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ALEX FARBA


 

Alex Farba Deleon is a filmfestivals.com ambassador

MY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS


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Adventures on the Film Festival Circuit on and behind the Scenes by a roving film festivaleer

 Adventures on the Film Festival Circuit on and behind the Scenes by a roving film festivaleer

     Alex Deleon (Herman Pevner) (filmfestivals.com)

Résultat d’images pour San Francisco Festival of 1975

The very first film festival I ever attended was the San Francisco Festival of 1975. I had by then begun to publish articles about Japanese films in San Francisco and was invited by former festival director Albert Johnson, whom I knew from hanging out at the fabled Mediterraneum Caffe in Berkeley, and Albert used his influence to arrange a pass for me. To this day I must say it was one of the best ones I’ve ever been to. Among the special guests were French director, Roger Vadim, ex husband of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, and local movie star, Natalie Wood, a native San Franciscan.  Carefully selected clips from many of their films were shown as they were interviewed on stage in a very homey, intimate atmosphere.  Vadim’s “Liaisons Dangereuses” was shown in full and Jeanne Moreau, surviving star of that film, showed up in person and held a press conference on the last day of the fest.  There I was sitting just a few feet away from this living legend and iconic actress of the French New Wave in a small conference room and I was singularly impressed with her small stature and perfect English.  The session with Natalie Wood was also fascinating as, until then I had considered her to be kind of a minor actress of no great talent but here, in person, she was extremely charming, intelligent, warm, and more beautiful in the flesh than she looks on the screen. I was impressed.  She died tragically in a strange boating accident only a few years later. How sad.So that was my first film festival experience and I had been bitten by the bug. 

The next one was FILMEX ’77 in Los Angeles where I had a nice chat with French director Claude Chabrol and met another iconic French actress, one of my personal favorites, Delphine Seyrig, of “Last Year at Marienbad” fame, this at a lively cocktail party in the Century City hotel.  When I met her she was standing there having drinks with Warhol actress Viva of the mad purple hair and everybody, having downed a number of martinis, was in an expansive, ebullient mood.  The whole room was buzzing and here my French came in handy – not that Seyrig had any difficulty expressing herself in English – she seemed to be completely fluent with maybe a slight accent – but it always makes a more direct connection when you address someone in their own language. So for the next fifteen minutes or so I was in seventh heaven chatting amiably with this elegant beautiful French woman – and, under the influence of Viva the conversation actually got just a bit salty, with sexual innuendos – I could hardly believe that here I was kibitzing over cocktails with a beautiful famous European actress and a notorious Andy Warhol stablemate as if we were all old friends.  Come to think of it Delphine and I were exactly the same age and I was not exactly a bad looking guy myself back then.  Aha – so this is what film festivals are all about – flirting with the stars -- onward Roger, full speed ahead. 

 

Soon after FILMEX, in April 1977, I left for Japan, this time around deeply involved with Japanese cinema and determined to become the big Western expert on the cinema of that country. I started writing articles for the Japan times and other English language papers in Tokyo, but a couple years went by with no festivals.

However, in 1980 I managed to get myself accredited to the Cannes Film Festival as a reporter for the Japan Times.  Kurosawa was the big news that year in Japan and I had written a number of articles about his return to action after a long layoff, with the Samurai film “Kagemusha” which was to be presented in Competition at Cannes.  So here my third film festival was already the Big One, Cannes.   By this time I was beginning to think of myself as a big-time film critic although nobody was picking up the tab for my trip from Japan to Cannes or for my hotel once I got there.  All I got out of the Japan Times was the accreditation for the festival, which is not that easy to come by, and later a not very significant amount of yen for the articles I would submit.  However, I was on my way to France and the festival Big-time.  I had a very expensive Japanese camera which I figured I would be able to sell in Europe and in fact, the money I got for the camera when I sold it in Vienna did cover my return trip.  But that’s getting a little ahead of the story. 

The best ticket I could find from Tokyo to France was via the Russian Airline AEROFLOT which went straight from Tokyo across Siberia to Paris with only a quick refueling stop at Sheremyetovo Airport in Moscow.  This flight turned to be somewhat of an adventure in itself.  1980 was the year of the Moscow Olympics and by this time, May, the United States had already announced that it was going to Boycott the Russian Olympics that summer for whatever Cold-War political reasons, I have now forgotten.  But whatever it was, it was definitely putting a heavy strain on Soviet-American relations, and here I am, an American, on this Russian plane heading for Moscow.  

The trip over Siberia was all in daylight, chasing the sun, and it was kind of fascinating looking out the windows and watching endless stretches of snow covered tundra passing by below.  Every once in a while we would pass over one of those wide rivers that flow north into the Arctic Sea and I thought this was all quite exciting.  Everything was going fine until, out of a clear blue sky the stewardess with whom I had had a bit of a chat in Russian, comes over to my seat and tells me that the captain wants to see me.   Ulp, what could this be about?  Maybe I should better have kept my big mouth shut and not let on that I know  Russian. I just hoped they weren’t going to hold me personally responsible for the Olympic Boycott .... (It turned out that all Captain Ivan, a strapping Russian standing some 6' 4' tall, wanted from me was an in-flight English lesson – since, as he explained, English is a vital language for international airline pilots to know. 

The lesson, which lasted about an hour in a VIP compartment of the aircraft, was well fueled by the best Russian vodka.  By the end of the lesson, на здорoвье, I was feeling no pain in either language). 

From Moscow-Sheremyetevo, where I didn’t even leave the plane although it was nearly an hour layover, I flew on to Paris and from Paris, after looking in on part of a student riot in the Quartier Latin (celebrating 'les événements de '68'), I  took the overnight train to Cannes from the Gare de Lyons.  I quickly found my way to the press office at the grandiose Carlton Hotel on the beachfront, picked up my accreditation, then went looking for a cheap hotel within my budget.  The festival office actually had a list of cheaper hotels and I lucked out by miraculously finding the last single room in a small hostelry off the ocean front, l'Hotel des Gavres.  

This was really lucky because although a bit back from 'La Croisette', which is the main beach front promenade where all the festival action is centered, it was still only about a ten or fifteen minute walk from there to the Carlton Hotel, the dead center of the festival, and the main festival theater – 'le palais du festival'.  (A new 'palais' has since been built, much bigger but not as nice).  Being in France at my first Cannes film festival and able to sling the francais around with reckless aplomb, I could hardly believe how good the gods had been to me and I was practically in a constant state of ecstasy – at least for the first few days anyway ….  

The big publicity Hullabaloo film in Cannes that year was 'Superman 1' with Christopher Reeves (In Paxem Resquiat) and Glenn Ford as his All-American adoptive father (who also passed away in 2006 at age 90 plus). Old biplanes pulling long trailers containing the big red letters s-u-p-e-r-m-a-n kept flying back and forth over the bay.  The whole beachfront was filled with giant advertisements for various films and the lobbies of the plush hotels were all bedecked with film posters.  Everywhere you looked there were tables full of information on films and free copies of all the major film magazines, Variety, Screen International, the Hollywood Reporter, Le Film Français, and many others. This was It - the festival Big-Time, no doubt about it.  So much went down during that first visit to Cannes that it has all become a blur now, but a number of highlights still stand out.

Alfred Hitchcock, the great suspense master had just passed away in California on April 29th at the age of 81 only a week or so prior to the opening of the 33rd Cannes festival and plans were hastily put together to render a special homage to the world famous director.  On the afternoon of the second day of the festival together with a horde of other accredited journalists and festival guests I was admitted to the great hall of the Grand Palais du Festival for the Hitchcock tribute, and guess who the guest of honor was – none other than Princess Grace Kelly of the Principality of Monte Carlo! This turned into one of the most unusual film events I have ever had the good fortune to attend.  Let me first say that I had always felt a kind of special connection with Princess Grace simply because of the fact that she was from my own home town, Philadelphia, and even though she was sitting up in the balcony in the royal box and I was downstairs with the hoi polloi, it was still something special to find myself in the same room with the hometown debutante and retired screen goddess who had made it to the very top of the international celebrity heap by marrying a real prince. 

The reason Grace was chosen to introduce a selection of clips from Hitchcock films, besides the fact that she was available on short notice with her residence Monaco being only an hours drive away from Cannes, was, naturally, that during her acting days she had been one of Hitch’s favorite leading ladies and had appeared in some of his best-known fifties thrillers, “Dial M for Murder”, “Rear Window” with James Stewart, and “To catch a thief” with Cary Grant, the latter  actually filmed right here on the Riviera. As the clips were projected on the big festival hall screen Grace commented on the various scenes and on her personal relationship with the director. Each one was followed by a round of enthusiastic applause as everyone in the room realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of happening.  Even for a festival such as Cannes it was unusual, and if the festival would have ended right there I would have had no complaints.  What a way to start my Cannes career! Unfortunately, Grace Kelly’s second career as a princess didn’t last very much longer. Only two years later she lost her life in a tragic car crash on one of those tricky roads that hug the cliffs around Monte Carlo.

 

A few days after the Hitchcock tribute in the presence of the princess I was wandering around the mezzanine of the Carlton Hotel where all kinds of film companies set up offices during the fest, and bumped into one of my favorite off-beat elder directors of the time, Hollywood maverick and cult idol, Sam Fuller of 'Shock Corridor' and 'House of Bamboo' .  Since I knew his films backward and forward I got into a lively chat with him and, the next thing I knew, Sam invites me in for lunch and offers me a cigar.  He always had one in his mouth.  Sam had a personal World War II recollections film in the fest, 'The Big Red One', and got me a ticket for the gala, and he even gave me his personal telephone number in Beverly Hills – which I never had any reason to use, but still, having lunch and a cigar with a Sam Fuller doesn't happen every day to a nobody free-lance journalist from Tokyo. 

Kurosawa, as expected copped a Golden Palm for 'Kagemusha', although he had to share it with Bob Fosse's autobiographical musical 'All That Jazz'. This was particularly gratifying to me because it was basically the articles I had written about the 'Kagemusha' production back in Tokyo for 'The Japan Times' that had gotten me to Cannes in the first place. My festival badge identified me as being a representative of the Japan Times which actually made people think I might be somebody important, because in 1980 Japan was just about the hottest country going. Big film market, hot economy, world famous directors, lots of money to back films with – and all that kind of jazz! 

Incidentally, regarding Kurosawa’s colorful samurai comeback opus “Kagemusha”, while it was immediately seized upon in the west as a new masterpiece, back in Japan it was regarded as something of a white elephant, a costly misfire, by many critics, nor was the Japanese public that crazy about it although it did well at the Japanese box-office simply because of the scale, the spectacle, and aura of the Kurosawa name.  The main reason for Japanese disappointment with the new Kurosawa was that the title role had originally been offered to extremely popular Japanese star Shintaro Katsu of the wildly successful “Zatoichi” (Blind Swordsman) series but Katsu, known as something of a wild card in the Japanese film world, had a clash of egos with the director at the very start of shooting and was fired.  Tatsuya Nakadai, a fine actor in his own right and a veteran of several famous samurai films, was hired to replace Katsu, but the resulting “Shadow Warrior” was not the scruffy, growly, persnickety, Mifune-like character the Japanese public wanted to see and the critics were mainly of the view that the picture, while finely honed and technically masterful, had lost its driving force with the departure of Katsu.  That a picture considered to be a failure in its own country can become a Cannes Golden Palm winner definitely has something to say about the politics of film festivals. 

I remember asking a noted older journalist that year at Cannes if he thought that the Kurosawa film had a chance for the top prize and this festival sage put it this way, “You don’t ask a famous seventy year old director to come halfway around the world and then send him home empty-handed”. To put it bluntly, it would be a feather in the Cannes cap if, at the end of the Cannes day, they could say that they were the first to recognize the latest work of an aging oriental Grand Master and could now add his name to the illustrious list of Golden Palm winners on the Croisette of history. To put it another way, awarding the top prize to Kurosawa was as much a self-congratulatory pat on the back for the festival itself, as a recognition of an aging director who was already up to his neck in international awards anyway. Still, the fact that Kurosawa had to share his prize with another film, “All That Jazz”, does indicate a certain reserve within the Cannes jury, whatever pressures might have been gently exerted to make sure they came up with the politically correct decision. 

The following abridged copy of an article I wrote for The Japan Times, published in Tokyo in 1979 nearly nine months before the 1980 Cannes festival, deals directly with the “Kagemusha” that could have been but never was.

Mutiny on the Set – Dust Settles After Kurosawa’s Shadow Warrior’ Shuffle

  THE JAPAN TIMES, September 3, 1979

The Japanese film world was in a state of shock last week after the sensational announcement that Shintaro Katsu, star of the new Kurosawa film “Kage Musha (The Shadow Warrior”) has been dismissed following a dramatic confrontation between star and director on the Toho Studio set here in Tokyo.  Considering the stature of the star and the scale of the project (largest budget in all of Japanese film history) the magnitude of this unprecedented event is hard to conceive of except in terms of a hypothetical parallel, something on the order of Clark Gable, let us say, getting fired from “Gone With The Wind” for insubordination. ....

  (Abridged: for full article contact the author, Herman Pevner)

 

As things turned out the Nakadai Shadow Warrior was too “clean cut” and generally not up to snuff as far as most Japanese critics were concerned, but westerners, oblivious to this background behind the casting of the film just saw a lot of beautiful images, costumes, and the usual Kurosawa touches and labeled “Kagemusha” another Kurosawa masterpiece. Big and colorful it is, but masterpiece it ain’t. Ask the Japanese if you don’t believe me. 

