PRINT Summer 1981

Indiana in Berlin: At the FilmFestspiele '81

JIBING ODDLY WITH ITS plethoric aspirations in years past, the 31st Internationale FilmFestspiele Berlin, or the “Berlinale,” invited the usual guests but saved its charm for the ones with money. The welcome extended to difficult, eccentric, unpopular, artistically significant and usually undistributable films was hardly open-armed. Indeed, films bearing any taint of originality were routinely exhibited as far from the main festival events as the geography of central Berlin permitted. Noncompeting films were scattered categorically into a constellation of little cinemas, which, if not precisely flush with the Brandenburg Gate, was emphatically ranged at tongs’-length from the Kunsthalle on Budapesterstrasse. The categories themselves delicately reflected enduring motifs: national, “New German Films”; racial, “South-East Asian Panorama”; the old, “Retrospective”; and, most amply represented (do not conclude hastily that the opposite of old is new), The Young, “Internationales Forum des Jungen Films”. Most Forum selections were screened at least three times, once in each of the Forum cinemas, while each other special category had its own theater. Since many of these films unofficially circulated from theater to theater when screening time became available, and because the noncompeting films really comprised a separate, unitary festival, all films in these categories are referred to below as Forum selections. Official fanfare was exclusively devoted to the Competition films, which regally occupied three theaters. Unlike other categories, this one had a coherent, unifying esthetic: it was entirely given over to movies with favorable distribution possibilities.

Keenly alert to the philistinism of awarding competitive prizes to works of art, the selection committee instead chose clever impersonations of works of art. Choices like Carlos Saura’s Los, Tempo and Claude Goretta’s La Provinciale were typical: technically perfect, perfectly simple-minded examples of a much-favored, moribund esthetic strategy. Both films give the high gloss beauty treatment to complicated subjects (juvenile crime, provincial versus urban values) that become minuscule, then irrelevant, as the viewer is swept up in the speculative drama of how the film equipment traveled from one place to another without causing camera bump. These particular selections got the full Berlinale hype at dressy Zoo Palast screenings.

The Kafkaesque proliferation of publicity handouts, miniposters, paranoid edicts from slighted filmmakers, jury edicts and other official, semi-official, and boldly unofficial exegeses of anything that fell under the rubric of the Berlinale multiplied hourly. Scads of unwanted documents were urgently pressed upon the great and tiny alike. This ephemera rapidly acquired the aura of some insidiously spreading collective derangement. This impression seemed diabolically confirmed by the fact that the Kunsthalle’s windows directly overlook the monkey house of the Bahnhof Zoo. More tangible evidence of incipient psychic dislocation had accumulated by the weekend. Cineastes who had earlier felt a feral need to catch every film (and had squandered a sultan’s ransom in taxi fare doing so) now looked haggard and miserable. An American friend whose rue at missing a screening had, a few days before, made the remorse of Oedipus seem puny by comparison, blurted succintly on Day 8: “I can’t stand it! There aren’t any good films!” Several breakfast companions, listlessly flipping through Competition catalogues, numbly agreed. (Since everyone present was a filmmaker with work showing in the festival, the unhesitating unanimity was perhaps more fraught with implication than anyone registered at the time.)

Actually, to expect good films in the Competition was to play the festival game by the shifting rules of the selection committee and the jury. There were good films, in the Forum; what distressed these earnest cineastes was the thwarted desire for the prizes to mean something. It was painful to consign the Golden Bear to the joke status of an Oscar after Werner Schroeter’s Palermo victory in 1980.

