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BERLIN 1985 – THE 35TH BERLINALE FILMFESTSPIELE
A KNOCK ON YOUR AXIS
by Harlan Kennedy
For those struggling through ice and snow in search of celluloid – it was the coldest German winter since 1941 – the 1985 Berlin FilmFestSpiele was like a movie maven's version of John Carpenter's The Thing. The specter of good cinema hurtled semi-invisibly from spot to spot amid the Arctic tundras; it tended to stand still and manifest itself only when it had cannibalized enough vivid controversy and livid history. At Berlin this was a year of fact, not fiction. Gone were the cuddly gusts of good narrative that usually cheer this competition. Instead, howling blasts of documentary truth issued from everywhere: World War II Japan, Nazi Germany, Auschwitz, Nicaragua....
The army of documentaries at Berlin was led by four-and-a-half hours of Japanese war crimes in Masaki Kobayashi's The Tokyo Trial. Amazing – a festival audience that can start shrinking after only five minutes of, say, a 90-minute Rumanian fiction film about revisionist rhubarb growers, will stay to the bitter end of a 277-minute real-life courtroom epic.
Kobayashi, best known for costume gigs like Kwaidan and Rebellion, cut this blockbuster together from half-a-million feet of Pentagon film on WW II and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The latter is, of course, the Nipponese answer to Nuremberg, with the irresistible force of Western law weighing in against the inscrutable object of Japanese pride and nationalism. These were far tougher and more elusive propositions to confront – as the film makes clear – than the garish evils of Nazism, whose humiliation by Allied jurisprudence (i.e., Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster) every filmgoer knows by heart.
Kobayashi, not surprisingly, puts the weight of sympathy on the 28 defendants – former generals, admirals and prime ministers arraigned on a "basket" of charges including conspiracy to make war and commit atrocities. Though the trial is the movie's meat, WWII archive film is frequently cut in to give a bigger perspective. And there is a long but brilliantly concise résumé of Japan's prewar Manchurian adventure, which was (claim the prosecutors) the limbering-up exercise for their wartime expansionism.
But it's the trial that boggles the brain cells. It's a wonderful mixture of the heroic and the asinine, as twelve good magistrates set out to implement their laws, several of which seem to have been invented specially for the trial. Led by an Australian judge with a staggering likeness to Harry S. Truman, they eyeball across a crowded courtroom the accused Orientals, who eyeball them back with an attitude somewhere between incomprehension and unconsciousness. The most distinguished defendant, Hiruta, spends the whole trial in what seems to be a deep sleep.
There is comedy: One prisoner suddenly and inexplicably clouts a fellow prisoner across his bald pate and then stands up to begin a filibustering monologue. (He is quickly removed and later diagnosed as a tertiary syphilitic!) There is drama: the faces of the accused as, led in one by one, they hear their sentences of life or death. And there is culture-shock surrealism, as the pragmatism of Western law keeps colliding with the serene stoicism of Eastern mysticism. The Japanese defense counsel, we are told by the narrator, "based his summing-up on Oriental metaphysics."
The material is such a knockout it hardly matters that Kobayashi spends much of the time adjusting the scales of justice to suit his compatriots. Pearl Harbor was no unprovoked military atrocity but a "triumph of tactical surprise" MacArthur is a running dog of the imperialists – "From that moment [Hirohito's surrender] says the narrator, "Japan became MacArthur's empire." And the film adopts the device of swerving off in a new direction whenever things get sticky for the accused. The "atrocities" section of the trial is given about five minutes, before it's interrupted by some irrelevant Tokyo strike footage. And earlier, archive glimpses of the horrific Nan King massacre – when the Japanese, venturing deeper into China, slaughtered a whole town – are juxtaposed with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gotcha: anything the East could do the West could do worse.
But the bias is brazen enough to be noted and ignored, if one so chooses; and then one can gaze in untroubled wonder at the priceless raw material Kobayashi has assembled.