Another big film at Cannes 1980 was Hal Ashby's 'Being There' based on the Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name, and starring Peter Sellers as an idiot taken for a sage with Shirley Maclaine looking on. A French film that made a big impression on me because of its sheer intelligence was Alain Resnais new offering, “Mon Oncle” d’Amérique” (My American Oncle), which was something like a star vehicle educational documentary. While featuring top French stars Gerard Depardieu and Nicole Garcia in a complex and dramatically charged “main story”, the film focuses largely on a series of fascinating academic lectures by psycho-biologist Henri Laborit, expounding on his theories of the biological bases of certain bizarre forms of human behavior. Heady stuff of the kind that needs to be seen twice to absorb it all, and a good movie besides. 

This was also the festival where I had visions of hitting the big time in film marketing when I served as an impromptu interpreter in a restaurant between the producers of Fukasaku Kinji's 'Virus' (an expensive Japanese end of the world fantasy set in the Antarctic) and an Australian buyer who seemed willing to pay 5 million dollars for the Down Under distribution rights. If hired on as a sales agent for the film, as I was promised I would be, I would have stood to make ten percent – a nice commission in the neighborhood of 50 thousand dollars – not bad for an amateur, whot!  Negotiations for this deal got as far as a follow-up conference at the Excelsior Hotel bar in Rome two weeks later – and then fizzled out along with my dreams of becoming a wheeler dealer in the Japanese film market.  At any rate, with one full Cannes Festival under my belt I was beginning to feel like a genuine film critic, or journalist, or something like that. 

 

After a Rome sojourn of several weeks during which I thoroughly absorbed the feeling of that eternal city, I took a train North to Vienna, hoping there to connect with a flight back to Japan. This train had a nice long layover, almost a whole day, in Venice, a city I wanted to have a look at anyway, and where, as it happened, a Big Seven Summit Conference was taking place that very day.  I just wanted to see the city but I got more than I bargained for.  My vaporetto down the Grand Canal passed the island where the Summit was going on and the whole island seemed to be under an umbrella of flittering helicopters. Among the participants were US president Jimi Carter and Japanese prime minister Ohira. I felt kind of important just for being there. But the main event was a massive thunder and lightening storm which knocked out much of the city's electricity.  I was in the train station waiting for my train to Vienna when all the lights went out and didn't come back on for over an hour.  Exciting if nothing else and my train was only slightly delayed.  What a way to see Venice!  But I didn't get back there for the film festival until quite a few years later. 

 

When I got to Vienna I was able to stay gratis for a couple of weeks in an old apartment within walking distance of The Ring, the dwelling of an Austrian UNESCO rep for whom I had served as an interpreter in Tokyo a few months earlier. I found Vienna quite fascinating but was beginning to worry a little as I was running out of cash and still had no ticket back to Tokyo.  I was finally able to sell my fancy Canon camera for enough to grab a cheap flight to Japan on a Pakistan Airlines Jumbo and still have some cash leftover. What a mistake that was.  It was altogether a long crummy flight over the Persian Gulf with refueling stops in Bahrein and Manila. The landing in Bahrein was pretty bumpy but the one in Manila, in a blinding rainstorm, was the one time on a plane when I really thought it was all over.  It was practically a crash landing – bumpety-bump white knuckles all the way to the very end of the tarmac and I swore to myself – never again Pakistan Airlines at any price –not even for free!  Where do they get these pilots anyway …  We did finally get to Tokyo where I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and settled down to mull over my extended European adventures --Over Siberia to Paris, ten days in Cannes, two weeks in steaming mid-summer Rome sleeping in a sleeping bag out on the roof of an old house where an American journalist I met was willing to put me up for nothing if I didn't mind the primitive accommodations, a mad thunder storm in Venice that knocked out all the electrical power of the city, several weeks in Vienna, and a near crack-up in Manila. I was ready to stick around Tokyo for a while and count my blessings…

 

MANILA '83 – VANITY OF VANITIES - -- 

image2.jpeg

Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines

For the next two years I was totally immersed in the study of Japanese film and in publishing articles on both Japanese and Korean film while bouncing back and forth frequently between these two countries. I was also picking up nice sums of spot cash in Seoul, writing publicity brochures for the new Korean films in English and French, but I didn't get to another film festival until January 1983.  This, however, only the fourth festival of my fledgling festival career at the time, turned out to be one of the most memorable ones I have ever been to in my life! -- the Manila Film Festival of 1983.  I managed to wrangle an invitation to Manila as the representative of a weekly magazine called 'Tokyo Journal' for whom I was then writing film reviews on a regular basis. This festival was the dream baby of the First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, the flashy wife of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  She had unlimited funds at her disposal, and being a former Philippine movie star and beauty queen herself -- not to mention a supreme megalomaniac and arguably the vainest woman on the planet -- she was clearly interested in promoting her own image by surrounding herself with the elite of the international film community and of entertaining them personally in her own inimitable style. To make a long story short this would turn out to be something like a privileged visit to a week long party at the  Palace of the Queen of Sheba, with Sheba herself running the show.    

The very first day Imelda held a fancy afternoon cocktail reception and press conference for all visiting guests at the Malacanang Palace, which is the Philippine equivalent of the American White House -- only more elegant.  One of the nice things here was that the light white cotton or silk vest coat known as the  'Barong Pilipino', which is the traditional man's garment in the islands, and comes in all kinds of prices depending on the material and finesse of confection, is also recognized universally as formal wear for all occasions.  My first move in Manila was to get one of these for around ten bucks, at the recommendation of a friendly cab-driver, so I wouldn't have to worry about not being properly dressed for social events – the very first one of which was –->bam<-- a visit to the presidential palace sponsored by the First Lady herself!  

Manila with its palm-lined boulevards and overlay of Spanish architecture is really a unique city in Asia and I was knocked out there from day one just looking around and taking in the scene.  The mingling of Spanish, Malaysian, Chinese and other bloodlines has produced some of the most fantastic looking women I have ever seen, and the outgoing friendliness of the woman towards foreigners … but that's another subject beyond the scope of this book.  Suffice it to say that a Filipina beauty by the name of Tetchie Agbayani had been featured as a nude centerfold the preceding year in the German edition of PLAYBOY, and because of this international distinction had become a kind of national treasure proudly referred to by one and all as 'The Body Beautiful'.  Unashamed sex is in the air everywhere in Manila and is kind of taken for granted by the locals, but for the uninitiated Western visitor just walking down the street – especially a street like M.S. De Pillar in the heart of 'The Tourist Belt' (i.e., the Sex Belt)– can be an erotic experience all by itself.  Porno films, of which there are countless numbers, are referred to by a much nicer word, 'bold films'.  How can you not love a country that calls pornography 'bold'? 

But enough of boldness.  The showcase film of the festival was the Asian premiere of Richard Attenborough's hagiographic masterpiece, 'Ghandi', (Oscar sweeper that year) with both Attenborough and his main actor, Ben Kingsley, in high profile attendance. Other celebrities who turned up during the week included Germans Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, American actor Robert Duvall (just passing through), French actress Domique Sanda, old time Hollywood stars Alexis Smith and Virginia Mayo, and Hollywood pretty boy suntan Adonis George Hamilton, who seemed to have a thing going with the First Lady, dancing with her all the time at the parties and always seated at her table ... 

Incidentally, one never saw President Marcos until the closing gala on the last night when he took the stage to make a ponderously boring speech, and it was said that he never appears in public together with the First Lady so that, just in case there might be an assassination attempt, at least one of them will survive.  The whole atmosphere at this festival, attended by many bigwigs of international film business as well as the stars, was kind of surrealistic if you can imagine surrealism with palm trees, balmy breezes, coconuts, and beautiful women --- and what was unusual for a festival of this magnitude, was that it was very easy to mix informally with just about any of the celebrities there in the hotel lobbies, by poolside, or at special events and screenings. 

The main venue for the festival screenings and press conferences was a spanking new complex of concrete buildings of various types which had been constructed just offshore in Manila Bay.  This was called the New Manila Expo Center and one of the showpieces was an extravagant new hotel with a giant waterfall in the middle of the lobby that looked like a transplant from Las Vegas.  It was rumored that, as the project was being rushed to completion so it could be ready in time for Imelda's film festival, a number of workers had gotten killed in accidents due to lax safety measures, and that to save time their cadavers had just been mixed in with the cement.  I know this sounds pretty bizarre but many locals in Manila were ready to swear by it.  Of course when a lady who prides herself on her two hundred pairs of shoes and has a mad gleam in her eyes all the time is in charge, you never can tell. 

The one big party for all guests – five hundred at least, maybe twice that – which  stands out most in my mind from that magical week was an outdoor evening on the grounds of an old Spanish fortress, catered with unbelievable mountains of food loading down tables all over the place, and exotic tropical drinks in coconut shells served by beautiful young Filipinas clad in clinging sarongs circulating through the crowd all the time.   The entertainment was a spectacular show on a gigantic stage presenting the entire history of the Philippines in dance and song – dance numbers worthy of a Busby Berkeley musical, and the overall staging, costumery, lighting and everything else, the equivalent of the biggest and best show you might ever get to see in Las Vegas. Just mind blowing.  There was also a major fireworks display after that, long lasting, and dancing far into the night to a variety of excellent Philippine bands. Among  familiar faces in the crowd, familiar to me anyhow as an old Hollywood movies buff, I recognized special festival guests Alexis Smith and Virginia Mayo who were standing together having a drink, went over, paid my respects and clinked glasses with them.  They both seemed pleased to be recognized without needing somebody to explain who they were. One final  image I have is of Robert Duvall cutting a very fancy rug out on the dance-floor with his dance partner when the Spanish Paso Dobles were being played.  Mr. Duvall is apparently a past master of this noble ballroom dance form

 

Outrageous German actor Klaus Kinski had grown his blonde hair about a foot long and it hung down from his head to his shoulders or swung around like a mop as he flitted around frenetically.  One day I ran into Kinski at the poolside of the Manila Hotel, the hotel in which General Mac Arthur had for years maintained a permanent suite -- and thought it might be fun to have a chat with him.  I greeted him in German – 'Guten Tag Klaus' – which stopped him in his tracks for a second, but when he found out I was an American journalist he dropped into fluent rasping four-letter English, telling me exactly what he thought of f-----g journalists in no uncertain terms, and didn't give a shit whether I liked 'Fitzcarraldo'' (the film that he and director Werner Herzog were there to promote), or not.  Our chat, such as it was, probably didn't last more than ten minutes but, during this brief interlude he must have gone up the dresses or grabbed the hind quarters or breasts of at least three passing Filipina waitresses – with a mad whoop of glee each time.  I concluded that Mr. Kinski was insane and not worth any more of my time.  Undoubtedly the feeling was mutual since I had nothing for him to grab.   

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Actress Alexis Smith at sixty, was still the kind of woman to turn a man's head when she entered a room and I had the pleasure of a long friendly chat with her one afternoon when she was sitting around waiting to be interviewed for Australian television by Bill Collins. The corpulent  Australian interviewer was one of these walking encyclopedias of American film lore who could tell the actress all kinds of things she had herself forgotten about her own career – like who her co-stars or minor actors or lighting directors were on certain obscure films, and things like that, and she was quite impressed with his erudition. Alexis while never a superstar like contemporaries of hers such as Bette Davis or Lana Turner was, nevertheless, an elegant leading lady of some note playing opposite such leading men as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Cary Grant and under some of the top directors such oas Michael Curtiz, Mervin Leroy and Joseph Losey.

VIRGINIA MAYO in her Hollywood hey-day had been a super-foxy multi-curvaceous mouth-watering blond bombshell in many forties movies and was Cagney’s sassy gun moll in „White Heat” as late as 1951, but thirty years later Virginia had aged  -- not, would I say badly, but the sexiness had faded away completely to where she just looked like anybody’s sweet pretty old granny living next door. She was a very nice person, unassuming and easy to talk with, and didn’t mind reminiscing a bit, but you just didn’t get the feeling you were in the presence of a one-time Hollywood star and sex-symbol.  All that was clearly long behind her and she seemed rather surprised that she was still well-enough remembered to get asked to a big festival like this with contemporary celebrities hopping arond all over the place. 

 

With Alexis Smith it was altogether different. Alexis dressed with elegant flair – several changes a day - smoked her cigarettes from a slender silver cigarette holder, looked sharp and carried herself like a star every minute.  She was in fact still going strong in a top television series and to some extent in the movies.  Her last one was, in fact, Scorcese’s „Age of Innonence” released in 1993, the year she passed away. In Manila 1983 there was not another woman around who radiated the star aura she did.  Yet she was not at all unapproachable chattingly affably with whomever might come along, but the names that came up in her conversation, Flynn, Bogart, Cary Grant, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford, Eleanor Parker, Michael Curtiz – sounded like a Who’s Who of the golden age of Hollywood.  Not that she was into „dropping names”, she was just talking about the people she worked with and hung out with in her everyday life.  

