AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL – 1980
by Harlan Kennedy
This year at the 30th Berlin International Film Festival, the title of the official Soviet entry, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, had an ironic, eerie aptness. In the festival brochure the film's director, Vladimir Menchov, asks: What self-awareness and new experiences have the last twenty years brought us? Let's not all answer at once.
Happily, the jury asked an easier question. Wolfsburg or Wyoming? And in a photo finish, America split the honors for best film with West Germany. The Golden Bear went to Richard Pearce's Heartland and Werner Schroeter's Palermo oder Wolfsburg (Palermo or Wolfsburg).
Pearce's homesteading epic was a huge and instant hit. The director has spirited his camera to 1910 Wyoming and produced a lush and scenic movie; but there's also something bravely, gruffly deglamorized in its story of middle-aged cattle ranchers who carve out a winter of survival – and a life – in bleakest prairie land that sets it apart. The plucky, characterful performances by Rip Torn and Conchata Ferrell echo the strong and gritty honesty of the era Heartland recreates.
If Heartland satisfied the nostalgics among festivalgoers, Schroeter's three-hour tragédie à thèse, Palermo oder Wolfsburg, was a foot pushed firmly forward into the present. The true story of a Sicilian-born Gastarbeiter who murdered two German fellow workers at Wolfsburg's Volkswagen plant inspired Schroeter'' epic tale of two star-crossed cultures. The early scenes in bronzed and crumbling Sicily are superb – Schroeter splashes music over them like wine and orchestrates a masterly tone poem of Italian vivacity. Uprooted to darker, chillier Germany, the hero's Candide-like bewilderment is instantly credible; and after the murder – an impulsive fracas following a party – Schroeter turns the screw on his already intensified realism by giving us a trial scene that's ever more hallucinatory and frightening. It's a movie that widens the mind.
Elsewhere in the competition, Moritz de Hadeln, this year's new incumbent director, assembled a bunch of movies that looked better on paper than they proved in projection.
Andrzej Wajda's Dyrygent (The Conductor) has Sir John Gielgud warbling genteelly through the role of a world-famous maestro who returns to his native Poland, siren-lured by the daughter of an old flame. The plot is several degrees of nothing very much, but Wajda makes much ado about it with frenzied camerawork and (from all but Gielgud) over-the-top performances. One of the latter won the best actor award for Andrzej Seweryn.
Marco Ferreri gives us twee French children and a kindergarten fable of evolution in Chiedo Asilo (No Child's Land). Geraldine Chaplin emotes as if to save her life in Miguel Littin's La viuda de Montiel (The Widow Montiel), but can't save this mazy, meandering version of a Latin American novel by Gabriel Garcia Márquez from a flashback-ridden feyness. István Szabó's Bizalom (Confidence) is a television play in movie's clothing dourly chronicling a World War II love story in a drab, mostly one-room setting.
A trio of more upbeat, up-to-date movies materialized in Britain's Rude Boy, East Germany's Solo Sunny, and the French-German Death Watch. Rude Boy, directed by Jack Hazan and David Mingay, sports spunky real-life rock footage of the Clash, but crashes into inconsequentiality when it tends its humble fictional plot about the group's roadie (Ray Gange) who's searching for his soul in the sleazy labyrinths of punk London.
Konrad Wolf's Solo Sunny won Renate Krössner the best actress prize, but her perky performance as a sleep-around chanteuse has a hard time electrifying this sub-Cabaret slice of life behind the iron curtain. Finally, there was Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch: a never-say-die chunk of Big Brother science fiction set in Glasgow, starring Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel (as a walking, talking television camera, thanks to the miracles of futuristic eye surgery).
This time around, the festival's epicenter was to be found not in the competition but in the nocturne season, another de Hadeln brainchild. The controversial sidebar event was built around the theme of sexuality, and ranged from the sonorously humanistic (Catherine Breillat's Tapage nocturne) to the exuberantly exploitative (Arthur Bressan's homosexual porno romp Forbidden Letters).
Standing out firmly was Nous étions un seul homme. Philipe Vallois's film is like a bisexual As You Like It: a sylvan setting, a time almost out of war (rural France during the German occupation), and a triangle of lovelorn characters. The film spins some marvelous will-they-won't-they suspense as it skirmishes with ever impending homosexuality and/or troilism, and there's a prelapsarian piquancy hard to resist in this portrait of a rustic Eden teetering on the brink of the sexual Fall.
Though confined to the ghetto of the night – screenings were at 11 P.M., followed by discussions until 5 A.M. – this anthology of the Art of Love pushed back the barricades of the permissible at the Berlin festival, and also made brave motions toward achieving that comprehensiveness that any big festival should aim at.
If sex and love threaded the late-night fringes of the festival, death – their old counterpart – haunted the program of New German Cinema. A murky masochism stamped movies like Ingemo Engström's Letzte Liebe (Beyond Love), Ulrike Ottinger's Bildnis einer Trinkerin (Portrait of a Female Drunkard), and Peter Fleischmann's Die Hamburger Krankheit (The Hamburg Disease), all dealing with themes of self-destruction.