These ransackings in the vaults of history are a feature of the Berlin FilmFest. Last year it was Edgardo Cozarinsky's Memories of the Camps. The strength of these documentaries is that they are coming from ever more surprising quarters. Gyula Gazdag's Group Excursion is a Hungarian sidelight on Nazi atrocity. A coach flotilla of Auschwitz survivors journey from Hungary to the former death camp, stopping en route to eat, drink, and be melancholy as they recall (for one another and the film crew) the horrors of life under Hoess and Mengele. Finally they reach the camp. Here the grim ghosts hover even more vividly in the camouflage of the gray sheds, the model crematoria (the real ones were destroyed by the Nazis), and the "Arbeit Mach Frei " on the main gate.
The movie shows us a group of concentration camp survivors who have moved out of Hell to become "ordinary people." In doing so, it provides the priceless reminder that there are no ordinary people. Even your next-door neighbor can wear a smile over a nightmare.
Thomas Harlan's Wundkanal and Robert Kramer's Notre Nazi are no less grimly hypnotic halloos to Nazism. Harlan, son of Third Reich filmmaker Veit Harlan, has got hold of a Nazi war criminal – "Alfred F.", released from prison in 1977 – and shoved him in front of the camera for a two-hour docudrama interrogation. Playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself, the cadaver-faced SS veteran keeps tweaking our reluctant sympathy. As the camera probes, the tears start as he recalls his brother, who died in a concentration camp after speaking out against the Führer.
At times Alfred FF seems like an unjustly bullied old codger.... And then we realize the ghastliness of our own compassion for a codger who helped to kill 11,000 Jews.... And then we wonder if, even with a man like this, one shouldn't feel compassion. ...And slowly the movie pries open the spectator's ethics.
Kramer's film about the filming is, if anything, even more riveting. His two-hour video record throws as harsh a light on Harlan as on Herr F, as it becomes increasingly clear that the director's enthusiasm is not only for unearthing the truth but for exorcising his guilty love for his father, who died an unpunished and well-cushioned death on Capri.
Elsewhere, amid the traffic jam of good documentaries at Berlin, three stand out. From Germany came Tosca's Kiss, by ex-Fassbinder collaborator Daniel Schmid. Schmid pokes a microphone at the joyously batty denizens of Rome's Casa Verdi, a home for ex-opera stars bequeathed by composer Giuseppe. There's Signora Scuderi, wearing a wig and shrieking "Vissi d'arte" at anyone who'll listen. (She knows how to empty rooms.) There's a mad maestro out of a caricature, with shoulder-length white hair and the gleam of craziness in the eye. And there are moments of sudden shock and exultation when a correct note is finally hit by La Scuderi, or by her peers, or by the whole Casa joining in the slaves' chorus from Nabucco.
Kazuo Inoue's I Lived, But... is a tour of the Casa Ozu. This is a documentary biography of the great Japanese director, who made films about people going in and out of the front door, shaking their umbrellas, and having tea. Ozu friends, actors, and collaborators chime in with clinks of insight; the movie is like an ice bucket being rattled in memory of a great bottle of champagne.
But the real stirrer-upper among the documentaries was Werner Herzogs Ballad of the Little Soldiers. This intrepid jungle-beater has now macheted his way into deepest Nicaragua, there to film the anti-Sandinista guerrilla groups being formed by tribes of Meskito Indians. "For sree veeks vee tramped sroo jungle and svamp...," burbles Werner as the film opens. But this predictability is soon exploded by political heresy. Is Herzog siding with the opponents of the Sandinistas as the Meskitos curse the Communist raiding parties who have turfed them out of their villages, slain their men-folk, and driven many into refugee camps over the river in Honduras?
He is, much to the horror of the European Left, who have anathematized the film. But its grim sympathies are never simplistic. The camera looks on aghast as nine- and ten-year-old children are weapon-trained by former Somoza National Guardsmen to replace their dead fathers or brothers in the anti-Sandinista struggle. The resistance, suggests the film, is no less tragic than the oppression. But Herzog continues the Fassbinder tradition of having the courage to rile both Left and Right when it comes to despots.
