AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN 1992 – THE 42nd BERLINALE FILMFESTSPIELE
SMASHED WALLS AND TRINKET TOUTS
by Harlan Kennedy
This year the first sight to chill the blood was in a Kurfürstendamm souvenir shop. Bits of history – tiny pieces of graffitoed Berlin Wall – were tastefully mounted and gift-wrapped for sale. And now selling on the streets: Soviet military uniforms, hats, medals, and other trinkets of the occupation. History in this town is taking the same route it does so often in the cinema. From a white-knuckle reality, shrieked out on streets and sidewalks, to a cozy commercial artifact turning pain into the picturesque. Memory becomes memorabilia.
Thank goodness, then, for the Berlin Film Festival, which still makes the odd bold stand against the trivial. This year it rejected Shining Through. And we ask you: Who needs comic-book romps about Nazism in the city where the real-life horror began?
There were other lesser considerations-there always are at Berlin. Festival director Moritz De Hadeln already had six American films in this year's Competition, a possible record, plus three more U.S. movies showing non-competitively. De Hadeln may be famous for his facing-two-ways talents: the political cooing noises made in an Easterly direction, the movie-wooing overtures in a Westerly. But if he had ordered any more U.S. celluloid Berlin might have been declared a Hollywood dependency.
Instead the festival continues to be jointly administered by four impartial allies: Art, History, Political Diplomacy, and Showbiz. Depending on which day you wake up, you could find any one of them on sentry duty.
Rule of thumb: In any film festival, Art tends to trickle down from the Main Competition (growing ever more conservative) into the more capacious aquifers of alternative events. Take Berlin's Young Filmmakers Forum. This had two movies that beat almost anything in the main event.
Mika Kaurismäki's Zombie and the Ghost Train is an ecstatically funny Finnish comedy. Like his brother Aki, on whose films he has served as producer, Mika finds humanity in deadbeat minimalism. The story of "Zombie," a young bass-guitarist who slides to drunken self-destruction after quitting army service and being rejected by his rock group Harry and the Mulefukkers (sic), is like a punk version of Camus's L'Étranger. Or a Wim Wenders film hijacked by Saturday Night Live.
For an hour of the non sequitur narrative we're expected to connect the dots in the hero's alienated life-story. He keeps meeting a group called Ghost Train, death harbingers in black leather with under-chin lighting. He drinks beer for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. His errant hair resembles a frightened animal trying to leap to safety. And he has a dysfunctioning romance with girlfriend Marjo.
The film is all in gnomic tableaux poised between the slapstick and the tragic. As in all great art about alienation, there is no route map of emotional byways that explains while never excusing the protagonist's affectlessness. Zombie is beastly to his mum, concerned too late about his dying dad, and responds with full-open eyes only to TV pictures of oil-slicked cormorants in the Gulf. Ah! A metaphor. Except that Kaurismäki cunningly debunks it as soon as he has raised it. Brother Aki's La Vie de Bohčme is equally self-aware. (We are into some seriously fertile sibling rivalry here.) He takes Henri Murger's Puccini-inspiring tales of Parisian artistic life and affectionately spoofs them with inspiration of his own. Like passengers rounding the Horn, the audience pitched to and fro as the film alternated high waves of slapstick with cunning rollers of deadpan verbal wit. We were especially tickled by Jean-Pierre Léaud as a passing sugar tycoon and art collector who appears in Rodolfo's garret, admires the picture he is painting – a banally exact self-portrait – and asks who the subject is. Says Rodolfo, "My mother." Elsewhere, a forlorn delight in the heroes' carefree penury is enriched by throwaway tributes to today's Paris-dwelling "Bohemians." Sam Fuller and Louis Malle are among those dusted off for guest cameos.
The Kaurismäki touch, which seemed worn and tired in I Hired a Contract Killer, here looks like the sharp end of modern cinema's ploughshare. The director takes self-mockery ŕ la David Lynch and refines it into a subtle, teasing ambivalence. So subtle that pratfalls can phase unnoticed into pathos. Mimi's death is played "straight" and – as Kaurismäki has said in his own publicity handout – it's in the great handkerchief-clutching tradition of Waterloo Bridge.
