by Harlan Kennedy



As Gore Vidal quipped in Fellini Roma, some cities are better than others to watch the end of the world from. Or the beginning of a new world. Storey by storey in Berlin, the new Potsdamer Platz buildings are being magically pulled from the ground of ex-no-man's-lands by giant cranes. Story by story, the new European cinema is being pulled from dormancy by fresh imaginations.


Or that's the hope and theory, here in a balmy February, 2000 A.D. There are days when, as one takes the U-Bahn trundle through construction wastelands from hotel to festival HQ, Berlin's great building site seems almost as large as Berlin. This makes all the more dramatic the one fully completed square mile centered in the Film festspiele on wondrously named Marlene-Dietrich-Platz. The skyscrapers stand tall, glittering and Vegas-like amid a desert of debris.


Now 50, a movie event that used to be leftishly sectarian is becoming startlingly evenhanded with age and national unification. Hollywood in response has started favoring Berlin over other Eurofests, even Cannes: this year's edition was like Tinseltown East. Anyone wishing to flee L.A.'s saison d'enfer of "For Your Consideration" ads and pre-Oscar schmoozings had better flee somewhere else. Fest boss Moritz de Hadeln offered everything from Der Talentierte Mr Ripley, Drei Konigin (Gulf Western with Berlin-wowing first hour), and Magnolia to Der Mondmann (Jim Carrey proving popular despite playing a comedian few Europeans have heard of) and Oliver Stone's football marathon An jedem verdammten Sonntag (Al Pacino proving likewise despite managing a sport no European can understand).


American bounty took the pressure off the rest of the world. The best three non-U.S. competition pix, from France, Italy, and China, were small, characterful, and defiantly sui generis. Francois Ozon's Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brulantes) is as minimal as a Mondrian and as bewitching. A four-handed tragicomedy set in a single apartment, it's based on a stage piece by the 18-year-old Fassbinder. Aging predator Bernard Giraudeau takes in male teenage object of desire Zidi Malik, but the menage a deux becomes trois and then quatre. Two former female friends arrive. Tears before bedtime are promised; death before bedtime is the surprise novelty. Ozon's first feature, Sitcom, declared his style – the outrageous made gnomic. Here seduction, cruelty, and group sex are all in a day's play, and scenes take shape as affectless exchanges of wit: tableaux vivants with words. The characters don't just live their lives – they comb, groom, and gloss them. Yet when Ozon opts to turn up the dramatic volume, he does it with ease. Verdi's "Dies Irae" suddenly rings out triple-f. Or a vibrant song-and-dance number for all four characters is slipped in with the felicity of perfect incongruity. (This got an all-but-standing ovation.)


If Ozon's movie proves there is life yet in postmodernism, Zhang Yimou's The Road Home and Luci Gaudini's First Light of Dawn (Prime loci dell'alba) both return to a kind of narrative primalism. Glance too casually at the Chinese flick and you could mistake it for Dr. Zhivago gone Cantonese. Surging music. rhapsodic scenery (for Lean's daffodils read Zhang's silver birch trees), and the long flashbacked tale of a village girl's love for a schoolteacher, bookended by present-day scenes in monochrome. These feature a son recollecting in tranquillity and a now-elderly heroine, newly widowed, insisting that her dead husband's body be long-marched hack home from the city to the village he served so well. The idea: His spirit will always know the way home.


Cannes reportedly turned this film down, though Venice last year gave a Golden Lion to its companion work Not One Less (the two were made back to back in rural China). The six-hankie elements are there in The Road Home – no brutalist grandeur a la Raise the Red Lantern – but so are skillfully developed themes of defiance and tenacity. Repetition for effect is less a weakness than a design principle. In one time-ellipsing montage sequence the girl, waiting for a beloved mysteriously detained for months in the big city (reasons of Cultural Revolution?), keeps rising from the hillside where she sits in daily vigil, in shot after shot, with each shot subtly different in its choreography of emotional expectation.



Ultimately, The Road Home could he seen as a political movie disguised as an apolitical one. As well as championing love in a society of arranged marriages, it says, Don't take no for answer, nor silence, nor even (in the case of the grownup heroine's insistence on an epic funeral tribute for her husband) the community's official urgings over your own instinct concerning what is right. This was my personal choice for Golden Bear, but the jury chose to give it silver. I can live with that.


