by Harlan Kennedy



THE EYES HAVE IT. This 47th Berlin Film Festival was obsessed with themes of seeing and spying. Romeo courted Juliet on closed-circuit surveillance TV. Scotty sleuthed after Madeleine in repolished VistaVision. And then there were the windows: folk peering through them from outside (Spain's Secrets of the Heart) or inside (Hong Kong's Kitchen); obsessive references to defenestration (Raúl Ruiz's Genealogy of a Crime); windows that constituted vital plot hinges (Brazil's Four Days in September); and mini-windshield-wipers de-steaming voyeur Martian helmets (Mars Attacks!). No wonder the fest became known, to a widening circle of conspiracy theorists, as "Windows 97."

Offscreen, it all came to a head one day in my own hotel room. Standing on a tall chair to exercise an injured knee, I looked down into the Ku'damm and damned if I didn't see Kim Novak. Everything went giddy and the view concertina'd – my fall was broken by a passing chambermaid. Doctors call it vertigo.

Kim was in Berlin for a retrospective of her work – sharing tribute honors with that greatest through-a-glass-weirdly genius G.W. Pabst – and the only other time I thought I saw her (these dizzy spells) was through a plate-glass door. I was passing the Intercontinental Hotel, the fest's HQ. She was standing with her back to me staring at a giant still from Vertigo. Her blonde knot of hair was mimicked by the image of a woman with a blonde knot of hair staring at a portrait of a woman with a blonde knot of hair. Ah Carlotta....

Views lead to views lead to mirror-images. As James Stewart discovered in the pre-Vertigo Hitchflick, if you gaze through enough voyeurist openings you finally confront your own soul.

Among new movies, the best single genre-cluster at Berlin addressed this precise theme: rebound perception. Of three movies about violence sanctioned by politics, the best has already been snapped up by Miramax for U.S. release, probably to atone for the other Weinstein war opera at Berlin, the unsurpassably goofy, Oscar-favored The English Patient (aka "Lawrence of Aphasia"). Comanche Territory is a window/mirror fable par excellence. Three Spanish TV reporters are thrown into Bosnia, where they point urgent, dispassionate lenses at anything that moves or that doesn't move when it should. Dead bodies; exploding bridges; street sniper victims. (One morally and emotionally agonizing scene has them filming a death as it happens, from the barrel of a sniper.) It is all grist to their network, until they start catching bullets themselves, or their pals do. Suddenly their souls are in focus and their bodies in jeopardy. Filming in Sarajevo, Gerardo Herrero captures the maze of ruin, the roulette excitement of danger, the telltale trivia of daily fear. When the arriving girl reporter grounds her bags for a moment outside the shell-marked Holiday Inn, a sniper hits one of them. She hurtles emptyhanded into the lobby and nothing is done – or even said – about the bags till late evening. The banality of apocalypse, perfectly caught.

From Georgia, Graveyard of Dreams paints variations on the same theme, in Poverty Row black and white. In a ravaged corner of ex-USSR, neighbor fights neighbor. The gung-ho Georgia grunts push on through village after village until that moment too far when they find the guns pointing at them. Georgi Chaindrawa, knitting real and reenacted footage, brings us a minor classic: a war movie void of rhetoric or sentimentality, whose stripped and shaky visuals match its characters' souls, and whose moral is that violence always meets its doppelganger.

Coolest and cruellest of the three films was Bruno Barreto's Four Days in September. This is about that intricate corridor of moral mirrors: means and ends in political action. U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Alan Arkin is kidnapped by Tupamaro-style hoods. He's bundled off to a safe house for 100 hours of fear, but as the minutes tick by, the film makes us sympathize with the terrorists almost as much as the quarry. Nothing in Barreto's filmography – the funny-gnomic Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, the bleak love story Carried Away – prepares us for this Costa-Gavras-style political thriller. Though the film never dawdles, it takes back roads well away from the Boulevard De Cliché. Nothing is allowed to go according to Hollywood plan. The old woman who peers through her window at three fishy strangers on a street corner – the terrorists' pre-kidnap rendezvous – alerts the cops, who then take absolutely no notice. The eventual police siege is a stuttering near-fiasco. And the hostage-takers, throughout, are as subtly, vulnerably individualized as their captive.

