AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN 1990 – THE 40TH BERLINALE FILMFESTSPIELE
A FESTIVAL ISLAND WITH BROKEN WALLS
by Harlan Kennedy
Wilkommen im Berlin.
First, vital facts and figures. Number of East Germans migrating to West Germany each day: 3,000. Cost of a piece of Berlin Wall bought at Brandenburg Gate: 6DM. (Cost of my own piece: nothing – I reached in and grabbed it.) Height of Berlin Film Festival chief Moritz de Hadeln: 6 foot 1. Number of years in office: 10. Total number of years festival has operated: 40.
From this we can see that the Berlin Filmfestspiele began a new era in 1990 – hallelujah! – and the only thing that hasn't changed is the boss's height.
Two important things have changed: 1) The German Democratic Republic has leaned over its wall and said, "Please, sir, can we give our country back?" 2) There has been a galloping increase in America/Hollywood's presence in the Main Competition – seven out of 30 films from the USA. This was too much for one festival committee member, German helmer Helma Sanders-Brahms, who stormed out of a pre-festival selection meeting and later slagged off fest chief de Hadeln for being too kind to Tinseltown.
But hold on, Miss S-B. Nothing is simple in the age of musical powerblocs. As countries and cultures change places and dance, when is a Hollywood film a Hollywood film? At Berlin only two of the competing U.S. movies were directed by Americans. Elsewhere the Starred-and-Striped limos purring in from Tegel Airport boasted an Australian (Bruce Beresford), two Brits (Karel Reisz, Roland Joffé), a German (Volker Schlöndorff), and a Franco-Greek (Costa-Gavras).
The age may dawn – let it be soon, pray God – when movie festivals function without reference to national signatures. (Or even to Helma Sanders-Brahms.) Certainly Berlin has led this movement throughout the Eighties. As a Western festival islanded in an Eastern landmass, it has experienced too many loony political furors – as when the Russians flounced out over The Deer Hunter ten years ago, or when the entire jury resigned over Germany's anti-Vietnam film OK 20 years ago – not to have begun to see the silly side of it. Today it's hands across the divide, not fists, and about time, too.
The pre-millennial vogue in Europe is for disowning nationhood and hugging federalism. Down side: an increase in "Euro-puddings," those nightmare pix in which, say, a Dutch actor mouths English dialogue in an Italian-directed film based on a Paris-set novel by an Austrian author. (It couldn't happen? Try Olmi's Legend of the Holy Drinker.) Up side: a sense that every other country's problems touch our own. The two best films at Berlin each combined a political case-history specific to its nation with a dramatic resonance that gave the work an international passport.
• Alexandro Agresti's Secret Wedding (Boda Secreta). Any movie that opens with a nude man stumbling out of a dark tunnel towards "rebirth" in the Buenos Aires streets looks as if it has a bad case of Freudian Cheek. But this fable of a returning "desaparecedo," seeking the love of a lost girlfriend in the small town he hasn't visited for 13 years, can take sweepstake money now as the best Latin American movie of the Nineties.(Only 3,500 viewing days to go – place your bets.)
Agresti wrote, directed, and lensed the picture, which hums with visual and comic invention. Crane shots sweep around our dumpy, mustachioed hero as he moves through a conspiracy of non-recognition in his hometown. The priest thinks he's an agent of Satan. The town officials think he's from the KGB ("How are things, Tovarich?" they test him with). And the girlfriend, who's faithfully pined for him since his arrest by the junta, doesn't even know him – even though the photo of him in her bedroom is identical to the man today.
The film is Gogol's The Inspector General flapjacked into a Nineties comic anomie. For Agresti, political disappearance in banana dictatorships is something that even reappearance can't cure. Re-exposed to daylight, the detainee gropes to rediscover his identity. But he finds a world rewritten by religion and propaganda, a world in which even innocent bystanders like the girlfriend have been brainwashed to present blind and ostracizing eyes to the dissident.