Art that commentates on itself has become de rigueur in the Nineties. Absence of self-awareness made much of the Competition seem antediluvian. There was the creaky chronicling of causes célčbres in films like Kei Kumai's Luminous Moss from Japan – four explorers stranded in a cave go cannibal – or Jan Troell's Il Capitano, all glum verismo in its tale of two teenagers on a murder spree. Then there were the assembly-line rites-of-passage pix like Allison Anders's Gas Food Lodging, with Fairuza Balk coming of age in Laramie, or Jean-Claude Brisseau's Céline, in which Isabelle Pasco grows straight out of childhood and into miracle-working sainthood; ·GAS FOOD LEVITATION· should be the sign on her picturesque country cottage. Bresson might have worked the Devil's frown into this bland tale, which comes complete with sonic syrup from Georges Delerue. And Eric Rohmer, who apparently talent-spotted Brisseau at an early age, might have humanized its heroine.
Rohmer's own A Winter's Tale proves that le maitre still works his own miracles. The potentially trite tale of a girl torn between lovers – should she choose between portly hairdresser Maxence and weakly intellectual Loic, or wait for the return of her longlost Adonis, Charles? – is transformed by inner resonances. Pascal and Plato are invoked to amplify themes of faith and spiritual identity. And seemingly casual, cunningly picked locations – a medieval tower, a swirling river's edge – are sounding-boards for emotional hints in the dialogue: of nostalgic elegy, of romantic turmoil.
Rohmer's movies are haikus masquerading as holiday postcards. The "simpler" the message, the slyer and more reverberant the subtext. A Winter's Tale is about love's sweet fatalism; it's also about self-deceit, self-importance, and the havoc caused by right decisions after one has half-committed to the wrong ones.
While Rohmer conceals art in seeming artlessness, many Berlin pix loud-hailed their use of novel styles and storytelling techniques. Tom Kalin's black-and-white Swoon re-creates the Leopold-Loeb murder case through a cut-up style as brusque as flashbulb shots: striking but selfconscious as the story loses itself in a maze of phosphoric images. And István Szabós Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe shells us with captions and intertitles as it expounds its teacher-heroine's story and marks off chapters in her symbol-laden progress through post-liberation Hungary. The flick won the Special Jury Prize, but it can't have been for understatement. Szabó screams his points across, and Johanna Ter Steege's performance as an angry young woman in the sociopolitical maelstrom more resembles a frenzied, ranting twit let loose in Subtitleland.
Meanwhile, in Naked Lunch David Cronenberg goes for a try-anything surrealism. He is so busy making every inanimate object come alive (typewriters, computers) that he fails to notice that animate beings are dying by the minute: not least Peter Weller's hero, iconized into an ambulant William Burroughs personation.
As these shots are fired in the war for aesthetic novelty, one wonders if the Kaurismäkis and Rohmers don't have it right after all; if a gnomic plainness of presentation doesn't create a finer playing-field for complexity than all the gimmicks and gewgaws of those who believe that art lies in revealing art.
Each year one knows one's at the Berlin Film Festival because of all the conscience-of-Europe films surging around. A season of Jewish movies in the Forum; grainy documentaries about the fall of Leningrad or the rise of Mussolini; a four-hour Bertrand Tavernier TV special on the Algerian War.
'Ninety-two marks one major change, though, in the fest's political landscape. Instead of the traditional faceoff between USA and USSR in the main Competition, the army of American films found itself nipped in the ankles by guerrilla oddities from newly independent nations: Russia, Georgia, and Co. Most of the nips were ineffectual, even when they went on for 3 ˝ hours like Marlen Churiev's Infinitas (yep, Infinity) from Russia. But they did hint that the Cold War's thawing is yielding a new pluralism in movies, plus a new idiosyncratic warmth.
