AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL – 1983
BRIGHT RED TOFFEE APPLES
by Harlan Kennedy
At first sight he may appear a trifle rough, even vulgar. But you have to remember that he spent more than half a century in Berlin, where there lives – as many a detail has made me realize – a species of the human race so bold that little can be gained by treating them with nicety; on the contrary, you have to grit your teeth and resolve to be brutal yourself if you don't want to go under.
It was a dark and wintry night when the Titanic came to West Berlin. This was not the ghost of the great ocean liner but a giant chunk of live-in sculpture, formed of a large slab of shiny gray stone pierced at an angle by a glass room. It was craned down from the skies on the FilmFestspiele's opening night. Astonished Berliners stood by and dropped their bright red toffee apples. The arrival of the Titanic, designed by Peter Sturzebecker and Kenji Tsuchiya to symbolize the split and encompassed city (a room of light encased in stone) also marked half a century since Hitler's ascension to power and was, possibly, the most alarming thing Berliners had seen since the erection of The Wall.
Behind this architectural beast (soon to be tamed by becoming a festival information and news point) lurked the palatial Zoo-Palast Cinema, where the early phase of the Main Competition was hitting an average of two icebergs per day. Enough to crack the spirit. Concussed passengers wondered how the festival ship could possibly survive a movie like West Germany's This Rigorous Life by Vadím Glowna, a story of displaced Germans in Texas oppressed by colliding accents (Spanish Angela Molina and Polish Jerzy Radzilowicz, Wajda's Man of Iron, play the lead "Teutons") and Fifties-style color photography. Or Daniel Schmid's high-camp Hecate from Switzerland, where Lauren Hutton and Bernard Giraudeau cavort through the North African casbahs. Here Miss H. surely becomes the first leading lady of cinema to be ravished on a balcony in full evening dress – and in very challenging ¾ time, to the accompaniment of an oompah waltz.
The festival rallied, and steamed on toward a fair final week. Balmy zephyrs arrived with four feisty movies by Margarethe Von Trotta, Eric Rohmer, Alain Tanner, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Von Trotta's was best. Heller Wahn (Labor of Love) is a smoldering tale of sibling loyalties like her previous film, The German Sisters. This time, though, the two heroines, mentally disturbed Ruth (Angela Winkler) and ice-cool Olga (Hanna Schygulla), aren't sisters, they're the wives of mutual friends. When they strike up an intimate, symbiotic friendship, despite the jealous cries of their males, Von Trotta seems to be bugling a reveille for a new Germany, reknit by feminist strength and wisdom and the banishment of patriarchy.
Labor of Love is also kookily electrifying on its own level of character-chemistry. Winkler, whose brother's suicide has tipped her into mourning madness, is a lightning-struck, black-garbed Antigone; her goldfish mouth is ever agape to communicate the incommunicable. Schygulla is a tender, musk-cheeked nymph in primrose yellow, with a streak of pure viciousness. The sweet and savage sides of a Platonic romance are strongly folded together, and the movie climaxes with one of the most memorable gunshots since Spellbound.
How the mighty are time-warped! Robbe-Grillet is still fixated on Marienbadesque surrealism. Tall men in tuxedos; sex and shadow-play in Palladian mansions; glances exchanged like moves in a game of Nim. There is nothing more formalist than some forms of irrationality. And yet La Belle Captive, photographed by visionary French veteran Henri Alekan, was the best-looking film in Berlin. Its plot – hero seeks beautiful girl, casually met the day before at a disco, who turns out to have been dead for six years – is the trigger to a Cocteau-like game of mystic erotic consequences, using Magritte's paintings as iconic text and a dazzling knock-on of non-sequitur as rhythmic base.