If this cluster of political movies was about the long gaze of predation or inquisition ending in self-discovery, Yim Ho's Kitchen performed the same trajectory in a domestic setting. This was the best single Competition pic. The Hong Kong helmer who won last year's Berlin Silver Bear for Best Director with The Sun Has Ears – love 'n' death in Dynastic China – has gone from Mizoguchi to Ozu in a single bound. Based on Hanana Yashimoto's best-selling novel about grandmother-bereaved "Aggie," who grows up through meeting pain and loss, it could have been Schmaltzville-on-the-Pacific. Instead we have a movie like a planetarium. Yim's roving camera, quasi-extraterrestrial lighting (phosphorescent greens, yellows, silvers), and eye for the extraordinary in the ordinary – like the grove of concrete park tables like giant toadstools high above nighttime Hong Kong – turn this three-handed chamber drama into a metaphysical epic.

The other characters are Aggie's platonic boyfriend Louie (Jordan Chan), who seems gay but isn't, and the boy's campy mother Emma (Vasuko Tomita), who seems like a sex-changed man and is. We hairpin through their story, which begins as romantic comedy, takes in murder and suicide, and then returns to romantic comedy.

This pic's variant on voyeurism is our curiosity about the stricken. Our feelings can reach out like Louie's – part morbid, part compassionate – and if they reach far enough, the story shows, they end by telling us as much about ourselves as about others.

As before, Yim makes objects as much as actors tell his story. A lava lamp, a full moon, or a weirdly cambered view through Aggie's apartment window – commuters on an up escalator seen through an adjacent picture window look as if they were stairwaying to heaven – pitch the domestic into the galactic. And there are beautiful toyings with the theme of Time. Time standing still, after loss, while people recharge their hearts. Or time vanishing altogether on the soul's darker nights. In one beautiful riff on movie convention the camera dollies towards a wall clock whose dial hands we expect to dissolve into the usual "hours later" configuration. Instead the post-dissolve image is an empty wall: only a pale moonlike circle indicates where time used to be.


WHATEVER THE REASON, this Windows 97 filmfest said, everyone watches everyone else, if not through suspicion, then for reassurance. Three other memorable home-and-heart dramas, in which the human gaze seeks a path to love through seeming hate or certain loss, were Taiwan's The River, Spain's Secrets of the Heart, and the Finnish short film Today.

In the first, Tsai Ming-liang, whose Vive l'amour copped the '95 Venice Golden Lion, took Berlin's runner-up Silver Bear for a film at once hilarious and hieratic. Boy does a spot of movie stuntwork, playing a floating corpse in a river. Boy gets a weird neck ailment. Boy spends the rest of the movie seeking a cure, just as his family get caught up in a divine comedy of matching dysfunctionalism that involves everything from leaking roofs to ill-met-by-dimmer-switch encounters in a gay sauna. Tsai's Zen tragicomedies are a joy to watch, like silent movies sifted through sand; though even he seemed a bit flummoxed at the press conference when asked what specific scenes, subplots, or parallelisms actually meant.

In Secrets of the Heart a 10-year-old boy's voyeur instincts, spying through every crack, keyhole, or casement, help him break the enigma code of adult behavior, from the mysteries of a "haunted" villa to the secret of his estranged mother's love life. Director Montxo Armendáriz prowls his camera across Velazquez-shadowed faces that seem to have lived a hundred years, and that never lie to the camera even if they lie to the boy.

