“The Architects” and a few others (3 cents)

1. “Die Arkitekten” (“The Architects”) was the second of the Wende series being shown at the Goethe Institute in Washington. I was enthralled by the film, and thought that the full house (only about 100) was, as well, until I heard some tittering at some of the egregiously bureaucratic responses of some of the East German Communist officials. I could not be sure if the titterers were tittering because they thought the entire movie was a bit too schmaltzy.

And it is, somewhat. But I had no problem overlooking that as I watched the film’s central character, a 38 year old architect in East Berlin in the 1980s, who had been a star student and went to work for a public design agency, where he languished, having designed nothing but a few bus stops and trash pickup centers. Yet he is ahead of the rest of his class, most of whom have left the profession entirely.

To make a long plot short, he is tapped by the agency head to lead a major project, a town center to include housing, retail, office space, entertainment venues (theaters and sports facilities), public art and gardens, and just about everything else. He takes on the major responsibility on one condition: that he can choose his own team, and he does (those classmates no longer in the field), and they work like hell, win a competition and then have to face the reality of the GDR budget cutters, manufacturing sector planners, and party ideologists. Their plans are cut, and changed, and then the project is canceled.

In the meantime, our hero is having another sort of problem. Living in a suburban high rise development with his physical therapist wife and his daughter (maybe 11 or so), he has to face the fact that his wife is bored with her life, jealous of his “second family” at work, and ready to flee, which she decides to do (with her daughter) into the arms of an old friend from Switzerland.

So, the architect is losing everything, all at once. How does it all end? Not great. Wife and daughter leave the GDR, our lonely hero is comforted by a woman on his “team” who is a single mother with a young son (a substitute, yes, but clearly not what he was looking for out of life), and the project is reinstated, albeit with some new (yet undefined) conditions. It is too much for our friend, however; he declines any further participation, is going to (after the film is over) resign his job and go to work with an old architect/friend who has been designing the restoration of historic churches and monuments.

What they don’t know, of course, is that the Berlin wall will be torn down within the year and the two Germanys united within another five. Success may find him, after all.

I thought the film showed real emotions by and large connected with personal relationships of various kinds, all of which were believable. If indeed the public officials were a bit stereotypical, my guess is that that is just the way that they were. An added plus for the movie: it is a film about architecture, and you see East Berlin in a way that I have never seen it. You are on foot, looking out of windows, driving the streets and freeways. I have been in East Berlin twice: in 1962, one year after the wall went up, when it was very stark and very depressing, and again in 2006, after it had seamlessly been integrated with West Berlin into one great city. What I saw in this film was quite different from either.

2. On DVD, I watched “Cleo from Five to Seven”, a 1962 French film about a young Parisian singer (the actress was 25) who has a suspicious medical finding that requires a biopsy. She is to speak with the physician in two hours to get the results. The film covers those two hours, when she is filled with dread. Her maid, her taxi driver, her older male patron/lover, her new acquaintance in the park, the coffee shop, the hat shop, her flat.

This is not a great movie, and parts of it dragged for me, but I loved seeing Paris in 1962 because, as I was in Berlin that year, so was I in Paris and, in fact, I was there is June, the month of the movie. I had hoped that I would see myself as an extra, but I guess they cut those scenes out.

Oh, and how does it end? Sort of indeterminately. Cleo has a quick conversation with her doctor. She is told “not to worry too much”, that she should be fine after about two months of treatment. Who knows what that means……

3. The third film was “The Four Feathers”, a 1939 film about Kitchener in Khartoum, recommended by friends and not the kind of movie I usually watch at all. The British are about to send a battalion to the Sudan to avenge the loss of Khartoum by General Gordon. Faversham, the third generation of officers in his family, refuses to go and resigns his commission, losing his fiance (the daughter of a general) in the process. He finds he cannot live with his decision, goes to the Sudan as a civilian, disguised as an Arab whose tongue has been cut out and who has been branded on his forehead, to see if he can help, and in fact he saves the British Empire (not to mention, his rival for his fiance’s affections, who has been blinded due to sunstroke) and returns home a hero and once again in everyone’s good graces.

A remake of the film was released within the passed 5 years or so, but its quality is apparently not up to 1939 standards. Well, 1939 was a big year: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and all. But even without these, I am not sure if The Four Feathers would be widely remembered.

4. Hilary and Jackie, made about ten years ago, about the tragic life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, and her relationships with her sister, her parents, her brother in law, her husband Daniel Barenboim, her cello, and her fatal illness. Based on a memoir written by her sister Hilary, a flautist turned country housewife/mother, who relationship with her younger sister was complex to say the least, there are many things in it that are quite controversial within family circles.

Is the memoir honest or not, or was it just one more part of the long (and sometimes unconscious) rivalry between the two sisters? It is hard to say.

The movie is also very painful, dealing with Du Pre’s illness. I didn’t really need to see that – at least with Cleo, we have hope that she is going to be cured without significant trauma. And Barenboim dose not come across too well, either. As he apparently said about the movie: Couldn’t they have waited until I was dead?

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