by Harlan Kennedy


Berlin. The newer it gets, the more we cherish the old. “You used to be a lovely ruin,” we sigh nostalgically, as people say or sing, “You used to be a beautiful baby.”

The town is properly applauded every time it builds a new hotel, office tower or street system. Hurrah! Here, there, everywhere, fresh highrises soar to spear the sky over a reunited capital. Gotta have renewal. But don’t expect us to lose our haunted love, the malady of our elegising memory for the old Berlin, the blitzkrieg survivor; not to keep romancing those stones that have lain about and in some places still do in this citywide museum of war. They honour humanity and civilisation’s ability to rise above the wreckage, even as the wreckage mourns those who fought and fell in the folly of war.  

Everyone sees the spell and spectacle in a landscape after battle. If the 2007 Berlin Film Festival had an emergent theme, it was the magic of aftermath. We can’t go back, and who wants to?  Yet the images that stood out were those that commemorated the bitter beauty of heroism, or the sunsets of certainty, or the symbiotic tragedy that is victory and defeat.

They weren’t all images of Berlin, but the Berlinale began with those. Steven Soderbergh’s THE GOOD GERMAN, unfairly trashed by some critics, does a brilliant job of mimicking – or counterfeiting – the tone, style and vernacular of a Warner Bros war movie, circa 1945. Plain white credit titles over grainy-chiaroscuro footage of a bombed end-of-war Berlin, accompanied by a rifflingly retro music score. The city ruins look bizarrely contemporary, since the surrounding film (Clooney, Blanchett and Tobey Maguire in black and white in a story that does ‘The Third Man’ with a ‘Casablanca’ coda) is distressed to match it. Here is the imperial dream or nightmare that was Fascist Germany, lying in ravished rubble: raped by virtue, yet voluptuous still in its doomed dream of glory. In one shot a roiling twilight sky is seen through a bomb-hole in a roof. It’s a beautiful picture, like the laugh of a condemned prisoner exultant for one moment in mocking death.

The opening montage in LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA may be the best sequence in the film. In the first minutes, rusting guns lie canted in rusting emplacements, shapes of spent death silhouetted against skies in what was once – in that fall-of-empire 60 years ago – the land of the sinking sun. Now catastrophe has had its mouth stopped by time. Its chattering slaughter, struck dumb, makes surreal and frozen shapes. We are in a sculpture garden of remembrance, flung down without thought and the more real, the more haunting for that.    

Marianne Faithfull in IRINA PALM. Well, humans can be ruins too, or play them. In life, passing through Berlin to press the flesh and flash the smile for the news cameras, the rock singer, 1960s icon and Mick Jagger survivor still looked a doughty blonde, heavier of frame but cupid-mouthed and smiling through those lash-fringed eyes. In the movie, as the grandma who becomes a sex worker to finance a grandchild’s operation, she lies down in front of the dowdiness tank and lets it roll over her. On screen the hair is frumpish brunette, the face a contour map of frown and laugh lines that have set their permanent mark, the physique a well-rounded galleon in stately sail. She won every filmgoer’s heart for still, somehow, being Marianne Faithfull, while dwelling in the body of a senior citizen assailed by years and decades and changing zeitgeists.

The hero of the Korean-Mongolian film DESERT DREAMS (HYAZGAR) keeps finding his life in ruins and keeps rebuilding it. He is a noble ruin himself, played by the Mongolian actor Bat-ulzil as a weather-battered warrior of the desert, stocky, narrow-eyed, defiant, a little Genghis in his empire of sand and solitude. When the wife takes the sickly daughter off to Ulan Bator for treatment, the hero Hangai is descended on by two Korean refugees, a young mother and small son. The platonic ménage a trois plays on Hangai’s nerves. He wishes it wasn’t platonic, but when he makes an uninvited grope for the girl she goes off to slaughter a sheep in reprisal. (As you do). He is soon an unruly bundle of nerves and emotions, a human object as disarrayed as his yurt in the scene after a strong wind ungussies its ropes, tears its canvases and holes its roof. Love or infatuation can do this to a man. But emotional ruination is also good for the character – and certainly good, on screen, for this character.

Guy Maddin makes movies that visit the ruins of moviedom. And what riches this filmmaker keeps finding. The desert cities of roaring silence, the crumbling Babylons of black and white, the sandblown remains of a cinema now disembodied by time, that lies in fragments like Ozymandias in the desert. The  Canadian  director  of  TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL, ARCHANGEL and the great CAREFUL has the most retro style in the world. You cannot get more knowingly backward than to make movies in the mould of old silent films. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! is the chemistry as before: a skittering delirium of sign-language acting and faux-primitive mise-en-scene, whose mute yet eloquent tableaux collide in a surreal drama-fantasy. When a man called Guy revisits his boyhood home – a lighthouse that doubled as a ‘mom and pop orphanage’ run by his parents – hauntings and flashbacks bombard him. His mother! A fright-wigged terror who keeps watch from the tower’s revolving light-deck. His father! A crazed scientist who siphons orphan brains for deposits of Nectarite. (Don’t ask. See the movie). His sister! In love with a cross-dressing, harp-playing teenage detective. It’s mad, it’s funny, it’s inspired. It’s a film about the mouldering catacombs, the ruined scavi, of memory, presented in a style that loves and transforms the very fragments that were once the foundation stones of cinema’s own memory.

Since September 11th, 2001, we live in a world that understands the awesomeness of ruin. You can’t escape it in Berlin: not even if you play truant from the movies, as I did one night, to catch the Staatsoper PARSIFAL. Its director is a longtime pillar of German-European cinema – screenwriter-producer Bernd Eichinger (THE NAME OF THE ROSE, THE NEVERENDING STORY) – and he storms the stage with moving pictures, from giant lightshow starscapes to video projections of burning skyscrapers.

We take the point. We live in a world that keeps falling to pieces around us. But we know by now, from the striations of history and the witness-bearing of cultural record, that every doomsday is followed by a dawn. That the dawn rises on much the same landscapes. And that good guys managed to survive, even if they don’t always manage to win. Ruins are the promise of a new birth, at least while we live and hope on a planet where all but the last apocalypse, whatever that proves to be, can be outlived. And – with the help of art and cinema – can even be learned from.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.