Berlin Babylon


There is no expiration date for dread. Fritz Lang died in 1976, but the work of this most perennially modern of directors is of uncanny timeliness today. His best films seem to have been made in a time of emergency. Their austere and relentlessly paranoid narratives feed upon the fear that nothing is as it seems. The principal character of his hypnotic Dr. Mabuse films is a fiendish mastermind, pursuing a one-man war against democracy in a world where the individual is a mere puppet of hostile forces.

BAM’s monthlong series includes nearly all of Lang’s extant German films from Harakiri (1919) up to the labyrinthine The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), a thinly disguised anti-Nazi picture (the world’s first), and his last German film before emigrating to the U.S. The retro includes several restored and archival prints and the New York premiere of a newly restored Metropolis (1926). This pioneering sci-fi epic survived for many years only in truncated prints. When first shown in this country, it had been cut to 107 minutes; BAM’s version runs 147 minutes. There is still some missing footage, but this is the closest we’re ever likely to get to Lang’s monumental original.

MOMA’s annual survey of filmmaking in Germany doesn’t reveal any budding Fritz Langs, but it does showcase a few promising new talents. The spotlight this year seems heavily focused on docs celebrating German cultural icons, although one fiction film stands out: Jobst Oetzmann’s The Loneliness of the Crocodiles (2000). Its protag is a writer who travels from Hamburg to a skanky east Westphalia village; there, he attempts to discover the truth about the suicide of a cousin who had grown up in the abattoir where his parents turned pigs into sausages. This rural dark comedy is full of bright moments, but its slaughterhouse scenes might turn steadfast carnivores into vegans.

Irene Langemann’s Lale Anderson (2001) is an entertaining account of the singer whose impassioned recording of “Lili Marleen” made that monument of schmaltz one of the best-loved songs of the World War II era. It’s still around—we’re shown the damn tune being played for the delectation of homesick German peacekeepers in Kosovo.

Clarissa Ruge’s Hildegarde Knef bio, A Woman and a Half (2001), bursts at the seams with rare film clips, songs, and weltschmerzy interviews with and about the intriguing actress who emerged as one of the key figures of postwar German cinema. Knef went to Hollywood for a while; returned to Germany, where she developed a second career as a cabaret singer (and was dubbed “the thinking man’s Marlene Dietrich”); then scored on Broadway in the Cole Porter musical Silk Stockings. In much of Ruge’s film, she’s seen sitting on the deserted deck of an ocean liner, somewhere between Europe and America—a fitting analogy for a life lived on two continents. A puffy old lynx now, complex and crotchety and very much the diva, she’s unforgettable. A Woman and a Half is hardly well-shaped—it seems about to end several times before it does come to a close, but you don’t want it to stop. It’s so full of life, so full of Hilde Knef, one of the great survivors.