AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN - OUT OF THE SHADOWS - 1999
49th INTERNATIONALE FILMFESTSPIELE BERLIN
by Harlan Kennedy
IT WAS THE last Berlin Film Festival of the tausendjahr and everyone had the millennium bug in the best possible sense.
Determined to make a snazzy farewell to an old century and locale next year the Zoo Palast is swapped for Potsdamer Platz, gleaming symbol of New Europe Berlin made sure that every creature was on parade. In the zoo the flamingoes were out every day, even when snowfall made them resemble walking pink candy topped with icing sugar. In the high-flying Interconti Hotel there were daily air-misses involving Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, Terry Malick, Shirley MacLaine, and the late Otto Preminger (just retrospecting through). And The Thin Red Line and Shakespeare in Love proved that Oscar night takes place in Germany a month before downtown L.A.
Shakespeare, the master of travestie, would have loved Academy nominee Nick Nolte in drag in Breakfast of Champions: "I designed the dress myself," Nick growled to the press; "my line will be out this fall." The Bard with the love and identity problem (as Preminger once said to me, "Nobody even knows that Shakespeare voz Shakespeare how could they know how he lived or loved!") would have appreciated the 11-times-Oscar-nominated Streep thanking Berlin with "At last some recognition" on receiving a Berlinale Kamera award. And admiring the fest's most popular early film, Denmark's Mifune, the author of Hamlet would have cried, "Faith, a princely Baltic drama. With much to say of madness, hypocrisy, and familial guilt. Hand me the quill, I too will sign up to Dogma 95."
That Von Trier-Vinterberg charter that gave us Idiots and The Celebration at Cannes proclaiming the virtues of a plain style with no artificial lighting, sets, or even camera tripods is now threatening to colonize the world. Next up are French- and American-directed Dogma flicks, the latter from Paul Morrissey. Denmark's Golden Bear contender was a whiny comedy with a rough, apache charm. In Mifune, writer-director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen sends a freshly wedded youngster (Iben Hjejle) into the country to tidy up after his pa's death. Once there he goes native, bonding with a retarded brother, a housekeeper-cum-callgirl, and a lot of wild scenery. His rich and spoiled bride, meanwhile, is demoted to minor comical interruption.
Back to nature is the plot, back to nature the style. There's a danger that the dogma oeuvre could repeat itself: Mifune, titled after the bridegrooms habit of dressing in rags and saucepan headgear to imitate the hero of Seven Samurai, could be seen as a blend of Idiots and Celebration, a toast to derangement combined with a malediction on class and money. But the movie has a bleak, idiosyncratic vivacity, never better or more convincing than when suggesting that all the world's a lunatic asylum and all the men and women merely inmates. It copped the runner-up Silver Bear, the Golden going to The Thin Red Line. (Foreign audiences had the advantage of being able to gasp at Malick's stupendous visuals without understanding his often groanworthy verbals.)
As hinted, Dogma stylistics are getting infectious. Or perhaps plain-and-moody canvases of human madness are par for a year with three nines in it. Turn the numbers upside down and you know what you get. Devil's Digits!
Germany's Night Shapes (Nachtgestalt) is a dusk-to-dawn portrait of the fest's host city, probing Berlin's weltschmerz with three tragifunny tales of disorientation. Homeless woman with gypsy boyfriend; country-mouse farmer falling for city-mouse tart, a girl with so many piercings she would explode an airport metal detector; distraught businessman saddled for reasons unexplainable (unless you have an hour) with a young black boy seeking his dad. Imagine a game of outdoor chess played in fog at midnight, then take away the existential quark you first thought of. Director Andreas Dresen shows a real, offhand comic talent. The tales unspool during a papal visit, so the lower-depths images cheap hotels, garbage-slushy streets, end-of-world bierkellers are intercut with teleflashes of God's gaudy spokesman strewing blessings like bread to ducks.
This debut director has an eye for the picture that is worth a thousand numbed silences: a vandalized Merc in flames, a man beaten up for absolutely no reason. Yet Dresen can also be perversely optimistic. He knows that the right occasion for making love can sometimes be a fleabitten hotel room over a noisy building site with a Pole in a jeweled cape preaching chastity on TV.