One day just sitting around the hotel lobby having a cup of coffee in the morning with Alexis and some other people waiting for a shuttle to the festival grounds, I was still intrigued by the fact that she had worked in a number of pictures with one of my favorite directors, the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, so I asked her what it had been like to work with this fabulous legendary director -- „Oh –Mike Cur-teeez – she said with a broad smile, a deep chuckle and a flamboyant wave of her cigarette holder –  Then, leaning forward as if to confide a big secret she says, „Mr. Curtiz had such a thick Hungarian accent that most of us on the set didn’t even know what the hell he was talking about most of the time!  -- He would yell out these instructions and we would look at each other and say  ’What did he say?’ – Did you understand him?” ... She then went on to regale us with a couple of choice Michael Cutiz anecdotes which had us all in stitches to start the festival day. Quite a lady, Alexis Smith – up in the clouds and down to earth all at the same time – so classy and very good-looking for a „woman of a certain age”.

The final gala in the big festival hall arrives. Prizes are awarded and President Marcos appears to makes a long dull dictator type speech. Sir Richard Attenborough, distinguished director of Ghandi, makes a short moving humanitarian type speech. When they play The Star Spangled Banner, tears come to my eyes –- Don’t ask me why, but I suddenly feel patriotic out here in this country of countless Islands, where a stone’s throw away from the very hall where all this is taking place, the Bataan Death March took place in 1942, wherein many young American soldiers died, and from where General MacArthur erscaped in a PT boat saying „I shall return”  -- and did return two years later to liberate the islands from the Japs.  And now it’s all being run by this piggish dictator with a Spanish name and his megalomaniacal First Lady as the spirit of the great Indian humanitarian, Mohandis Mahatma Ghandi, hovers over the hall.

The lights go down and Ghandi is shown. Ben Kingsley is uncanny in the title role but I can’t get over the fact that Candice Bergen looks so out of place in the picture.  Then comes the big closing party. At the sumptuous sit-down dinner I find myself sitting at a table next to the famous Russian director Grigori Chukrai of „Ballad of a Soldier” and chat with him in Russia.  The Serbian guys in baggy suits from the Pula festival turn out to be the best dancers in the room. At one of the drink tables I meet this blustering bulky old Englishman in a white dinner jacket who tells me his name is Lew Grade –Sir Lew Grade.  I say, „Nice to meet, Sir -- What do you do for a living?” – to which he says, with a huge sniff, „If you don’t know who Lew Grade is, young man, you have no right being at this festival!” – To which I reply affably, downing my martini at a gulp, "No shit? – Well I’m the American journalist Herman Pevner, and if you don’t know who I am, YOU have no right being here”.  Sir Lew sees nothing funny in this and stomps off in a huff reciting the alphabet. Somebody who has overheard our little exchange at the cocktail table pulls me aside and tells me,  "Guess what -- you just insulted the biggest film producer in England and one of the biggest big-shots in the whole film business anywhere. „Well, he insulted me first” is all I can think of saying in reply as I start on my second martini and head for the dance floor. Out on the dance floor all-American playboy George Hamilton and Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos in a blood red traditional Philippine gown with high shoulder fins, and some kind of extravagant Spanish headress, are the center of attention.  The First Lady is no slouch as a dancer and she and Hamilton are still at it as the crowd starts to thin out around three in the morning ... But there are still crowds out on the festival grounds milling about by a theater showing an all night marathon of bold films.

All in all Manila ’83 was just about the most spectacular and luxurious film festival I have ever attended, but that year was also the Swan Song for this particular tropical extravaganza because the next year there was a bloodless revolution in the Philippines, the Marcos’ were deposed and had to flee for their lives to Hawaii (with half of the national treasury) and Cori Aquino became the new president, with more important matters on her hands than self-agrandizing film festivals. 

 

When I got back to Tokyo in February I wrote up my Manila article focussing on the highpoints of the festival without making any snide remarks about the vanity of the First Lady and refraining from any discussion on the politics of the Philippines (if one wants to get invited back one doesn’t bite the hand that feeds) and submitted it to Tokyo journal, a weekly mostly read by the expatriate community.  I was surprised when a letter from a reader sharply criticized my article for ”praising a dictatorship”  and even implied that I was a Fascist for writing such nice things about this Imelda Marcos sponsored event. I made a brief reply to the effect that it was not the duty of film critics to write about politics and I still hold to that.  What was I supposed to say? – that Robert Duvall, Richard Attenborough, Ben Kingsley et al, were all a bunch of dirty Facists for accepting the lavish hospitality of Madame Marcos?

 

CANNES, ’83 -- Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence with Beat Takeshi ~~ In any case, the big news in the Japanese film world in early 1983 was the new Nagisa Oshima film, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, a large scale co-production with France, starring among others in a mixed international cast, British pop-singer David Bowie, as a rebellious POW in a Japanese prison camp during WW II. The film also introduced a wily Japanese actor by the name  of ”Beat” Takeshi who would start making his mark internationally as a director a decade or so later as „Takeshi Kitano”.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was slated to be a competition entry at Cannes so I figured this would be a good in for me to go back to Cannes and, on the basis of some articles written about that production I was again able to wrangle another Cannes accreditation.   

The trip to Cannes in May ’83 followed the same route as the one three years earlier, AEROFLOT over Siberia to Paris via Moscow, without incident, and again the over night train down to Cannes from Paris. In the mornng as the train was trundling through sunny southern France I struck up a conversation in my compartment with a lady who happened to be Italian. I maneuvered the conversation around to Italian cinema and mentioned that I was a great fan of Marcello Mastroiani. To my great surprise this nice Italian lady shook her head and said „I can’t stand that man!”  Thinking that surely all Italians must love Mastroianni I was quite curious to find out what it was about him that she found so revolting. She explained that, among other things from the lower class way in which he spoke Italian and his pseudo-sophisticated mannerisms, to her he was just a pretentious peasant trying to act cool and basically a phony low-class slob! 

I was sort of flabbergasted, but in a way this was a significant revelation to me with regard to the aura of movie stars and the widely divergent ways in which they may be perceived by different people.  What this underlined for me above all is that there is simply nothing universal in star adulation and that even the most beloved movie stars may be seen in vastly different ways by different people, especially when judging from within the framework of their own language and their own culture. To me it seemed that Mastroianni’s Italian was an impeccable example of how that melodious language should be spoken, however I must admit that although I understand Italian fairly well I am not a native speaker of the language, and therefore not tuned in to all the little nuances of Italian which a Native speaker  responds to automatically.  This little chance encounter also gave me an insight into the mystery of why the French love the American comedian Jerry Lewis – since they are not really tuned in to English they just respond to his body English and facial contortions but don’t understand how dumb he sounds to many American ears. Different strokes for different folks in different languages – but Goddammit, I still think Mastroianni spoke beautiful Italian no matter what that darn lady in the train said.

 

The train pulled in to Cannes station about mid-morning and the first thing I did was store my bags in a consigne (baggage locker) so I would be able to move about freely until I got settled down. Settling down, however, turned into a slight nightmare.  This being my second time in Cannes I knew just where to go to get my accreditation and badge, and all that, but this time around I was not so lucky with the hotel situation. Not only was the Hotel des Gavres "complet” – completely full up for the next ten days, but after spending half the day checking out other possibilities I found to my dismay that there was not a single room to be had anywhere in town except at the major hotels for $200 a night on up, minimum. 

 Crashing Behind the Curtain

  Fortunately, I had taken the precaution of bringing a tightly rolled up sleeping bag with me.   As things turned out I did not have to sleep out on the beach because the first night at the last screening of a cinema next to the Grand Palais, which ended shortly after midnight, as the crowd filed out and I was sitting there with my sleeping bag under my seat, wondering where I was going to crash, an odd thought occurred to me.  Only a few feet in front of me was the curtain and if I just stepped up behind that curtain maybe I could roll out my sleeping bag right there and spend the night on the floor behind the curtain of the theater.  And, in fact, this is exactly what I did.  The main thing was to do this behind-the-curtain move so swiftly that the people coming in to clean up the place after the last show didn’t notice.  The other thing was to figure out how to get out of the building in the morning before the day shift came around again.  In any case, I got this all worked out and for most of the festival, this became my „hotel” – the „behind the curtain hotel” at one of the better festival cinemas on the beachfront which ran a late show every night. I ended up seeing quite a few movies in that particular theater.

 

As for the festival itself, the weather was nice, the atmosphere was convivial, I had a lots of fun flinging my French around, and for comfort  I hung out some of the time with the Japanese delegation from "Mr, Lawrence” and with some Japanese journalists whom I knew from back in Tokyo, amongst whom I must mention a certain lady by the name of Minami Toshiko.  Toshiko-san was the most elegant Japanese lady I have ever met.  She was a moderately well-known Tokyo film critic especially interested in the American and European cinemas and a regular at Cannes.  She had written a book on the subject of love in Hollywood films and was herself a most attractive middle-aged woman who dressed with flair and chain-smoked her cigarettes out of a silver cigarette holder (like Alexis Smith). She was also independently wealthy and stayed every year in Cannes at the Martinez Hotel, a five-starrer on the Croisette (Cannes’ beachfront  promenade) second only to the Carlton as far as VIP and filmstar clientelle. But the most striking thing about Toshiko, which in my mind set her apart from all other Japanese I had ever met, was that she was perfectly at home in any international gathering, not up-tight and self-conscious as most Japanese tend to be when separated from their own kindred.  

Her English was sketchy and she knew a few words of French, but language was no barrier because she had style, sophistication, poise, good looks and that all imortant je-ne-sais quoi which gives a woman an air of mystery and acessability at the same time.  Wonderful lady, Minami Toshiko.  If she hadn’t been solidly married to some wealthy Tokyo businessman I might have made a serious move on her myself. As it was we were movie buddies, often met at press screenings in Tokyo, and for a while I even gave her private English lessons. 

 

Looking for Fassbinder and finding Divine

        DIVINE  in his/her flagship role in PINK FLAMINGOS

 

At this particular Cannes festival there were rumors that the controversial gay German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was hanging around at certain backstreet bars, and Toshiko thought that if she could score an interview with him that would be a real feather in her cap. She was convinced that if anybody could find him and bring him to her it would be me, so every time I ran into her she kept asking me if I had seen him yet.  I did sort of ask around but Fassbinder was a will o’ the wisp and I never caught up with him, unfortunately. 

As far as encounters with Hollywood personalities are concerned two most unusual ones stand out in my mind, Harry Reems, co-star with Linda Lovelace of „Deep Throat” and „Divine”, the transvestite star of „Pink Flamingos” and other John Waters’ trash classics. Harry I ran into one afternoon in the lobby of the Carlton and he seemed glad to be recognized by somebody, so we had a quick drink together.  He also seemed to be extremely harried and put out that nobody was asking him for his autograph, and when I asked him what he was actually doing in Cannes he said,”Whaddya think – looking for work, of course. Here I am, the star of the biggest box-office hit of the last ten years and nobody gives a shit about me. What a ratrace!  Nobody even knows who I am”.  I was surprised how tall Harry was, over six feet tall for sure, and he was definitely a pretty good looking guy, but there was something really low class about him. He apparently thought  that „Deep Throat” was a great work of art and that his peformance in it, which consisted mainly of providing Linda Lovelace with large doses of shlong to swallow over and over, was comparable to Gable in GWTW.  Somebody, it seems, had misinformed Harry about the waters in Cannes and about the cinema business in general.

 

The same day I ran into an actor/actress I really admired as the star of one of my favorite movies of the time, "Pink Flamingos”, Divine, the heavy-set transvestite with the shaved forehead and stacked up blonde hair behind that.  For readers unfamiliar with the details of that infamously famous low-budget film, this is the John Waters trash masterpiece in which Divine is up against some other trash trailer maniacs in a knock-down drag-out battle for the title of „The Most Disgusting Person Alive”.    All kinds of outrageous sexual acts and equally outrageous non-sexual acts occur throughout the film -- an outrageous anti-bourgeois comedy if one must give it a classification – culminating with the final scene in which Divine picks up some fresh hot dogshit from the ground and literally eats it on screen – not faked – the doody is actually devoured, with a grimace to be sure, but down the hatch it goes.  Divine wins the title and the film ends. 

 Aside from her outrageousness, Divine was truly a talented actress with charisma to burn and comic timing to go with the best of them.  So here I run into Divine right on the main street of Cannes, immediately greet her warmly and the warmth is returned, for Divine under all the makeup is truly a warm person, and after a few moments she says to me, „Look kid, this is really fun, but I’m invited to dinner in a few minutes with some dorky producers – If you’re not busy, come on along and be my guest”. 

 So, to make a long story short, I had dinner with Divine at a fancy terrace restaurant in Cannes sponsored by some straight-laced producer-type businessmen hoping to do a film deal with her.  I have no precise recollection of what we talked about, but I do remember that the dinner was kind of tense and uptight in general, however I felt completely at home chatting with Divine about sex, dope, the foibles of the Bougeoisie, and Pink Flamingos.  

 

Another chance meeting at Cannes ’83 was with notorious Dutch director Herbert Curiel.  This came about one hot sunny afternoon when I walked in off the street to what looked like an open cocktail party on the beach. Actually this was a rather closed invitation-only party sponsored by the Dutch delegation to the festival but nobody seemed to mind a non-Dutchman or two.  I was helping myself to the food and drinks when presently a swarthy, funny looking guy with several days growth of beard and a gravelly voice like Akim Tamiroff saunters up to me, looks at my badge which says I’m from Japan, and says with a growl, „You don’t look Japanese to me.  I’ll bet you’re a fukkin’ gate crasher!” – to which I reply, „Well you don’t look Dutch to me either, Where’s your blonde hair and your blue eyes?  Anyway, you wouldn’t happen to have a joint on you, wouldya?” – To which this funny gentleman replies, "I never carry marijuana across the border.  If you wanna smoke grass with me you’ll have to come up to Holland. I grow it on my farm outside of Amsterdam”. 

