Does it matter where a movie's made these days?

Though film is an international language, mannerisms vary from place to place. A close look will often give strong clues about where a movie hails from.

That's a good argument in favor of regional filmmaking, which is blossoming in places from Pittsburgh to Marin County. Meanwhile, the gap between New York and Hollywood movies has grown as wide as the gulf between humanism and technocracy -- the East Coast emphasizing people and places, the West Coast stressing the weird and the wonderful. In a recent Film Comment interview, George Lucas was the latest to point this out.

On the global level, many critics used to assume that Europeans had the edge on the "art," while Americans were best at "entertainment" movies. That was always a dubious idea, and by now "coproductions" have blurred all sorts of national and continental boundaries. Still, vestiges of difference remain, tagging one picture with Old World sophistication and another with New World energy and speed. Labels persist, even when it turns out that the filmmaker, the studio, and the crew come from very different corners of the world.

So places of origin still matter in the movies, especially when the subject is specifically ethnic or historical. For instance, two new pictures deal with the Nazi menace during World War II. One, called "Victory," is emphatically American, even though it was directed by that grand old Irishman, John Huston. The other, "Lili Marleen," has more bite, more irony, more involvement. It was made in West Germany by the prolific and very earnest Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

What makes "Victory" such an American movie? It positively wallows in the old Hollywood traditions, where entertainment ism the only art.The characters are one-dimensional at best, and the climax is so hokey you want to hoot. But isn't that what we're here for -- to have a good time, and hoot our heads off, if it comes to that? This is a fun movie, you see, and when it comes to fun, Hollywood knows little shame. Even the Nazis have a twinkle in their eyes: See how delighted Max Von Sydow looks when the good guys finally win, even though he's supposed to be on the other side?

That's why "Victory" is so diverting: "Nothing is real," to quote an old John Lennon song.The plot involves a prisoner-of-war camp where the Nazis organize a soccer game against the Allies, who seize the opportunity for a mass escape. But the Nazis are so wooden they couldn't scare a schoolchild, and even the captives admit their camp is pretty comfy as such places go. When pain does intrude for a moment (a killing or a brief injury scene), it seems shockingly out of place. All the film feels we care about is the mad rush of the story toward the Big Game and the Great Escape. Since that's exactly what the movie delivers, 90 percent of the time, it's a satisfying experience -- though a foolish one, as you realize if you accidentally switch on your brain for a moment.

"Lili Marleen" also mixes Nazi bosses with a popular phenomenon -- not a sport this time, but a song that was widely favored during World War II.The film traces the song's history via a fictional character, a chanteuse who becomes a Dietrich-like star while pursuing parallel friendships with Jewish resisters and Nazi bigwigs alike.

Much of the way "Lili Marleen" looks like a slightly demented Hollywood epic. Its images are extravagant, its music is lush, its scope is vast. Indeed, it has been criticized as too commercial, though this makes sense only in the context of Fassbinder's other features, which tend to be a dreary lot.

Where "Lili Marleen" goes beyond Hollywood is in its eccentricity -- no mere quirkiness, but a passionate peculiarity that reveals depths of feeling and ambiguity just below the shimmering surface. This is not the product of a professional entertainer. It's the work of an artist who feelsm the forces of history as he shapes them into the stuff of song and story.

For all its feeling, "Lili Marleen" is a badly flawed film. The plot moves by fits and starts, the performances are uneven, and Fassbinder often reaches for the immediate effect rather than the lasting reverberation. Yet even these weaknesses seem to stem from the ambivalence of the filmmaker -- a young German who is still coming to terms, through art, with his country's history.

That process is the most revealing and fascinating aspect of Fassbinder's new film, as of his previous hit, "The Marriage of Maria Braun." Slowly, painfully, this oddly gifted director is combining his own national awareness with his favorite devices of melodrama, irony, and real emotion. He may never find the ideal combination, but it's quite an experience to watch him try.

For another instance of differences between European and American films, there are two new movies on the subject of family life. "Heart to Heart" is enormously French, while "Endless Love" is as Hollywooden as can be, even if the director is Franco Zeffirelli.

"Heart to Heart" was made in France by Pascal Thomas. Is there a law that every French director must make at least one film about youth? Is there a law that every French citizenm must make at least one film about youth? Sometimes it seems that way, as France pours forth an endless flow of nostalgic recollections -- including a few by Mr. Thomas, who always mixes a leavening humor into his bittersweet brews.

"Heart to Heart" is about a family of three daughters, a mom, and a dad. Their misfortune is that one of the daughters become pregnant before they get married, which causes lots of woe, including some that's not easily mended. But everybody loves everybody, and all the characters muddle through somehow.

There's no profundity here, but there is much sturdy affection, and we get a good sense of what holds even an oddball family like this together. In any case , the easygoing relations are as identifiably French (or at least movie- French) as anything in "Cousin, Cousine," "The 400 Blows," "Zero Pour Conduit," or a thousand other backward glances from French directors who can't forget the good old days.

There's little European about "Endless Love," which reflects Universal Pictures a lot more than the native Italy of director Zeffirelli. You may have seen the regrettable "coming attractions" for this picture, giving away most of the plot in surprisingly explicit terms. Brooke Shields plays a 15-year-old who falls in love with a slightly older boy. When her parents try to "protect" her, he burns their house down. A couple of years later, his presence precipitates an accident that kills her father. Her remaining relatives are understandably upset. But her love holds strong, and in the end she's faithful, even though he's locked up in jail for who-knows-how-long.

Zeffirelli regarded his last movie. "The Champ," as a parable of Christian love and sacrifice. No doubt he sees "Endless Love" as a similar allegory, in which love is stronger than anything else, and flourishes when outward events are at their darkest. Indeed, the implicitly mystical ending is the same that Paul Schrader used in "American Gigolo," and Robert Bresson used in "Pickpocket" before that.

Bresson, Schrader, and Zeffirelli are all serious men. But alone of the three, Zeffirelli allows his "deeper meanings" to be completely sabotaged by erotic exploitation and embarrassingly bad storytelling. The plot makes almost no sense: Motivations are lacking, there are coincidences that would have shamed Dickens, and it gets worse when characters say things like "Do you think this is just a coincidence?"m The images are lavish, but there's nothing behind them except some flabby philosophizing and thinly disguised capitalization on the comely appearance of Miss Shields.

Whatever its director had in mind, this is an exploitation picture -- no less than the last vapid vehicle for Miss Shields, "The Blue Lagoon." As such, it represents Hollywood at its worst.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.