Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Mobius Of Phobias

Nobody in his right mind wants to get sick. However, that doesn't stop people from letting their imaginations run rampant when confronted with the mere possibility of illness. Anyone who remembers the early days of the AIDS epidemic can probably recall people who were afraid to kiss a stranger, touch a doorknob, or taste a friend's drink (regardless of where their tongue had been during the previous 24 hours).

Whether people view sickness as the psychosomatic result of life's many stressors or are simply paranoid about airborne pathogens, their germophobia is expressed in a wide variety of ways. In 1950, when Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway, Adelaide's Lament became a classic of musical comedy theater.

With so much data at our fingertips (and a 24-hour cable media determined to scare the living daylights out of viewers), it's no wonder that news about any harmful elements in our food can drive people's imaginations wild. Actor Jeremy Piven -- whose heavy diet of fish and sushi recently led to a suspected case of mercury poisoning -- was recently forced by his doctor to leave the cast of a Broadway revival of David Mamet's Speed-The-Plow (upon hearing the news, the acerbic playwright suggested that Piven was hoping to embark on a new career as a thermometer).

In recent years, Internet hoaxes about aspartame -- combined with genuine concern about traces of melamine in imported food products -- have only served to ratchet up the level of household hysteria. As a result, a more accurate depiction of modern-day food paranoia and germophobia (combined with obsessive-compulsive behavior) can be seen in this clip:

I still remember a phone call I received one evening in the early 1970s, back when I was living in Providence, Rhode Island.  It came from a friend who was a fearsome combination of an aggressive businesswoman and an archetypal Jewish mother.  
"I'm on my way over, bubby.  In case you didn't hear the news, they've discovered that cyclamates can cause cancer," she announced. "So you and I are going to do a thorough inspection of your place and if I so much as find one can of diet soda in your apartment that contains cyclamates , we're going to stand in front of the sink together as you pour that stuff down the drain!"

My friend would have gotten along just fine with the obsessed mother who anchors the plot of Oliver Jahn's The Ice Bomb, a German black comedy which will be screened this week at the 2009 Berlin & Beyond Film Festival.  As the film opens Beate Schuhmann-Weil (Karoline Eichhorn) is frantically trying to get rid of the frozen raspberries she recently purchased. The latest news is that they can cause a skin rash and, with the manic behavior of a diehard obsessive compulsive, she is not about to let her eldest son, Tom (Eike Weinrich), get any more rashes. "But I get a rash when I eat fresh raspberries, too," sighs Tom.  

No matter.  

A smother-mother who simply cannot let go, Beate runs her environmentally-conscious household with an acute focus on staying healthy.  When her children's hamster dies, she seals it in kitchen wrap so that the back-yard funeral will be cleaner and safer for everyone involved. If she could get stool samples from her family after each meal, she would no doubt be waiting in the bathroom with an open petri dish in hand as each member of her family crapped out his most recent meal. 

Although Tom is about to start work in a new civil service position at a local hospital, his mother is not about to release him from her fiercely manipulative claws. Beate has already convinced Tom's father to renovate their attic and turn it into a spare apartment for Tom, where he can come and go as he pleases (but never ever have to leave home).

To no one's surprise, Tom has grown up with a series of nervous tics and phobias. He is terrified of raindrops. In order to get up the courage to get through certain fearsome tasks he must often resort to singing his favorite childhood song. When Harald (the worker he will replace on the hospital's staff) offers him the use of the tiny onsite apartment he is vacating, Tom gets his first whiff of freedom from Beate's craziness.

One night, as stormy weather crosses Germany and Beate is about to serve dessert, the family hears a loud crash.  When a neighbor points to a large hole in the roof of the Schuhmann-Weil's suburban home, they discover that an "ice bomb" that has fallen from the sky. Although Horst has dutifully saved a sample of the ice and put it in their kitchen freezer, Beate is quick to realize  that, as the ice starts to melt, it  is leaking through the ceilings and walls and smells absolutely horrible.

Forced to live in the underground bunker they once built in the back yard (which is conveniently stocked with 20-year-old cans of ravioli), Tom barely manages to escape being forced to share a bed with his mother. Meanwhile, Elfie (Heike Jonca), one of the hospital's janitorial staff, has taken a quirky liking to him and run interference on Tom's behalf when Beate shows up at his new place of work to insist that her son return home.

What follows is a comedic/pathetic tug of war as Tom seeks shelter from his mother's insanity by staying in his new apartment at the hospital and hanging out with Elfie.  Elfie's niece Lucie (Katharina Schuttler) is an aspiring actress who first caught Tom's eye in a television commercial for a snack food bar.  When they meet in real life, all hell breaks loose.

Shocked by Tom's rebellious behavior, Beate has alerted the media that her son has ended up in a "mental institution" as a result of the trauma from the ice bomb incident. When the insurance adjustor takes one look at the ice sample Horst has saved, he informs Horst and Beate that their insurance was only for sleet damage -- not for ice damage -- and therefore the insurance company will not pay for the repairs to their home.  Not used to taking "no" for an answer, Beate enlists the media's help in getting the ice bomb analyzed. The news that its contents could only have come from a passing airplane's chemical toilet leaves her completely undone.

For those who remember how Jacque Tati's film, Mon Oncle (1958), mocked modern suburbanites who are too quick to embrace the latest fads, this will b e a very likeable, if occasionally predictable film. Part of The Ice Bomb's charm lies in demonstrating how the younger generation's naive confusion plays out in sharp contrast to Elfie's jaded outlook on life and Tom's overly neurotic parents. A deliciously ironic surprise ending awaits those who believe in karma.

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