In The White City takes Swiss director Alain Tanner to Portugal, where he is hit by a dose of minimalism even stronger than the one that got Wim Wenders in The State of Things. Ship's engineer Bruno Ganz stops off at Lisbon to have a mid-life crisis. This consists of large hours of walking the streets or gazing out of his hotel window. Meantime, he has an affair with the young hotel maid, writes letters and sends an 8-mm film diary to his wife in Germany, and is mugged and non-fatally stabbed by street hoodlums. Sounds like my vacation.
Tanner says he made the film up as he went along. But no rude remarks, please, because this is one movie where spontaneous evolution does work – oddly, crankily, and eventually. A clock that runs backward, white sheets dancing in the wind, and Ganz's dazzlingly extemporized performance, built on doodles and tiny tics of behavior, tell the story of a man trying to create a clean-slate freedom by a constant, time-defying rhythm of wiping away the past and starting again.
In Pauline a la Plage Eric Rohmer says, "Take your partners, please" for another of the French helmer's sprung-rhythm sexual comedies. This one is set in beach-resort Normandy among a permutating sextet of three men, three women. There's something unnerving about Rohmer's productivity-rate. Like rabbits from a bottomless top hat, these toujours charmants tales keep being plucked. But this one is as wise and funny as the best, and no moviemaker in the world has Rohmer's knack for finding the tiny air-gap, like a man drowning in an icy river between farce and tragedy, and breathing deeply, luxuriously in.
A brace of movies in the Competition deserve to be hymned for their visual qualities. Xavier Schwarzenberger, the Austrian cinematographer of several Fassbinder films, directed his first feature, The Still Ocean, and it joined Robbe-Grillet's film and Erden Kiral's A Season In Hakkari from Turkey as one of the three handsomest movies on show. Hanno Pôschl plays a young country doctor coping with personal guilt (for past negligence that killed a patient) and a rural rabies epidemic. Meanwhile a pastoral storm of fabulous lighting effects – lucent mists and foliate shadows and swags of chiaroscuro – turns the film into an Eighties realm of true German Expressionism.
The Turkish film is differently eye-catching. Blocks of daylight-scorched Kurdish primitivism build the tale of an itinerant teacher spending winter in a snow-clad mountain village. Slow story but hewn and hieratic images. Kiral won the Silver Bear Special Jury Prize for the film.
The Golden Bear was again surgically bisected. Mario Camus's underwhelming La Colmena (The Beehive), a kind of Iceman Cometh set in post-Civil War Spain, shared the top prize with Edward Bennett's Ascendancy from Britain. Bennett casts Julie Covington (the original Evita who played Sister Sarah in the National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls) as a rich girl in 1920 Belfast; she wears the trauma of her brother's death in World War I in a paralyzed right arm and is slowly awakening to the new war on her very own doorstep, between the British and the Irish. (1920 was the year in which British rule came to Northern Ireland.)
The movie is decent and austerely serious, and Covington wears her black weeds attractively in a role that's really a one-woman funeral procession. But Bennett's direction doesn't make the pulse race, and he tends to simplify the Irish problem into a mere Emerald Isle extension of that old British warhorse, class conflict.
All in all, the 1983 official movies were some compensation for the fact that year after year fest-chief Moritz de Hadeln (and, before him, Wolf Donner and Alfred Bauer) has been caned red and raw for the poor quality of the Main Competition. This year, as if blessed by Herr Micawber, something kept turning up. And even on the days when something didn't, there were always the eventful Berlin sideshows – The Young Film-Makers Forum, The New German Cinema section, The Retrospective, The Information-Show – to which one dashed off for a hot and hasty bite. These filmgoing equivalents of the Imbiss kiosks on the sidewalks yielded up hot dogs and currywurst to gelid or expiring passers-by.
Ulrich and Erika Gregor run the Forum with firmness, vigor, and a brave attempt at air-conditioning, in a large, tomb-like air-raid shelter called the Delphi Filmpalast. This "alternative" event boasts huge and faithful audiences of the bedenimed young. If the kids can't find seats at a packed screening, they don't stand demurely against the wall as in the Zoo-Palast; they encamp on the tobacco-ashed floors or hang from the bomb-damaged caryatids on the ceiling.
