by Harlan Kennedy


Hollywood takes its annual pre-Oscar holiday in Berlin. As the airborne charabancs carrying Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Robert Altman, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest dip towards Tegel Airport and swish to a halt on the snow-edged landing strip, armies of mad Germans waving autograph books rush the planes. “Bitte, dein unterschrift! (Please, your signature!)” they cry, forcing pencils into stupefied hands as the stellar ones descend the airplane steps. Then the German fans dance around the tarmac singing. “ Ich liebe Hollywood, ich liebe die darstellerin, ich liebe die regisseurin! (I love Hollywood, I love the stars, I love the directors!)” Then fireworks go off in a dazzling display overhead. Then Berlin Film Festival chief Dieter Kosslick, borne aloft in chariot of fire, skims over the terminal buildings to consummate the final welcome.

Okay, it isn’t quite like that. The plane I was on, carrying Bob Altman and Woody Harrelson, unloaded its passengers without a single incident of frenzy. Maybe people were too astonished – if they recognized the duo at all – at seeing a frail octogenarian descend into an airport wheelchair (Altman), accompanied by a bearded fellow in a ski cap (Harrelson) with only a faint resemblance to the guy in WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP, NATURAL BORN KILLERS and TV’s CHEERS.

It was the theme of the festival, or soon became it. Celebrities, media folk and role models are only human beings: as good, as bad and even as ordinary, for much of the day, as the rest of us. It was a message purveyed by the three best films at Berlin: A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, directed by Altman from a Garrison Keillor screenplay; CAPOTE, a searching, literate showcase for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-nominated turn as the IN COLD BLOOD author; and Claude Chabrol’s L’IVRESSE DU POUVOIR (INTOXICATION OF POWER), demonstrating that our betters and our moral exemplars – here a Paris investigating magistrate played by Isabelle Huppert – also have deeper pits to fall into when they take a mis-step.

Altman’s film is princely. Critics who had prepared their quills to dismiss it as a divertimento had to think again. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is about the dying of an age, reified in the funny, touching farewell broadcast of a Minnesota local radio show, not removed by 100 miles from Garrison Keillor’s own. With everyone’s nerves stretched on the rack of finality, no wonder Keillor and singer and ex-flame Meryl Streep exchange some tart innuendoes around the mike, Harrelson and fellow Texas crooner John C Reilly put extra edge into their blue-joke patter, and Kevin Kline – as a Chandlerish private eye hired as resident security expert – recognizes the strange lady with the blonde hair and white trenchcoat (Virginia Madsen) for what she is, an angel of death.

With that last element it could have become Radio MCTS: Metaphysical Codswallop and Then Some. But Altman has not been around for 40 filmmaking years without realising the value, and developing the skills, of a light touch. His camera floats bodilessly around the crowded set. It eavesdrops on the spoken sentences and unspoken heartbreaks of these radio troupers giving their all as they give their last.

Death claims an old country singer (LQ Jones) but does not burden his demise with spurious dignity: the corpse takes its leave with a salvo of flatulence, heard from outside the door of its ‘lying-in’ by old friends determined not to giggle. And when death returns to escort Tommy Lee Jones to his demise as the ‘axeman’ – the big business hit-person sent to pull the show’s plug – it is just as fleet and flippant. Altman is old enough to know that Death may be imperious, Death may be unchallengeable. But that is no reason to let him be a party pooper. There are enough wit, wisdom and mellow sublimity in A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION to lay on it the best epithet of all, Renoirian.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the main reason to see CAPOTE, though not the only one. That mincing whine camp with preciosity – that southern-twanged treble delivered through pursed adenoids and queenly lips – is caught so accurately that you want to search Hoffman for a recording/transmitting device. Maybe it is Truman Capote’s voice, brought to us through the miracle of invisible technology? But Bennett Miller’s direction and Dan Futterman’s script make this more than an impersonator’s one-man show. The whole grisly arc – from the IN COLD BLOOD-inspiring murders to Capote’s shameless emotional manipulation of killer Perry Smith for his nonfiction-novelistic ends – is hypnotic. And when you come out of the hypnosis you are still twitching. Hoffman himself has overleaped mimicry long before the end. He taps the horror – including horror at himself and his appetite for the pruriently infernal – that lay inside a murder story that began as a simple magazine commission.

Isabelle Huppert in L’IVRESSE DU POUVOIR begins as a simple juge d’instruction: one of those magistrates they have in France to do pre-trial investigative work with crime suspects. But Huppert being Huppert, and Chabrol being Chabrol, there is no such thing as a simple juge. Before you can say ‘haute couture’ the actress is walking round in knock-em-dead outfits. The sky-blue trenchcoats, the umpteen pairs of red gloves (somewhere between blood and burgundy). It is soon apparent that this character is indeed ivre du pouvoir, drunk with power, just like the top-banana businessmen she is investigating in a corruption scandal modelled on France’s ‘Elf Affair’ of some years ago.

Huppert makes such a meal of this role’s vixenish bounty – which includes a husband henpecked by disdain and garrulous silence and a craven boss whom she instructs “to go out and buy a pair of balls” – that you could argue her seven films for Chabrol now constitute a canon. A film fleuve about designing women whose chief design is ascendancy over, or annihilation of, men  (VIOLETTE NOZIERE, MADAME BOVARY, LA CEREMONIE……). Chabrol, directing, tucks into his own meal, a spare but gourmet repast of subtly restrained colours, rationed camera movement, and strong music used when – and only when – the melodramatic knell tolls for those who can no longer delay the law’s judgment on their crimes or the cinema’s judgment on their lives.   

Back out in Berlin the meal I tucked into myself, to stay alive for my judgments on life, art and film, was a currywurst. There I stood at a food kiosk on a Ku’damm sidewalk wolfing the Teutonic equivalent of a large, piping hot dog, washed down by a Kronenburg.

Meanwhile I watched time and history pull Germany towards a future that is already looking a bit new-millennnial, is already suggesting a nation that may someday be enfranchised from guilt, remorse and moral debt. I noticed that some of the city’s multicoloured bears this year – those wacky street sculptures that have been a feature for a decade – are raising their right paws in “sieg heil!” salutes. I tell myself this is a joke, not a new manifestation of neo-Nazism: that in the age of THE PRODUCERS (the film of the musical of the film) even Germany can start laughing just a bit at the worst demon in its history (But is it wise?). And the idea of a Berlin Film Festival where people can actually have a giggle may be the most revolutionary turnabout in European cultural history. Auf Wiedersehen!






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.