THE BERLIN MOOD "feelgood-while-feeling-bad" was caught by old-timers, too. Chabrol and Tavernier in the competition, Mike Figgis (well, oldish) in the Panorama section, and Dariush Mehrjui in the Young (?) Filmmakers Forum all made grim stories seem salutary, even funny.
The ex-pillar of Persian neorealism (The Cow, The Postman), Mehrjui made The Mistress (Banu) six years ago. But it was Ayatollah-banned for its portrait of a rich housewife who walks out Ibsenesquely on her weak-minded husband. Though previously walked out on by him in scene one he leaves for a brief elopement with his mistress it is less his infidelity that alienates her than his leaving her to the mercy of her own loneliness-dictated good deeds. The house fills up, Viridiana style, with charity-abusing waifs and scoundrels, looting from the gentle hand that feeds them.
Mehrjui proves that before the New Iranian Cinema there was a pretty good Old Iranian Cinema. His pic's daring lies not just in the denouement, the slammed door of female self-determination, but in venturesome style riffs like the fades to a single blaring color now red, now yellow, now blue or the geologically surreal closeups of a mildewing bowl of soup, cracked and mantling like a congealed swamp. The best rotting-food imagery since Repulsion's rabbit stands nicely for a rotten society. (Please send all fatwas to the editor.)
From Gallic buskers Claude and Bert came, respectively, a peak-form thriller and a rollicking impromptu on the French education system. No, seriously, it does rollick. In (Ηa Commence Aujourd'hui Tavernier ups the anti anti-bureaucracy/authoritarianism/philistinism on his prior education flick Une Semaine des vacances. For Nathalie Baye read Philippe Torreton, a young head teacher Pyrrhically battling parents, drug-prone pupils, and purblind town councillors. We expect a sermon. We get instead a brisk, deeply intelligent Steadicam satire.
Au coeur du mensonge (The Heart of the Lie) is Chabrol's best noir since Que la bete meure. Picture Sandrine Bonnaire and depressive artist husband Jacques Gamblin on a pretty Brittany cliff. Picture the house across the bay newly leased by a top media smoothie (played by real walking hair-gel Antoine De Caunes, compere of the sex telemagazine "Eurotrash"). Blend in eroticism, jealousy, food, and Bulle Ogier as the town gossip, then stir to the thickness of blood pudding. Yet it isn't the thriller aspects that thrill finally. It is Chabrol's terrific slyness: his knowing color schemes (nearly all variants on despair-blue) and his taste for visual paradox. One scene and one line "How do you walk into a trompe-l'oeil in the dark?" sums up in an audiovisual hieroglyph the entire spiritual tangle of these characters.
British cinema at Berlin continued its trend of being all things to all moviemanes, or trying to be. Figgis's The Loss of Sexual Innocence, a title as toe-crushing as an exam essay topic, deals with original sin in a multilayered fable. The bravely experimental structure first planned for a stage play has a black/white Adam and Eve in modern Africa, a hero at three stages of growth (kid, youth, man), Julian Sands in multiple epiphany, and a preference for symbolic bits and pieces over actual storytelling. No wonder Nic Cage passed on it, soon after Leaving Las Vegas rocketed him from $200,000 per Figgiswork to $20 million per blowing-up-the-world for Woo or Bruckheimer. Innocence is a failure, but fascinating: a film not so much exploiting, more exploring and deconstructing sex and violence as both staple movie fare and doorkey to psychic revelation. The last scene especially is a humdinger. This horror vignette in the desert a jeep accident resulting in a native boy's death and a white woman's ceremonial slaying could have been the linchpin sequence to a whole movie about life, death, and apocalypse in the land of unsheltering skies.
Britain also won friends and an award with the novel-based incest drama The War Zone, though Tim Roth's directing debut seemed to me heavy on the shadows and light on the schadenfreude. In the Nonconformist Sex Handicap as many runners and riders as ever in Berlin Lukas Moodysson's Fucking Amal (feelgood teen lesbians in Sweden), Anne Wheeler's Better Than Chocolate (feel-anything-going-including-edible-dildos lesbians in Toronto), Thom Fitzgerald's Beefcake (priapic rise of the male physique mag), and Ventura Pons's Amic/Amat (talky gay university profs, Spanish Disquisition style) were all weirder, wackier, and more piquant.