Many of the Forum movies are either hard-line political agitprops or hard-core structuralist conundrums. The latter come with titles like (I'm improvising) Windows No. 17A or Replay Gestalt with Negative-exposed Taxis. They are good to sample as aesthetic flavor-clearers – cheese or sherbet – between courses. Some are even tangy and revelatory in their own right. Michael Snow's So Is This_______ plasters white-lettered words of varying sizes on a black screen and, like Godard in his heyday, shows the astonishing kinetic, sensual impact of words and letters.
But even the Forum stands or falls by its feature films, and this year it tottered. Best discovery was Tankred Dorst's Eisenhans. This plugs into the German Wozzeck tradition of boor-as-hero, with Gerhard Olschewski playing a lumbering beer-truck driver of low I.Q. whose devotion to his semi-autistic daughter (Susanne Lothar) is more than paternal. He remains undismayed even as Buchner-like tragedy falls out of the heavens, threatening to bash him on the cranium.
What galvanizes this monochrome movie of love's lumbers loosed is Dorst's use of an all-through symbolism of rift and rupture. The East-West German border setting acts as tuning fork to all the barbed emotional "frontiers" of the story – the girl's adolescence, the father's brute dithering before the no-go area of sex – and there are leitmotiven throughout that give imagistic density to the film. Cracking, grass-pierced tiles in a tavern kitchen are rhymed with quaked and fissured cobbles in a street. Turkeys and chickens squawk and clamor as farmyard ids. Best of all, Dorst unironically bestows angelic qualities on the girl (visual puns on haloes and angel's wings) but ends by making her passivity the strongest force of evil in the movie. "Slumberer, awake," the movie seems to say-perhaps as much to Germany as to its heroine.
Those who didn't want to wake could hibernate in the Retrospective. For an event that has previously fielded lustrous tributes to Lillian Harvey, Marlene Dietrich, 3-D und su weiter, this year's Retro was a disappointing rag-bag. "Exile: Six Actors from Germany" spoke the title, and the intent was no doubt to mark the 50th anniversary of Hitler's election-to-power by outlining six careers that might have been totally different had Herr H. not goose-stepped into history. Whether they would have been any more distinguished is open to question.
The medium-to-low-magnitude careers of Francis Lederer, Curt Bois, Dolly Haas, Hertha Thiele, Wolfgang Ziher (aka Paul Andor), and Elisabeth Bergner duly unspooled. But outside Deutschland, Bergner was the only "star" of the sextet. And even her elfin face, cracked-honey voice, and poor-little-rich-vamp persona wear thin when she's called on by director-husband Paul Czinner to carry movie after movie set in the same key of S for Schmaltz. Stolen Life is a fair 1939 predecessor of the Bette Davis classic, but Dreaming Lips is a gooey-eyed embarrassment entwining Bergner with "international violinist" Raymond Massey.
Today's Dream Factory, English-speaking division, came to Berlin with Tootsie and That Championship Season. The first was a special treat opening the festival and wowing Berliners with Dustin Hoffman's beaky transsexual allure. The second won Best Actor Silver Bear for Bruce Dern. Also on display, honoring Joseph L. Mankiewicz's presence on the festival jury, was a special screening of Alles Uber Eva – missed by me, alas, which means I'll never be able to honorably emblazon my T-shirt with the German slang version of "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."
In Berlin's market and Information Show – ever-expanding catch-all programs where the sublime rubs sprocket-holes with the certifiable – large slices from the underside of American cinema were served up in Berlin, hot and steaming. Liquid Sky and Vortex attracted massive audiences which equally massively dwindled as the movies progressed. The law of diminishing Punk returns – how do you keep your viewers interested when you shoot all your taboo-shattering bolts in the first reels? – sent many away with a new respect for minimalist Tanners and slow-as-she-goes Turkish pics.