 With this, realizing that we had lots in common, we were soon chatting like old partners in crime and this chance meeting did, in fact, lead to a visit that summer to Amsterdam and Herbert’s curious little farm in Friesland as a by-product of Cannes ’83, and was in a way a continuation of the festival for me when, soon after my arrival in Amsterdam Oshima also pulled in to town to present a special invitational screening  of his Cannes success  "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” at the Magnificent Tushinski Theater, one of the oldest original movie houses in Europe.

 

I was visiting the Curiel farm in the Friesian village of Pingjem up north just behind the North Sea dike when Herbert told me of Oshima’s presence in Amsterdam. He also told me that a Japanese interpreter was needed for the event  and, since Japanese interpreters were not easy to find in Amsterdam, the job was mine if I wanted it.  Moreover there would be a rather handsome cash consideration involved, some 500 guilders for the evening’s work.  Great!, I thought – here I get to meet this important Japanese director face-to-face and get paid well in the process for translating what he says to the audience from Japanese into English, the universally understood second language of the Netherlands. Moreover, I know all about the film, have seen it a couple of times, and am therefore on top of the subject matter, which is an important consideration as any professional interpreter will tell you.

The next day we all head into town, Herbert, myself, and Janna his tall blond live-in consort, for the two hour drive over the long Zuijderzee Bridge and then south through a bunch of small towns. On the way Janna is driving while Curiel and I are smoking and drinking.  I myself am not much of a drinker and figure I better keep myself pretty straight for the job ahead so I restrain myself, but Herbert, a heavy lush as well as a confirmed pothead, is thoroughly bombed by the time we get to the theater. Herbert installs himself in the balcony upstairs and I  make my way to the stage to greet Oshima and do the honors with the introductions.  The film itself has the audience enthralled because it takes place in a Japanese Prisoner of War came in Indonesia during World War II, which was then a Dutch colony known as "The Dutch East Indies” and a number of older men in the Tushinski audience were actually survivors of imprisonment by the Japanese in POW camps similar to the one pictured in the film. 

In Japanophile France wherever Oshima goes he gets nothing but praise to high heaven for his treatment of the Japanese military and everything else in this film,  but here in Holland he is facing a much more critical audience. After the screening questions and comments start coming at him he isn’t ready for.  For example,”I was there and the Japanese guards were much more cruel and vicious than the way they are shown in the film.” Others dismiss the homoerotic relationship between the camp commander and obstreperous prisoner David Bowie, which is the core of the film, as absurd! 

Meanwhile from up in the balcony a totally smashed Curiel is chiming in with loud comments like  "Bullshit. Nothing but bullshit!” -- audible all over the hall. At some point in the proceedings Oshima completely blows his cool, curtly dismisses me as his interpreter and decides that he can deal with these barbarians better by himself in his own broken English. Curiel, continues to taunt him with catcalls from the balcony and finaly Oshima freaks out completely, steps to the fore of the proscenium and, shaking a finger menacingly high in the air while indicating the exit at the same time, addresses himself directly to Herbert in the balcony with the screamed command, "GO OUT!”  

Some ushers arrive to gently escort Herbert out of the hall but the damage has been done – Commander Oshima is a laughing stock in Amsterdam and his really not bad film has received its Dutch come uppance. 

I have one more curious little Curiel anecdote to relate here, for, of all the unusual people I have ever met at a film festival Herbert Curiel is ranks very high on my top ten list of super characters. Somewhat after the infamous "Tushinski Theater Incident”  a very comprehensive retrospective of Japanese films was being held in Amsterdam with three or four screenings a day.  I noticed that there were a number of great old Mizoguchis classics on tap so I finally convinced Curiel that, as a filmmaker himself, he might actually pick up a pointer or two from this Japanese Old Master who is one of my own personal idols.  

 

Bear in mind that Herbert Curiel is no slouch as a filmmaker himself, having directed some significant Dutch films in his day and having collaborated on many co-productions in Spain and elsewhere but, because he is so hard to get along with, his total personal filmography is limited to a handful of completed films. Other Dutch directors regard him as "talented but crazy”.   

In any case I finally dragged Herbert out to an afternoon screening of a Mizoguchi film called "Sisters of the Gion”, a black and white tale of an older geisha and her younger disciple in Kyoto. For those unfamiliar with Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, he was known for his "floating camera” and one of his watch words was ”One scene–One cut” – in other words don’t chop a scene up into a bunch of back and forth takes – just keep the camera flowing over the players until the scene is played out.  Sounds easy but very few directors are able to pull it off and the effect is sort of magical when it’s done right.

  So, Herbert, after smoking a joint, takes a seat in the second row to watch the film.  I’m seated a few seats down the row from Herbert and am surprised that he’s not making his usual stream of sarcastic comments. After a while, worried that he’s bored or something, I sidle up to him and say, „Well, Herbert, whaddya think of Mizoguchi?’”—Herbert, who has been in a kind of hypnotic trance, throws up his arms and cries out, "I give up!” – and that is the highest compliment I have ever heard one filmmaker pay to the work of another. 

 

PESARO – 1984, and "Mad Dog Miccighe”

Back in the Far-East by 1984 my film interests had shifted largely from Japanese to the new Korean Cinema. I was therefore spending more time in Seoul than in Tokyo and my Japanese girlfriend, Chizuko, who also had a soft spot for things Korean, had come over to stay with me in Soeul. By this time I was working nearly full time for the Korean Film Promotion Board as a general adviser on foreign film markets and as a translater of promotional materials for all new Korean films into both English and French.  I was also regularly writing film reviews for the Korea Herald, focussing mostly on the new Korean films as they came out and had become quite friendly with one veteran Korean director, Kim Soo-yong, famous for his ever present black beret and sense of humor as well as for a string of interesting and occasionally controversial films.

 

One fine fine spring day as I was working on one of my pressbook translations I was introduced to a couple of Italian gentlemen, Marco Mueller and Lino Miccighe, who had come to Seoul in search of some Korean films to present at the Pesaro Film Festival in Italy.  Pesaro, the birthplace of the great italian opera composer Rossini, hosts a festival every summer which focusses on the films of a single country or region, and the focus for the 1984 festival was to be Japan and Korea.  Of course, Japan with a much larger and far more important film industry, would be the main focus of the festival but Messrs Mueller and Miccighe were also very interested in presenting a significant Korean perspective as well since, at this time, the Korean cinema was all but unknown in Europe, or in fact anywhere outside of Korea. Having become basically the resident foreign expert on Korean film in Seoul, and in addition able to converse with these gentlemen in Italian if necessary, I was appointed on the spot as their advisers during their stay in the Korean capital which lasted about a week – a rather hectic week as things turned out. 

Of course the Koreans were highly flattered that an important European film festival would want to put on some kind of Korean film retrospective, however, they had their own ideas about which kinds of films would best represent Korean culture in Europe.  All kinds of screenings were set up but several of the films which the Italians found most interesting and were hot to select were given the no-no by the Film Promotion executives.  To their way of thinking any film which presented Korean social problems such as prostitution, unwed mothers, extreme poverty, or subject matter of this nature should not be shown outside of Korea because it would tend to ”give Korea a bad name”.   Consequently a couple of the best new films were not approved for export to Italy even though Micchighe and Mueller pleaded and remostrated and tried to convince the Film Promotion people, with me as their intermediary, that such films would show Europeans how advanced and sophisticated the Korean industry had become. 

After the screenings there were dinners at the best restaurants every night to which my girlfriend Chizuko was also invited and at which she made a great personal impression on all the men. She was young charming and very outgoing for a Japanese.  One very peculiar sidelight of these social events was that whenever Mr. Miccighe was introduced somebody would invariably burst out laughing.  Finally Signore Miccighe’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked me what it was about his name that some Koreans found so funny they couldn’t contain themselves. 

Although my Korean was by now coming along fairly well there were still certain gaps and I had to double-check with a Korean speaker, whereupon I was reluctantly informed that the name "Micci-ghe” – pronounced exactly – not approximately, but identically to the way Mr. Miccighe pronounced his name – "Meetcheek-Kkay” – in Korean means "mad dog” !! –Consequently whenever Lino introduced himself he was basically saying, "Glad to meet you. I am Mister MAD DOG”.  

 

When I dutifully expained the reason for the Korean risibilty with respect to his name, Miccighe was not at all amused and he told me in Italian that he thought these Koreans should have better manners and were nothing but a bunch of vulgar slobs.  When the Italians concluded their visit to Seoul and had made a preliminary selection of fims to be shown at Pesaro in July, there were still some open questions as to which films would be finally approved, but Marco assured me that both myself and Chizuko would be honored guests of the festival in any case, as well as my good friend Director Kim Soo-yong whom Marco had gotten to know through me.  That then became by big festival event of 1984.

I forget which airline or combination of airlines we took but we landed at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport, my first vist to Italy by air.  

At the airport our mixed Asian delegation was met by a special mini-van from Pesaro and we were immediately whisked clear across the Italian Peninsula to the Adriatic side where Pesaro, a small seacoast resort city is located. Among the passengers on the bus was the big American expert on Japanese film, Donald Ritchie, a longtime resident of Japan and the author of many books on Japanese film.  I had read most of them and had gleaned a lot of basic background information on the Japanese cinema from his books, but by now my Japanese had advanced to the point where I got all of my new information directly from Japanese sources. I was always a little suspicious of the fact that Ritchie seemed to pride himself on never having learned how to read Japanese (he did speak it fuently after thirty years in the country) and I felt that his views on film were a bit too far over on the precious-lacey-elitist side. 

 

Ritchie had undoubtedly read my newspaper articles on Kurosawa and others but I had the feeling that he regarded me as something of an upstart because I myself knew Japanese well enough not to have to go through him to make connections in the Japanese film world. He, of course, knew everybody and almost every American scholar who had visited Japan and published a book on Japanese film had been sheperded about by Mr. Ritchie and invariably started their scholarly tomes with a dedication to Mister Ritchie or a profound effusive statement of thanks for his help.  I was at the time myself thinking of writing a non-scholarly, popular book on certain Japanese film series like Torasan and Zatoichi, something I never got around to as my interest in Japan began to wane.  However I often picture the dedication page in my mind: 

"This book was written without any help whatsoever from Donald Ritchie or other scholars who can’t read Japanese”.      

 

In any case on the bus ride over we exchanged a few civilities but I didn’t see much of Ritchie after that and didn’t really care to. He was just a mite too smug and self-satisfied for my taste.

Pesaro turned out to be an extremely pleasant beach city with an ancient central plaza and a very relaxed atmosphere. Our hotel was right on the beachfront and I managed to get in a couple of Adriatic dips with Chizuko between screenings. There were a number of well known Japanese screen personalities around including director Nagisa Oshima and one of my favorite Japanese actresses, Mariko Okada, who had been quite a sexpot in her younger days and was still looking pretty good.  The Japanese were, however, pretty aloof being the main focus of attention and standing very much on ceremony like celestial visitors, so I hung out mainly with Kim Soo-Yong and my girlfriend Chizuko. That week on the Adriatic coast of Italy has now turned into a pleasant summer blur, but two sidetrips stand out.  

One afternoon all festival guests who cared to make the trip were loaded onto a bus and taken up to see "the smallest country in Europe’”, the postage stamp Principality of San Marino situated atop a mountain pinnacle a couple of hours northwest of Pesaro. 

The bus struck out directly north up the coast passing through the larger beach resort of Rimini, which I seem to remember was Fellini’s birthplace, so that gave the trip a special aura. After stopping for coffee at Rimini the bus headed inland and was soon making the steep climp up to San Marino.   San Marino was beautiful with great mountaintop views all around but it was also a typical tourist trap, the main reason for being there being to be able to say that you had been there. Ritchie was along on the tour and was wearing an elegant white blazer or something, which is about all I can remember about San Marino. 

On the way back to Pesaro we stopped off to look at a town called Urbino, very medieval looking and famous for some antique paintings. Again, a blur. As for the films there were very few Japanese films I hadn’t  seen before, and I had already seen all the Korean films back in Seoul, so I spent most of my time exploring the town with Chizuko or introducing Kim Soo-yong to the Italian audiences before screenings of his films, since he was the show-case Korean director and a selection of his films were being shown.

The final social event of the pesaro festival was a lavish closing dinner party somewhere up the coast at a picturesque restaurant perched up on a cliff over the sea. The most famous person there was Nagisa Oshima, and Kim Soo-yong who grew up under the Japanese occupation of Korea, is fluent in Japanese, so he struck up an animated conversation with the Japanese director and the three of us were seated together.  Now it so happened that I had brought along a couple of bottles of the notorious Korean fire-water known as So-Joo and had been reserving it for just such a special occasion.  Bottle one was cracked open and we all took shots.  Whomp – shot number one. Small flash of lighting.  Before shots number two and three I must mention here that Oshima is an extremely nervous, pompous, and vain man, and would not let himself be bested in a drinking bout by a director from a second rate country like Korea, so he was soon matching Kim and myself shot for shot.  

To make a long story short both Kim and myself, having had  plenty of experience with So-joo back in Seoul, were able to maintain a semblance of stability, but poor Oshima got stark raving drunk – really raving and staggering around the restaurant, a spectacle which for Kim and myself turned out to be the most amusing highlight of the entire Pesaro festival.  

