GOLDEN BEARS BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL 2000
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
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
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
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
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,
("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
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.
APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 2000 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.