Three of the best fringe-of-festival oddities were no-narrative meditations, using cinema's sleight-of-hand to warp us into different worlds, where time stops or speeds or slows, and traditional notions of "structure" are dissolved.
Echtzeit (Realtime), by Helmuth Costard and Jurgen Ebert, purports to have a thread of story, but on first viewing few could be expected to seize it, or even find it. The film is a danse macabre of trick photography set in a mysterious space station, where human beings have been reduced to ghostly "programs" of their past selves and vision is atomized into lucent beads and dots like a moving mosaic. It's a pointillist Wonderland, where the mansions are the human mind and the medium is the message.
Sans Soleil brings back to us France's Chris Marker, once a nouvelle vague name to juggle with. This globe-hopping documentary is a kind of Levi-Strauss-as-Supertourist: rhyming different townscapes and cultures (Japan, Africa, France) in a visual collage, while also pinpointing and celebrating their inalienable differences. The commentary is polymorphous-pretentious and springs from the letters of Sandor Krasna: "He said he had been round the world three times and that now only banality interested him." But the images, freewheeling from emus to umbrellas to computers, have a crazy-quilt poetry worthy of Robbe-Grillet.
Erik de Kuyper's Casta Diva, from the Netherlands, is an aria to the human body, male. In consecutive, unhurried, fixed-camera sequences, a man washes himself at a sink; another man fixes a strip-light in a bathroom; another cuts his hair; another repairs a car; another cleans a large mirror. The soundtrack is now mute, now quietly talkative, now exploding outward with an operatic aria or an Italian pop song. It's free-association serendipity, locomotion, and gesture as a ballet without rules. For 107 minutes it's oddly hypnotic.
On the last two days of the festival, two contrasting and much talked-about political movies juggernauted into West Berlin: Emile de Antonio's In The King of Prussia and Andrzej Wajda's Danton.
De Antonio shot his dramatized mock-up of the 1981 Ploughshares 8 trial – starring the defendants as themselves and based on a digest of the actual court transcript – in a tiny two days squeezed between the group's trial and imprisonment. The eight religious anti-nuke crusaders who stormed the General Electric building in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, taking hammers to nuclear-missile nose-cones, here pop up in wobbliest video to argue their pacifist defences before Judge Martin Sheen.
Given de Antonio's Marxist sympathies, you'd think it would be an open-and-shut case. And it is. The General Electric spokesmen are played (by actors) for maximum hot-under-the-white-collar pomposity, and Sheen as the Judge is so busily biased and near-dementedly short-fused that it's impossible to see how a mistrial wasn't called after half an hour. One suspects, in short, that de Antonio's "digest," even if it contains nothing but the truth, is so far short of the whole truth as to shade into an area all its own of fiction-by-imbalance.
Do "Zoo-Palast" wtargnął Danton Andrzeja Wajdy i zademonstrował widzom berlińskiego festiwalu idealne połączenie sztuki filmowej i polityki. Jak na film, który był włóczony po ostrych krytycznych kamieniach przez dwa tak różne konie jak Francuska Partia Komunistyczna i branżowa hollywoodzka "Variety", jego zalety okazały się prawdziwą niespodzianką. Film jest arcydziełem dramatycznego kina historycznego i każdy, kto ma oczy do patrzenia, powinien zadać sobie trud, by je szeroko otworzyć. (...) "Jesteśmy ostatnią szansą wolności" mówi Danton. Film Wajdy przekonuje nas, jak strasznie krucha jest wolność. Kto wątpi, niech podejdzie pod mur berliński
But the next night Andrzej Wajda's Danton bounded into the Zoo-Palast and demonstrated the perfect fusion of film-making and politics. For a movie that has been dragged over rude critical cobblestones of late, by such diverse horses as the French Communist Party and Variety, its qualities were quite a surprise. The movie is a masterpiece of historical-drama cinema, and those that have eyes to see should take the trouble to open them.
