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New Films From Germany

At Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge to Jan. 24

As the latest “historical” film from the producer of the ahistorical Pearl Harbor and Remember the Titans, Black Hawk Down doesn’t inspire trust. Yet this Jerry Bruckheimered account of a partially bungled U.S. mission in Somalia in 1993 is remarkably true to its source, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden’s book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. It’s just that the movie is so devoid of context that its authenticity is almost irrelevant.

Director Ridley Scott has taken—and given—heavy fire before. The stylishly blood-drenched Black Hawk Down is a distant descendant of his first film, The Duellists, also an arty tale of battle, but is closer in spirit to such strident Scott entertainments as G.I. Jane and the first sequence of Gladiator. The last presented the clash of Romans and Goths in the handheld, battle-photog mode of Vietnam pictures, and Black Hawk Down swaggeringly impersonates Apocalypse Now and Platoon, as well as the Platoon-inspired intro to Saving Private Ryan. Although the movie does have a few establishing scenes, it’s primarily an immersion into the two-day mission in which 18 American soldiers were killed and more than 70 were wounded.

The plan was for Delta Force and Ranger troops to ride choppers into the Black Sea neighborhood of Mogadishu—the area most hostile to American troops—grab two of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s top lieutenants, and be back at their U.S. base within an hour. That timetable was shredded when a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by Somalis—”Skinnies” in Ranger parlance—who used grenade launchers far more effectively than the Americans had expected. The title is singular, but ultimately five Black Hawks went down, although only two of them crashed in hostile territory. Unprepared to rescue so many troops, commanding officer Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard) was forced to leave his soldiers in place overnight, subjecting them to heavy fire and probably dooming several men who might have survived if they had gotten quick medical treatment.

For Scott, this is nearly all spectacle. The carnage is lighted as precisely as an interior decorator’s showroom, and every hit seems to penetrate an artery, sending blood spurting like lava. (When one American ultimately does bleed to death from an arterial wound, the moment is almost anticlimactic.) The soldiers are essentially interchangeable, although a few have been issued a characteristic to identify them: Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) is profoundly earnest; Grimes (Ewan McGregor), a clerk assigned unexpectedly to his first mission, really likes his coffee; and McKnight (Tom Sizemore) is as gruff as, well, most characters played by Tom Sizemore.

Black Hawk Down was filmed in Morocco with massive support from the U.S. military, which assists only films it believes will burnish its image. Scripter Ken Nolan has tidied up a few incidents, most notably the one that daunted the Rangers at the mission’s very start: In the movie, a rookie falls from a Black Hawk when the chopper takes an evasive maneuver; in fact, the soldier simply missed the rope he was supposed to slide down from a stable helicopter. Still, some of the film’s seemingly implausible aspects are corroborated by Bowden: The Rangers really were a virtually all-white outfit, the force truly did include a soldier with severe asthma, and the rescue vehicles that eventually arrived actually didn’t have enough seats for the trapped soldiers, forcing some of them to run back to base through the mean streets of “the Mog.”

Bruckheimer’s maturation from macho-fantasy entertainments to issue films that engage the real world is reflected in the movie’s score. The early scenes enlist the producer’s customary combat rock (Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Stevie Ray Vaughan covering Jimi Hendrix) and some hip Magreb-rooted pop (Rachid Taha, Badawi), but composer Hans Zimmer also adds ambient electronica and Celtic laments before ending with a compromise between hard rock and folk: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Minstrel Boy.” For an elegy, though, Black Hawk Down is almost as cocky as such old-Bruckheimer sagas as The Rock: The Rangers’ mission was poorly planned and badly commanded, yet the movie ends with the boast that the devastated Americans managed to kill more than 1,000 Somalis, twice the book’s estimate.

Scott has said that the film “is very much from the universal soldier’s point of view,” but post-Sept. 11 viewers will surely notice that this is a tale of U.S. soldiers in a Muslim country whose feudal politics resemble Afghanistan’s. The filmmakers pointedly exclude Somali viewpoints—noted, if fleetingly, in the book—and any sense of continuity between the Somalia campaign and the rest of American foreign policy. (You’d never guess, for example, that likably crusty Shepard is playing a man who helped run the infamous Phoenix assassination operation in Vietnam.) Like most Scott films, Black Hawk Down is a considerable technical achievement, but a two-and-a-half-hour battle saga should be able to convey more than the fact that it’s no fun to be surrounded by people who want to kill you.

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In A Fine Day, one of the most appealing entries in this year’s New Films From Germany series, the first words come when aspiring actress Deniz starts dubbing the dialogue of a female character in Eric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale. The gentle joke is that Deniz is not exactly a Rohmer heroine: Yes, she’s young, pretty, and curious about life and love, yet she’s far from verbose. The movie is the most French of the eight new German films I previewed—a parallel could be drawn with Benoit Jacquot’s A Single Girl—but that’s no great claim. Indeed, viewers who aren’t alienated by subtitles will find that these movies look more to the conventions of Hollywood than to those of international art cinema.

The best example of that is the opening film of the series, which is a presentation of the Washington branch of Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes and the Export Union of German Cinema. Hardy Martins’ Far and Beyond (Jan. 18) is an old-fashioned widescreen adventure epic, in which various exotic creatures contrive to help German soldier Clemens Forell (Bernhard Bettermann) escape from a Siberian labor camp and undertake a six-year (1946-1952) quest to return to his wife and daughter in Bavaria. Adapted from Josef Martin Bauer’s novel, the movie eventually gets to an episode that makes reference to Nazi crimes committed during World War II; for most of the tale, however, Forell is a stoic Teutonic superman who uses and then loses Siberian hunters, Inuit beauties, and faithful huskies on his way to freedom in (where else?) Iran. The movie is eminently picturesque, but its outlook is as musty as its style.

