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Talk about high concept: A predominantly Jewish vocal troupe charms Germany with a repertoire that includes African-American songsjust as the up-and-coming National Socialists are preparing to banish both “decadence” and “primitivism.” The Harmonists is a great yarn, and its culture-clash main event is entirely true. The Comedian Harmonists (an English name that sounds stilted in English) really did become stars in Germany with an act that now seems eerily opposed to everything that was to come. As Germany headed for a technologically enhanced version of the Dark Ages, these guys made music that was sly, sophisticated, and casually internationalist.
The real story is actually even better than the one director Joseph Vilsmaier tells, although it may be unfair to judge The Harmonists from the Miramaxed version being released in the U.S. It’s been cut significantly, and I don’t know if the missing footage contains additional concert sequences, chilling auguries of Nazi rule, or just more of the fictional love triangle between Harmonist founders Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen) and Robert Biberti (Ben Becker) and pretty music-store clerk Erna Eggstein (Meret Becker) that was invented by scripter Klaus Richter. (The romantic complications certainly seem, however, to be intact.)
The film begins with a victorious 1927 performance by the slickly syncopated and engagingly playful singers, who mix American and German material but take their swing from the former. Then it flashes back to Frommermann’s original breakthrough, his first meeting with the swaggering Biberti, and the recruitment of the additional singers and pianist (Heino Ferch, Max Tidof, Heinrich Schafmeister, and Kai Wiesinger, who also appeared in Backbeat, another tale of a young band on the make in Germany). Success beckons, and soon the troupe members are heroes in the brothel where they used to rehearse. Their successes are frequently shadowed, however, by the taunts of anti-Semitic toughs. Soon, those toughs (or ones just like them) are running the government and suggesting that the Harmonists will have to be banned. Ultimately, the group splits, and some of the “Aryan” members show something less than nobility.
Like a less ironic Fassbinder, Vilsmaier is constructing his own history of 20th-century Germany. With the brilliantly choreographed if ideologically slippery Stalingrad, he allowed that World War II was hellfor German soldiers. His Brother of Sleep explored more fevered and mythic terrain, although on one level it was a German mountain film, an example of the genre where Leni Riefenstahl got her start. Of the three, The Harmonists is the most loaded with explosive potential, yet it’s also the blandest. Perhaps feeling a surfeit of post-unification bonhomie, Vilsmaier makes early-’30s Germany seem not especially ominous. (Generously, the director also tidies up American history, depicting a racially integrated U.S. Navy during the Harmonists’ 1934 New York visit.) When the Harmonists perform their last concertin Munich, no lessthey’re hailed with a standing ovation, over which can be heard Erna’s sobs. Triumph and tragedy, in an all-too-neat package.
The Harmonists’ celebration of its heroes’ eclectic style has too golden a glow for a movie that also features Brownshirts trashing the music store that is Harry’s spiritual home. If the film doesn’t have the bite the story requires, however, it’s nonetheless a fascinating footnote to darker accounts of the period. As for the messier real story, the D.C. Jewish Community Center will again be screening The Comedian Harmonists: The Documentary on March 28 at 1 p.m.
After both Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson and Carlos Saura’s Tango, it’s impossible not to notice that the tango is a dance of ferocious self-absorption. The Spanish director’s film isn’t as personal as Potter’s, but both feature a central character whose narcissism is overwhelmingand Tango’s Mario Suárez (Miguel Angel Solà) is macho to boot.
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Like Saura’s 1995 Flamenco, Tango is a tribute to a passionate, highly stylized form of music and dance. Unlike its nonnarrative predecessor, however, the new film intertwines Argentinian choreographer-director Mario’s story with numbers from his projected new show, in a gambit that suggests Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. If Saura’s film is less overweening than Fosse’s, it’s also less self-critical. The original blueprint for this sort of venture is Fellini’s self-doubting 8 1/2, but Saura’s director entertains no substantive misgiving.
