Notes From Berlin
   ... becoming Hitler's Opposite
   by Don Thompson

It was my first time in Berlin. One thing that struck me about the city is how modern and global it is; Berlin has an almost non-descript feel, with most of its historic buildings blown away by allied bombing during World War II. The exception is the area around the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, which through extensive renovation has maintained some of the feel of the old city.

The occasion for my visit was the 56th Berlinale Film Festival. As an industry professional I could get accreditation that allowed me one free ticket for a screening of each film, including festival premieres. This promised some exciting film going, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Grbavica, by Serbian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic, was one of two premieres I was to attend at the Berlinale Palast, the large, 1500 plus seat theater which is the hub of the festival. The film is the story of a Muslim woman and her daughter, born out of a rape, and of how the mother struggles to maintain a sense of identity and sanity. To do this she creates a fiction, a myth of self you might say, involving the father of her child who, she tells her daughter, was a hero. As the story unfolds, the daughter comes to learn of the true circumstances surrounding her conception. Delusion is broken, truth revealed, and something faced up to: a reality of what one is as opposed to the convenient myth one might have created for one’s life, reality and world.

It was interesting to see this film in Europe, where the reality of fascism was still evident such a short time ago in Serbia, and in Berlin, where fascism was shattered by bombs such a long time ago. It was interesting, in Berlin, to tour the Reichstag as well. Hitler had apparently never set foot in the building. It was basically a shell of an institution throughout the Third Reich and right up through German Reunification. After re-unification, the entire interior of the Reichstag was gutted and replaced, and only the shell of the old remained; but ironically, democracy now flourishes in its modern interior, which leads up to a new, gleaming and modern dome made of steel and glass that replaced the conventional dome of its predecessor. This dome, emblematic of the new modern German state that exists within the context of history, gives one a panoramic view of the city. At the top of the dome, an empty circle looks out into the infinite sky, and the sunlight shines in through the transparent glass so that on a clear day you feel suspended in air. The feeling is spiritual; politics and idealism, past and present are united through a transparent architecture.

Next on my festival screening list was Syriana, a film about the not so transparent machinations of the CIA. Seeing Syriana at the festival was different than seeing the film at home. For one, I was in Europe, and a story of America’s CIA plotting the assassination of an Arab Oil Sheik was disturbing because I was convinced, as an American, that somebody would come up to me after the film and slug me because I belonged to such a corrupt culture. I was in fact sure, after the lights came up, that every German in the place was whispering “Americaner” and thinking “American Fascist” -- as if because of my language and accent I condoned the kind of behavior displayed in Steve Gaghan’s meditation on global politics. Here, in Berlin, where fascism had taken root so many years ago, only to be destroyed by Americans, the tables had turned: Syriana ostensibly gives us a window into the New America, an America in some ways reminiscent of the fascism it fought so hard to eliminate. A New America that was in many ways different, in reality and architecture, than the freedom that shown so brightly at the Reichstag.

But is that idea in itself a myth? Certainly many conservatives in this country feel quite strongly that we continue to fight fascism in Iraq and Iran, that these are continuations of the long struggle of democracy to spread its wings -- militarily if necessary -- over the world. Is not the Reichstag, risen as it is from the ashes, proof that I am wrong, that the United States has not become its opposite, but continues to fight the good fight?

Prairie Home Companion, also premiering at the festival, tried to convince me that there was an American Myth still present, a heartland worthy enough to defend. Altman’s adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s radio show (scripted by Keillor of course) was a strange hybrid of realism and fantasy that couldn’t quite get its bearings. At times Altman’s hand was sure and steady and evident in the reality of the banter between the actors, particularly Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan (who played her daughter) and at other times the satire seemed to get in the way of what could have been an interesting human narrative. Keillor as a script writer wasn’t quite able to reflect in his film the blend of humor and humanity evident in his radio show, to translate that humanity to his screenplay. Most telling was the absence of the “News From Lake Wobegon” -- the signature segment of the radio show. My only guess is that there is another film in the offing with Lake Wobegon at its core.

Interesting, I had talked with Garrison Keillor briefly on a train ride a few years back (between Philadelphia and New York) about screenwriting. I was working on my own script, and he had not yet attempted his first and was asking me advice on how to proceed. I recommended he seek my mentor back at UCLA, who was also a script consultant; I’m not sure Keillor ever sought his advice, but I don't think so. It was a strange feeling to have had that conversation with Keillor then to see his first film on screen, at its premiere. Strange how the circle moves sometimes.

Like Prairie Home Companion, my country too seems like it is becoming an uncomfortable mix of myth and reality. Unable to accept any kind of nuanced middle, we seem to vacillate between two equally delusional poles of America as World Savior and America as World Satan. This yin-yang dichotomy, born perhaps out of the exigencies of a two party system and a kind of obsession with easy, black and white answers for everything (some would call that moral clarity), makes for an approach to life that, when viewed from the outside, seems almost uniformly naive, neurotic and myopic. So it was in Berlin that I was given a glimpse of this outside view. And yet, that same neurosis seems to, on the surface, to offer clear-eyed action, quick and swift. It also allows for powerful computer technology, based as that is on the ones and zeroes of binary logic. Computers and the two party system, black and white morality, us vs. them, fundamentalism -- a world of this and that, of opposites so clearly defined and articulated, seems to me to be taking us to a place not unlike that seen in Germany so many years ago. Germany too was at one time known for quick action, for the Blitzkrieg move and for its ominous engineering capabilities. Germany too was known for its clear-eyed youth, whose very purity seemed to shine through in their perfect uniforms at Nazi Rallies.

All the films I saw in Berlin were, in their own way, political films, regardless of whether they overtly discussed politics. If I have had any argument with any of my colleagues in the world of film criticism, it is their attempt to somehow divorce films from politics, economics, and religion -- to put them into a pure theoretical framework that sees film as a cultural artifact that exists outside of any of these realities. This, in my opinion, misses the boat and the responsibility of the critic. The most insightful of critical theory regarding film comes out of a stance that is at once inherently political, social, spiritual and economic. Why? Because film is part of life and life is in film, and life is all these things. This may seem like a digression, but look again at Berlin.

As I said, all of the films I saw in Berlin were political, and many overtly so (The Road to Guantanamo also screened there, but I didn't see it). Politics in film has become vogue again, precisely because so many have recognized that without that kind of artistic dialog we lose our sense of who we are as a people. George Bush, for all his flaws real and perceived, has awakened many slumbering leftists, academics and activists up to the reality and urgency of politics and how we must see and use art as a political force; that art as a political force is in fact a requirement of a healthy cultural dialog between artists and society. Without that dialog, artists no longer do what they should do: help us to avoid the Hitlers of the future. They instead become trivialized and irrelevant, and with them our democratic ideals fall by the wayside, the victim of cynicism and apathy.

Berlin, I would say, did not display such an apathy. The destruction of that city so long ago, and its rise from the ashes, seems to have imbue its people with a very tangible attitude that still permeates the very air of the city. The attitude reflected in the festivals top prize (The Golden Bear), which went to the Serbian film Grbavica, a film that documents (hopefully) the last throes of fascism
-- and perhaps of war itself -- in Europe.

--Don Thompson (

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