Visually the film is dazzling. The baroque swoops and cranes, the vertiginous low and high angles, create a lens-language to match Latin literature's "magic realism." (What a movie Agresti would make of 100 Years of Solitude.) Secret Wedding is about confusion as political strategy, shot in a style that takes confusion and transfigures it with richness, playfulness, and wit.
• The Nasty Girl (Das Schrecklicke Mädchen). Some enterprising arthouse should put this on a double bill with Agresti's film. Like Secret Wedding, Michael Verhoeven's political mockumentary asks the question "What is truth?", then answers it with a learned, wittily despairing shrug. Ex-schoolgirl Sonja (Lena Stolze) wants to turn her prize-winning essay on "My Hometown During the Third Reich" into a grown-up, lid-blowing dissertation. She meets – surprise – closed doors and padlocked lips. In Argentina the innocent disappear; in post-Nazi Germany the guilty disappear (while talking to you).
If directed by one of Germany's lumpen-polemicists, such as Reinhard (Stammheim) Hauff, this could have been a toe-crushing docudrama. Under the charge of Verhoeven – it was his tantrum-causing OK that sent an entire Berlin festival home prizeless – all is wit and rudeness. Small-town pomp is pilloried with black-and-white photomontage settings, as full-color characters debate before back-projected cathedrals, libraries, and town squares.
The style is neo-Brechtian, with speeches spoken straight to the audience, plot information given in pedagogic collages, and cartoonlike characters. Like Kluge and Syberberg, Verhoeven combines drama with lantern-slide lecture. But more than they, he gives the mixture a populist vitality.
The young Berlin audience cheered the movie to the roof – not just because it said "unpalatable" things about guilt-concealing Germany, but because it said them in such a palatably un-selfrighteous way.
Political censorship, though, can have a handicapping effect long after its official interdicts have been lifted. Eastern Europe has the motive and opportunity to make free cinema today but not the means, financial or imaginative. In the USSR especially, decades of "yes sir, no sir" moviemaking – and exile or prison for anyone doing differently – means the country approaches free expression like an athlete running his first 100-meter race after 50 years in traction. Aleksandr Rogoschkin's The Guard (Karaul), shown in competition, is a stiff-jointed yarn about mutiny-in-the-ranks on a convict transport train. Allegory of Russia under perestroika? It's too rheumatically told and smudgily photographed to be sure.
Russia's showpiece outside the competition was Prischwin's Paper Eyes, an ambitious illusion/reality romp, 2 ˝ hours long and seeming not a day shorter. A documentary filmmaker is acting in a movie about Stalin while researching his own small-screen special about disappeared Soviet TV veterans. Decades ellide; fiction mixes freely with archive footage; rugs are pulled from under feet. But structurally it's such a mess you're yelling "Help! Stop!" long before director Valeri Ogorodnikov has started on the home strait towards his message.
The best Eastern Bloc stuff hailed from just over the Wall. You'd swear fest director de Hadeln and Ulrich Gregor, Young Filmmakers Forum chief, stood under the Brandenburg Gate each morning catching the latest cans of celluloid as they were lobbed over. To be sure, "the latest" included East German movies newly unvaulted from the mid-Sixties: films on the order of Frank Beyer's Traces of the Stones (Spur der Steine) and Gerhard Klein's Berlin Through My Eyes (Berlin um die Ecke), that were begun in the false dawn of Khrushchev – bandying free-thinking views on union rights, sex, and Marxist inefficiency – but quickly aborted under Brezhnev. There were also documentaries of last year's October uprisings – e.g., Thomas Fricke's Ten Days in October, Thomas Eichberg's Dresden New Beginning 89 – whose makers boldly gambled on whether they'd end up looking down the rosy path of freedom or the barrel of a Kalashnikov.
In a year like 1990, "Human Beings Rally Against the System" is bound to be the shingle hanging over the competition. It certainly hung above the U.S. movies, from Music Box to Born on the Fourth of July, from Shadow Makers (Euro-retitle for Fat Man and Little Boy) to Driving Miss Daisy, with its Oscar-gobbling tale of détente between two Deep South never-the-twainers.
