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Berlin Bets on political Bears (what else is new)


Whereas last year it was all Hollywood glamour and glitz with such blockbusters as "Cold Mountain", "Monsters" and many more topping the bill, this year political films and films about famous political figures are gathering most of the attention. The hot ticket so far has been German competition entry "Sophie Scholl - The final Days" which takes up the case of a young lady who protested openly against certain actions of the Nazi regime, was subjected to a show trial and then executed in Munich toward the end of the war. Her last words were "You are killing me now unjustly, but your own heads will be rolling soon". Moreover young actress Julia Jentsch is the odds-on favourite to cop the best actress lion on awards day, Feb. 19th. If the film, which is also highly touted, were to take the Golden Bear that would make it two years in succession for a German film and would be a Berlin first.

Another strong contender for the Golden Bear is "Paradise Now", a Palestinian film by director Hany Abu-Assad, the highly controversial subject of which is Arab suicide bombers in Israel. The story follows two friends, young men, who for reasons of their own decide to become martyrs and attain "paradise now". The girlfriend of one tries unsuccessfully to discourage one of the kamikazes but the other one is influenced by her and changes his mind. In the end the entire mission fails but the questions remain. Are these young bombers martyrs or maniacs? The film is open ended enough to allow the viewer to decide and has, surprisingly, been picked up by Israel for distribution.

Lajos Koltai's "Fateless", based on Nobel Prize winning author Imre Kertesz's Holocaust novel of the same name, obtained a last minute acceptance as a competition entry and raised many penetrating questions in a press conference attended by the director, Kertesz himself, and four of the producers. Kertesz, who lives in Berlin and whose book has been a best seller here, received a warm hand from the press gathering, but the cross-fire of questions and comments indicated a certain reserve as to the actual qualities of the film and the question as to whether it really has anything new to add to the Holocaust canon. One criticism was that the concentration camp photography was too "pretty", which, in fact, it certainly is not. (It was filmed in a kind of sepia with muted colour here and there). Koltai and Kertesz both insist that this not "just a Holocaust film", but rather the personal story of a fourteen year old boy and how his consciousness evolves as a result of the experience which for a time turned him into a number and robbed him of his fate -- hence the title. While "Fateless" is unquestionably a sincere and well-made film it simply does not pack the dramatic force of a "Pianist" or a "Schindler's List" although it does focus on the events of the time from an unaccustomed Hungarian point of view.

Harking once again back to the Nazi era, but this time with a very fresh eye, is a fascinationg 107 minute documentary entitled "The Goebbels Experiment" by Lutz Hachmeister. The text of the film is boiled down from hundreds of pages of diaries which Goebbels left behind so that we come to see him more or less how he saw himself. The "experiment" of the title is actually a reference to a biography of Goebbels which was published in England immediately after the war.
Partially sponsored by the BBC, the print we saw here was of an "English" version narrated by Kenneth Branagh. But the narration is only half of the sound track, and when Goebbels himself, or Hitler speak, we hear their speeches in the original, blood curdling German, with English subtitles.
The power of the film lies in the fact that it is completely descriptive and non-judgmental -- as objective as it is possible to be about these incredible Nazi leaders when there are still people around today (such as myself) who remember them from the mass media of the day, not from history books. Goebbels' entire career is traced from his humble origins in a small Rhineland town, through university studies leading to a PhD (hence he was called "Dr." Goebbels), then his rise to Minister of Propaganda of the III Reich and member of Hitler"s most intimate inner circle, and finally his suicide "en famille" and the charred corpse with upstuck blackened hand discovered by Russian soldiers in the Berlin Reichs-Chancelry courtyard.
Along the way we become party to the contempt he had for certain other Nazi bigwigs such as Himmler whom he describes as a brute and a pig. Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering is seen as a debauched morphine addict strutting about in elegant pearl grey uniforms when everyone else was dressed in black or brown ... but they later become friends. The Dr. Joseph Goebbels who emerges from all this, is an introspective, manic depressive intellectual, constantly worried about his position in the Nazi power elite, a family man doting over his six children and a professional ideologue who takes Jewish racial contamination as an unquestioned first principle of natural selection. But there is no questioning the fact that he knew his propaganda business as one born to the task. Goebbels commentary on Sergei Eisenstein's famous Russian Revolution propaganda footage as "powerful, but too crude and lacking in subtlety to be believed", is indicative of his sharp intelligence. He dislikes filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (maybe because she rejected his advances) as an unbearably ambitious and demanding young woman, but when she produces her great films exalting the Nazi ideals he praises her to high heaven in a public address. He comes to Hitler"s side relatively late compared to other charter Nazis, but once convinced of Hitler's amazing ability to sway huge crowds, becomes a devoted follower of the Fuhrer -- not without reservations, however, when at one point Goebbels feels that Adolph is losing his touch, if not his grip. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the objective way in which Goebbels analyzes Hitler's charisma as "an orchestration of gestures, body language, facial expression and spoken word" -- a mini-lesson on how to speak and influence people. Another clever touch in this masterful portrait of a man and his era is director Hachmeister's introduction of a few clips of anti-Nazi American propaganda footage taking the piss out of Goebbels, as a kind of poignant -- and amusing -- counterbalance to the image of one who was possibly the most adept manipulator of public opinion of all time. In short, this is a masterpiece of a documentary so incredibly rich that it really demands repeated viewings.

