Thinking big in West Germany: Wagner and Fassbinder
Two of this season's most imposing movies hail from West Germany, where filmmakers have certainly been thinking big lately. Parsifal is a lavish screen version of Wagner's last opera, directed by Hans Jurgen Syberberg, who is best known for the massive historical study ''Our Hitler - A Film From Germany.''
Though it runs about 4 1/2 hours, ''Parsifal'' is a quickie compared with Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 15-hour epic by the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Made for German and Italian television, this drama is being presented to Americans as a theatrical film - with more than one sitting required, needless to say.
Both pictures are demanding experiences, asking uncommon investments of time and concentration from the viewer. And both pay handsome rewards, though of very different kinds.
Syberberg was the world's most Wagnerian filmmaker long before he began putting ''Parsifal'' on celluloid - with his passion for history and myth, his radical approach to narrative, and even his fondness for slow, contemplative pacing. So it's not surprising to find ''Parsifal'' a fully realized work on every level, a rare example of successfully filmed opera and a dazzling movie in its own right.
This is not to say that Syberberg has vanquished the problems inherent in filming opera. Like virtually all others who have tackled that challenge, he has ''post-synchronized'' the music, matching the on-screen performances with voices recorded earlier in a studio. This solves some daunting technical problems but raises serious aesthetic questions. It overlooks the fact that sound has a relation to its source. It also ignores the natural kinship between a performer's voice and appearance - splitting sound and image into separate ''tracks'' that are synthetically (and never quite perfectly) reunited in the editing room.
This said, it's remarkable how secondary Syberberg makes such considerations seem. The post-syncing has been done with great care, and in many cases the voices are well suited to the faces that accompany them. More important, Syberberg's dense visual style is an ideal correlative for the lush Wagner score. The camera's long tracking shots and visual grace notes are of a piece with the music they serve - whether illustrating, reinforcing, or commenting on Wagner's timeless conceptions.
There are problems, to be sure. A few moments of nudity may put the film off limits for some viewers. Syberberg's dramaturgy goes off the deep end at times, as when Kundry ludicrously drags herself from a messy pond in an early scene, and some of the decor is closer to silly than sublime. Also, some of the on-screen faces are completely at odds with the voices that seem to emerge from them - including one of the two performers who share the title role.
But such lapses are not hard to forgive in a work that triumphs, visually and musically, so much of the time. Syberberg mannerisms that seemed arch or pretentious in his films on Hitler and Ludwig of Bavaria - long facial close-ups , intrusive rear-screen projections, puppets - are energized and redeemed by the fabulous artifice of the Wagner score, the enduring Parsifal myth, the excellence of the singing and playing.
Speaking before the picture's regular American premiere at Lincoln Center in New York, director Syberberg said he was happy his name would no longer ''be always connected with Hitler'' and that he hoped he would be seen as doing ''something good'' for his country. He has indeed, and in the most Wagnerian way: by combining myth, tradition, history, ideology, and technology into a seamless and invigorating artistic experience. His collaborators include Edith Clever, Armin Jordan, and Martin Sperr on-screen; Yvonne Minton, Wolfgang Schone , and Hans Tschammer on the sound track; and Robert Lloyd, both acting and singing. Armin Jordan is the conductor, with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic and the Philharmonic Choir of Prague. Igor Luther did the luminous cinematography. Looking to the present
Fassbinder's work rests on a foundation very different from Syberberg's - looking more to the present than the past, seeking more to provoke than to analyze. During his brief but hectic career, he made dozens of movies that baited the bourgeoisie, tweaked pompous noses, and sang the underdog's despair. Though he rarely achieved the precise balance he sought - of irony, melodrama, and real emotion - his last films showed him clearly on the way to becoming a true artist rather a mere prodigy.
''Berlin Alexan-derplatz,'' made near the end of his life, translates one of Fassbinder's favorite novels into 13 episodes and a long epilogue, totaling about 15 hours. Seen in two sittings, it is a grueling but unprecedented experience, taking the viewer through a universe of incidents and emotions ranging from the transcendent to - more often - the harrowing and even horrible. Shown recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it is due soon for limited engagements in a number of American cities.
The main character is a small-time thug named Franz, just out of prison after killing his girlfriend. He vows to go straight and pick up the pieces of his life, which is none too easy, given the slimy personalities and invisible morals of his low-life friends. But somehow he survives and keeps a shred of dignity intact, which Fassbinder evidently sees as a triumph of sorts, however petty and haphazardly arrived at.
The momentum of the film comes mainly from Fassbinder's visual style, which has never been more fluid and consistent - and this over the course of 13 hours, until the epilogue lapses into dull and rambling ruminations. Another key element is the astonishing performance of Gunter Lamprecht as Franz, one of the most sustained and exhaustive portraits ever captured on film. Also in the cast, and at the peaks of their powers, are such Fassbinder veterans as Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira, and Barbara Sukowa. The camera work, in 16 mm, is by Xaver Schwartzenberger.