The only resource that seemed to make the Berlinale palatable was a sense of irony. And, ironically enough, the most popular movie was a giddy ode to homosexual promiscuity by Frank Ripploh called Taxi to the Toilet, starring himself as a rabidly horny grammar school teacher, with Bernd Broaderup as the temporary lover who tries to play house with him. Shot in pedestrian Kodacolor, indifferently framed, its sound recorded with marginal competence, the film is audible and visible, on the technical side. But if nothing technically marvelous was wheeled into place to make the film, its candor and even its blatant vulgarity made the “important” festival entries seem grotesquely stilted and obnoxiously self-regarding. Ripploh’s witty depiction of an ordinary, reproachably amoral homosexual existence is a healthy antidote to “gay film”—that pious, dishonest genre that tries to ingratiate homosexuality with the middle-class mind, usually by depicting “meaningful relationships” between persons of the same gender in the idealized manner of Gable and Lombard pictures.

Taxi to the Toilet was not put in line for a Berlin Bear of any metallic status for obvious reasons, but considering the Competition’s overriding criterion of costly slickness, the absence of Tarkovski’s Stalker in the competition seemed very opaque indeed.1 For Stalker went well beyond La Provinciale and Los, Tempo in the realm of vacant estheticism. Opening with epic slowness on a turgid, hyper-grainy, black-and-white scene in a cafe somewhere in a hellish industrial area, the movie follows a bounty hunter, and two scientist clients whom he leads across their ugly native land, across a perilous frontier, into The Zone, a Technicolor landscape of mist-swept, citrus-tone Astroturf containing the scattered vestiges of a demolished civilization.

Tarkovski has wrought an unforgettable improvement on Dorothy’s landing in Oz. Regrettably, this unpleasant catharsis precedes two hours of lugubrious camera panning, pregnant dialogue that suggests Pinter impersonating Socrates at a cocktail party, countless thought-provoking studies of mud puddles and a fateful exploration of an inexplicable structure, akin to the Holland Tunnel, its decor lifted intact from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Certain other landscape elements, for which Tarkovski’s Kremlin foes shelled out millions, will appeal to the kind of scopophilia that afflicts recidivist audiences of Eraserhead.

Two films by Werner Schroeter appeared (quietly) at midnight screenings. La Répétition Générale and Weisse Reise were, indubitably, the most beautiful films in the festival: glorious variations on Schroeter’s richly evolved collage-and-ellipsis, demi-narrative techniques. Palermo, last year’s Golden Bear winner, astonished even Schroeter’s most ardent fans with its masterful integration of linear narrative with a darkly surreal, terrifying climax. These new films, lighter in spirit and less operatic in tone, are confident experiments that play nimbly with Palermo’s painstaking nuances.

Weisse Reise, like Schroeter’s only conventionally narrative film, The Kingdom of Naples, “tells a story,” in consecutive, linear order. However, the story, read offscreen by Bulle Ogier, is a chaste fable related in flowery prose which bears only a thinly factual relation to the wacky, sexy, ridiculously camp scenes being depicted onscreen by two homosexual sailors and a number of ludicrous characters they encounter in the course of a honeymoon voyage around the world. Unable to raise the money to actually shoot in exotic locations, Schroeter filmed the actors on a proscenium in front of crude postcard backdrops painted on the spot by Harald Vogl, who plays one of the sailors. Weisse Reise reworks the archly deployed kitsch and obsessive theatricality of Schroeter’s early work (Eika Katappa, The Death of Maria Malibran) in Expressionist terms, and asserts the same sets of oppositions Schroeter returns to in every film. One sailor is blond and German, the other a dark Italian. The narrative alternately evokes the cold, stoic North and the warm, sensual South. The obligatory tragic end is the enchanted, blurred ecstasy of death experienced by pimps and transvestites in the novels of Jean Genet. The mourning wake is a melancholy return to the German night—forest landscapes deep in snow suffused with moonlight in a Prussian blue sky.

La Répétition Générale, Shroeter’s unconventional documentary on the 1980 Theater Festival at Nancy, has an alfresco feeling; a light, operatic montage of impressions that conveys a rapturous, besotted love of theater. The featured performers, glimpsed in their own enchantments in a world of glorious artifice. Oina Bausch, Kazuo Oono, Pat Olesko and several others create fantastic images that Schroeter slices in and out of interviews and informal sequences, composing his own opera from the experience of the festival.

