Above: The Soviet film, The Fall of Berlin, and one of its few unresolved quandaries: how does a girl rectify her love for a regular man with her love for Joseph Stalin?
I just realized something about film festivals: maybe I don't want to see the latest film by the hottest director on the block before anyone else, or even that random, obscure gem which will screen once in the dingiest cinema and never again emerge to the public eye, being swallowed up and passed over by armies of timid distributors. No; maybe what I want is simply smart, idiosyncratic individuals picking a slew of movies I either haven't seen, haven't heard of, or had never thought of putting together, for their own nefarious and individual purposes.
Telluride provides the proof: as they do every year, in 2008 they let a guest director program a selection of films, and this year that director was Slavoj Žižek. Spanning the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and regimes fascist, communist, and capitalist, Žižek’s selection may have the obvious weight of historical context on its side, but that weight made his selection the punchiest, most vital films in the festival.
Who else would veritably put side-by-side (if near-midnight one day and nine in the morning the next can be called side-by-side) a Dusan Makavejev film on a Serbian acrobat-auteur-resistor (1968's Innocence Unprotected) and a Veit Harlan Nazi melodrama (1944's The Great Sacrifice)? Makavejev tracks with fascination the existence and fate of the first Serbian talkie, one supposedly made in resistance and in secret during the Nazi occupation, but then tainted by the post-war regime as being a product of the occupation. Innocence Unprotected shows the entirety of the original film, interspersed by interview footage and feats of strength (and bluff) by the still surviving filmmaker-acrobat, a man whom Žižek points out is eternal, surviving, in strength and in naivety, two oppressive regimes with his integrity intact as well as his own kind of brand of resistance. Through his resurrection of the original film, as well as his aggressive, free-wheeling montage, Makavejev asks questions about art under political regimes, and about bravura showmanship (the acrobat's as well as his, the filmmaker's) as a fine line between resistance and exploitation, prideful truth and hideous lies.
Playing the next morning was a film antithetical to resistance, Harlan's The Great Sacrifice, a mostly incomprehensible melodrama of a married man split between the virginal, "heavenly" woman he is married to, and the single-mother ("slutty"), earthy mistress he also loves. The conflict is dramatically vague, but the film rides the beauty of Agfacolor throughout the tedium of the story, until the film's climax, much hyped by Žižek.
In this ending sequence the preceding banality and gross condescension of the male characters is all forgiven and forgotten. In viscous, garishly colored cross-dissolves, the ill married man, stuck in the hospital and unable to show himself at the gate of his mistress of declining health, communicates across space to the infirmed woman. Lustily, the two whisper to one another as Harlan overlaps two separate shots—an imaginary one of the man showing up at the mistress' gate to break their relationship, and a deep close-up of the mistress' impassioned face—into a single imaginary space of communication (see the above image). As Žižek rightly points out, it is impossible to determine if this scene is of the mistress imagining her lover visiting her and releasing her into death, or if it is the married man imagining the mistress imagining their denouement.The Nazi ideology of the story—one featuring an obscure circle of sacrifice, and a paradoxical praise for both heaven and earth—is subsumed in the hallucinogenic cinematics of the finale, where all the tepid psychology of the film is exploded by the suggestive power of an unbelievably gorgeous and inspired imaginative invention, one which renders gloriously vague the lines between subjectivity, thought, and deed.
But if ideology was classically cloaked in Harlan's studio melodrama, the 1949 Soviet war epic The Fall of Berlin had no such pretenses. Stalin not only directly commands the military victory that crushes with Nazis (with no help from the near-traitorous and flaccid Allies), but also directly serves as matchmaker for the film's romantic couple, wrested apart by war and brought together through the fury of Stalin's army and the brilliance of his command.
The scope of the film is mind-numbing, Tora! Tora! Tora! to the n-th degree: slow and plodding dramatic recreations of war room and boardroom meetings of the principals (actors play Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and on and on), and meticulously created model work and massive, large-scale spectacle to simulate (and re-create) the endless Soviet advance to Berlin, and finally on overwraught melodrama of romance serving as both the bookends to and the guiding light for the story.
Shockingly, Stalin's all-seeing presence (he co-write the script, apparently) is the most boring part of the film. With the cult of his worship deflated and the Soviet era passing into history, the overwhelming restraint and control of the dictator's image and speech in the film read as overly mannered to the point of a still life. So careful to not to offend, the icon becomes nothing but tedious as a presence.
Conversely, while the current image of Stalin is far different from that of the film, our image of Hitler is surprisingly no different at all. V. Savelyev's truly magnificent performance as the Nazi dictator is as close to Chaplin's as it is to that of Bruno Ganz, a pitiable mess of ticks and comical delusions, surrounded by a erratic, horrific bloodthirstiness. Brutally ironic, the film makes Hitler more human and full of pathos than the wax corpse that is Stalin's characterization. The drama in Hitler's chancellery and later in his bunker—at least 45 minutes of this 2.5 hour film—is a masterpiece in and of itself, and could stand alone as one of the best film portraits of the Nazis' end of days, teetering always on exaggeration before tipping back into psychological realism, only to return to the former through grotesque expressionism.
Almost as interesting was the abstraction of the action—no specific battlefields were shown, just interchangeable combinations of men and tanks running and plowing their way across burning expanses of fields, all the "personal" history of the strategy sessions counterpointed to the drab, unique brown-grey, grey-brown of the Eastern front, brilliantly lit up by the production crew seemingly burning any flamable object on the horizon, turning all light sources into sulfurous, flaring red sunspots. (The film's/front's color palette is almost entirely unrepresented in the West, due both to lack of interest in the military theater and due to local color stock. Perhaps Peckinpah's Cross of Iron comes close, but much of the battles in this 1949 film could be spliced into the 1985 Soviet masterpiece Come and See with little aesthetic disruption.)
These three tracks: Stalin, Hitler & Co.; tanks, men, and their fiery vector towards Berlin; and the Hollywood interrupted romance make for a compelling and brazen official ideology. The audience of 2008 may have laughed at the obviousness of the intended message and the glory, but The Fall of Berlin has the guts to put its picture of the world at its forefront and pretend little else. A mainstream Hollywood movie of 2008 is no less political, no less ideological, no less contemporary, but is far more sinister in the layers with which it tries to downplay and disguise the signs and meaning driving its plot. It was almost a relief, even after the so-called "Nazi melodrama," for a film to so bravely and garishly wear its political beliefs on its sleeves.