Still on the subject of political propaganda, and also presented in the Panorama section (as was the Goebbels film) is "The Protocols of Zion", by New York documentary filmmaker Marc Levin. (RT, 93 minutes). For those unfamiliar with this incredible (in the truest sense of the word, i.e., "Not to be believed!") classic of anti-Jewish hate literature, The Protocols were apparently commissioned by Czar Alexander III in the late 1800s to justify his anti-Semitic terror agendas. The Protocols, which describe in great detail a nefarious Secret International Jewish conspiracy to "take over the world" were incorporated into Nazi ideology and are still quoted by Jew baiters and Jew haters around the world as Gospel Truth -- although they have been proved time and again by numerous independent literary authorities to be out-and-out Fabricated Fakes! Filmmaker Marc Levin, a native New Yorker of Jewish background, was amazed to find after 9-11 that many Arab Americans and other American anti-Semites firmly believed that the attack on the Towers was an Israeli-Jewish conspiracy, and were quick to cite The Protocols as proof. Levin conducted interviews with Black Muslims, American Palestinians, a respectable Skinhead publisher of Racist literature, a racist talk show host, and many others. The result is both amusing and frightening, as Levin discovered that the word "Jew" has come to mean almost any enemy worthy of destruction for many of the street un-wise imbeciles we see raving like mad dogs on camera. If you"ve never heard of "The Protocols of Zion" this is an indispensable educational study. It's also a horror-comedy about the deep rootedness and official acceptance of racial hatred in America.

On a different note altogether while still a profound study of a world famous political figure, is Robert Gediguian's competition film, "Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars", or "The Last Days of Mitterand". Francois Mitterand died in 1996 at the age of 80 and, as president of France from 1981 to 1995, was perhaps the last of the truly great, larger-than-life, national leaders of the XXth century. While having the popular support to remain in office for 14 long years ("the longest reign since Napolean III" notes actor Michel Bouquet, who incarnates Mitterand in the film, with a twinkle in his eye), Mitterand was, nevertheless, a controversial figure who changed his political orientation several times, and has been criticized for his early cooperation with Petain's puppet government at Vichy during the German occupation although he later joined the resistance. In any case this is an extremely complex man keenly aware of his place in the Pantheon of French History, and the portrayal of this man by French actor Michel Bouquet is nothing short of amazing. The events of the last year of Mitterand's life, as he knew he was dying and felt increasingly betrayed by his followers, were imagined in a recent French best-seller and the film is based on this book. Mitterand has chosen a young journalist (Jalil Lespert) to take down his final "testament" in a series of interviews, but the young man becomes a kind of personal confidant with whom Mitterand can level about things like sex and love, subjects he would never take up with his official aides. The final book is not completed and many questions are left unanswered ... The film is mostly conversation, but it is conversation so full of philosophical, literary, life and the end-of-life musings and observations, and --yes, of course, politics and the uses of power, that, I for one found myself hanging on to every word and was utterly enthralled, at times left breathless -- by Bouquet's creation, resurrection -- hard to find a word -- rendition of Mitterand. A cute turn is the scene from which the French title ("A stroller in the Field of Mars) is derived. Mitterand says to his journalist companion as they’re strolling through the vast Parisian meadow known as The Field of Mars, "You see, I'm already a forgotten man -- Nobody even recognizes me anymore", at which point a teenage girl comes up to them, asks Mitterand impulsively if she can kiss him on the cheek -- and when he acquiesces she tells him ecstatically, "You're so wonderful Mr. President, you just made my day!" -- (Let's hope Clint Eastwood isn't listening), and prances off. Mr. Bouquet's quizzical take on this is a thing of beauty -- one of many such things of beauty in the film. Michel Bouquet is my selection for best Berlin actor this year hands down, whether he happens to pick up that little lion or not.



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