Schroeter’s light approach seemed an apt indictment of the prevailing assumption that the most important, intelligent, moving films are, and must be, lugubrious, painful, difficult to look at, and must bear eternal verities or piercing sociological insights clenched between their teeth. That assumption wrongly credits filmmakers (and all artists) with the credentials and preoccupations of philosphers, when quite often they possess neither, despite the great examples of filmmakers with both (Godard, Pasolini, Rossellini). The currency of this narrow idea, especially among filmmakers who aren’t terribly bright, contributed greatly to the quotidian quality of many dramatic features in Berlin.

Tellingly, the really engaging films were all, in one sense or another, comedies, possessing very little specific gravity. They were often woven from the fluffiest materials imaginable, and two of them—easily the most original films in the entire Berlinale—qualify as works of genius: Dress Rehearsal and Karola 2, both directed by Christine Noll Brinkmann. These thoroughly giddy masterpieces run together as a single film lasting all of 20 minutes. Both feature Karola, a portly, mannish-looking actress with an acrobatic range of facial expressions, alone in an apartment. In Dress Rehearsal, Karola does absolutely nothing except try on clothes, preparing for an evening of fun. She tries on several skirts, ties, blouses, jackets and shoes, all the while studying the effect in a mirror. Karola has a New Wave look; the clothes seethe with acidic colors. The film is cut in a choppy, manic style, set to several pieces of rock music; Karola is propelled in and out of costumes at the speed of a cyclotron, often ends up wearing several outfits at once, and assesses them all with sharply registered moues of disdain, tentative approval, sudden dissatisfaction, confusion, joy, ecstasy and regret. Between bursts of high-speed mania the camera pauses to linger suggestively on Karola’s rainbow-colored stockings, or on a bright assortment of ties she has managed to drape around her collar. At last she is ready to rock and roll.

Karola 2, which commences seconds later, recapitulates some of the activity in Dress Rehearsal; we also see Karola briefly fondling the exhaust cylinder of a motorcycle and performing a few innocent movements in the apartment. At last, her thrills for the evening over, Karola is viewed reclining on a divan in the manner of Madame Recamier, obviously nursing a painful hangover yet still smiling gamely for the camera, as if anticipating fresh excitement after she’s had a good night’s sleep. On the sound track, Bryan Ferry croons, “These foolish things . . . remind me of you.” We need the mental anarchy of Dress Rehearsal and Karola 2 much more than the rehashed rue of The Trials of Alger Hiss.

It was specifically their collective message of despairing spiritual exhaustion and political malaise that made the best American Forum selections problematic and irritating. The sense of collective helplessness, the ubiquitous evidence of burgeoning political and social repression, the queasy certainty that our days as free agents have just about run their course are no longer repressed facts but rather the conscious atmosphere—it needs neither psychiatry nor art to make it visible. But Americans do enjoy horrifying one another with terrible news; they often believe that repeating facts makes the facts less true, less menacing, more ripe for transcendence. Another, escapist, response in all the arts has been the mating of French deconstructionism (as per Derrida, Lacan and company) with the far reaches of Minimalism, art-about-art, and other tropes of modernism.

The latter strategy permeates Splits, an effort by Leandro Katz in which the screen halved horizontally to display chronologically and thematically variant elements of a story. Splits seemed a burlesque on insult revenged, the murderously resolute heroine setting off for the kill with her gun enclosed in a transparent handbag. The film’s techniques were interesting but finally split themselves into an insupportable number of mismatching fragments. Katz’s esthetic carries self-consciousness well beyond the weight of the film itself, a flaw endemic to avid followers of the various Jacques of academe.

Bette Gordon’s Exchanges and Empty Suitcases both displayed an unnerving quantity of form as content. Exchanges is a protracted leapfrog of sound and image. Empty Suitcases is an episodic meditation on urban terrorism and loss of identity, very finely shot and brilliantly edited: it proceeds by way of extremely wide ellipses and at the outset threatens to dissolve into senselessness. But Gordon draws her threads together very tightly as she goes along, and one begins to see how the pure experiment of the earlier Exchanges helped develop an original handling of expository elements.