It's obvious that ''Berlin Alexanderplatz'' is not for everyone, if only because of its length and its sometimes hair-raising episodes. Yet it has a power and stature that are inescapable. Referring to the novel he adapted to make the film, Fassbinder has admitted ''it seems nothing but a dime novel,'' but attributed its ''quality of greatness'' to the fact that ''ordinary people are allowed to have the minute and simple emotions, longings, moments of happiness, satisfactions, pains, and fears'' which are often reserved for the privileged few in art. The same goes for his own movie. For better or worse - and probably both - it's a prodigious achievement, and leagues ahead of Fassbinder's other current release, ''Bolwieser,'' a richly filmed but drearily plotted tale of infatuation and infidelity. Filmdom's Busy Bs
Filmmakers often begin their careers by making 16-mm movies, graduating later to the more expensive 35-mm gauge. Scott B and Beth B went a step further, working for several years in the ''super-eight'' format usually reserved for home movies. Now they have made the jump to 16-mm with a melodrama called Vortex. It premiered at last year's New York Film Festival, and is now due for commercial release.
With its ''punk'' look, petulant performances, and rough language, ''Vortex'' resembles earlier B movies shot from the hip in the streets and lofts of New York City. The plot concerns a woman private eye, played with a permanent pout by rock singer Lydia Lunch, who gets involved with corporate skulduggery. Other story elements include a coveted defense contract, a series of murders, something called a ''beam field weapon,'' and a Howard Hughes clone who spends his life in a sealed room.
Since the B team is not very interested in taste or polish, ''Vortex'' consists largely of rough edges and chopped logic, with occasional detours into halfhearted sex and violence. Yet the film has a distinctive look and tempo that are impressive considering the modesty of its means; and it clearly reflects the B preoccupation with ''power relationships,'' a theme that has run through all their films from the science-fictional ''Black Box'' to the quasi-documentary ''Letters to Dad.'' Neither they nor ''Vortex'' will appeal to many tastes. But they have established a solid beachhead for their ''new wave'' style in the established movie world. There's even a ''Vortex'' sound track album on the Neutral label, reflecting the same B moods and values in a rock-'n-roll setting. Filming dangerously
Two new Australian films have hit the international circuit.
The Year of Living Dangerously comes from Peter Weir, whose earlier films - especially ''The Last Wave'' and ''Gallipoli'' - established him as one of the most capable and original directors on the current scene. While his new one doesn't measure up to that high standard, it's still one of the season's strongest dramas.
Mel Gibson, the good-looking star of ''Gallipoli'' and ''The Road Warrior,'' plays an Australian journalist arriving in Indonesia for his first big assignment. And quite an assignment it is, to cover President Sukarno's government as it performs an improbable (and doomed) balancing act between communist activists on the left and Muslim reactionaries on the right.
Taking up his new job, the young reporter befriends a strange and compelling character: a mysterious little man named Billy, half Australian and half Chinese , who works as a news photographer and has surprising connections with the Indonesian political structure.
Billy becomes mentor and nemesis to our hero, leading him through the labyrinths of power while instructing him in the country's myth and history. He seems to have his own purposes in mind - he keeps files on all his acquaintances , and regards himself as a kind of puppet master to them - but it's hard to pin down him or his motives. To the main character, and to us in the audience, he serves as a guide to Indonesia's hidden realities, and a measure of how elusive those realities must be.
The movie also includes a humdrum love story that's not nearly as fresh or provocative as the Billy scenes. But even this is redeemed by Weir's economical treatment, which develops the romance almost brusquely, with few wasted scenes. And it's this affair that leads to the key moral dilemma of the film, when the hero must choose whether to pursue his career blindly - releasing a crucial news story although this would mean betraying a friend - or subordinating his ''work ethic'' to more subjective and less practical values. A hard choice, and one that must be made consciously and openly.
As the plot moves toward its climax, Weir puts more stress on story values than on the subtexts of Asian culture and Indonesian society. Still, all the strands of the film come together when the tale reaches its curiously amoral resolution, which subtly evokes Billy's thesis that Asian world-views are essentially more relativistic than those of the Western world. Since the film's conclusion seems to have been determined as much by philosophy as by dramaturgy, it seems a bit hollow as narrative. Yet a dip at the end seems a reasonable price to pay for a film that succeeds so well in toto.
As usual in a Weir film, the performances are convincing all the way. But special credit must go to American actress Linda Hunt, who plays the diminutive Billy with such skill and conviction that there's never the slightest hint of camp or perversity to her work. She was simply the right person for the part, and you might never guess it was a woman in this role, if you didn't already know. Other good portrayals come from Sigourney Weaver and Michael Murphy. The film's rating is R, presumably for a handful of of vulgar words and a few explicit images of Indonesian social and physical misery. Energetic package
The other new Australian export, The Man From Snowy River, is a riotous compendium of cliches, conventions, and stale situations, all tied into a prettily photographed and surprisingly energetic package by director George Miller.
Aside from the down-under setting, it's a standard western, with Kirk Douglas as a self-made rancher who's determined to protect his feisty daughter from romance with a handsome new hired man. There are lots of horses, cows, dangerous deeds, and lovely vistas. Douglas even plays a dual role, doubling as his long-lost brother, a sort of Gabby Hayes among the kangaroos.
It's kind of fun, and Australians apparently love it, buying enough tickets to make it their country's all-time champ at the box office. But anybody much older than ''Star Wars'' - the movie that definitively replaced horses and six-shooters with rockets and ray guns - has seen it all a million times before.