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PRINT April 1997

LETTER FROM BERLIN

Berlin Film Festival

IT’S FASCINATING, TN A WAY, to witness the ambivalent triumphalism with which the metropolis of Berlin is merging its disparate halves into a millennial new German capital. As sleepy East Berlin neighborhoods are re-created as international art centers, and the muddy emptiness of Potsdamer Platz churned up into the world’s largest construction site, so too the white spaces of German history are filled in—not least by German films.

Thus, at the last Berlin Film Festival, Wim Wenders’ Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky (The brothers Skladanowsky) established a Berlin pedigree for the invention of the motion picture apparatus while Ulrike Ottinger’s Exil Shanghai was an epic documentary on the German Jews who fled the Nazis for the Far East. Not too much remained of the old New German Cinema. Die Mutter des Killers (The killer’s mother)—a first feature by Volker Einrauch—has a raw, somewhat passé Amerindie feel. Shot in an industrial neimansland populated by middle-class kids pretending to be shrill hookers and drunken layabouts, this black and white cheapster is an intentionally cloddish noir that suggests a grotesque combination of Wenders and John Waters. The less feckless Helke Misselwitz brings a dour intensity to Engelchen (Little angel)—a tale of Berlin’s lower depths featuring the ultimate sad-sack heroine. It could have been prime material for Rainer Werner Fassbinder except that, having grown up in the former DDR, Misselwitz seems inoculated against irony.

The one young German filmmaker to create a stir was thirty-three-year-old Fred Kelemen, a genuine enfant terrible who specializes in preserving dreary hunks of real time on 16mm. film under conditions of available light. Four and a half hours long, Kelemen’s Frost is the ultimate in sodden gloom—a turbid Christmas tale in which an abused mother and her child flee tawdry Berlin to wander the former East Germany, looking for a town that has long since vanished.

They should have stayed home. After all, Eastern relics are permanently on display at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum. The big show this winter was “Party Order: A New Germany,” solemn vitrines of everything from money to uniforms to advertisements, all emblazoned with fraternally clasped hands. At the film festival, this East German theme park was supplemented by East Side Story, a DDR That’s Entertainment compiled by Dana Ranga and Andrew Horn. Having fun with Communism, East Side Story excavates the largely unknown East German musicals produced between 1958 and 1973. “We sing the song of the coal press”—and that’s just for starters; subsequent acts include the pert antics of a DDR Doris Day and smiling Free German Youth types executing Jerome Robbins dance calisthenics around the Leipzig town square.

East German genre films developed largely because, unlike other bastions of socialism, the DDR was compelled to compete with a linguistically compatible Western culture industry, in adjoining West Germany. As such, their musicals seem at least as theorized as Frank Tashlin’s: Midnight Revue (1962), for example, a self-consciously socialist musical about the problems of making a socialist musical. Maybe next year we can see the movies themselves—the Berlin Film Festival typically produces a major series of restorations and rediscoveries.

This year’s G.W. Pabst retro seemed only possible after reunification: the protean Pabst embodies the vagaries of modern German history more than any other director. He began making socially conscious and sexually frank silent movies during the Weimar period, adjusting to sound with the aplomb of Fritz Lang. Generally considered to be a world—class filmmaker, Pabst went into exile once Hitler came to power—first in Hollywood, then in Paris—before haplessly returning to the Reich in 1939 to rekindle his German career. Officially de-nazified (but aesthetically discredited), he finished his career amid the West German economic miracle.

Pabst’s oeuvre is at once specifically German and wildly territorialized. The weird sauciness of his French-language Threepenny Opera (1931) is matched only by the bizarrely Mittel-European exoticism Die Herrin von Atlantis (Mistress of Atlantis, 1932), in which the Bedouin denizens of a Sahara settlement sit around listening to Offenbach. Pabst’s Modern Hero (1933–34) is a Warner Bros. success story told with startling Teutonic harshness, while his indescribable Le Drame de Shanghai (Shanghai drama, 1938) is the exile film to end all exile films, made on a Paris soundstage with a cast and crew of Austrians, Indochinese, and White Russians. A reverse Casablanca, it would make the perfect short subject with the tragic colonization represented in Exil Shanghai.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.