And who is so rash as to complain of any Herzog movie in the current state of German cinema? The German New Wave has turned into the German Low Tide, a dismal mudflat strewn with seaweed and wormcasts. The festival's annual New German Cinema program boasted not a single must-see movie. Trite thrillers (Carl Schenkel's Abwärts) jostled with twitches of yesterday's surrealism (Herbert Achternbusch's Blaue Blumen). And political docudramas lay down with an interminable series of après-Fassbinder fishings in the waters of the drag world and demimonde. One could become certifiably insane sitting through every film about aging lady buskers (Gertrud Pinkus' Duo Valentianos), or aspiring drag artistes trying to break into the Berlin nightclub scene (Lothar Lambert's Drama in Blond).
The German films in the competition section were no better: Egon Gunther's Morenga, a piece of cap-a-pie nothingness set in colonial Africa and photographed as if through a sack; Christian Ziewer's The Death of the White Horses, earnestly and endlessly "mythic"; or Horst Kurnitsky and Marion Schmid's aridly pretentious Niemann's Time, a semi-documentary Gordien chop-up about the evils of German gemütlichkeit, juxtaposing everything from picture postcards to old travel posters – a sort of Gunfight at the OK Collage.
The main competition is never Berlin's happiest event. But brief sparks did fly from four films this year: David Hare's Golden Bear-winning Wetherby, Bobby Roth's Heartbreakers, Hugh Brody's 1919 and – it's that man again – Jean-Luc Godard's Je Vous Salue Marie.
Hare's neat little English thriller, set in a Yorkshire village, has schoolteacher Vanessa Redgrave witnessing a young man's suicide and discovering a whole web of sexual and social repressions radiating out from this violent center. Redgrave is superb, and Hare's script is full of tangy one-liners about Anglo-Saxon angst and attitudes. The icky-centered Heartbreakers is applaudable for its performances, its incidental comedy, and the satiric lids being noisily taken off L.A. life.
From Britain, 1919 is a drawing-room tragedy spinning round two ex-patients of Sigmund Freud. They meet in Seventies Vienna – Austrian-born Maria Schell (now living in America) and White Russian Paul Scofield (now settled in Vienna). Buffeted by flashbacks and newsreel footage, they recall their crises of yore. Microscopically dovetailing private and political fates, the Brody film is a humdinger haiku of 20th-century evolution.
As for Godard, his is as impossible an act to follow as Wagner's or Joyce's. His new essay in breaking the rules has had cries of "blasphemy" hurled at it by the French, since it concerns a young girl called Marie who, though a virgin, gives birth to a child. She (Myriem Roussel) loves a man called Joseph (Thierry Rode), whom she meets off and on at a gas station. The latter has a big sign saying "Change, Tabac, Oil" – which I submit is a modern variant on gold (change), frankincense (cigarettes), and myrrh (oil).
This is a film you spend your whole time wildly trying to lasso with such inferences, since it stampedes past you at a great speed and distance, full of rapid cutting, often-inaudible dialogue, surges of string music (à la First Name: Carmen), shots of sun, moon, and sea, and hanger-on characters (a seedy gent called Uncle Gabriel) who leap up in mid-scene as if from a hole in the ground. The film is wonderful, it's exasperating, it needs at least four viewings, and one ends by urging less talented directors to admire but not necessarily to imitate.
The Berlin FilmFestSpiele has now been in the hands of Moritz de Hadeln for five years. And though he hasn't cured the chronic ills of the competition – an invalid long before he came to power – he has done wonders for the rest of the festival. The market is edging close to Cannes for richness and prolixity: twelve theaters offering some half-dozen movies each per day. The Information Show and the Young Filmmakers Forum have both made themselves far more accessible to the harassed festivalgoer through good documentation and extra screenings. And the retrospective beats anything other fests can offer in the way of looking back in amber. This year we had "Special Effects" – a program ranging from neglected classics (The Devil Doll, Forbidden Planet) to understandably neglected classics (Abel Gance's La Fin Du Monde, which is 85 minutes of pixilated domestic melodrama followed by five minutes of falling masonry and montage) to classics that aren't neglected at all and never should be (The Student of Prague, King Kong, Orpheus).
The old rubs reels with the new. Films are tickled over and explored. Their syntagmas are diegeticised (if that turns you on). And each year the Berlin fest finds a new way to recharge your batteries and blazon the importance of movies as challenge and change. Leb wohl, 1985. Heil dir, 1986.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1985 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.