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My Best Fiend

and New Films from Germany

Jan. 14-23 at the American Film Institute

Difficult, unconventional, or simply inconvenient women have often been deemed mad. But when Susanna Kaysen arrived at Boston’s McLean Psychiatric Hospital—former home of Sylvia Plath and James Taylor—she wasn’t diagnosed as insane. She had a “borderline personality disorder,” which meant simply that it was 1967 and she was 18, was not a virgin, and didn’t want to go to college. Oh, and there was that matter of the halfhearted suicide attempt.

Such modest alienation hardly provides the makings for a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Kaysen’s much-loved memoir, Girl, Interrupted, is, in fact, neither dramatic nor exactly narrative. It’s a series of autobiographical remarks, written with distance and some bemusement 25 years after the author’s sojourn into the land of Thorazine.

Attempting a cinematic equivalent of the book’s structure would have yielded altogether too experimental a film for star (and executive producer) Winona Ryder. The compromise devised by director James Mangold and co-writers Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan is generally acceptable, although the book’s most fervent partisans will no doubt find the movie too conventional. After all, it does star Whoopi Goldberg.

Goldberg plays head nurse Valerie, a character that in the book is too slight to merit star treatment. But then all the characters—save Susanna—are slighter in the book than on the screen, even the disruptive Lisa, who’s proud of her diagnosis as a “sociopath.” The movie recasts observations and speculations as theatrical facts, most notably in the case of Daisy, a laxative junkie and potential suicide whose sufferings and fate are made melodramatically concrete to the tune of Skeeter Davis’ 1963 hit, “The End of the World.”

The film opens, however, with the strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” which seems appropriately upscale, understated, and late-’60s. Ambushed by a quietly imperious shrink, Susanna (Ryder) agrees to sign herself into the hospital—here called Claymoore—unaware that she will not be allowed to sign herself out. Delicate and delicately tormented, the mildly rebellious but fundamentally well-meaning Susanna is the archetypal Ryder role: Her wide eyes open even wider at the other patients, all of them more obviously disturbed than she. Susanna can become the lieutenant to the charismatically insubordinate Lisa (Angelina Jolie, also in a part that plays to her image) without ever becoming truly troublesome.

Aside from swallowing 50 aspirin, Susanna’s worst offenses are sexual: giving a blowjob to a visiting boyfriend, cuddling all night with a young maintenance man, confronting the wife of her middle-aged lover when they happen to meet at an ice-cream parlor near the hospital. In discussions with head shrink Dr. Wick—a character rendered more sympathetic for a flimsy Vanessa Redgrave cameo—Susanna puzzles out the misogynistic justification for labeling her “promiscuous,” in an analysis the real Susanna didn’t make until she got a copy of her hospital records years later.

Mangold—whose debut, Heavy, also featured suicidal depression and a waif, played by Ryder understudy Liv Tyler—can’t resist ready-made scenes from the women’s-prison and boarding-school genres: Susanna and Lisa break in to the hospital records, stage a daring escape, and have a final confrontation in a tunnel—none of which is derived from Kaysen’s account. Too schematically, Susanna must ultimately choose between Real Life and Lisa, who seems destined to spend her entire life at Claymoore. (In the book, Lisa’s fate is both milder and more ironic.)

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If Girl, Interrupted were really a late-’60s counterculture movie, Susanna would be allowed to make another choice. Still, as an evocation of the period and its discontents—”neuroses,” if you prefer—the film is mostly convincing. In retrospect, both chemical and analytical explanations for Kaysen’s mood seem overreaching. It was simply the time to go crazy, a moment of casual derangement that the movie’s subtler episodes crystallize evocatively.

As the raving presence at the center of such films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Klaus Kinski controlled the moment—but Werner Herzog had the final cut. So it goes again in My Best Fiend, an account of the director’s tumultuous relationship with the actor with whom no other sort of relationship was apparently possible. Assembled partially out of footage from the five films the two made together, the documentary charts the careers of two men who—if not literally insane—certainly have a penchant for overstatement.

For Herzog buffs, much of this material will be familiar. The director practiced some of his best lines about Kinski in 1996 at the National Gallery, where he introduced several films in a retrospective of his work. “Every single white hair on my head I call Kinski,” he said then, in a line that is essentially reproduced in the documentary. (After some reflection, “white” has become “gray.”) Still, even connoisseurs of Herzog and Kinski’s obstreperous alliance will probably learn a few things.

The director reveals that he first met Kinski at age 13, when both lived in the same Munich boarding house. There, he claims, Kinski once locked himself in a bathroom and howled for two days straight. (Since Herzog has obtrusively dubbed all the dialogue in his own contemporary scenes into English, the sequence where he returns to the now-gentrified building is confusing; it takes a few moments to realize that the apartment’s American-accented residents are actually German.)

The director also has unearthed footage of Kinski’s “Jesus tour,” when the actor traveled Germany baiting audiences with a fury that makes Sam Kinison look like Mr. Rogers. Such flashbacks are supplemented with outtakes from the duo’s collaborations and clips from Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about Herzog’s maddest folly, Fitzcarraldo. As Herzog must know, the Blank film does little to support the thesis that the director was significantly more stable than his star.

While they were shooting Fitzcarraldo, Herzog recalls, some of the Amazon-Indian extras came to him, astounded by Kinski’s behavior, and offered to kill the actor. Not one to be topped by a group of extras, Herzog also notes that he once seriously planned to firebomb Kinski’s house. When the actor died in 1991, however, it was of natural causes. He left behind an autobiography stuffed with curses at Herzog and a body of work that few would remember if not for the films they made together. Could the two be called, in the language of rec-room psychology, co-dependent? Well, Herzog hasn’t directed a fiction film since 1987’s Cobra Verde, his last collaboration with his best fiend.

Herzog’s reminiscence runs for the next 10 days at AFI, along with nine other recent films from Germany. The three I was able to preview are all well-made, but none have the juice of a Herzog-Kinski pairing.

Two of the films are period melodramas, and you can probably guess the period: In Rolf Schubel’s Gloomy Sunday, three Hungarians—a Jewish restaurateur, a beautiful waitress, and a moody pianist—experiment with a menage a trois while waiting for the Nazis to take full control of Budapest. In Ottokar Runze’s The Volcano, which was adapted from Klaus Mann’s novel, two sisters flee Germany during the early days of Nazi power, with one heading for Zurich and the other for Paris. The Volcano has more political resonance, yet is overly schematic; the characters merely represent a wide range of types. The plot of Gloomy Sunday is equally contrived, but the characters are more nuanced and engaging. Despite strong heroines, both seem rather old-fashioned, although Gloomy Sunday does contrast its Old World mode with an ironic (if obvious) contemporary kicker.

Much more contemporary—and, in its way, gloomier—is Florian Gartner’s Dragonland, in which a German expatriate returns home to bury his father. A video-game buff who’s become a successful game programmer in San Francisco, Johannes is happy to be known as “Johnny” and seemingly untouched by the death of his emotionally distant father (who embodies the irrelevant past by having been a history professor). Being back in Berlin, however, awakens old memories. This is a moody evocation of outsiderdom—cued by Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella—but Gartner’s depiction of Johnny’s buried past as a video-game scenario is corny, and the film’s promise of dark secrets is merely a tease. After Kinski’s luxuriant mania, Johnny’s low-key narcissism is about as stirring as a round of Pong. CP