From Italy I proceeded on a round the world tour back to Japan and Korea with Chizuko via Paris, London, Canadian Air to Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, then back across the Pacific to home base in the Far-East.  1984 was more of a travel year than a festival year but it strenghtened the Korean connection and set the stage for Berlin 1985.

 

Blazing Sun in Berlin '85 -- A city divided by a Wall

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The bombed out Berlin Memorial Church;  Gedächtniskirche, is a grim reminder of World War II

 

In the late autumn of 1984, now firmly resettled back in Seoul and totally involved with the energetic and rapidly evolving new Korea cinema I was invited to a routine press screening of a new Korean film. The film was called "DDeng-BByutt”, or ’Blazing Sun’ in English, a tragedy set during the oppressive Japanese occupation years, and I was so impressed by everything about it, the cinematography, the acting, the story, the production values, the sound track, the music, the editing – everything -- that I sought out the director, Ha Myung-Joong (who was also terrific as the main actor in the picture) after the screening and told him that I thought this film ought to be entered in the upcoming Berlin Film Festival, but he’d better get on his horse because Berlin ’85 was now less than three months away.  Mr. Ha, a man of many talents, was, needless to say, very encouraged to get this kind of feedback from a foreign critic and my enthousiastic comments on the film basically set the Berlin wheels in motion.  The clincher was when I wrote a rave review of "Blazing Sun” for the Korea Herald which seemed to convince any doubters that, in spite of the specifically Korean historical content, "Blazing Sun” had something to say to westerners with no specific knowledge of the historical background.  Moreover, a few Korean films such as "Mandala” by Im Kwon-Tek had previously been well received in Berlin, so it wasn’t as if the Land of the Morning Calm was totally unknown to the Berlinale selectors.  

To make a long story short "Blazing Sun” was sent to Berlin by the KMPPC (Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation) and it was not only approved, but accepted as an entry in the major International competition for 1985.  It took some heated persuasion but I finally got the producers of the film to hire me on a kind of general publicity agent for the film and German interpreter in Berlin, as needed.                                                         So, as February 1985 approached I started looking forward eagerly to my first Berlin Film Festival experience in the then still divided city. All kinds of film promotion materials, stacks of posters and press books, and the like, were loaded onto our KAL Korean Airlines flight to Berlin including a large assortment of Korean Furniture, vases and other articles the producers expected to sell there at a big profit, for the backers of the film were business people, not film people. Two actresses from the film, one especially attractive, were also in the Deng-Byutt entourage. Although both were heavy smokers they were instructed never to be seen smoking in public while in Berlin, so as not to besmirch the pure-as-the-driven-snow image of Korean womanhood which they were sure prevailed in the world at large.

Part of my job, I was told, was to use my knowlege of German to convince the German customs inspectors that all this junk was intended as gifts for the Korean Community of Berlin, so they wouldn’t have to pay a large import fee.  Hmm. I was beginning to see that this trip to Berlin might be a little more complicated than I what I had bargained for, but I really began to get a taste of things to come a couple of hours into the flight when Mr. Ha and all the other men in the Korean group went to the back of the plane – a spacious Jumbo-Jet – to find an area where they could all get down on their knees and ... PRAY!   It turned out that they were all devout Christians of some sort and prayed to Jesus regularly several times a day.  Oh, Jesus! – What had I gotten myself into?

 

I don’t want to get too far ahead of the story, but let me just say at this point that all their fervent daily prayers didn’t help one single bit – "Blazing Sun” didn’t win any awards and, at the end of the festival, the Ha delegation, who seemed to hold me personally reponsible for the film’s failure to click with the Berlin Jury (like, I should have been lobbying every day in front of the Jury room), tried to get me to pay my own hotel bill as well as my own way back to Korea.  I didn’t feel guilty enough to comply with either demand but I knew that I would never again let myself get involved with Korean Christians, especially the kind that get down on their knees and pray in airplanes!

  In any case, aside from the insanity of the relations with the Korean delegation, this first Berlin Film Festival of mine (there would be many others later) was a landmark not only of my blossoming film festival career, but of my life in general, considering the peculiar Cold-War atmosphere that was still very much in place in Berlin in 1985.

 

First of all was the emplacement of the festival headquarters and offices in a long business arcade directly accross from the  "Gedächtnis Kirche”, or Memorial Church, a gigantic bombed out ruin left over from the devastation of World War II.  All other wreckage was cleared away or rebuilt after the war, but this Berlin landmark was left standing just as it was on the last day of the war, with its gigantic half destroyed steeple and exposed masonry reaching high into the sky over Kurfurstendam, Berlin’s most elegant shopping boulevard, a grim reminder to the German’s of what could happen again if they ever let another Hitler into power .... You walked out of the festival offices and main cafeteria and, bam – there it was, this towering massive stone scarecrow left over from World War II – in your face.   

 

Bear in mind that the president sitting in the Whitehouse in 1985 was former Hollywood star Ronald Reagan (yes, he was in fact, a star, and not a bad actor either, no matter what his political detractors may say) who was calling the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire” and was not the type to back down from a confrontation, and there was hardly anyone around at that point who believed that Communism would collapse of its own weight anytime soon – certainly not within the next five years as actually turned out to be the case. 

 In 1985 the Cold War looked like it was frozen solid for at least the rest of the century if not forever, and, in a strange old prison on the western edge of West Berlin in an outlying suburb called Spandau, the last surviving Nazi Leader, Rudolf Hess – once Number Three Man behind Hitler and Goering – was serving out a life sentence, the only inmate on the premises, watched over by rotating Russian, American, French, and English guards, the guard changing once a week.  Kakfka would have loved this – a gigantic old prison that should have been closed down years ago, kept open to house a single prisoner, as some kind of political symbol and pawn between the four military powers overseeing the city.

Aside from the slightly grotesque Gedächtniskirche, which is after all an appropriate monument considering that This Is Berlin, the festival terrain was quite elegant.  

The precise area around the festival HQ is referred to as ZOO because, not only is the vast Berlin Zoolgical garden located right there with the entrance on lower Budapester strasse but, at the upper end of the large square dominated by the church ruins is the handsome white ZOO Palast Theater, at the time Berlin’s largest movie house, truly palatial in size and scope, and the venue for the red carpet evening galas with spotlights and the whole shebang.  Just beyond that is ZOO Station square, the location of Berlin’s largest train station and a bustling area on its own, full of eateries, curry-wurst stands, coffee shops, fast food take-outs, a Burger King, a McDonalds, multiple metro entrances and bus platforms, and in general a busy crossroads reminiscent of Times Square in New York.  

A block further up the road from the station, as one gets beyond ZOO and enters the fashionable Charlottenburg district, is the venerable old Forum theater which houses the important Forum Section of the festival. Across from the Forum is the elegant old Astoria Hotel (where the "Blazing Sun” delegation settled), and down the street from there on the corner of Kurfurstendam, Berlin’s answer to the Parisian Champs Elysees, is the Five Star Kempinski, at the time berlin’s flagship hotel and the hostelry for VIP festival visitors of the upper echelons. Other expensive hotels are scattered all around the area and some of the swankier festival cinemas were located right on Kurfurstendam Boulevard up to the Cinema Paris directly opposite the Kempinski. Finally, the late evening hot spot for festival high rollers was a classy bistro (still there) know as the „Cafe de Paris” where one might catch a movie star or two after midnight, or a famous director in a noisy, smoky,decor plastered with old French film posters and memorabilia.

I had no complaints about the accomodations at the Astoria and quickly set about doing my job, which was to promote the Korean film in every way I could think of.  Part of my one-man promotion campaign consisted of putting up posters for the film on every surface that wasn’t already covered and sitting around the main festival cafe on Budapester strasse talking the film up with people who seemed to be inflential, mostly Germans.  I even had a rave review of the film published in German in the Festival Daily paper, and became friendly with the people who had actually selected the film for competition, among whom the opinion was that it ought to win something, if not the Grand Prize.  I did just about everything except join in the nightly prayers for the film’s success at the hotel which was a bit out of my ball park. 

 As mentioned earlier, while people who saw it seemed to like it, "Blazing Sun” was overlooked at prize awarding time.  In fact, an East German film took the Golden Bear and "Blazing Sun” went home empty handed.  Perhaps because of my religious aloofness, the Koreans seemed to think it was basically my fault that the film had failed to score and I was told I would have to pay my own hotel bill to atone for my sins.  I had already decided that Berlin was far too interresting a city to leave straight from the festival anyway, and had already made plans to stay for a while with new German friends made during the festival.  The last night of the festival I left the stately Astoria without bothering to check out officially, and moved in with Jurgen Streek, a German professor of linguists I had met at the „Cafe de Paris”, who sympathised with my uncomfortable situation and whisked me away with my bags in his car.

 

AN ABORTED VISIT TO EAST BERLIN -- Beyond The Wall

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Prof. Jürgen Streek was himself quite a film buff and took it upon himself, just after the festival ended, to arrange a personal interview for me with the East German director who had won the Golden Bear and with whom Jürgen had some kind of personal connection.  One slight catch – the interview would have to take place in East Berlin on the other side of The Wall.  Jürgen assured me that this would be no problem and that the director was anxious to meet me. The one slight complication was that we would have to enter East Berlin by separate routes.  As an American I would have to pass through the infamous "Check Point Charly” gate through the wall, whereas Jurgen, a German citizen, could take the Metro straight under the wall emerging at Frierichstrasse where the director was waiting on the other side. 

 

Jürgen told me he would meet me on the East Berlin side as I emerged from the heavily guarded Check Point – no problem.  

On the way to Check Point Charly Jürgen took me on an up-close guided tour of The Wall, or "Die Mauer”, as it was called in German --  (NOTE: at this point in time East Germans were still occasionally being shot for trying to escape over the wall).           We started out at the Brandenburg Gate which was then straddling the dividing line and behind which was Hitler’s showcase Avenue, Unter den Linden, and then marched south along a barren muddy No-mans’s Land, a kind of vast dump, that fronted the wall on the West Berlin side.  The wall itself was covered from top to bottom as far as the eye could see with colorful graffitti, all kinds of messages condemning the Communist cutoff of East German freedom and the enforced locking in of the people on the other side.  

As we went along (smoking the usual joint, to be sure) Jurgen pointed out that all the main Nazi War Ministries had been located just about where we were now walking and, at one signicant point he stopped and told me that we were now standing on top of where Hitler’s final bunker had been.  There was nothing special to mark the spot, in fact it had been covered over to merge with all the other brownness around, so that there was no longer any trace of where the entrance had been – to make sure that Neo-Nazis did not turn it into a shrine, but local Berliners who knew the territory – knew.  In any case, there we were, standing on the very spot, or damn close to it – of the Chancellery garden where the remains of Hitler and his bride Eva Braun had been soaked in gasoline and put to the torch so that the Russians would find nothing but ashes when they got there.  This was an extremely deep moment .. of the kind that makes film festivasl seem like the most trivial of trivial pursuits.  

A few minutes later we arrived at Check-Point Charly, Jürgen briefed me carefully once again on just how to proceed once I got through the gate, to meet him and the East German, director, then he went off to the Metro.   Left on my own before Check-Point Charly, maybe due to the grass we had smoked and the Hitler aura in the air, I was suddenly overcome with a giant wave of Paranoia.  I saw that there was not the slightest trace of humanity in the steely green-eyed gaze of the East German guard at the gate with his tommy-gun at the ready, but the clincher was when I saw a middle-aged couple emerge from the other side, with all the blood drained from their ashen faces, staring straight ahead, and looking like they had just barely escaped from Hell.            With visions of being interrogated in a dank cell on the other side for the next 72 hours, (Don’t give us that "film critic” business – we know a spy when we see one!) – and maybe deported to Siberia for good measure, I made a quick decision. 

 „You are not going through that door – This is the Gate of Hell”. I said to myself out loud, and beat a hasty retreat back to Jürgen’s apartment on Yorck Strasse in the Free World.  A couple of hours later Jürgen came back to tell me how disappointed the East German director had been, and worried about what the hell had happened to me. When I explained my siezure of Sudden Fear at Check Point Charly, he laughed it off saying that there was not a chance of anything like what I had imagined ever happening, but then, he hadn’t see the faces of the old people coming out that day.  For better or for worse that was the official end of my 1985 Berlin Film Festival experience, but I felt that I still had one more historical visit to make before leaving Berlin, Spandau Prison. 

 

AN ABORTED VISIT TO THE LAST NAZI PRISON

Everybody knew about Spandau Prison and the last top-flite Nazi, Rodolf Hess, behind the walls there, but it was not exactly what you would call a “tourist attraction”.  In fact, it was kind of an eye-sore in a remote suburb far from the center and there was nothing to see there except the high prison walls of dark stone and there were certainly no public tours being conducted.  Spandau was a political football between the Russians and the west. The building should have been closed down long ago and Hess transferred elsewhere, but the Russians insisted on keeping the facility active just for this one inmate, as if he were the living proof that the Russians had been solely responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany.   

