 18 minutes per finger); The Spiral Staircase, 83; Abschied, 75; I Walked With a Zombie, 68. The Siodmak Bros. came in, did their stuff, went away. So did Curt at Berlin. The Merlin of the B/C/Z-movie swept through the haunted city casting memories like spells – of Peter Lorre, of Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (unable to attend the festival due to a mixup over Concorde tickets) – and then left in a puff of charm and modesty after receiving a lifetime award at America House.

He showed up the VIP "no-shows," of whom there were several. Quentin Tarantino was too busy understudying Audrey Hepburn or something on Broadway. Barry Wag the Dog Levinson and Dustin Ditto Hoffman were too busy answering Senate subcommittee questions on prior knowledge of Presidential crises. And Robert "three-films-in-one-festival" De Niro was too busy in Paris answering questions on – oh no, excuse us, we are getting messages in our earpiece. Mr. De Niro is arriving at this very moment in Berlin. Yes, in the last days the star of WT Dog, J. Brown, and G. Expectations whirl-winded into the windless city for a press conference on life, art, and French police investigations. "Er ... what I'd like to say is ... er, what I'm here for is ... er, that's an interesting question, you talkin' to me?"

It was riveting stuff. But then so was every last day at Berlin. Those not glued to TV sets watching the Gulf crisis unspool could wander out to meet life, death, and cataclysm on the movie screen. Two U.S. documentaries and a Japanese feature were the joint highlight of Berlin Week Two. And if this was a taboo-challenging fest, what taboo is greater than death, especially in unholy union with sex?

The does were Donna Deitch's Angel on My Shoulder and Susan Muska and Gréta Ólafsdóttir's The Brandon Teena Story. The second is a mesmerizing inquest into the murder of a transsexual by two redneck homophobes, and into the can-of-worms community where this happened. (Why would anyone want to be from Nebraska?) The first, even better, is a movie diary of the cancer-ridden last days of actress Gwen Welles.

Twenty years after stripping bare in Nashville, Welles is stripped bare, in almost all senses, in this chronicle that is part amazing, part exasperating, always compelling. Here is a woman remaining toujours wacky – it is Welles's mode – even as the medical bulletins thud into her weakening body and confidence. She has long days of whininess, but don't we all. She has seeming lapses of sanity (same comment). And sometimes we feel should be understudying Quentin Tarantino understudying Audrey Hepburn. "I've suddenly realized I'm gay," she cries one day, in a line out of True Romance via Breakfast at Tiffany's with a bit of The Children's Hour. Deitch's film puts all human life into a bungalow, sharpening it with the imminent visit of death.

Gwen Welles would have applauded the International Critics Jury at Berlin, when they said ya-boo to Golden Bear choices and gave their all-festival prize to Nobuhiko Obayashi's Sada. This is Oshima's Empire of the Senses retold as if by Dadaists. For Obayashi, the true story of the geisha who killed her lover and cut off his penis is an excuse not for graphic sex – there is none – but for human farce followed by a wonderful rallentando of tragic stoicism.

Some critics hated the knockabout first hour. Sada flips between color and monochrome, casually "inks in" digitalized backdrops of bygone Tokyo, and plays style games like the moment the film appears to stick and jiggle in the projector during a hearty sex-coupling. But it is part of an emergent pattern. Obayashi not only parallels his story's evolution with that of Japanese cinema's – hence many of the style mutations – but also makes the final moments of deadly poise seem all the more stunning after the perpetuum mobile earlier. This is a woman who takes her lover's life, with (she and legend claimed) his consent, because there is no other way to fix and eternalize a great love. Like movies themselves, passion can never stay still.

Nor can the festivalgoer. Goodbye to Berlin '98. Exit, pursued by Bears.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.