Thursday, January 8, 2009

Lover, Come Back To Me

In 1973, when Erica Jong's novel, Fear of Flying, described the "zipless fuck" as "a sexual encounter with an anonymous stranger who you'll never see again -- and no one you know will ever know it happened "-- some feminists felt newly empowered to treat men the same way that men treated women: as disposable tricks. Others were scandalized by the concept.

For those who were already promiscuous, Jong's zipless fuck was no big deal.  Gay men had been doing it in bathroom stalls long before Senator Larry (I Am Not Gay) Craig got busted in the Minneapolis airport. Plenty of couples had already joined the Mile High Club. It was an era of swinging stewardesses, free love among hippies, and the onset of both the women's and gay liberation movements.  In an era of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, the basic understanding was "Hey, if it feels good, do it!"

For some people, sex might result from getting drunk, getting thrown together by well-intentioned friends, "getting lucky" or just being in the same room with another person and having nothing better to do. As James Kirkwood, Jr. wrote in one of his plays: "The cat is dead and there's nothing good on television."

The bottom line is that relationships are not always built on love. For some, sex is a matter of convenience -- a lay-a-way plan for willing partners who feel no need to "buy the cow."  Whether at a bathhouse, a swinger's club, in a hot tub or through a glory hole, the basic mechanics are simple and to the point.  Thanks in large part to the Internet, Jong's zipless fuck has evolved into today's "blow-and-go" scenario (where efficiency is more important than passion).

As a result, certain amorous adventures don't necessarily translate into great movies. Screenwriters may think they have a good idea for a movie (and may even line up talented actors and directors for the project), but the final product often implodes under the weight of its concept, a lack of dramatic tension, or limited character development.  Two such films are being shown at the Castro Theater as part of this year's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival.  While each has a certain quirky and depressive appeal, as Gertrude Stein famously said about Oakland: "There is no there there."

Written and directed by Martin Walz (with help from co-writer Lars Hoeppner) Melodies of Spring (Marzmelodie) probably sounded like a great idea at its initial conception. The film follows a group of frustrated, unhappy people who are not enjoying life very much. 

Soon after the movie begins, Katja (Jana Pallaske) dumps her useless boyfriend Thilo (Jan Henrik Stahlberg). A down-on-his luck actor who can barely support himself selling wine for a telemarketing service, Thilo has been experiencing mysterious "blackouts." The thought that his blackouts might be alcohol-related completely eludes him. He has the word "loser" written all over his face.

Anna Brokate (Alexandra Neldel) is a schoolteacher on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So tightly wound that she is vomiting before class, the sound of a telephone, classroom bell, or any other loud noise makes her flinch. Anna's an emotional wreck.

Meanwhile, Anna's best friend, Valerie (Inga Busch) has successfully lied her way into a new job by claiming that she doesn't have children. Her boyfriend Moritz (Gode Benedix) had always promised that if Valerie got a good job, he would stay at home with their child and work nights to help support their family. An aspiring musician, Moritz lacks strong parenting skills.

Moritz is a close friend of Thilo and Florian (Gedeon Burkhard), a more successful actor than Thilo and a man with a classic fear of relationships. The three men have tickets to a concert they've been looking forward to for months.  

Do you even care?

Just as Valerie and Moritz learn that Thilo has been dumped by his girlfriend, Anna crosses their line of vision.  They urge her to go out on a date with Thilo, not really expecting it will turn into anything more than a charity fuck but hoping that, by distracting Anna and Thilo, they can grab some private time for themselves. 

Thilo quickly becomes infatuated with Anna and claims she is the love of his life.  But soon after, when they are having some wine in a bar, he goes into the bathroom and runs into one of his male buddies (who reminds him that this is the night of the concert they've been looking forward to for so long).  Unaware that he is blacked out on alcohol, Thilo goes off to the concert with his friends, leaving an angry Anna alone in the bar.

Having been humped and dumped, Anna (whose parents have come to visit) is in no mood to hear Thilo's apologies. After her budding affair with Thilo falls through, she starts to date Florian. However, the minute Anna shows signs of neediness, Florian panics and flees.