The two best films in the New German Cinema program managed, if not to shake off, at least to keep at arm's length, this self-flagellating introspection. Alexander Kluge's Die Patriotin (The Patriot) certainly shows Germany scrutinizing its own navel, but there's a fine flexing of Kluge's old magic in mixing fiction and documentary.
From Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), his sketch of a woman history teacher, Kluge has plucked Gabi Teichert and shows her here fighting for a new way of teaching German history both in and out of school. History, argues the movie, should be ever changing, and every new generation should fight to make a history that's palatable for the next. Kluge's darting, eclectic wit deploys anecdote, newsreel, drawings and paintings, and – as a comic coup de grace – the narrator is the talking knee of a soldier who died at Stalingrad. Only connect.
Equally deft at turning the portentous into the piquant is Heidi Genée's 1 + 1 =3: The warmer side of Women's Lib is seen in this engaging story of a girl who won't get engaged. Made pregnant by her boyfriend, who promptly (if briefly) runs out on her, the heroine declines to have the abortion that friends and relatives urge, and as her belly grows, she swans serenely about refusing to husband-hunt, although offers come her way. The pincer conspiracy of bourgeoisie and bohemianism – one urging the cure of marriage, the other the prevention of abortion – is hilariously depicted, and the movie combines lively acting with bright primary color to create a popular feminist winner.
The Young Filmmakers Forum, the festival's counter event, was weakened this year by the talent drain to a more adventurously selected competition and to a more prolific choice of sidebar events. But America held its head above water in the forum, with a buoyant cluster of low-budget oddities from directors like Les Blank and Eagle Pennell.
Blank served up two typically screwball documentaries, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers and "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." The first is a lyrically madcap paean to the immortal herb and an A to Z of exotic ways to cook it. The second, a twenty-minute short, shows how that ever game Teuton Werner Herzog cooked and ate his footwear before an enthusiastic audience of young Americans. U.S. filmmaker Errol Morris had extracted from Herzog a promise that he would guzzle his shoe if Morris ever made his much-vaunted movie project Gates of Heaven. Morris made it; Herzog didn't waver from his wager; and the shoe duly came up piping hot from the saucepan, flavored with tomato, herbs, and, of course, garlic. "I am quite convinced," concludes Herzog with hieratic seriousness, "that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking."
Equally wondrous in its poker-faced humor is Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match. The life and times of two get-rich-slow Texans, vainly trying to hit the jackpot with a series of ever more lunatic inventions, are portrayed in this lazy, grainy, seraphically deadpan film. Permell sustains a hair-trigger balance between slapstick and saintliness, and the performances are a joy.
Meanwhile, holding sway in the festival's Retrospective section this year were festive tributes to Billy Wilder and 3-D movies. At the UFA-Pavillon Wilder's long-lived brilliance was celebrated with a cluster of vintage favorites – from Some Like It Hot to Irma La Douce – as well as a roundup of his early work as a screenwriter in Germany.
Bwana Devil, Hollywood's first 3-D feature, opened the Retrospective and deployed some stirring moments. It also gave a fair hint of why it and similar movies closed down the process in America after a mere two years. 3-D was coined in 1952 as a counterchallenge to the rise of television, but it was soon ousted in that role by CinemaScope and Cinerama.
Half the trouble was the movies themselves – strenuous comic strips employing horror, sci-fi, and monster fantasy, and all too patently built around the diminishing-return impacts of the standout, make-'em-flinch 3-D effect. The other half was the means whereby the effects were achieved, the colored spectacles that perched querulously on the nose and caused eyestrain and headaches in equal measure.
Still, as Oscar Wilde once said in a different context, you need a heart of stone not to laugh at the venturesome idiocy of a film like Gorilla at Large, wherein Anne Bancroft copes with a furry hearth rug, attempting, with not unsympathetic anxiety, to get out of the cinema screen and into the audience. After a week of Gorilla at Large, House of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, and other jack-in-the-box entertainments, queues were still forming on the sidewalk, and one wondered if 3-D in the Western world hadn't been given euthanasia before its time.
Wonderment was sparked chiefly by a brace of recent Taiwanese films: Chang Mei-Chung's 13 Nuns (1976) and Dynasty (1977). These were not only eye-openers, they were seat-breakers. The physical recoil factor was higher than in any other movies in the 3-D jamboree, and you kept hitting the back of your chair as spears, stones, flaming arrows, and flying axes hurtled toward you, skimming the heads of filmgoers in front.
Reeling back to the Zoo-Palast, one found the festival proper closing on an equally high and humdinging note with Nicolas Roeg's new film, Blackout. Aptly and raptly drawing together the two themes that seemed to thread this year's festival – love and death – Roeg's erotic thriller showed as the out-of-competition Gala Finale treat. Its German release title camouflages a film soon to be shown in America as Bad Timing. If applause were infectious, Berlin's heady response to Roegs latest work should ensure it a long and lustrous run.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1980 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.