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Berlin Wrap: the films we hadda miss...

It's always a bit of a let-down when a big one like this wraps and you look through the catalogue noting oodles of films you were dying to see but just didn't have time to get to. Ouch! Among the most coveted 'near misses' (since it would have been possible to see them, but at the expense of missing other simultaneously scheduled events) I can list with sweet regret (and this is only a small sampling), the following: "The Notorious Betty Page" (with a fetishistically luscious Gretchen Mol); "Absolute Wilson", a feature length doc on highly controversial opera stage director, Robert Wilson; German films "Sehnsucht" (longing) and "Elementary Particles", Chabrol's "L'Ivresse du pouvoir" with her emminence francaise, Isabelle Huppert; Sidney Lumet's "Find Me Guilty" with Vin Diesel; Altman's "A Prairie Home companion" with homespun philosopher Garrison Keillor starring as Hymn-Self; "Syriana", the Middle-East thriller featuring Gorgeous George Clooney; and Terence Malick's "The New World" -- the last three, major Hollywood releases shown out of competition.

Another big tinseltown teaser in the out-of-comp category was the restored "Special Edition" of Sam Peckinpah's 1973 Bob Dylan western "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" which attracted hordes of viewers here because it shows the pop Meistersinger, Dylan, now a senior citizen, in his younger days and in his only significant non-documentary screen appearance. This one I caught when it first came out in L.A. and could see no reason for giving up another film in its favour for a mere additional 11 minutes that were deleted from the original. In any case, this, along with the other big Hollywood products mentioned, will certainly be around in theaters everywhere, so there was no great rush to see them here at the fest.

"Betty Page" is a different story. This is clearly a festival film that is not likely to make it to the cineplexes and may be hard to catch later. The director, Mary Harron, (born, Canada, 1953) has been around the block a few times with all kinds of shorts and documentaries for the BBC and elsewhere, but did not make her theatrical feature debut until 1996 with "I shot Andy Warhol" which was followed by "American Psycho" in 1999, both of which were niche films that did not reach the mainstream audience. This film, about the legendary fifties pin-up star and sexual fantasy fetish Betty Page, is shot partly in black and white -- for period authenticity, since many of Betty's mouth-watering magazine layouts were actually in b/w -- with some later sequences in color. In reality, despite her public image, Betty was a God-fearing gal from Tennessee with personal religious beliefs in stark contrast to her starkly erotic photographic career. All this is apparently taken up in the film in docu-drama style with actress Gretchen Mol filling out the figures to the Max, to judge from the publicity stills. Although critical comment here was rather lukewarm, I myself, who as a youngster in Betty's heyday fantasized fiercely over her for-the-time Red-Hot eroticism, just don't trust European perceptions of American pop-culture ... Frankly, I don't care what they say -- I got's to see this pic! I am also sure that, in passing, it must have much to say about the popular culture of the fifties, which is another reason not to pass it up. Fortunately, there is hardly any doubt that "Betty Page" (and Gretchen Mol) will be a hot and notorious item on the film festival trail this year, so my fetishistic hopes
for the near future are fairly high.

It is interesting to note that pictures like Lumet's "Find Me Guilty" (IN competition) or Terence Malick's "The New World" got very little press attention here, while the lion's share of newspaper columnage was devoted to reports on the new German films. Of course, this is after all Germany, and German newspapers readers are interested in knowing how their own products are holding up against competition from abroad. As a matter of historical fact, if one looks over Bear winners in past years there have been
proportionally very few German Bear bearers, because, except for a few perennially strong directors like Volker Schloendorfer or Werner Herzog, the German cinema has been one of the weaker sisters in Western Europe ever since the demise of Fassbinder.

This year, however, was a very strong German year. Films such as "Sehnsucht" (longing) and “Elementary Particles" were very favorably received, even by the foreign press. "Sehnsucht" in particular, a feature debut by Valeska Grisebach, (a relative latecomer to feature filmmaking at age 37) received nothing but praise. This is apparently a film about ordinary people in an ordinary town not far from Berlin, but made in a semi-documentary style which gives this small-town love story a very special
feeling. Director Grisebach Conducted extensive video research into the lives of 30-somethings in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, distilling the plot and characters of her film from these materials. "Elementary Particles" has nothing to do with physics, but is based on a French best-seller "Les particules élémentaires" (1998) by Michel Houlebecq, which has been described as a "confrontational grappling with societal taboos". Director Oskar Roehler, who is regarded as one of the bright lights of the new German
cinema, transposed the events of the novel to Berlin after the turn of the millenium and populated the film with an all-star German cast including Germany's number one leading lady, Franka Potente (of "Run Lola Run" and "The Bourne Identity" thrillers) and Mr. Bleibtreu, arguably Germany's most popular actor at the moment, the cat who walked off with the best actor Bear. The film opens commercially on Thursday, so I hope to catch it before leaving the Big 'B'.

This is just a throw-in opinion after the fact, but I would like to state that, had this not been a totally Teutonic year, I think that Down-Under "Candy" actress Abbie Cornish, who basically stole the show from Heath Ledger -- which is already saying something -- should have gotten the Best Actress Bear --(grumble-grumble). Finally, I finished out my own personal Berlinale with a "double-feature" at the elegant Zeugnis Haus cinema theater on Unter den Linden opposite the State Opera Haus, with a brace of films from the "Dream Women" Series, both from the year 1950. The first, known as "Die Sünderin" (the female sinner) was an unadulterated Hildegard Knef vehicle -- and little else -- but exhibiting her marvelous blonde beauty in nearly every single frame. The film was in German without sub-titles, but -- who cares? -- watching Hildegard with those gigantic glistening eyes under a luxuriant headful of strong straight blonde hair ... were reward enough even if the dialogue had been in Mongolian. Knef appeared in a number of American movies shortly after the war as a kind of curiosity from the war-ravaged Third Reich. Because Kn- is an unpronouncable sequence in English her Hollywood name was changed to "Neff" -- pronounced like Elliot, the Chicago crime fighter. In fact, her real name, "Knef" is pronounced "knafe" in German. When she returned to Germany after an all to brief American screen career, she became, not only a distinguished actress, but with her sexy low-pitched voice, a very successful popular songstress as well. In addition,when she died just two years ago, she left behind several well-received books of fiction and memoirs. Quite a woman!
The second feature was a real reward for sticking the festival out to the very last minute --a midnight screening of an absolutely perfect print of one of the absolute masterpieces of the American cinema, "All About Eve" -- with that most unforgettable, archetypal Bette Davis, ultimate snake-in-the-grass Anne Baxter, ultimate poison-pen critic, George Sanders, ethereal Celeste Holmes, nitty-gritty Thelma Ritter (one of Hollywood's all-time great character actresses) and a just emerging Marilyn Monroe on George Sanders' acidic arm -- who although she only had about five lines in the whole picture, was outrageously funny in her delivery of every single one ("I can't call the waiter 'butler' -- it might be somebody's name") and, at the same time, arguably, more beautiful than she would ever be again. A glowing young presence speaking mini-volumes of amazing things to come. No matter how many times one has seen "Eve" one always discovers, or rediscovers, new nuances, and seeing it on the boob-tube is nothing -- repeat -- NOTHING -- like catching it on the big screen in an excellent, unscratched, archival print. So, I fastened my seat-belt and absorbed every single one of the deliciously bumpy 218 minutes of "Eve" with utter primeval delight.
A fitting way to end a memorable Berlin festival.
And so -- Auf wiedersehen till 2007...

chaimpev, berlin,
feb. 20, 2006





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