The "Us vs. Them" theme was everywhere among this year's Golden Bear contenders. From Canada, Michel Brault's Paper Wedding (Les Noces de Papier) has Genevičve Bujold holding her country's immigration law upside down and shaking it till the small-change lunacies fall from its pockets. She agrees to a marriage of formality with a nationality-seeking Chilean, but then we get the made-for-TV irony: she falls in love with him. In Xie Fin's Black Snow (Ben Mong Noan), from China, an ex-con tries to hack out a new life in the compassionless Peking streets, as the skies grow dark over Tiananmen Square. And Jiřıَ Menzel's 20-year-old anti-Communist comedy Lark on a Wire (Skřiváci na Nitıَce), now unbanned by the Czechs, gives mirror flashes for freedom in its story of shipyard-working "bourgeois" prisoners taking the mickey out of Marx and management.
Just about the only apolitical movie in Berlin was from that unreconstructed hedonist Pedro Almodóvar. Apolitical? Well, that may have been the idea. In practice, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (ˇAtame!) could have been subtitled "Women's Libbers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Boos and jeers from shocked feminists greeted this tale of a luscious film star (Victoria Abril) kidnapped by a gentle maniac (Antonio Banderas) and held under house arrest until she agrees to fall in love with him. Can she? Should she? Will she?
Yes to almost everything. First we get 90 minutes of popsicle-hued farce-cum-suspense. Then we get a payoff so inventively ludicrous that only a hairshirt gender-war ideologue could complain. (Unfortunately there are plenty of these in Berlin.)
The film is more self-spoofing than sexist. It sprays aerosol jokes at everything in sight: the movie industry (Francisco Rabal as a wheelchaired Spanish Stroheim), the drugs market (subplot involving an amphetamine-peddling lady biker), the teasy eroticism of TV commercials. Who could believe Almodóvar is spouting earnest pro-male messages when the movie's funniest and sexiest scene depicts the mutual ecstasy of a lady in a bathtub and a clockwork toy frogman? (Perhaps we should charge the director with toyism.)
ˇAtame! was too frivolous to win any prizes, of course. The Berlin jury led the Golden Bear into the final-day press conference and announced that, as so often, the beast was to be rent in twain. Costa-Gavras' Music Box took one half of the animal; Menzel's Lark on a Wire, the other. The Silver Bear, fearing similar bisection, started to run screaming from the room, but was brought back with assurances he wouldn't be divided in two. Instead he was divided into eight (rough count) – among them a Best Director prize (Verhoeven), two "outstanding single achievements" (Black Snow, Coming Out), and three Best Actors (Daisy's Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, plus lain Glen in Britain's Silent Scream).
Maybe Berlin is already nostalgic for partition and is eager to divide up anything it sees – animal, vegetable, or mineral. Its strength as a festival has always been its abundance of mutually competitive sections, including a Young Forum, a New German Cinema sidebar, a Retrospective (this year on "1945" and the festival's own history), and a Panorama (anything de Hadeln can't squeeze into the Competition).
Nonetheless, 1990 may be looked back on as the year of irrevocable change. In a time when the Cold War is defrosting so fast that warm puddles of glasnost lie about the Berlin streets, the Filmfestspiele may have said goodbye to the blizzards of controversy that enlivened its past two decades. What the fest will be without its demos, stink bombs, East-West tensions, and walkouts, only history will tell.
As I write, an entire stretch of the Berlin Wall, from the Reichstag to Checkpoint Charlie, is being razed by the East Germans – to the dismay of the so-called "wallpeckers" who've been chipping off salable bits for months. "No man's land" itself is to become a ring road (so a Vopo, head poking through wall, told me) on which East German Trabant's will soon be racing Mercs and Porsches. (Go Trabbi go.. Sounds good for humanity – and automobiles. Let's hope it's good for the festival.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1990 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.