Italy's First Light of Dawn is also a love story – brotherly love – with a semi-invisible political undertext. Luca Gaudoni's film could be called Gianni Amelio Lite, a The Way We Laughed-like yarn about north and south, and commitment and noncommitment, starring that movie's "sensitive brother" Francesco Giuffrida as another introverted sibling. This time he plays wheelchaired junior to Giammarco Tognazzi, a broody intellectual returning to Sicily to tidy up after his parents are gunned down by mafiosi.


The M word is never mentioned, but dealing with the unsaid is what the whole film – sad, funny, and haunting – is about. A climate of fear so everyday that it needn't be named: a fraternal prickliness that we realize is about the simultaneous richness and inadequacy of family love: and a subtle, ambiguous pessimism in script and mise en scene that allows dramatic devices, like the younger brother's disability, to exist as both symbols and realities.


Gaudoni, Zhang, and Ozon show it's still possible to make small movies with distinctive national characteristics in the age of the mad coproduction. For a new definition of that category, try the film that opened the Berlinfest, Wim Wenders's The Million Dollar Hotel. This Vicki Baum for the video generation is so crazy that you could come to love it. The plot can be synopsized by questions: Why is nutty urban child-of-nature Jeremy Davies throwing himself off a hotel roof? Why doesn't enamored hooker Milla Jovovich stop him? Is it because he has seen Sunset Boulevard too often that Davies flashback-narrates his story from the grave? Why is FBI man Mel Gibson wearing a back brace? How was Peter Stormare persuaded to play a man who thinks he's a fifth Beatle? Did Edward Hopper give permission – from whatever celestial pool he's floating face down in – for Wenders to rip off his style in one digitized window-view backdrop after another? What were writers Nicholas Klein and Bono on, if anything, when they scripted this?


And yet.... There is great beauty in Wenders's offworld poetic reality, which has moved beyond Kings of the Road, The State of Things, and Paris, Texas to hover in some spacy zone between Earth and Heaven. And unlike his Wings of Desire diptych – suffering-for-art celestialism – The Million Dollar Hotel is an aesthete's delight. Camera movements of lyricism and mischief – surely that giant hotel sign, luring an exploring lens as a spider's web lures a fly, is Susan Alexander's shingle all over again – mix with moody, lovely colors and off-balance compositions. It doesn't seem possible to frame an overhead shot of Davies's head lolling on a bath's edge in the same rectangle as an expansive view through a window. But Wenders and DP Phedon Papamichael, who employ digital tricks throughout, do it. Indeed, the film is so in love with windows, and the magic trouve of their serendipitous framings of the outside world, that it's like an inside-out Advent calendar. One of the most muddled movies of the festival also remains its most memorable.


Elsewhere German auteurship is in crisis, or even in seizure. Volker Schlondorff is still making movies about those who fought the fight in the Sixties/Seventies/Eighties, when the Wall made ideologies simpler and more divisive. The title activist of Rita's Legends – played by Bibiana Beglau, an almost frightening ringer for The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum's Angela Winkler – sashays through German history as a decommissioned terrorist turned spy, finding troubled exile in the East. A few local subtleties don't vanquish an overriding sense of been-here-before. Same for the host nation's other Competition flick, Rudolf Thome's Paradiso, about a turning-60 writer (Hans Zischler as the Thome alter ego) rounding up past spouses and lovers for a sub-Fellini birthday party. (Does his wife get to do the same on her birthday?)


The Berlin sideshows filled up with other Teutonic triers: Jochen Hick chasing a conspiracy-theory AIDS plot to America in the gallantly hopeless No One Sleeps; or Sonnenallee (Sun Alley), a crude comic crowdpleaser about East-West tensions and snobberies in the Seventies; or the pulverizingly silly, rabble-rousing rave movie Fandango, Berlin's answer to Sundance's Groove (but who asked the question?).


Much better were Gordian Maugg's Hans Warns – My 20th Century (Hans Warns – Mein 20. Jahrhundert) and Thomas Heise's Neustadt, both in the Young Filmmakers Forum. Warns docu-dramatizes an old man's life by mixing real film with pasticherie. A century is chronicled in the cine-styles of each period as we segue from silent-movie sojourn in Chile – our sailor hero trapped during WW 1 – to more bustling footage of travel, romance, and South Atlantic adventure in WW 2. The strange, apolitical innocence of it all (no mention of Hitler, etc.) may or may not be intentional. Did Maugg intend a kind of photorealist Peer Gynt, the tale of a blithe, century-spanning greenhorn, blind to the momentousness of the history he moves through?


