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Cinema makes neighbours of us all. Cannes is already a twin town with Beverly Hills. This year you would believe Berlin was a suburb of Burbank. One juggernaut movie from Universal and two from Warner panzered into Potsdamer Platz in the opening weekend. They were greeted with flowers and autograph books by the Berlin public. And if they tanked with many critics, including this one, that was no fault, you could argue, of the military strategy. Hollywood high command, in concert with Berlin Feldmarshall Dieter Kosslick, must have thought the invasion made sense. Big films. Big stars. Big directors.
We need not spend much time amid the wreckage: the US has seen all three films and the UK, Europe and the world soon will. Steven Soderbergh’s retro-styled The Good German is a feature-length homage to The Third Man – rude people will call it a rip-off – set in partitioned postwar Berlin. George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire are the stars adrift in a maze of monochrome ruins as derivativeness builds. The ruins include Paul Attanasio’s script – all echo and gimmickry, no substance – from Joseph Kanon’s novel. Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, starring Matt Damon, spends 167 minutes midwiving the 20th-century birth of the CIA as the three-decade story ranges from the second world war to the Cuban missile crisis. Sometimes it is intriguing, often convoluted, always long-winded.
The biggest disappointment, though, has been Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. Gaga with political correctness, this Japanese-eye-view companion piece to Flags of our Fathers tasks itself with conferring humanity on the empire that overran South-east Asia, ravaging nations, torturing and killing PoWs. Apparently the Japanese were lovable, misunderstood victims of history, caught, here, on the wrong island at the wrong time. You would never believe from the movie that the Iwo Jima conflict was a costly, brutal, unremitting slaughter. According to Eastwood and screenwriters Iris Yamashita and Paul Crash Haggis it was the tale of a few homesick youngsters daydreaming of survival in their DIY caves and tunnels.
Who needs Hollywood – its pampered style-pieces or pious revisionisms – when Germany itself provides the best war movie? Stefan Ruzowitsky’s Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) recounts the Nazi plot, in 1944, to bring down Britain and the US by flooding the money markets with fake pounds and dollars. An interned Jewish gambler, played with seedy magnetism by Karl Markovics, leads a team of fellow prisoners in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, working the mint in exchange for special privileges. Screenwriter-director Ruzowitsky grants himself a license to make art – austere cinematography, tersely runic dialogue, the coaxing of minimalist performances – in exchange for entertaining us with a gripping truth-based story.
You cannot escape from war in Berlin, or from cinema during the city’s film festival. For a refreshment break I tried Parsifal at the Staatsoper, but the production is by movie producer and screenwriter Bernd Eichinger, who presents Wagner’s redemption opera as a prophecy of 9/11. Video-projected flaming skyscrapers batter the drama. Amfortas lies around in Ground Zero, crucified against criss-cross silhouetted girders.
Eichinger has a point: we cannot escape the idées fixes of the day. Even classics must sometimes be melted down and shaped in their image. Today, fracture and confusion are all around us. So I applaud, if not exactly admire, the film that opened the sideshow Panorama section (Berlin’s answer to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard). Bruce McDonald’s The Tracy Fragments from Canada stars the electrifying Ellen Page, the jailbait moppet from Hard Candy, as a malfunctioning teenager trying to glue together the fragments of her life. The film’s images are done as fragments, not so much split-screen as smithereened-screen. Three, six, 12 pictures at a time occupy the whirling kaleidoscope. We hang in there excited, like people joyriding in a particle accelerator. Though McDonald really needed a cogent script and characters to make his deconstruction of cogency compelling, the style has rich promise.
Fragments of a less designed kind are what we have been treated to in the competition. A few jagged edges of provocation stick out in the glum Italian Catholic drama In Memory of Me, the tale of a seminarian having crises on Venice’s San Giorgio island. A few peaks of insight emerge from the biopic flatland of Bille August’s Goodbye Bafana, about the Robben Island friendship between the imprisoned Nelson Mandela (Dennis Haysbert, mimicking the gruff plainchant) and a sympathetic white officer (Joseph Fiennes). In André Téchiné’s Les Temoins some sharp perceptions about sexual prejudice challenge, even threaten to puncture, the story’s inflated rondo of infidelity during the dawn of Aids. And Sharon Stone gives a spiky performance as an embittered wife in When a Man Falls in the Forest, a Sundance Institute cine-soap that lathers on (apart from her) with commonplaces about lives of quiet desperation.
The best film outside the competition, or indeed anywhere in Berlin so far, has been Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. The po-faced title belies a film bounteous with ideas, bursting with rare footage. Warhol decreed that everyone in the future would have 15 minutes of fame. He gets four hours. Before that, of course, he got more than 20 years of artistic superstardom.
A gallery of witnesses wax insightful about his cultural significance – offering equal if sometimes irreconcilable theories – while every glimpse of the diffident guru himself deepens the mystery of who he was and what exactly he contributed. About the latter we can argue. About his spellbinding oddity we cannot. Nor about the fact that he made a tin of soup and an electric chair, a box of soap pads and a dead president’s widow, stand in the same spotlight, demanding that the onlooker make that final judgment which it is none of art’s own business – Warhol argued without raising his voice – to make.