All of these people have terrible problems communicating with others. Valerie has trouble speaking up for herself at work; Moritz has trouble expressing his needs as a parent and lover. After being dumped by two men, Anna has become even more disagreeable. Thilo can't even sell wine on the phone.

Are you starting to care yet?  Really?

The director's gimmick is to have these people speak when they need to express their thoughts and occasionally burst into snippets of popular German songs when they need to express their emotions. There are two problems with this technique: If, as an audience member, you are unfamiliar with the songs these characters are singing, they're probably not going to have much of an impact on you. Second, these people are insufferable bores. You can see their faces in the trailer below. 

If you take the time to sit through this lame series of love affairs, you'll discover that, as spring approaches and new flowers bloom, Moritz and Valerie use their cell phones to reunite Anna and Thilo and get those two losers out of their hair.  Everyone lives miserably thereafter.

* * * * * * * *

There's obviously more dramatic tension in Ulla Wagner's The Invention of Curried Sausage which is based on a novel by Uwe Timm. As World War II nears its end, middle-aged Lena (Barbara Sukowa) is struggling to stay afloat.  She works in a cafeteria where food rations demand outrageous creativity and where her boss has no qualms about spiking a meal for the Nazi District Manager with a combination of spices guaranteed to make him puke. 

Lena's husband Gary (Gotz Schubert) is off fighting the war, as is her son Jurgen (Frederick Lau). The manager of her building, Lammers (Branko Samarovski), is a Nazi snoop who likes to use his key to get into her apartment when she is at work. Her downstairs neighbor, Frau Eckleben (Traute Hoss), would love to find a reason to turn Lena over to the authorities.

Lena's few moments of joy come from her trips to the movies where, on some nights, people are lucky to get through some newsreels and propaganda shorts before there is an air raid and they must flee to a bomb shelter. On one such night Lena finds herself standing on line next to a handsome young sailor who is on leave. After an air attack sends them running to a shelter, she invites the young man up for coffee, tea, and Lena.

Because her building is so carefully guarded by Lammers and a host of nosy neighbors, when she entices Hermann Bremer (the gorgeous Alexander Khuon) to stay with her, she's not just sharing her bed for the sake of the glorious Fatherland. Lena is one of those unfortunate women who got pregnant the night she lost her virginity. With her husband and most other young men away on the battlefield, there have been no young men available for casual sex.

But Lena's very practical. When fresh meat shows up in a package that looks like a cross between Adrien Brody and Matthew Broderick, she sets about tenderizing it with care.  Although her boss at the cafeteria (Wolfgang Bock) quickly notices a new lift in Lena's walk, she insists that an "aunt" has come to stay with her. In truth, Lena's walk-up apartment has become a convenient cage for her young and virile military boytoy.

When news of Hitler's death arrives, Lena quickly realizes that with the war about to end, Hermann will soon leave her.  Convinced that their time together is rapidly dwindling, she struggles with whether or not to tell him the news -- at one point even claiming that there are no newspapers available. When she comes home to an empty apartment, Hermann's departure is devastating. The return of Lena's husband and son does little to ameliorate her grief.

Toward the end of the film, as Lena drops a box of supplies on the staircase, the ketchup from a broken bottle gets mixed up with some curry powder, inspiring Lena to make a new sauce for sausage (hence the title of the film). Other than a brief fling as a determined cougar, her small claim to fame is as the inventor of curried sausages.

Years later, Lena is running a food stand when Hermann stops by. He's filled out nicely and is now a married salesman with a child, who travels from town to town as Germany rebuilds. Their love remains locked in the past with a tacit acknowledgment that their amorous adventures are over and done with.

The two leads are extremely persuasive actors whose lovemaking is born of tenderness, intimacy, and rooted much more deeply in loneliness and mutual need than mere lust. Theo Bierkens' cinematography casts an appropriately war-torn gloom over many scenes with a definite charm. However, what I found quite surprising was to discover not one, but two video spoofs of the film already published on YouTube before the movie's producers had even gotten around to creating their own website for marketing purposes.  Here's the funnier spoof:

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