Mario has hit bottom at the opening of the story, having lost permanently his wife, Laura (Cecilia Narova), and temporarily his ability to dance (because of a broken leg). Still, he thrives on conflict. When his backers ask Mario to create a new show that’s simple enough for an audience corrupted by TV, he instead creates elaborate dance pageants that represent Argentinian immigration and the horrors of the country’s military-junta period. Warned that beautiful young dancer Elena (Mia Maestro) is the lover of a vindictive mobster (who also owns 50 percent of Mario’s show), the director promptly begins an affair with her.
Actually, though, there’s no conflict here. The scenario pretends that Mario’s heedless stunts put him at risk, but they don’t. Any semblance of reality is lacking in the real-life side of this musical-within-a-film, in which gangsters never execute their threats and beautiful young dancers fall in love with the protagonist pretty much at his command. All Tango’s genuine action takes place on the dance floor, which is where Saura attempts to redeem his perfunctory script.
Working with Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin (who’s best known for the sublimated tango of the Mission Impossible theme), Saura offers a tour of the tango’s tightly constrained eroticism that uses devices both simple (silhouettes, vivid lighting, a fan) and complex (extensive casts and elaborate costumes, rear projections of newspaper headlines). In a sense, the result is a contemporary counterpart of Tango, the 1933 film that was the first talkie made in Argentina. (There’s a clip from the old film in the new one.) In those days, though, a celluloid music-and-dance revue was still a novel thing. For all its striking mood, color, and motion, the newer film offers fewer surprises. Tango aficionados should be transfixed, but those who expect life and art to converge may wish for some of Potter’s semiautobiographical vamping.
A man’s life hangs in the balance in True Crime, the latest film in which Clint Eastwood plays a crusty, misbehaving, but fundamentally noble reprobate in need of a little redemption. Oh yeah, there’s also a guy on death row at San Quentin who’s only 24 hours away from lethal injection.
As in such other ’90s Eastwood pictures as Absolute Power, In the Line of Fire, andmuch more memorablyUnforgiven, the actor-director plays an older man whose heroism is mostly a matter of self-overcoming. Oakland Tribune reporter Steve Everett is a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to rebuild his career even as he trashes his marriage to long-suffering Barbara (Diane Venora) with his compulsive philandering. The craggy Eastwood looks no more like a guy who’d still be toiling for the city desk than he does like Oakland’s leading babe magnet, but the scenario (adapted from Andrew Klavan’s novel by a diverse crew of veterans: Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, and Stephen Schiff) has him flirt with 23-year-old co-worker Michelle and bed the wife of his uptight editor, Bob Findley (Denis Leary). Both the women then disappear, the first one definitively. Michelle crashes her car fatally at a place called (honest) “Deadman’s Curve,” leaving Everett with her reportorial crusade: Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington), a born-again car mechanic who’s about to be executed for a murder he surely didn’t commit.
Findley doesn’t want Everett on this or any other story, but the reporter has the support of top editor Alan Mann (James Woods), who prompts the viewer by insisting that Everett “is as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with.” (Thus the movie doesn’t have to spend any more time establishing that Everett, who doesn’t even take notes at interviews, is an ace.) The tough-guy banter among Everett and his bosses is a major part of True Crime, and Woods clearly enjoys playing the kind of guy who unapologetically uses words like “cooze.”
The other subculture the movie portrays with some enthusiasm is death row itself. True Crime is a primer on lethal injection and the men who soberly (well, sometimes soberly) do their duty, dispatching the prisoners whose guilt is established elsewhere. The guards and the executioners are depicted as agnostic, in more than one sense of the word, so it’s fitting that the one of their number who doesn’t fit in is the overzealous jailhouse chaplain (unctuously portrayed by Spi¬nal Tapper Michael McKean).
Gruff as he is, Everett doesn’t much care either if Beachum is guilty. But his journalist’s “nose” tells him that “something stinks,” and he has less than 24 hours to deodorize California’s justice system. Here’s where True Crime begins to look like Divine Intervention, as Everett quickly finds his way in a case that defeated the police, the courts, and other reporters. (In one particularly hilarious moment, Michelle’s father just happens to hand Everett the notebook he needs to find a missing witness.) There’s never any question that Everett can crack the story; the suspense instead relies on his ability to conquer his own demons long enough to stay focused on the case. If Everett/Clint saves Beachum, it won’t be an example of crusading journalism so much as the offhand act of a benevolent demigod.CP