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For those unfamliar with the details, the Hess story was in itself one of the most bizarre incidents of WW II.  Early in 1941 shortly before Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Hess, the number three Nazi and an experienced pilot, flew a single seat fighter plane over to England and bailed out over Scotland – his self-appointed mission to talk the English into a negotiated peace which would leave Hitler completely free to deal with Russia.  He was regarded as slightly whacky and interned in England for the rest of the war, and after the war, at the Nürnberg War Crimes trials, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau along with a number of other high ranking Nazis. The years passed and all the others were either released or died off leaving Hess as the sole Spandau inmate. In 1985 Hess was ninety and basically out of his mind.  Nevertheless, he was there and I made up my mind to go out to Spandau and see if I could somehow communicate with him by telepathy through the High prison walls – or maybe even catch sight of him at a window, if there was one, and wave to him.  

There were several ways to get out to Spandau from central West Berlin and I ended up taking a bus from Schloss Charlottenburg which passed by the old Olympic Stadium where Leni Riefenstahl had filmed her great Berlin Olympics film of 1936. At the end of the line, the Spandau Rathaus (City Hall), I got off and started asking around for directions to the prison. There were many new residents in the district not all that familiar with the area and not all Germans, who just shook their head in puzzlement, but I finally met an old man who not only pointed me in the right direction but actually accompanied me to the site.  It was maybe a twenty minute walk along some back streets and it was already beginning to get dark on this gray chilly day when we got there. “Well, there it is”, said my guide in German, “but there’s really nothing to see here except the walls”, and, after a brief chat about the history of the place he took off.  

The streets around were completely deserted except for an occasional passing car and a couple of British guards outside the prison’s main gate.  I asked them if they ever caught sight of Hess and they shook their heads negatively.  This was just a boring job to them and they couldn’t have cared less.  I asked them if it was okay for me to walk along outside the prison walls on the sidewalk, and they gave me the go ahead – “Knock yourself out, but there’s nothing to see”.   They were of course right – there wasn’t anything to see except the high brown stone walls, but still, I knew that Hess, the last top Nazi still alive was somewhere in there behind these walls, and that this was my ultimate moment of confrontation with History ... I paced back and forth for a while then stopped and stared straight at a portion of the wall imagining that I was Superman with X-ray vision and put all of my mental concentration into sending a telepathic message through the walls directly to Hess. “Hess, ich bin da – ich erinnere mich an deiner Flucht nach England “ ... Needless to say, there was no response from within. 

Writing these words now more than twenty years later I realize that this must all sound pretty dumb and pointless but to a kid who grew up during World War II and was now practically a middle-aged man, it was a very special experience – however, a little like a scene from a Bergman movie where the preacher keeps calling out to God for an answer but gets only silence in return.  

As it was now really getting dark and chilly I realized there was no point in hanging around any longer and caught an U-bahn (Metro) back to town.  Rudolf Hess committed suicide in Spandau Prison two years later at the age of 92 and the prison was finally closed down so I guess my visit to Spandau was not a complete waste.  And that was the closing note for me of Berlin ’85.  It would be another decade before I would see the city again, but this time as a single undivided free metropolis, in the mid-nineties.

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After 1985  a couple of festivals in Japan and one in Hawaii finish out the eighties whereupon I move back to The States. In Seattle I become the language tutor of a Hungarian Millionaire and this leads eventually to settling in Eastern Europe in the early nineties and regular visits to all the European film  festivals, with special emphasis on Berlin, Poland and Hungary and certain other festivals where I become a regular visitor.

What follows next is a small sampling of some of my more recent festival reports centering on Berlin which because of its central festival importance has become a regular stopover every February since the turn of the Millenium.  These Berlin reports were originally published on the website www.filmfestivals.com.

 

Berlin Int'l Film Festival, a capsule History:

The very first International Berlin Film Festival opened on the 6th of June, 1951 in the Titania-Palast cinema. The opening film was Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, starring Joan Fontaine, who was also the star guest of the festival. Six years after the end of the Second World War, large areas of the city were still in ruin. Reconstruction had begun, but post-war Berlin was still a world away from the artistic and intellectual center it had been back in the Twenties.  Today, totally rebuilt the city is once again a cosmopolitan culture center and the center piece of this cultural revival is the Berlinale which is not only the city's largest cultural event, but also one of the most important dates on the international film industry calendar. In spite of the often inclement winter weather the prestige this festival has gathered over the years annually attracts a bevy of the biggest names in the business, actors and directors, from every corner pf the cinematic globe as well as a contingent of hundreds upon hundreds of journalists and other accredited professionals.

 

THE 50TH BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL, ANNO 2000

Hollywood Star Power in a New Location

The Berlin Film Festival, which along with Cannes and Venice is counted as one of “The Big Three” of international film festivals, celebrated its golden anniversary and the start of a new Millennium in a brand new ultra-modern setting, Potsdamer Platz, a complex of flashy glass towers and glitzy restaurants built on what used to be a no man’s land between East and West – a gigantic contrast to the slowing decaying digs on Budapester Strasse across town in the Zoo sector of West Berlin which had been the festival’s home for so many years. The name of the game this year in the new location was ‘star power’ with the biggest names of world cinema checking in and out in droves on a daily basis. In fact, on  the last day (February 20) at the closing awards ceremony, festival director Moritz de Hadlen was proud to announce that this was the first time in festival history where just about every prize winner was actually present on stage to receive their various gold and silver bear statuettes in person. 

The picture came to completion when 29 year old director P. T. Anderson of Magnolia”  flew in from London at the very last minute to mount the stage and accept his trophy – the festival’s highest honor, the coveted Golden Bear for best film.  This was actually the whiz-kid director’s second trip to the fest as he had been there a week earlier with actress Julianne Moore to hold a press conference when the film was screened. The continuous procession of stars and celebrity directors throughout the ten days read like a ‘beautiful people’s register’ of Hollywood and international cinema , starting with the incredibly poised and beautiful Chinese actress Gong Li, who on this occasion was president of the jury, 007 lady Sophie Marceau of France, Leonardo Dicaprio (in to pump a dumb film called “The Beach”), Brit Kenneth Branagh with a star on each arm, Alicia Silverstone and Natascha McElhone, Milla Jovovich (the new Slavoc Joan of Arc) – the ‘Ripley’ contingent, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and director Anthony Minghella, George Clooney, Denzil Washington, French rocker and pop idol Johnny Halliday, on and on ...  Dicaprio’s appearance created by far the biggest stir as the German press immediately picked up the buzzword “Leomania” to describe the body heat generated by the crush of screaming female admirers which severely hampered Leo’s freedom of movement. In a press conference Leo stated with studied modesty, “This is not me at all, but I have no control over what happens with my public image”.  Well, that’s show-biz, n’est-ce pas? – 

The top level directorial contingent included Oliver Stone, Milos Forman (best director’s prize for “Man on the Moon”), Poland’s Andrzej Wajda who received a “Life’s Work” career award, and Kon Ichikawa of Japan, still busy at age 85, was here with the 77th film of his lengthy career, “Dora Heita”, a samurai comedy written years ago in collaboration with Kurosawa and others but shelved until now. 

Wajda’s new masterpiece, “Pan Tadeusz” , was shown in a shortened version which the director explained was necessary in order to make the film comprehensible to Western audiences unfamiliar with the details of Polish history and the epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz on which the film is based. Difficult to comprehend or not, Wajda’s magnificent celluloid verse epic received a rousing ovation from an appreciative festival audience in the cavernous main hall.  

In an unabashed ploy to attract as many Hollywood stars as possible no less than eight of the 26 films in competition were Hollywood products, mostly commercial blockbusters already released in America. This was a significant departure from usual Berlin programming policy which traditionally features brand new films of high artistic or intellectual merit.  Except for the off-beat indie “American Psycho” directed by Mary Harron (“I shot Andy Warhol”, ’96) all other American films were commercial “blockbusters” selected only because they featured big name stars or trendy directors. “On Any Sunday”, a totally self indulgent film about American football, is arguably Stone’s worst film ever – but it does have big-time stars,  Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz. Forman’s “Man On the Moon” starring big bucks comedian Jim Carrey has been a serious box-office flop in the States because it too is a highly self-indulgent study of a character, a sick comedian nobody knows about, or cares to know about. Anthony Minghella’s thriller “The Talented Mister Ripley” has been a big commercial success as a multi-star vehicle but by no means a critical success – far inferior to it’s 1959 French predecessor “Purple Noon” (Plein Soleil) of which it is a direct remake dressed up in Hollywood glitz.

This film was probably selected because it is the director’s follow-up to the much heralded “English Patient” of 1996. While Matt Damon was oddly appealing as the psychotic antihero of the title, his interpretation of the role doesn’t hold a candle to Alain Delon’s definitively sinister Ripley in the Marcel Carne version. Nor can Jude Law’s over-the-top “Dickie Greenleaf”  begin to compare with Maurice Ronet’s super-cool reading of the same part in ’59.

 “The Talented Mister Ripley” is a flashy piece of contemporary entertainment but is far from rating as a serious festival contender.  David Russell’s” Three Kings”, a simple minded slam-bang shoot-out in the desert, was obviously selected solely on the basis of George Clooney’s current box-office appeal and was utterly ridiculous as a competition film. At best it might contend with “Godzilla” in a festival of mindless action films.  “The Beach”, a totally commercial youth film ‘ was clearly there as an excuse to lure the immensely popular Dicaprio to Berlin, and partly, perhaps, for the current trendiness of Scottish director Danny Boyle of “Trainspotting”. 

In partial defense of Mister de Hadlen’s American overkill it must be said that at least  two American selections were genuinely excellent. P. T. Anderson’s “Magnolia is an authentic masterpiece (although it rubbed some critics the wrong way) and was justly awarded the Best Film prize of the fest with no dissenting voices. Complex, brainy, AND entertaining, this is one of the best films to come out of Hollywood in recent years with a memorable counter-to-image unsavory Tom Cruise among its many plusses. 

Finally. Norman Jewison’s “Hurricane” starring Denzil Washington as a boxer wrongfully convicted of murder by a racially prejudiced justice system, was also a festival worthy contender in which Denzil repeated his earlier Golden Globes best actor distinction here in Berlin.  While this year’s selection bias was perhaps as good a way as any of assuring large audiences at the new ultra-modern festival facilities (embracing not one, but two  state-of-the-art multiplexes) we can only hope that ‘blockbusterization’  will not become a permanent trend in Berlin and that Mr. de Hadlen will see fit to return to the long established art-and-essay tradition in 2001.  In a way the real star of the entire festival was the ineffably beautiful Chinese actress Gong Li (star of many Zhang Yi-mou films) who presided over the jury, spoke only Chinese in all her public appearances, and held the public enthralled with her regal presence at center stage in the vast festival hall during the final awards ceremony. Her natural elegance, poise, and radiance out-starred them all.  

In the large Panorama section which is a broad-based survey of various kinds of films from many countries, a small sampling of extraordinary films were as follows:France; “Kennedy et Moi” directed by Sam  Karman. An intensely funny study of a middle-aged couple whose marriage is on the rocks. The husband (Jean-Pierre Baccri) is an alienated writer obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. He is no longer interested in sex with his still sexy wife (Nicole Garcia) but is intensely jealous of the dentist with whom his wife is having an affair. The kind of seriously intelligent comedy that could only come from France.

Japan: Of a half dozen Japanese films two not even listed in the official catalogue were quite impressive. (1) “Sannie’s Love Affair” is a rousing folkloric musical film set on a remote island off Okinawa. Sannie is a feisty grandmother in love with an equally feisty man of her own generation who laces his heavy local dialect with loads of WW II American  G.I. slang. There is a parallel  affair between a couple of young city folks and throughout the film lots of spontaneous local Okinawan songs are accompanied by local instruments. This is a completely enthralling upbeat story from a part of Japan we don’t often see on film. A definite winner that will probably turn up at other festivals.

(2)”Atarashii Kamisama” (A New God) is a striking political documentary made by a left-wing filmmaker who follows  his extreme right-wing, ultra nationalistic girlfriend on a trip to North Korea. Here the politically opposed couple meet the             Japanese “Red Army” terrorists who hijacked a passenger plane to Pyongyang thirty years ago. The former real-life terrorists are now cordial, suit-wearing, middle-aged men whose major hope in life is for some kind of amnesty that will enable them to return to Japan. “Kamisama” combines a fascinating human interest story with a sharp, uncompromising look at contemporary Japanese youth culture and extremist marginal politics.  Gripping and larded with political punk rock songs by the dashing young lass  who is a political activist pop-singer  in her everyday life. An absolute must for Japan buffs.

 

Two from the Czech Republic: “Hanele” directed by veteran Karel Kachyna (born 1924) is an engrossing study of the love affair between very religious Hassidic girl from a remote. backward, traditional Jewish village and a city slicker who is not only an athesist, but denies his obvious Jewishness altogether.  When the urban ‘apikoyrus’ (atheist) visits the deeply religious parents to demand Hanele’s hand in marriage the entire social structure of the town is plunged into crisis. This kind of tale has been told many times before , but never better. A film that will certainly be in demand on the Jewish festival circuit but should have relevance elsewhere as well. 

“Source of Life” (Der Lebensborn) directed by Milan Cieslar is the story of a Czech girl who, because of her “Aryan” good looks, is selected to breed Aryan children as cannon fodder for the Third Reich in a “Lebensborn” home. She comes under the protection of the lesbian head-mistress of the home and is spared the indignity of  becoming a reproductive mare for Hitler’s minions. However, she falls in love with a Jewish boy hiding out on the estate and becomes pregnant by him which leads to tragic complications. Children born of these mechanical wartime matings  still constitute a little known social problem in today’s democratic Germany, and this film sheds new light upon one more troublesome skeleton in the collective German closet.  Cieslar’s excellent film is, however, much more of a poignant drama than a finger pointing exercise in accusation.  Slovakian actress Monika is striking as the tragic young heroine.  