In its wispy way, A Fine Day (Jan. 18) offers the strongest contrast to Far and Beyond. It follows slightly more than 24 hours in the life of the taciturn, vaguely dissatisfied Deniz (Serpil Turhan), who wanders Berlin and has quiet but in some cases significant encounters with her mother, her sister, a casting director, a potential lover, and the guy who’s about to become her ex-boyfriend. Writer-director Thomas Arslan uses natural light and everyday locations, notably Berlin’s extensive public transport system, to convey the enchantment of everyday life. Even Deniz’s ethnicity—German-born but of Turkish descent—is treated as unremarkable in a film whose Godardian grace note is a chance encounter with a professor who teaches a very appropriate subject.

Young love is much more volatile in Engel & Joe (Jan. 20), which might have been called Sid & Nancy Have a Baby. Adapted by director and co-writer Vanessa Jopp from an article by Kai Hermann—whose reporting also inspired the 1981 European teen-junkie-hooker hit Christiane F.—this is the tale of 15-year-old teenage runaway Johanna (Jana Pallaske), who falls in with the punks who hang at Cologne’s cathedral and in love with 17-year-old “typical orphanage kid” Engel (Robert Stadlober). Their off-and-on romance can be idyllic for hours at a time, but when Joe gives birth, the child-welfare caseworkers move in. “It’s all shit. I love you” is the drug-addled Engel’s idea of a proposal, but the movie balances no-future romance with naturalistic scrutiny of Germany’s tenacious street- and squat-dwelling culture.

Far and Beyond suggests the popular adventure novels of Karl May, who thrilled Germans with tales of distant places he never visited. In The Loneliness of the Crocodiles (Jan. 20), May’s work is one of the inspirations for Gunther (Thomas Schmauser), a young man stultified by overprotective parents. When the film begins, Gunther is already dead, an apparent suicide. His cousin Elias (Janek Rieke) travels to the village where Gunther lived to learn more, but he finds few people willing to talk, least of all Gunther’s bourgeois parents, a butcher and his wife. Among the few people who will help is Gunther’s mentally retarded friend, Roland, who once joined the dead man in his brief campaign to create a “homeland” where pigs could live free of cages and butchers. This is one of several films in the series that share the classic American notion of the small town as a brutal backwater. It also touches on the ethnic conflicts commonly depicted in recent German cinema, with a subplot about Kurdish refugees who are blamed for the deeds of a mysterious pig killer, but writer-director Jobst Oetzmann’s principal device for expressing the hamlet’s horrors is explicit footage of pigs being bled and slaughtered.

The 12-year-old hero of Emil and the Detectives (Jan. 21) also lives in a small town, but the fun begins when his father is hospitalized and Emil (Tobias Retzlaff) is sent to Berlin to stay with the sister of his teacher. Robbed on the train, the boy arrives in the big city to find a multiculti posse of kids his own age who are happy to help him get his money back. Director Franziska Buch skillfully—and sweetly—adapts Erich Kastner’s best-known children’s book, but the movie is unlikely to interest most viewers who are older than Emil.

Engel & Joe’s male protagonist dreams of starting an anarchist commune in the mountains. The members of the German rock band Ton Steine Scherben did roughly that, as noted in Christoph Schuch’s fascinating documentary, The Dream Is Gone (Jan. 21). The Scherben, whose career stretched from 1970 to 1986, were sometimes called the German Rolling Stones, but Washingtonians might think of another band: Fugazi. While delivering such pre-Pistols slogans as “Destroy what destroys you” and “No authority for anyone,” the band struggled for self-determination, releasing its own records and trying to keep prices down. In retrospect, the band’s ideas seem more interesting than its music, but those ideas—and an amusing clip of a ’70s talk show interrupted by a hatchet attack—make this the series’ most provocative film.

As its title suggests, In the Middle of Nowhere (Jan. 22) is another tale from Germany’s rural abyss. After escaping from prison, small-time thief Marek (Florian Panzner) steals the car, identity, and plane ticket to Australia of traveling businessman Heinrich E. Hertz (Horst-Gunter Marx). At a remote gas station, Marek bonds with Margot (Tamara Simunovic), a disconsolate attendant with an artificial leg and a cache of disturbing flashbacks. When he poses as the businessman at a nearby cafe, Marek discovers that Hertz is a con artist who’s none too popular in town. He then heads back to the gas station for a Wild East standoff, complete with the slide-guitar score that often denotes rusticity in American flicks. Nathalie Steinbart’s film is an amusing genre exercise, nothing more than that.

The series closes with Berlin Babylon (Jan. 24), a poetic documentary about the massive post-reunification rebuilding of Berlin that presents the likes of Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, and I.M. Pei as conquering heroes. If you don’t know those names, you’ll probably be lost, because director Hubertus Siegert doesn’t provide much background aside from archival footage of World War II destruction and the end of the Berlin Wall. Savvy urbanists, however, can groove to the aerial tracking shots of the city and the Einsturzende Neubauten score.

Also included in the series are A Goddamn Job (Jan. 19), a fantasy about a comic artist who encounters a demigod who needs to find a replacement before his imminent retirement; Black Box Germany (Jan. 19), a documentary that intertwines the lives of a banker and a revolutionary who were both affected by Germany’s political tumult in the ’70s and ’80s; and Moonlight Tariff (Jan. 23), the tale of a love-struck photographer described (favorably, I think) as a German Bridget Jones. CP