Berlinale 2009: Ambitious/Ambiguous Connections, "Double Take" and "Kill Daddy Good Night"

Above: Sabine Timoteo in Kill Daddy Goodnight, coaxing the film's hero out to New York City.

So it’s 1962, during the shoot of The Birds, and Hitchcock meets a man who claims to be him, but older, from the future.  Okay.  Then we have Khrushchev and Vice President Nixon, meeting in front of television cameras in 1959 at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, the two squabbling, bullying, and ad-libbing, all transmitted to audiences through the new technology.  On one side, the short and fat Khrushchev, on the other, the wiry, anxious Nixon.  Doubling again, in some strange way?  Khrushchev and Nixon, meeting under the auspices of a new technology; carry this thought through to the pinnacle of the this new televisual era: the JFK/Nixon televised presidential debates just one year later.  JFK, Cold War tension, technology—logically we jump to the space race, and what came from above before the birds than the Soviet’s triumph of Sputnik?  Meanwhile, unspoken, we know that Hitch—the older Hitch, that of the late 70s—has no more movies in him, and that television, to a considerable degree, is to blame.  Circle back around: while countries moved to the brink of war over scientific achievements, Hitchcock momentarily taps into the zeitgeist of fears through a terrible onslaught of nature, abstract and wonderful with The Birds; but history—moon walks, color TV, the Cuban Missile Crisis—leaves him in the dust, helpless and befuddled at the height of his success by this vision of a double from the vague future.  Connect the dots—I wish I could.  Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take, playing in the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded section, is one long montage connecting personal love for Hitchcock with political, technological, and cultural evolutions in the 1950s and 60s.  It is energetic and compelling as it swerves from one historical and cultural milestone to another, but only to the point you might have realized reading the above: the thoughts are fraudulent, the connections vague and tangential, perhaps even pompous.  Something is definitely there, but it would take a film both far more allusive and far more sophisticated (a mash-up of Guy Maddin and Thom Anderson, perhaps) to tease out the connections and the mirroring and let then slip by, tantalizing, promising, provoking, but inconclusive, the way such broad surveying must be to make sense.  Grimonprez, instead, tries to force a non-existent epiphany, runs short on ideas both cinematographic and intellectual, and Double Take flounders in an edited mess of promise.

***

A prime counter-example to this result is Kill Daddy Good Night, which played in the usually less-risky Panorama program, a film that purposefully provokes puzzlement.  An Austrian videogame designer (Helmut Köpping) who has turned his pathological hatred for his politician father into a life’s mission to create a father-killing videogame, ends-up, through a set of curious circumstances, renovating the basement hideout in Long Island of a Lithuanian Nazi.  The plot may sound implausible, but Michael Glawogger (known for his 2005 documentary, Workingman’s Death) pitches the story at a very precise level of cinematic wanderlust, where developments from one scene to the next are charted out by a cryptic pattern whose lines can just barely be discerned.  Of course, the correlation between this programmer who hates one man and simulates his killing with the old man who admits to murdering thousands without remorse during the Second World War are very much in existence—it’s just that Kill Daddy Good Night doesn’t have a point to make through this correlation.  The way the plot seems to just-quite-not-jibe, the way the motivations and decisions of all the characters from, our sullen hero to the silent old man and his gorgeous granddaughter (Sabine Timoteo), whose past with the programmer indifferently draws him out to New York, go unexplained and only partly guessed—all add0 up to the best thing about Kill Daddy Good Night, its concrete materials but its irreducibility.  It simply doesn’t seem to fit together, pieces from a similar but slightly different puzzle unable to connect, and if the film did come together, it would immediately crash into a heap of tacky and trite observations about media, the past, and morality, driven by a half-drawn, insipid drama.  Instead, and unlike Double Take, there is something to Glawogger’s handling of the material (and careful adaptation of Josef Haslinger’s source book) that makes the gaps, the awkwardness and the brazen allusions strange and challenging rather than ignorant or ham-handed.  Though destined to be set aside and shrugged off because of this unusual and very fine sense of puzzlement it creates, Kill Daddy Good Night also remains the most interesting movie of the 2009 Berlinale.

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