Finally, “Mr. Death” is an astounding feature length interview focusing on Fred Leuchter, an American engineer who used to design execution equipment for the death rows of American prisons.  Enlisted by a Holocaust Denial group to ‘test’ the gas chambers of Auschwitz he found “no traces of cyanide”  thus supporting the denial position that the entire Holocaust was a hoax.  Confronted by evidence from other scientists indicating that his testing methods were ridiculously superficial – in fact, downright unscientific – he just laughs this off, reveling in his new-found notoriety as a “hero” of the denial movement. 

 

More than a political film, this is a razor-sharp case study of a bizarre personality totally out of touch with reality, a walking nut-case whose warped logic is readily accepted by those who want to believe what they want to believe.   Frightening, moreover, in how it shows the thinness of the line between credibility and incredibility when it comes to the structuring of public opinion.

Many Jews have attacked this film claiming that it makes too strong a case for denial, when in fact the subtle but clear intention of the filmmaker is to point up the twisted logic of the denier.  To accomplish this you have to let the subject have his say, but the logic of the insane can sometimes sound uncomfortably compelling – and there’s the rub.  Director Errol Morris was also the maker of the extraordinary 1991 documentary on Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking entitled “A Brief History of Time”.

Berlin film festival veterans used to the greater intimacy, compactness, and funkiness of the old location in the shadow of the bombed out “Gedaechtniskirche” and the aura of Kurfurstendam may take a while getting used to the more spaced- out futuristic new digs where not too long ago an ominous wall divided the city, but it’s clearly only a matter of time before Budapesterstrasse becomes a forgotten memory.

Alex Deleon, Berlin, February 2000.

 

'HITLER'S SECRETARY' (Im Toten Winkel)

A Sensation at the 2002 Berlin Filmfest

'BLIND SPOT -- HITLER'S SECRETARY', a new 90 minute documentary film from Austria by Andre Heller, is the ultimate statement on the 'banality of evil'  and has created a minor sensation at the 52nd annual Berlin Film Festival. [2001]  The film consists entirely of a monologue by 81 year old TRAUDL JUNGE who was Hitler's private secretary from the autumn of 1942, when she was 22,  until the final days in the Berlin Bunker ending with Hitler's suicide and  the Gotterdamerung of April 30, 1945. Every normal human eye has a certain  point (called in German the 'Der Tote Winkel', or dead corner') where no  image registers and it is this 'blind spot' which Ms. Junge herself invokes  as the metaphor for her own inability to see the incredible evil of the infamous man she was in daily contact with for two and a half years,  perceiving him only as a kindly gentlemen and sympathetic employer, while  all the time feeling herself privileged to be working for such a 'great  man'.

Largely because of overwhelming guilt feelings when she later realized what  kind of person her boss really had been, and unable to forgive herself for  own youthful naivete, she remained silent all these years until Mr. Heller,  an Austrian of Jewish background, was able to persuade her to come forth on  film with the record of her most unique WW II experience. As a politically  naive young woman of 22 Miss Junge applied for the job and was selected  directly by Hitler out of a large group of applicants, partially because of her physical resemblance to Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, and partly because  she was able to present him with a perfect transcipt of his dictation. At  first, she recalls, she was so excited and flustered that her test dictation  was packed with errors and typos -- ('my copy looked like Chinese to me) -- but when Hitler was called out to answer a phone call from von Ribbentrop  she had a chance to correct all the errors and was thus able to beat out the  competition.  What is striking in the film is the vividness of her memory, her near total  recall, and absolute sincerity of expression with a total refusal to gild  the lily or make any excuses for the fact that she was entirely taken in by Hitler's personal charisma. Instead she delivers an undoctored, at times  amazing, portrait of both herself and of Hitler, which is in high contrast  to the 'raving maniac' image of the public Hitler that has been transmitted  to us through the media over the years.

Among the kinds of details that are revealed are many which we would perhaps prefer not believe ... In person Hitler was a man full of warm 'Austrian charm', soft-spoken, polite and very considerate to the female members on  his staff. He employed cute Austrian colloquialisms, like 'nimmermehr' and  never rolled his Rs stridently in private as he did in his public speeches.  In spite of his strict vegetarian diet, and the fact that he neither smoked  nor used alcohol, he suffered from gastric problems and had bad reath. In  general, however, he presented a healthy, well-groomed appearance, but when  advised to take more excercise, he claimed that he just wasn't the athletic  type. 'I can't even wear lederhosen', he once said, 'because my knees are  too white.'

As far as 'the erotic' is concerned, Traudl felt that Hitler was not capable  of really giving himself to a woman, not even to Eva Braun in a truly erotic  sense. He could not stand being touched, therefore took no massages, and  always thought in gigantic abstract terms -- the nation, the people – the  abstract superman -- (the destruction of entire peoples.. ) -- but never in  terms of the individual person. He was married to his sense of mission and  to his 'ideals', and claimed that one reason he remained unmarried was so as  not to disappoint all the German woman who admired him -- and, she adds  shaking her head -- so many did. Asked what Hitler's views were on the  subject of love her comment was, 'Hmm -- come to think of it I never heard  him mention that word (Liebe) at all in all the time I knew him'.

After the battle of Stalingrad when the tide of war began to change  drastically, the atmosphere in the bunker became increasingly tense, so to get away from the stress of constant war planning with his generals he got into the habit of taking tea and dinner with his female staff members where  only small talk and daily banalities were discussed -- anything but war  talk. This, and long sessions of playing with his beloved dog 'Goldie', were  his favorite ways of relaxing and recovering from the tremendous strain of  his real activities as Führer. Most of the dictation Ms. Junge took was of a  private nature including personal memos and answers to love letters from  Hitler's hordes of female admirers!

THE WORD 'JUDE' WAS NEVER MENTIONED

Politics were never discussed in her presence, and the word 'Jude' (Jew) was  never mentioned, in fact, scrupulously avoided. The only reference to  'Katzet' (KZ = concentration camp) that she ever heard was on a single  occasion when Himmler came to visit near the end of the war. Thus, while  'living at the very source of information' all during the last years of the  Third Reich, she was essentially insulated and cut off from actual knowledge  of her employer's demoniac 'other side'  as the author and instigator of the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem and countless other unspeakable atrocities.

She was with Hitler at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden, at the Wolf's Lair HQ  in East Prussia -- when the failed assassination attempt took place on July  20, 1944 -- and during the final days in the Berlin Bunker. When Hitler  miraculously escaped with only minor lesions from a bomb blast during a  strategy conference at the lair, Traudl was greatly relieved for he had by  this time become a complete father figure to her replacing the tyrannical  insensitive real father of her childhood. Convinced that the war was already lost and that Hitler was only leading them on to destruction, a  group of his own officers hatched the plot and planted the bomb. The  miracle was that the meeting was transferred at the last minute from a  concrete bunker, where surely everyone in the room would have been killed, to  a flimsy wooden barracks where the force of the explosion was dissipated.   Moreover, the bomb was hastily placed under a heavy wooden table which  further shielded Hitler from its effect. Instead of realizing that things  were now going all wrong, Hitler took this as a sign that he was under  divine protection He proudly exhibited his tattered uniform and minor injuries to Mussolini, who had come up to visit from Italy, and was more  convinced than ever of ultimate victory and took this as an indication that he was under divine protection. It was at this  point, observes Junge, that Hitler began to lose his grip on reality. 'He  no longer had his feet on solid ground' is the way she puts it.

The last  third of the film is a day by day, hour by hour, description of the mounting despair and terror in the bunker as the Russians approach and all hope of escape evaporates. Watching this lovable elderly woman reliving the  ghastly experience she went through 56 years before as though it were  yesterday becomes a hypnotic ordeal for the viewer. The mostly German  audience I watched it with was totally entranced to put it mildly.  Breathless pin-drop silence all the way.

Finally Hitler announces that he is going to shoot himself because he cannot  risk falling into the hands of the enemy alive, nor can he trust any of his  officers to do the job for him. He asks Eva Braun to leave but she insists  on staying with him to the bitter end. He calls in a magistrate and  officially marries her on the eve of destruction. She proudly walks before all remaining members of Hitler's entourage, Goebbels, Borman and a few others, and says, 'Now you can call me Frau Hitler'. Until then she had  been addressed as 'Fraulein Braun' ...

Cyanide capsules are distributed to all those who choose to remain,  including Traudl Junge, who can think of no place else to go. Hitler has now  become so paranoid that he doesn't even trust the poison -- thinking that  someone might try to drug him and deliver him to the allies -- so he tests  it out on Goldie. The dog dies immediately as the smell of bitter almonds  fills the room. The atmosphere has now become surrealistic but a semblance of life goes on as the main topic of conversation revolves around the most effective and painless ways of committing suicide. To illustrate the  changed, chaotic atmosphere, Junge points out that people for the very first  time began to smoke in the führer's presence.The most chilling moments of  the entire film is the description of Mme. Goebbels poisoning her six  children 'to save them from the shame and humiliation of growing up in a  post-Nazi Germany'. Under the pretence of giving them innoculations she  gives them cyanide, but the eldest girl, Helga, ten -- senses that something  is dead wrong. Only at this point does Junge momentarily break down saying  'It was a nightmare -- I can't go on'...

But she does go on, describing her feelings of being abandoned by 'father  Hitler' -- her love has suddenly turned to hate as she wanders out of the  bunker in the hellfire of the last day. And then she talks of her early  post-war rationalizations -- the 'I didn't know' syndrome and her final  realization that she was willy-nilly in league with the devil and that no  excuse is possible. Immediately after the nightmare in the bunker she fell  into Russian hands, but escaped, then was interned by the Americans for a  short time. When it was determined that she had no political leanings  whatsoever she was declared 'denazified' and released. Ever since she has  lived in solitude in Munich, alone with her memories, although she did write  an unpublished private memoir in 1947 and served as a consultant in the  fifties on a film called 'The Last Act' dealing with Hitler's demise.  Although she knew all along that she had a very important story to tell, she  felt so ashamed of her youthful naivete, ignorance, and indeed, unabashed admiration for Hitler, that she was loathe to make it public until Heller  convinced her that it was imperative for her to do so, first of all, to get it out of  her system, and secondarily as an historical obligation.

Heller's decision not to 'embellish' the film with any extraneous archival  footage -- the conventional method employed in such interview documentaries  to keep them from being 'all talk' -- only serves to make her confessional  monologue even more, rather than less, powerful. What she is talking about  is in itself monumental, and the way she talks about it needs no  embellishment -- a very wise decision. The only 'device' he has any recourse  to at all, is letting us see Ms. Junge watching previously recorded segments of her interviews, which triggers occasional additional commentary on her  own original comments -- a kind of talmudic approach, one might say ... but  this effect is very sparingly used and does not detract.

This is simply a mind-boggling story told by a quietly magnificent and  beautiful old woman. Sadly, two days after the world premiere here in  Berlin of 'IM TOTEN WINKEL' (In the Dead Corner) Traudl Junge who was  terminally ill with cancer, died in hospital at age 82 -- the very last  eye-witness to the incredible last years and last days of Adolph Hitler. We  can only hope that she died finally at peace with herself. The distribution  of this most unusual film is as yet undecided, so it is impossible to say  when and in what form it will reach the reader's area -- whether on TV or in  theatrical distribution -- but it is safe to say that eventually it will.  'Blind Spot -- Hitler's Secretary' is one to watch for and one not to be  missed.  Alex, BERLIN, FEB. 17, 2002

 

BERLIN2003

A REPORT FROM THE BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL, 2003

  Mr. Cool, George Clooney, Blows His Cool

Top competition films; The Hours, Chicago, Spike Lee’s “25 Hours”. Sonderbergh’s “Solaris”, Yamada’s Twilight Samurai” –Career award for Anouk Aimée.

Dear film friends:

This is Sunday, Day Four  of the Fest, and the tempo is picking up – The opening film, “Chicago” was an overinflated loser but a big hit with the public and will probably pick up some prizes.  Highlight was Richard Gere doing a tap-dance—lowlight – all the rest of the picture.I  am now palling around with a nice female jounalist from England who went to Junior High School with Natascha McElhone, the eerily beautiful reconstructed wife of George Clooney in the Sonderbergh re-make of Tarkovsky’s  SciFi “Solaris”  -- which was pretty boring, but the press conference was very good.                                                                                      In this crowded press conference (everyone wants to get a close-up look at Gorgeous George” Clooney) there was a funny moment of Truth when a diminutive Turkish guest standing at the back of the room raised his hand and was recognized for a question.  “Well, I don’t exactly have any questions but I would just like to say that I found the film very boring”, said the Turkish gentleman – a comment which created a momentary little uproar. 

Until this point everybody had been trying to get in brownie points by gushingly praising the film and especially Gorgeous George’s work in it as a cosmonaut on a strange journey to a far-off planet.  Now, it must be pointed out that Clooney always comes on super cool, calm, and collected at  these public appearances, but at this unexpected criticism he totally blew it – literally burst out in anger with words like:  “Whaddya mean – who the hell do you think you are to criticize this film—do you know what goes into making a film like this? ..etc., etc.  – It was a totally uncharacteristic outburst and caused a couple of catcalls.  After the conference I felt it my duty to approach the Turkish commentator to tell him that even though I wasn’t totally bored with the film I could see why most people would be, and I certainly thought he had the right to express an alternate view”. Moreover, I told him that I thought Clooney was completely out of line and that all this just goes to show how much of a phoney facade so many movie stars put up in public. The Turk turned out to be Dr. Ahmet Boyacioglu who runs a film festival in Turkey and we became festival friends for the rest of the week.

