Saturday, June 29, 2013

2 Films with German Flavor

As I've written, three of the happiest years of my career were spent working at VH1.  There, I felt free to be myself as a performer, more so there than at any place I'd previously worked.  I remember one historical event on one day in 1989 in the studio.  A few of us on the crew gathered at a television to watch network news coverage.  The Berlin Wall was falling.  One of the members of our studio crew, the make-up woman, was a young German blonde we lovingly called "Schatze," like the Lauren Bacall character in the 1953 movie How To Marry a Millionaire.  All we could say was "Wow" as we watched the screen.  Schatze couldn't even say that.  She was wide-eyed and speechless.

I've got a couple of films for you to consider renting over the weekend.  The first one takes us to Germany in 1984.  We're in East Berlin.  The movie opens in a sterile, severe government office.  There is no decoration.  And no chat.  Oppression.  Intimidation.  Fear.  An ordinary citizen who doesn't have the rights we here in America too often take for granted.  This is the beginning of The Lives of Others, the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006.  See the excellent work by Ulrich Mühe in this political thriller that's also a very human drama.  He plays a top agent in the Stasi, the secret police.  He monitors people.  Everyone lives under the large shadow of surveillance.

Suppose you didn't have the freedom of speech.  Freedom of the press.  Or freedom to express yourself artistically.  It's like the blacklisting of the Senator Joe McCarthy era that strangled Hollywood and Broadway artists in the 1950s.  Sydney Pollack's The Way We Were, Martin Ritt's The Front and George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck take on that period of the Communist witch hunt. In this subtitled drama, we have a controversial playwright, his actress lover, a blacklisted director, a suicide and political censorship.  I'll keep from revealing too much.  I've seen The Lives of Others three times and each viewing held me with the way it peels back layers to get to a core of the secret policeman's being.  He monitors the playwright.  With detached emotion and political seriousness, he listen to all talk.  He listens to all lovemaking.  But, as he listens to this alleged enemy of the state, he hears a life of passion and beauty and honesty.

Stasi will do anything to spy on people -- from following citizens, to giving gifts to neighbors who inform. to tampering with mail. to using sexual intimidation. To the state, the playwright's typewriter is as dangerous as an assault rifle.  He must hide his work.

This powerful story is fueled by Mühe's performance.  It's truly compelling.  You hate him, then you come to care about what happens to him.  He takes you on an emotional journey.  Ulrich Mühe himself was a theater actor who was under Stasi surveillance.  He had a great spiritual connection to the story.  He died of cancer about six months after The Lives of Others won the Oscar.  He left us with a great performance.

Follow that with some rock music from someone who recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall.  See Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  When this year's Academy Awards show producers announced that they'd be saluting modern movie musicals, I assumed they'd ignore this one.  And I was right!  The salute was basically a Les Misérables infomercial done live onstage.  Hedwig is a transsexual punk rocker from East Berlin.  Male to female transsexual.  The punk rocker went Renée Richards, not Chaz Bono.
As a young man in Germany, she listened to the musical voices of the "American masters" -- like Toni Tennille and Debby Boone.  Life wasn't always easy for Hedwig:  "Our apartment was so small that mother made me play in the oven."  But Hedwig will survive and make music in America.  She'll tour with her band in local diners.  I know how she felt.  I did the same thing doing live remotes for local morning news programs in the 1990s.  Only, I didn't sing.  Hedwig is a trouper even though a former boyfriend/bandmate stole some of her songs and became a star.

A new world opened to Hedwig (formerly Hansel) when an American G.I. introduced the young German to Gummy Bears.
Hansel liked his candy.

I saw this show when it was a hit off-Broadway production.  John Cameron Mitchell stars as Hedwig and directed the film adaptation.  He co-wrote the screenplay based on his 1998 stage show.  This twisted movie is flat-out fabulous and so is he.

Here's a taste of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The Korean electric guitarist in pink behind Hedwig is actress Sook-Yin Lee.  If Woody Allen was in his heyday like when he was making Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose and Alice, he should be giving choice roles to her.  One of the funniest performances of 2006 was the one she gave as the frustrated Sofia, a couples counselor in the sexually bold, provocative and emotionally rich comedy, Shortbus.  Also directed by Mitchell, it's one of my favorite films about New Yorkers trying to connect in a post 9/11 Manhattan.  Sook-Yin Lee is a gifted comic actress who should be working a lot here in America.  Indie director John Cameron Mitchell should be as highly regarded here as he was in France, Brazil and Greece when Shortbus screened.  

 Mitchell was seen this year on HBO's Girls.  He also directed Nicole Kidman to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the indie drama, Rabbit Hole  (2010).
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is slated to go uptown for its Broadway premiere starring Neil Patrick Harris next year.  Check out James Cameron Mitchell in the role.

And don't forget about The Lives of Others.  Auf wiedersehen.


  1. Great review of THE LIVES OF OTHERS. I am in complete agreement with you on that one. It's one of my favorite foreign films EVER. Unforgettable. And the film's ending is extremely poignant. It's playing in July at my local cinematheque. I wish I knew a lot of local film lovers that I could recommend this film to. Thanks for the post Bobby!

  2. I have seen it a few times on DVD. If I was in your neighborhood, I'd pay to see it on a big screen. THE LIVES OF OTHERS is so outstanding, I would sit through it again. What a fine piece of work!


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