No reservations about Neustadt, a documentary as loose and louche as Wenders' movie. Its inquisition into suburban angst in die neue Deutschland features dole-dependent youngsters with dead eyes, a young battered wife recalling married life, concrete landscapes of graffiti'd hate. One scene has two old codgers reminiscing as they sit on a low wall. Codger number one remembers a friend who was an East German Stasi: "Herr Bartels…     "No names!" his companion suddenly turns and rasps. Codger one: "He was a friend, yes, Herr Bartels..." "NO NAMES!" repeats codger two, emphasizing the point with a blow to his pal's elbow. Liberated lives don't necessarily mean liberated tongues.


In Berlin you realize you don't come to a European film festival for fun, though there is charm of a sort watching Berlin trying to have fun. The thickly-wrapped crowds outside the Berlinale Palast shivering for a glimpse of "Leo!," here to open The Beach; the large, odd, shiny-blue sculpture that materialized outside the Palast one day for no known reason (depending on your Rorschach mood, it could be a bunch of grapes, a howitzer, or the inside of your head); the regular stage appearances of beaming, seignorial Moritz de Hadeln, festival leiter ("the boss"), urging onto the dais an even more beamingly seignorial Andrzej Wajda or Kon Ichikawa; or the eagerness with which we all surged into the Man on the Moon press conference hoping to see Jim Carrey and/or Danny De Vito and/or Latka and/or Tony Clifton.


Instead all we saw was one doleful Czech, Milos Forman. Asked to define the differences between American and European cinema, he stirred himself to one good aphorism: "In America you have entertainment first, soul-searching second, if at all. In Europe you have soul-searching first, entertainment second, if at all." Laughter. The laughter of the damned.


Souls in torment were popular at this festival, inside and outside the Competition. The people's favorite in the Forum was the Japanese Monday, by mono-monikered Sabu. A man (Shinichi Tsutsumi) wakes in a strange hotel with a brainful of ghastly memories from the previous day (syndrome known to all festivalgoers). We flash back to a corpse exploding at a funeral, a clutch of nasty encounters with gangsters, a climactic police siege. This ornately over-the-top black comedy might have benefited from some breathing spaces and characterization. But if you like the idea of Hitchcock's The Wrong Man remade by Sergio Leone, this is for you.


Every man Agonistes was also on show in three movies from the British Isles. Ireland's Saltwater is a keenly written directing debut from playwright Conor McPherson: a tale of two fish-and-chip shop brothers, their mangy dad (Brian "first Hannibal Lecter" Cox), and a dissipated university lecturer who get together for crime and breeze-shooting. Terence Gross' Hotel Splendide is a promising impromptu about a Fawlty Towers-ish health-cure hotel on a Scottish atoll run by, for, and with the terminally eccentric; nice idea, spasmodic execution. And Jonathan Nossiter's in-competition Signs and Wonders has that thoroughbred Anglo beauty Charlotte Rampling playing – for reasons best known to her agent – a jealous American living in Greece with the likewise "American" Stellan Skarsgard. The Britishness here is all in the creepy air of repressed suspicion, mazy distrust, and dream backgrounds incubating nightmare scenarios.


Nossiter's flick was made on digital video, a medium now firmly ensconced in every festival. Berlin's best divertimento, pure and wicked, was La Chambre des Magiciennes. Claude Miller weaves eerie, slurry retinal patterns around the thirtyish anthropology student (Anne Brochet) who finds that witchcraft, superstition, and other tribal matters are alive and well in the Paris hospital where she sequesters herself for chronic headaches. The woman in the next bed appears to be dead one moment, alive the next. The black male nurse is called Limoges since he has delicate nerves (though a nice touch on the bongos). And Brochet's doctor is the creepiest thing since Pierre Brasseur in Les Yeux sans visage ... talking of which, Edith Scob guests through as the heroine's mum.


With such riches, who would be the international jury? In the event, Magnolia's Paul Thomas Anderson won the golden grizzly, with Zhang and Forman relegated to silver and Best Director, respectively. Acting gongs promoted ethnic and global share-out by favoring two Germans – joint Best Actresses Bibiana Beglau and Nadja Uhi for the Schlondorff and Denzel Washington for (yuk) The Hurricane. For most courteous festival host, helping us journo-beasts through the new labyrinth, the unique Platinum Bear, gift of this critic, goes to chief press officer Frauke Greiner. And that's Berlin 2000, urbane miracle grown out of urban mayhem.









©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.