Best in show was Georgia's Rcheyli/ The Beloved. Mikhail Kalatosischwili, grandson of The Cranes Are Flying director Mikhail Kalatazov, paints a fierce fresco of his country overrun by the Red Army after the October Revolution. We know that war is hell – Hollywood has told us – but this film tells us it is hell without a guidebook. The nightmare is less the violence than the disorientation. The enemies are not telegraphic villains but tired soldiers on automatic pilot: indifferent to killing, indifferent to mercy pleas. By the time the film's peasant-father protagonist has executed his own son, in bleak disgust at Junior's betraying a friend, we feel our own hands and brains are dirty with moral fatigue.
The film is brilliantly disconcerting. Loose-framed panoramas full of human flux make us search for the center of interest in each shot: Rossellini aesthetics gone East. As we peer through streets full of casual slaughter, whinnying horses, shopkeepers plying their trade blind-eyed to the carnage, we feel the sickly terror of a people whose world is suddenly spinning too fast under their feet.
The movie was booed at the showing I attended. No doubt the knee it puts into Soviet Communism was too much for some diehard Berlin Marxists (plenty of those about). Or perhaps it was the lack of ideological rhetoric on either side that unsettled: the film's hint that the first casualty of war is the clarity of purpose with which the war started out.
If the Cold War is dead, it's not yet lying down. Not in the Filmfestspiele, anyway. Even the two retrospectives were earnestly, anxiously evenhanded. On my right Hal Roach, Lotusland centenarian, who arrived in Berlin with the complete works of Laurel and Hardy and a request to be accommodated at the Adlon Hotel; unfortunately this establishment disappeared before most of us were born, having first defected to East Berlin. On my left Babelsberg Studios, which also went East but unlike the Adlon still exists. Metropolis, The Blue Angel, Baron Munchausen – they were all made here before DEFA took the place over for the DDR. And when the studios were threatened with a recent selloff, La Dietrich herself intervened with a telephone plea from her home in Paris. She pointed out, in a smoky contralto recognizable over 1,000 miles of cable, that this was the studio that bwought her into show business.
Not all at Berlin is historical Sturm and Drang or ordeal by documentary. The great thing about the Kongresshalle, the remote penitentiary where we international Presse go each day to watch films, is that one can scream with delight without causing noise pollution in the city center. And when the scream is finished, one admits that it's not a bad place at all. Smooth access to the Pressebüro, welcoming smiles from Herr Horst Benzrath and crew, and a large open café where we critics try to pierce the veil of artistic truth through the fog of (mostly French and German) cigarette smoke. Ah, la vie de Bohčme.
Anyway, like I said, screams of delight abounded. Audiences were especially pleased when two or more great actors were gathered together in one film, hurling quality dialogue into the gallery. As in Utz. Directed by Holland's George Sluizer (The Vanishing) from the novel by Britain's Bruce Chatwin, the film won the Best Actor prize for Germany's (or is it now America's?) Armin Müller-Stahl playing a dying Czech Meissen porcelain collector. Yes, you've got it: a co-production. But never mind. This one works. Especially with the addition of Ireland's Oscar-winning Brenda Fricker as the maid, America's Peter Riegert as a sly antiques-world carpetbagger, and England's Paul Scofield bibulous and brilliant as a fly-obsessed doctor.
There is, as Sartre once observed, no business like show business. And on the few occasions when all else failed at Berlin, Hollywood laid on the goods. Even when U.S. directors try to be European, as with Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog or Paul "Call me Bresson" Schrader's Light Sleeper, they seem unable to stop the audience's brain singing and dancing. Light Sleeper is a lithe, lovely existential thriller. And Allen's film does for German Expressionism what Airplane! did for passengers-in-jeopardy flix. The fog-girt towns prowled by mystery killers won't be the same again. Yet Woody's best movie in years also had thought-food for the hungry: on love, death, evanescence, and how to fit half a dozen $1m-plus movie stars into a plot the size of a Fabergé egg.
Star Trek VI, Cape Fear, Bugsy, and Dead Again added to the American moviecade. And Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon – agony and ecstasy in the very town where movies come from – won the Golden Bear. Yes indeed. The Wall is down. Not just between West and East Berlin, but between Berlin and Hollywood.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1992 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.