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East Is West: Berlin Goes Planet Hollywood

Achtung Baby

Half a century after it was created as a Cold War showcase for amerikanische cultural values and the celluloid wonders of the Free World marketplace, the Berlin International Film Festival has reinvented itself as a showcase for . . . amerikanische cultural values and the architectural wonders of a Virgin Megastore.

For its 50th edition the Berlinale relocated east to a fantastic new realm. Once the Third Reich command center and for years thereafter a wasteland bisected by the Berlin Wall (the huge, empty tract where the circus sets up in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire), Potsdamerplatz is these days a postmodern island cut off from old Berlin by battlements of cranes and a muddy moat of construction sites.

Architecturally, it was as though the Berlinale's 1965 prize winner, Alphaville, had been universalized. Spiritually, it was as if the new Germany had united less with itself than with Planet Hollywood—even Wenders's appropriately named, if poorly received, opening-night attraction, Million Dollar Hotel, was made in English and set in L.A. The new Berlinale Palast was set down on the new Marlene Dietrich Platz where, to complete the self-reflexive entertainment spectacle, a gigantic TV screen conjured the images, round the clock, of the mainly American stars who had made the pilgrimage to Berlinales past. In a carefully monitored spontaneous event, mobs of teenagers awaited the arrival of Leonardo DiCaprio—before scurrying off for pastries at a steel-and-chrome café named for the once Berlin-based director of Some Like It Hot.

The all-new Gong show?: Zhang Ziyi in Zhang Yimou's The Road Home
photo: Columbia/Tristar
The all-new Gong show?: Zhang Ziyi in Zhang Yimou's The Road Home

A third of the movies in competition were made in U.S.A. and for the sixth time in the last decade, a Hollywood production or co-pro won the Golden Bear—although given the alternatives, one could scarcely fault the jury (which was itself free of Americans) for anointing Magnolia. Meanwhile, no film in the informational Panorama attracted more favorable attention than the Rob Epstein-Jeffrey Friedman documentary Paragraph 175—an oral history of Nazi persecution of homosexuals that received an emotional public screening at the festival's former flagship theater, the still huge (but no longer modern) Zoo Palast.

It's striking that Paragraph 175's topic was first addressed by American rather than German filmmakers. Even the prize find in the always revelatory Retrospective section evoked Amerika as the setting for a sublimely wacky 1935 Soviet adaptation of Karel Capek's sci-fi classic R.U.R. Meanwhile, the kunst-minded Forum of Young Cinema inadvertently scooped Sundance with the world premiere of 24-year-old David Gordon Green's echt Amerindie first feature, George Washington. Buried in an obscure slot, then repeatedly shown in an escalating series of superpacked market screenings, this unlikely amalgam of Gummo and Fresh—an arty, sincere evocation of preadolescent tragedy on the derelict edge of a small Southern city—transcended its erratic point of view, unconvincing social reality, and stilted performances to achieve a genuine sadness and sense of loss unusual in American independents.

Elsewhere, the spirits of Berlinales past: It was a dozen festivals ago that Zhang Yimou's unheralded first feature Red Sorghum stormed out of nowhere (actually Xi'an province) to win the Golden Bear, establish China's Fifth Generation on the art-house circuit, and launch the director's muse and inamorata Gong Li as an international star. This year, Gong was jury president (as well as a L'Oréal model whose image was plastered up and down Marlene Dietrich Platz) while her erstwhile lover's The Road Home was the most eagerly awaited non-Hollywood movie in competition.

Like Red Sorghum, The Road Home is a flashback story of parental courtship. Rather than the feudal era, the primal scene is set a year or two after the Communist revolution. Pointedly, Zhang juxtaposes the rainbow-hued past with a grimly monochromatic present—the contemporary sequences substitute a Titanic poster for the traditional image of Mao in a rural hut. This shameless tale of a peasant girl's total devotion to the local schoolteacher—alternately touching and embarrassing in its puppy-dog insistence—took on another subtext for starring a bright-eyed, pigtailed teenager, Zhang Ziyi, coy but headstrong, with an astonishing resemblance to the young Gong Li. (The film, but not the actress, received a consolation Silver Bear; it would be fascinating to know what drama was playing out in the jury president's head as she watched it.)

German cinema was not entirely missing: Volker Schlondörff staged a comeback of sorts with The Legends of Rita, a modestly compelling and vividly acted political melodrama about a New Left terrorist who goes underground in the Old Left nightmare state of East Germany, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose Veronika Vos won the 1982 Golden Bear, made a posthumous appearance. A never produced stage play, written when the wunderkind was 19, formed the basis for French provocateur François Ozon's well-received Water Drops on Burning Rocks—an obvious but funny chamber piece involving a homo-hetero quadrangle that, shot in the style of Fassbinder's middle period, evoked The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (even as the play presaged In a Year of 13 Moons) and was acquired during the festival by Zeitgeist.

Other notable German inclusions were Veit Helmer's first feature, the strenuously internationalist Tuvalu—a whimsical fantasy set in a decrepit Bulgarian steam bath that knits together its polyglot cast with an invented near-English Esperanto—and Fred Kelemen's arduously miserabilist Abendland—a fado-scored journey to the end of the East German night which, even when verging on self-parody, suggested the strongest vision among German directors of the 35-and-under generation.

Still a window on Eastern Europe, Berlin included among its several hundred offerings the most popular Russian movie of the past few years, Riflemen of the Voroshilov Regiment—a fascinatingly demagogic, Hollywood-style rape-revenge fantasy in which a venerable World War II hero wreaks Rambotic punishment on the pampered "new Russian" scoundrels who despoiled his virginal granddaughter. A less populist post-Communist character study, Lech Majewski's Wojaczek proved an exceedingly bleak, if laugh-out-loud, comedy about a suicidal young poet of the '60s as he staggers through an empty Warsaw of patriotic placards and entropic "literary" nightclubs.

Wojaczek's grainy black-and-white elegance suggested both the new wave Jerzy Skolimowski, who would have been the actual Wojaczek's contemporary, and the early Jim Jarmusch films that Majewski has doubtless seen. Indeed, it turns out that Majewski spent the '80s and much of the '90s in New York, where he cowrote the script for Julian Schnabel's Basquiat—one more example of creeping Amerikanismus to ponder over a Milchkaffee at Billy Wilder's.

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