In addition to sex races, Berlin's countercultural mandate demands each year the Political Revisionism Steeplechase. This involves a large number of documentary directors jumping on nags that look like Adolf Hitler mane swept across forehead, postage-stamp moustache and riding their beasts into the ground. Competitors attracting particular attention in '99 included Israel's A Specialist, two hours of archive footage on Adolf's other Adolf, Eichmann, and Switzerland's Closed Country, about the cuckoo-clock nation's complex and penumbral wartime stance, broadly summarizable as "You send us the Jewish loot and we'll go on pretending to be neutral."
My personal docu-favorite was Kurt Gerrons Karrussell. This is all about the title burlesque artist who popped up in over 50 prewar Krautflicks, including The Blue Angel, and who also baptized the "Mack the Knife"-singing stage role of Tiger Brown in The Threepenny Opera. Gerron died in Auschwitz after a spell at Theresienstadt, where under duress he directed the now-infamous PR documentary on this "showcase" concentration camp. Smiling kids, lots of bread and butter (swiftly removed, we are told, between takes), and kindly nurses moving around like Florence Nightingales, though this exercise in glitzy showmanship more suggests Florenz Ziegfeld.
It's a small but perfect movie, made by Dutch filmworm Ilons Ziok. She had the great idea not just of rounding up witnesses, those who knew Gerron before and after he was thrust into the gray stripes, but of sitting them down for a Thirties-vintage cabaret of German songs sung by top practitioners (Ute Lemper, Max Raabe). The songs and audience reactions rueful, smiling, or tearful punctuate the Gerron narrative. It's as if we're on a cattle car to historical horror, the trip made more poignant by stops at stations of hope, pathos, and defiant affirmation.
Since then, Nazism has itself fed into burlesque. Top retrospective honoree Otto Preminger, unable to appear in Berlin for reasons of mortality, poked black fun at the Reich as the prison-camp commandant in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 and made a German accent demonizable for a new generation in TV's "Batman." Betweenwhiles he directed some movies. These were paeans to liberalism made by a man who could chew actors to pieces as effectively as any Reichskommandant.
Life's a puzzle and then you die. Some troupers, happily, never seem to. Shirley MacLaine came to Berlin complaining that she couldn't raise her right leg as high as her left any longer. Who was asking? Shirley is still triumphantly Shirley: a girl who combines true star quality with an insight into other astral verities. If her friends could see her now, they would have observed a glamour-pixie putting in a morning's shopping at Ka De Me, Berlin's Bloomingdales, before accepting a lifetime achievement award.
This brings us to Katy Jurado, another Hollywood trouper, who plays a clairvoyant in Stephen Frears's The Hi-Lo Country. "You wan' de cards or de crystal?" is her only line, but it summed up America's presence in Berlin. If you wanted the cards you could sit and be dealt Berlin's usual flush of stars, showcasing their iconic immanence in Playing By Heart, One True Thing, or 8mm. If you wanted the crystal you could gaze into deeper, dippier U.S. wares like Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune (I loved it, some didn't), Alan Rudolph's Breakfast of Champions (I hated it, some didn't), or the aforesaid Frears neo-Western. This last takes a long time to go nowhere much, but perhaps its stubborn, even heroic lentissimi explain the Best Director prize.
Also from America and points multilateral drifted the annual mega-floe of gay movies, of which a mere tip is mentioned above. Germany, on behalf of Europe, is now joining the world. And who knows but that Berlin's pre- and post-Hitler tradition of laissez-faire morality and life-affirming culture may yet infect the globe; may yet start to atone for what was done by the creature with the sub-Chaplin moustache or by later Berlin-oppressing ogres with a fondness for gulags and wire-topped walls.
Out in Potsdamer Platz the new hotels and cinemas are rising. They make gleaming Metropolis canyons from the once drab and sprawly streets near the ex-East/West border. A giant poster of Andie McDowell, advertising L'Orιal, smiles amid the building cranes. Near the newly named Marlene-Dietrich Platz, Marlene's own photo, blown up to hoarding size, bedecks the new Young Filmmakers Forum building. And if you wipe the snow from building-plot fences you can read signs saying NEUE FILMFESTSPIELHAUS.
It is an exciting time to be alive in Germany even in a place so near, so very near, Adolf's ex-bunker. Perhaps by standing on him in great numbers we can, come the millennium, exorcise him for good.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1999 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.