The Communists no doubt passed up Danton's rich complexity of theme and image because it didn't spew out a fortune-cookie message at the end and because Wajda, since Man of Iron, isn't all that popular with Poland's current government. Variety disliked the movie, more bewilderingly, because it was "stiff" and "literary." Did they stumble into the wrong cinema and see Gandhi by mistake?
Wajda and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (Buñuel's ex-collaborator) don't skim the surface, Attenborough-style, with a series of limpid Sunday School tableaux clinched by takeaway maxims. They scoop straight to the bottom of the pan to find the richest, darkest gravy, where political ideas and human passions blend. In Danton, as in all Wajda's best work, the people are their ideas and passions. Gerard Depardieu's Danton is a force of Nature, hands waving and lank locks streaming down a demon-worked face as he argues himself literally hoarse in the people's tribunal where he was arraigned in 1793 as a counter-revolutionary. Woijech Posniak's Robespierre is a force of Nurture – chalk-white moon-face strangled by high collars and a thin-lipped voice ever prophesying doomy Utopias. Robespierre is the passion of repression and auto-pilot idealism, even more terrifying, like a penned hurricane, than Danton's freely detonated fury.
Even Robespierre is given his slice of the human tragedy by Wajda. In the last scene, after Danton's guillotining he lies a-drench with sweat under a bedsheet while his young son, prompted by his mother, proudly recites by heart the rubrics of the revolutionary constitution. But for a moment it looks as if Robespierre, eyes popping with silent pain, is succumbing to death by lethal irony.
Great moviemakers are sometimes without honor even outside their own countries. Wajda was clearly fired to come to France to film the Danton-Robespierre conflict for its kinship with political polarities in present-day Poland: "counter-revolutionary" Lech Walesa versus the unyielding "revolutionary" rigidity of the Party. Once in power, Wajda argues, a revolutionary movement often becomes as autocratic as the tyranny it ousts. It congeals in its own dogmas; it is a prey to the barbarities it preached against; most alarmingly and irreversibly, it enthrones itself above the very laws it instituted with its first breaths of freedom.
No doubt Danton's ambivalences are too complex for modern European Communists, who want a message that spreads straight from the Moscow freezer. And Wajda hasn't even made the stylistic concession to them of shooting the film like an agitprop documentary – in that hand-held, smallpox-grained, shake-em-up style that's always considered the imprimatur of revolutionary cinema.
Wajda says that he took the neo-classical paintings of David as his model for both color (rich blues and grays) and lighting (from stylized shafts like Roman columns to the theatric flicker of candles). And the clash between formalist surface and seething, impassioned interior gives the film the very energy-through-conflict that is absent in most caméra militant movies, where style and Message redundantly and often concussingly duplicate each other.
Furthermore, Wajda's movie is about the struggle between formalism and freedom: the body democratic wrestles with the corset autocratic. When the screen does suddenly explode in a coup d'oeil – a giddying track-forward into the towering, black-draped guillotine, the hectic pan-shots that follow Depardieu-Danton up and down court as he argues his defense – the dramatic dividends are far higher for the surrounding restraint.
There is one scene whose fiercely funny idiomatic humanity radiates out and helps to heat the whole movie. Danton, not yet arrested but suspecting he soon will be, invites Robespierre to his house and sets out a lavish banquet to soften him up. But Robespierre remains unmoved as dish after dish is wafted solicitously under his nose – foie gras, quails, duck – and gestured impassively away. Finally the host, realizing that that game is up, sits down and sweeps each dish coolly and purposefully onto the floor before beginning his next stratagem: talk.
"We are the last chance for freedom," says Danton. And Wajda's movie persuades us of the terrifying fragility of freedom. For doubters, come to the Berlin Wall and see the Soviet guillotines.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1983 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.