Karyn Kay’s Someone Else’s Clothes, set in the same bosky waterfront terrain as Gordon’s Empty Suitcases, is marred by an amateurishly handled Brechtianism: in this story of a woman detective tracking the vanished former occupant of her new apartment, the missing person frequently appears in plain view of the detective; they even converse. This awkward eschewal of verisimilitude makes the film seem more disjointed than Kay must have intended it to be. The strength of Someone Else’s Clothes resides in many inventive visual effects—with angled mirrors, subway cars, and smartly evocative images of the Brooklyn Bridge—as well as in a ravishing montage sequence with the off-camera voice of Peter Wollen reading a very beautiful and mysterious story he wrote for the film.

One American film that seemed to evade the pitfalls of overt self-consciousness as well as the trap of joyful pessimism was Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. This film presumes less about its own significance than anything produced in Lower Manhattan recently. Technically well crafted, its gritty decors and hard-edge exteriors are framed with admirable intelligence—compositionally right and free of distracting grandeur. The film also avoids the atmospheric punctures New York filmmakers almost always make to accommodate the vanity of friends and to ensure that “New York” is clearly imprinted on the locale. The story is slight. An alienated young man drifts through Manhattan encountering various eccentrics and madmen, loses interest in the marginal life he’s living and gets on a boat to Paris. There is enough sincere, muted anguish in Permanent Vacation to offset the incompetent acting of the main character and the less convincing Methodology of some of its players. The only glaring flaw is an early lapse into pretentiousness. The permanent vacationer is shown dipping into Maldoror, though it’s clear the kid has never read the Post without moving his lips. He offers the book to his vapid girlfriend, who tells him she’s finished it. At least the reference has a thought behind it—more thought, for that matter, than several recent Lower Manhattan features contain in their entirety. Jarmusch is a gifted filmmaker whose next work one can look forward to without sarcasm.

After the Jarmusch film, there was little left to see at the Berlinale. Anyone who wished to see another film, by reason of folly or general anesthesia, could pop into Rainer Fassbinder’s Lili Marlene at a “real” theater and observe the mutation of Hanna Schygulla into the Martha Raye of ensemble melodrama. Prize night arrived; at last, the several hundred Film People whose faces had become etched in everyone’s memories could cram themselves into the Zoo Palast and bid the whole silly business farewell. For this event, the Lazlo Institute had vanquished every crinkle of fatigue.

The ceremony felt like a ballroom dance whose orchestra had gone on strike and been replaced by a transistor radio and some scratched 45s amplified through a battered Victrola. (A few days earlier, the Association of German Film Producers had issued a tersely worded manifesto denouncing the Berlinale’s “celebration of mediocrity,” demanding the resignation of the festival director, Moritz de Hadeln.) Each presentation was signaled by the same envelope-bearing valet trapped in a purple-sequined sarong. The announcement of Carlos Saura’s Los, Tempo as the winner of the Golden Bear was made to the accompaniment of prolonged hissing. Saura and his juvenile leads appeared onstage and the hissing escalated into violent jeers. As the multilingual catcalls faded out, de Hadeln materialized to close the show. The ushers opened the exit doors, a few hundred yards from the monkey house of the Bahnhof Zoo.

Gary Indiana is a free-lance critic and author of several plays.



1. Sight and Sound reports that Stalker was withheld from competition at the request of the Soviet government, which was displeased with certain alterations of the original script. I think this report deserves at least a bit of skepticism. Tarkovski’s “dissident” status does him nothing but good in the West, where he spends much of his time, and his very mobility is useful PR for his odious government. If Tarkovski’s various esthetic vanities were any threat to ideological uniformity he would have met the same fate as Parajanov long ago.