This morning the press screening of “The Hours” (Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf) in the Big Hall helped me catch up with some lost sleep the night before.  Crashingly expensive BORE and the Kidman role could have been pulled off by any halfway decent high-school actress. Not that Nicole was bad, just that the role is zilch –anybody can play a zombie with a false nose. But the other parts of the film(it’s a three part movie) ewere even wose. The Ed Harris/Meryl Streep segment could have been excised totally from the film without missing a beat.  Who wants to watch Ed Harris dying of leprosy on screen as theyclain it’s really AIDS, and who cares if he left Streep years before for a gay boyfriend? – and now she’s living in a lezzy affaire with another woman whom she kisses repeatedly on the mouth.

The only one of the three parallel stories that held my interest at all, was the LA segment with Julianne Moore, but only because of her – because for my money she is the best actress in Hollywood –the new Bette Davis!  But the overall story line with three exremely dull people building their private lives around the Woolf novel “Mrs. Dalloway” was one long embarrassing bore straining painfully for meaning while falling flat on its face.  For me the film was over when Kidman (as Virginia Woolf) went under without so much as a blug-blug in the first three minutes of the pre-titles sequence when she commits suicide by calmly walking into a local lake.

An unusual Press conference, with Dustin Hoffman

The following press conference, with a peculiarly subdued Kidman there, was correspondingly null and void.  (She would get an Oscar for it the following month but in Berlin she seemed to sense the lack of press enthusiasm) – However, the next press conference, with Dustin Hoffman, was the surprise of the day. He was there to promote a film called “Moonlight Mile” which I had missed, but Dustin himself was a surprisingly articulate and intelligent speaker, expounding on topics like Parent-child relationships (apparently the subject of the film), dealing with grief, and man-woman differences. Among his observation, “Women know how to live in the moment – Men don’t. Men lust after power, but women are basically stronger. Strength and power are not the same thing!”

Talking about disfunctionality in the family, the actor was particularly brilliant. At one point he came up with this gem: 

The home is a very unnatural piece of real estate wherein you have to think that you love everybody, even if they are dumping all over you all the time". 

This conference was almost like a massive group therapy session with Dustin Hoffman leading the way.  For whatever idiosyncratic personal reasons I don’t really like to watch Hoffman on the screen and generally avoid movies he’s in but I couldn’t help respecting his intelligence and grasp of serious ideas.  In any case it was a terrifically stimulating hour break after the stifling bullshit of “The Hours”.

 

Update; February 13 – Between Lincoln’s birthday and Valentine’s Day. The fest is now beginning to wind down and I’ve seen most of the films I’m going to see and the next 48 hours will be consumed in wine tasting and various parties with a few screenings in between if I’m not too tipsy to find the venue among the thirty–some-odd kinos from which to choose among the big cineplexes and the gigantic main hall in which the morning press screenings are held.  This morning at the main hall it was Yamada Yoji’s “Twilight Samurai” one of the best films I”ve seen all week. A neo-samurai classic with modern day reverberations. Hope it wins the Golden Bear, but it’ll probably only get the green sushi award – Japanese films are not the flavor of the month this year. Spike Lee’s New York doper opus with Ed Norton as a nice Irish dealer is a stinkeroo – empty-minded blubber, but lovely Afro-Porto Riquena actress, Rosario Dawson, has much more class than her compatriot Jennifer Lopez, is a much better actress, and makes the film borderline watchable. 

Anouk Aimée, here to receive a hommage and a lifetime award, has got to be the most beautiful  71 year old woman alive, and she gives good press conference holding forth in the manner of true European film aristocracy. (Among her many credits, Mastroianni’s wife in Fellini’s “8 1/2”).  Her new film, “The Birch Wood”  in which she plays an Auschwitz-Birkenau inmate, previews tomorrow for the press.  Regarding her romantic sounding stage name, Anouk said that she is of North African Jewish extraction and her original name was “Dreyfuss”.

An incredible confrontation of noses was to be seen in a French film entitled “Petites Coupures”, the noses in question belonging to top French actor, Daniel Auteuil, and English lady, Kristin Scott-Thomas (of “The English Patient”).  When they kiss it’s the Battle of the Probosci – what a pair od shnozzles! – in an otherwise completely forgettable French drama set somewhere in the mountains of the south.  Two more days to go and Berlin 2003 will be history.

Cottbus 2000, November 05, 2000

This was my first visit to Cottbus having been invited by Roland Rust, festival topper, when I met him at Karlovy Vary in July 2000. Since both festivals emphasize films from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc -- Karlovy partly and Cottbus completely -- Roland regularly sponsors an afternoon cocktail party on the balcony of the Thermal Hotel in Karlovy in July to promote the next Cottbus festival in November. As I was by this time beginning to acquire a small reputation as something of a Polish film connoisseur and the upcoming Cottbus fest would be having a major Polish section, Roland assured me that it would be worth my while looking in on his still rather young festival (tenth edition coming up) and assured me of full hotel hospitality once I got there. 

Since, other than East Berlin and a pass through of Dresden, I had never seen very much of the former DDR ( the “Deutsche Democratische Republik”, alias Communist East Germany) I took him up on the offer and, aside from the festival itself, which was indeed interesting, this extended look at a typical east German city was in itself kind of a revelation. The report I eventually filed went as follows: 

Cottbus is a sleepy old town with cobblestone streets in the extreme eastern part of the former East Germany hugging the Polish frontier, but the Cottbus film festival is by no means a sleepy affair with films from 28 different countries, parties every night and waves of visitors from Berlin.  This was the tenth annual installment of this festival, centering on east European cinema.  An ‘east European’ film is here defined as one in which the principal filmmakers, producers, actors, etc. are east European and the film is in an East European Language.  

The focus this year was in fact quite a bit farther east than Eastern Europe, to wit, central Asia with films from Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan and Turkmenistan, while the honorary festival chairman was Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, who was not here in person, but addressed the audience from the screen on closing night.   Especially unusual were five short films by Ernest Abdyshaparov, made between 1993 and 1995.  These films have almost no dialogue and contain long stretches of motionless real time, but are absolutely hypnotic – unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in this style. 

Polish films included Krzystof Zanussi”s “Choroba” with a magnificent main role by Zbigniew Zapasiewicz as a medical doctor dying of cancer, demonstrating that this great aging actor still packs the goods to hold an entire film together single handedly.  In this Polish section I also liked Marek Kondrat’s debut as director “Prawo Ojca” (Rights of the Father)  which, although it has been compared to American action films like “Death Wish”, is nevertheless a very Polish film dealing with current Polish problems of police corruption and the indigenous Mafia.  This is a much better film than the absurd desert actioner entitled ”Samum” about Polish mercenaries in the Middle East, which Kondrat produced and starred in last year” but which was directed by Pasikowski. Funny thing to say about a fine actor turned producer, and now making his directorial debut at age fifty-plus, but this is “ talent to be watched”. Visitors to the fest included a whole contingent of central Asians, among them prolific writer Chengis Aitmatov.  A number of Kirghiz films have been based on his tales and he held a crowded conference and book signing at the Heron Bookstore where a dozen of his tomes are available in German translation. 

The most popular film and big prize winner (four various jury awards) was a German film called “England”, directed by Achim von Borries, born 1968.  This was his first feature and is a story of young people trying to get out of a depressed Germany to a dreamed of gleaming England.

 While the city itself is rather gray and drab after forty years of Communism and the streets practically deserted at night compared to Berlin, for example, Cottbus is a very intimate festival, all venues within easy walking distance of the hotel (located on an interesting stretch of ‘Walkers Paradise” in the old downtown), very easy to meet people, very well organized and, above all, very friendly. The main festival theater is a dusty relic from the twenties which is now open for screenings only during the festival week and may soon come under wreckers ball. The opening film there was a Kirghiz production “The Milky Way” directed by Bakit Karagulov, based on an Aitmatov story, and the closer was a new German youth film called “Forget America”, by Vanessa Jopp. In between one very popular picture was the Georgian comedy “Lost Kisses” by leading female Tbilisi director Nana Djordjadze, whom I had met in Tokyo back in 1987.  Small world!  “Prince Timur the Great” (better know as Tamerlaine in the West), directed by Isamet Ergashev, Kirghizia, 1996, was a panoramic historical epic reminiscent of Eisenstein’s “Ivan The Terrible” (Ivan Grozny).

Despite packed houses for most screenings and enthusiastic audience support the festival is reportedly endangered due to lack of funding , and there is some doubt as to whether there will be another installment in 2001.  If this unique festival is allowed to fade out it will be a great loss to the European festival circuit.  Alex, Cottbus, November 5, 2000. 

 

P.S. The festival not only survived a temporary financial crisis but is now (2008) not only alive and well, but going stronger than ever with highly improved facilities, a modern high rise hotel serving as the accommodation for invited guests, and a major theatrical complex housing the festival offices and the gala screenings

 

Haugesund festival in the Fjord country of Western Norway

August, 2003 – THE CRITICS HAVE THEIR DAY –AS HOT AIR SWELLS OVER THE FJORD  

After two visits to Tromso (2002 and 2003) and two as well to the Rouen Festival du Cinema Nordique in Northern France, I have been developing a taste for Nordic Cinema, so, based on these connections I applied for accreditation to the Haugesund ferstival in the Fjord country of Western Norway, which takes place in August, and was accepted -- probably because Signe Overgaard, a major figure of the Norwegian Film Institute knew me from these other Nordic festivals.

I flew over from Warsaw, which turned out to be a complicated three leg journey for such a relatively short trip. -- Warsaw to Stockholm -- layover in the airport there, then SAS from Stockholm to Oslo, then another short fllight from Oslo over the hump to the Fjord country on the coast, directly to Haugesund.  I was rather surprised to find that a small city like Haugesund even had an airport, but then, most Norwegian cities seem to be connected by an internal Norwegian airline network. With all the waiting time at the airports on the way I was traveling all day and didn't get in to Haugesund until early evening as it was getting dark and a light rain was coming down.  There were people from the festival there to greet us at the small but crowded airport -- a bunch of other festival visitors coming in from England, the States, and other places.  

Among those in the crowd milling around was a familiar face -- Isabelle Duault, head of the Rouen Nordic festival. She seemed to be very put out that she wasn't getting immediate Red Carpet treatment, as the various festival greeters tried to sort the somewhat chaotic situation out and get the right people to the hotels reserved for them. I was kind of surprised how crowded with visitors this relatively small fest was going to be, but Haugesund in summer is a popular holiday destination as well. In fact, to tell the truth, I myself was more interested in visiting the Fjord country than in the festival itself, which I regarded as more of a curiosity as far as film festivals go, rather than an important new entry on my film festival CV.

There were mini-vans and festival cars coming and going at the entrance to the airport as the rain started getting heavier.  By this time Isabelle was fuming that there wasn't a private limousine waiting for her or a gilded stage coach with white horses.  And she started expressing her anger to me -- 'Don't they know who the hell I am? -- The idiots!  I'm the boss of a major Scandinavian Festival -- blast-blast -- Finally she, I, and a couple of other people were packed into a car, to be dropped off at separate hotels.  Whatever hotel they were putting Isabelle, even if it was one of the best in town, she was still pissed.  She was dropped off at one in the middle of town, but, like it wasn't quite the most expensive one, so she was still fuming when she got out of the car. I was dropped off last at an SAS hotel quite a ways out of town, about a mile or so from the center.  This SAS hotel turned out to quite luxurious and they had early morning connections running in to the festival, so I had no complaints.  In fact, as things turned out, since the festival was picking up the hotel tab anyway, I just decided to sleep in, enjoy the luxury, and then walk into town in the afternoon.   Even the walk in along a country road beside a body of water (Haugesund is an island) was quite pleasant.   Festival-Shmestival -- as long as you're comfortable and are Having a good time ...

In town I quickly found the press center where to pick up my accreditation badge and the film schedules and the very first event I attended, in the main theater, was a Critic Superstar 'debate' -- or rather a double 'master class' lecture -- featuring extremely stuffy full-of-himself Derek Malcolm, the top film reviewer for the Guardian or one of the other English broadsheets, and the main TIME Magazine reviewer, Richard Schickel, equally full-of-himself, only with an American accent. I settled down in an up front seat in the tiered auditorium so I could get a full view of these two ego-maniacs snow-jobbing a not completely comprehending Norwegian audience with their collective film erudition and famous-names name-dropping.  As the audience started to thin out -- a lot of the Norskies apparently found their American and British colloquialisms hard to follow -- this turned into a practically private conversation between two well-paid old cronies of the film criticism business. I actually found it interesting as a study in public ego-mania, and there were even some choice anecdotes here and there, and a bit of in-group humor if you knew who and what the hell they were talking about.   

At the conclusion of this exercise in high level hot air, I filtered out and into another hall where an inscrutable Norwegian film was playing, on which I soon walked out of -- to see what else and whom else I could see around the festival.  I soon ran into Isabelle Duault, still fuming a mile a minute, and she seemed to be angry at me when I told her that they had put me into a very nice hotel -- as if it were my fault that the hotel she had was not to her liking.  I soon decided it was best to avoid her and struck out on my own.....

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