In Today, an unknown director, Eija-Liise Ahtila, gets my Golden Kennedy award as most promising newcomer. (This award has already brought you Jane Campion and Lars von Trier, so place bets now.) Scenes like image-splinters depict the crash and capsizing of a young girl's mind after her mother's death in a car crash. Nothing is explained, nothing attenuated as FLASH we watch her watching her weeping father bundled like an embryo on the bed FLASH we watch her bouncing a ball against a wall like a rhythmic comforter FLASH we reenact the crash itself with a giant, unexplained shadow rearing up from the road. (Was Mom killed by a car or by a Stephen King apparition?) It is all made pure and chilling by the girl's offscreen narration, an affectless inventory of observation as if Camus had scripted Firestarter.

Seeing is a deadly weapon. Only consider the fest's locale: All around me, the soon-to-be-ex-center of what used to be "West Berlin" is crumbling by the minute. Seared by the yearly gaze of filmgoers and other foreigners, the Ku'damm area now boasts shuttered shopping malls and razed blocks and is all but singing – you hear it in the wind – "Tomorrow doesn't belong to me." The fest is soon to move, along with the whole German government coming from farther afield, to Berlin's old center in Potsdamer Platz. Building cranes are pecking and picking in the once and future home of the Reichstag. And the couple who've been running a sausage van there for years, close to the ex-Wall, are now surprised millionaires.

This stared-to-death city will rise again to be stared at more. And the yearly dose of movies in Berlin, for Berlin and about Berlin – like, this year, Daniel Eisenberg's Persistence from the U.S. and Wolfgang Becker's Life Is All You Get from Germany – will have to change, subtly, to allow for urban genetic mutation.

Eisenberg's documentary is already fairly dead on the shelf: a semiotics exercise bristling with structuralist subheadings ("Presences," "Absences") and lordly condescensions of tone. The cut-ups of old newsreels are interesting; the voiceover instant apophthegms aren't. Do we really need someone telling us the air in Berlin is more bracing than anywhere in the world? (Smog masks have only just vanished from the city.) Or that Berliners are a secretive, self-absorbed race? They're actually quite gabby and friendly when you try.

Becker's pic is way in front. He depicts a city where ruin is a natural state. Its people get their existential agility from growing up like mountain goats on a zauberberg of rubble and memory. Becker's hero (Jürgen Vogel) is that quintessential Berliner: a no-hoper who hopes. He and the movie jump about over screes of subplots and subthemes – sex, HIV, unemployment, bereavement, TV quiz shows, German guilt – finding meaning at each point of seemingly ultimate meaninglessness. In this city as much as anywhere, a historical maze of mirrors, the further the gaze seems to range the surer it will end in your own reflection.

Not all movies at Berlin took us on winding journeys to (self-)revelation. Many resulted in people smashing their faculties into plate glass they didn't see. Festgoers with bleeding brains were seen staggering from such as Claude Bern's Lucie Ausrac (perfume pin-up Carol Bouquet fights for the French Resistance), Kevin Allen's Twin Town (a Welsh Trainspotting with signal failure), and John Singleton's Rosewood (or, How to Torch a "True" Chapter of Black-American History Without Paying Government Reparation).

America brought big arms and small to Berlin. Most people liked William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, which won a Best Actor award for Leonardo Di Capulet. And The People vs. Larry Flynt won the Golden Bear for best film, helped rather than hindered by a sex-and-blasphemy fuss about the poster, with Woody Harrelson crucified against a woman's crotch. (A liberal festival jury was in office, led by that famous Mitterrand sans-culotte, ex-Culture Minister Jack Lang.)

Less auspiciously for the States, Lauren Bacall had scarcely pocketed a Lifetime Achievement award from the fest than she was booed for the dopey and expensive French film she starred in with Alain Delon, Le Jour et la Nuit. (How quickly they turn; but then, the mirror has two faces.) And two Berlin dwarves were publicly humiliated by Warners, having agreed to appear as full-dress Martians for the Burton flick's cast bow.

And thus it went and so I went. On the fest's last day I had a busy time trying to catch a helicopter to the airport. Racing across Berlin's old rooftops, I slipped and had to cling to a rain-gutter one hundred feet above the ground. I was rescued by the kindly Horst Benzrath, greatest of all press officers. What more can you ask from a festival? Ich bin ein Berliner.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.