A Woman in Berlin
The latest offering of “alternative” cinema at the Reading Gaslamp comes up easily to the Landmark caliber. Which, in light of such recent specimens as Captain Abu Raed, Shrink, and The Stoning Soraya M., isn’t necessarily saying all that much. And I mean to say more. Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin, opening Friday, dramatizes a wartime diary published at the end of the Fifties by “Anonyma,” who according to the printed coda remains anonymous to this day. (Curious, since the Internet seems to know full well that her name was Marta Hillers.) Another passage in the coda tells us by way of explanation that her account of the Russian occupation after the fall of Berlin provoked an outcry in Germany, no word on what it might have provoked in Russia.
Far from the juvenile wish fulfillment of Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, Färberböck narrows his gaze to a single neglected facet of the war, the ancient and abiding practice of mass rape as one of the unquestioned spoils of the conqueror, and the pragmatic survival methods of its victims. A well-travelled journalist fluent in Russian, the published diarist and circumspect narrator of the action (“Where do I start? What are the right words?”), is the subjective center of the story, an unfamiliar screen face (Nina Hoss) something like a sobered-up Tuesday Weld gripped with a ferretlike ferocity, her mashed lips in a fixed expression of distaste. Off in the margin, witnesses to the passage of time and the march of history, are two luminaries of the New German Cinema, new circa 1970, now old and gray: Rudiger Vogler, most tightly connected to the films of Wim Wenders, and Irm Herrmann, even more connected to those of R.W. Fassbinder: “Careful,” she tries repeatedly to protect her dinner table from the heedless invaders, “it’s mahogany!”
The protagonist’s eventual arrangement with the chiselled and lacquered Russian commander (Yevgeni Sidikhin) who might have stepped out of a Communist propaganda poster, a “pact with the devil” to insulate her from taking on all comers (pun sternly discouraged), is a war-story commonplace. But the narrowness of focus and the wealth of rub-your-nose-in-it circumstantial detail go beyond the common. One woman can bump into an old friend in the street and ask without preamble, “How many?” — and we understand fully what she’s talking about. This is treacherous territory, and a misstep comes all too readily: the tender little piano plink-plink in the background as prelude to the first rape, and the addition of yearning strings for the brutish follow-through. Politics, perhaps rightly, hardly enter into it, or are kept forcibly out of it. The giddy party scene at the outset, effervescent with the confidence of the Master Race, runs into an abrupt juxtaposition after an unspecified time-jump: the advance of the Red Army into the streets of Berlin, the tanks and troops coming into view through the dissipating white dust of a pulverizing air raid. There’s no answer, midway through the movie, to the Russian major’s query to his sex slave, “Are you fascist?” At that point and countless others, it’s not hard to see why Tarantino might choose to take refuge in the aesthetic detachment of his own imagination.
Färberböck’s tough-minded nonjudgmentalism does not exactly find its purest expression, its kindred spirit, in the grab-bag vacillation and noncommitment of the visual style. His willy-nilly switches in approach — the breathless unveiling of the above-mentioned Russian presence in the streets followed immediately by a disjointed montage of combat clichés, the firmly planted dramatic up-shot alternated with the hand-held scramble, the taut deep-focus composition set beside the mushy telephoto compression — give the spectacle a gumminess as treacherous, in its way, as the subject matter. The soaring interest of one image offers no assurance against the plummeting interest of the next. In the arena of style, Tarantino beats Färberböck to a pulp.
Cold Souls, a lower-caliber Landmark offering, now entering its second week at the Hillcrest, is off the same wall as Being John Malkovich. Paul Giamatti, being Paul Giamatti, is feeling the burden of his soul in the course of rehearsals for a stage production of Uncle Vanya, unable to locate the requisite lightness of touch. At the suggestion of his agent, the dyspeptic actor tries an option he had never before heard of, though it’s been written up in The New Yorker and listed in the Yellow Pages: soul removal and temporary storage. The resulting lightness, plus emptiness, plus ennui, only worsens his portrayal, so he tries the stopgap solution of renting the soul of an anonymous Russian poet. (The Russians are world leaders in soul trafficking.) By the time he decides he wants his own soul back, it — the exact likeness of a chickpea — has been stolen and transplanted into a Russian TV soap-opera actress under the misapprehension she was getting the soul of Al Pacino (who’s not, let’s be clear, in the movie). “She,” huffs Giamatti in his finest and funniest line reading, “could ruin my soul.”
Synopsis cannot help but overplay the zaniness. Writer and director Sophie Barthes, whether or not burdened by her own soul, likewise lacks the requisite lightness of touch. An oatmeal-gray image, a whisper-quiet sound level, and a drifting plot propulsion combine to immerse any whimsicality into a miasma of angst and anomie, more suited perhaps to an adaptation of a Camus novel. Even a fantasy, or especially a fantasy, will be expected to some degree to define its terms, to give the audience in this instance an idea of what a soul consists of, what constitutes its purview, what differentiates it from, say, the prefrontal cortex. It’s apparent from Giamatti’s performance that he was given no idea either.
The month-long free outdoor film series, Que Viva! Cine Latino, opens with Carlos Saura’s Fados next Wednesday night at 7:30. (Additional information: 619-230-1938.) The Food Pavilion at Otay Ranch Town Center scarcely sounds like the ideal venue, and I’m sure that DVD is not the ideal format, so I hesitate to say — but oh, what the hell — that this was not only my favorite film at last spring’s San Diego Latino Film Festival but came as close as any film has ever come to changing my life. If, that is, the subsequent purchase of a double-digit number of fado albums, a couple of them straight from Portugal, is any measure. (Never mind the double-disk DVD of Fados from Spain.) I haven’t quite yet, however, taken to scarfing sardines or swigging Madeira, and a passing motorist would never guess that the nondescript Toyota tooling along the San Diego roadways was filled with the sounds of Mariza, Carminho (both featured in the film), Cristina Branco, Mafalda Arnauth, Ana Moura, Katia Guerreiro, and the sainted Amália Rodrigues — my own private world, Little Lisbon.