Friday, February 25, 2011

What to Do in Case of Fire

Times change, alas, and with the times, so change the people we know. That's inevitable, I guess. When we're kids, despite the problems caused by our overactive hormones and the depths of the blues when things go wrong, we have the greatest highs when we're doing what we enjoy. We enjoy most what we do with our good friends, and who thinks of the consequences of destructive acts at that age? In Gregory Schnitzler's "What To Do in Case of Fire?" ("Was tun, wenn brennet" in the more succinct German title) paced almost throughout its 101 minutes like a bullet train going from Tokyo to Kyoto four men and two women in various walks of life in Berlin get together after a fifteen-year absence, just like the folks in John Sayles's "Return of the Secaucus Seven" (which was about a weekend reunion of good friends who shared the 60s radical college life and have since gone in different directions). The difference is that while their coming together is a source of both ecstasy and fear, their meeting is a forced one, made necessary because they stand to be charged and arrested with a crime resulting from an action they performed ten years previously.
With the energy that made Tom Tykwer's 1998 German feature "Run Lola Run" a favorite of a larger audience than the usual art house crowd, director Schnitzler takes us to the Berlin of the current year with feverish flashbacks to that city in 1987. He opens with some clips of a home movie showing young anarchists fighting with the police, a scene reminiscent of the late 1960s in the United States when radicalized college students substituted street-fighting for panty-raids. While the Americans, in groups like Students for a Democratic Society, were presumably out to change the U.S. government, specifically to get us out of the Vietnam involvement, the German anarchists of the eighties were said to be interested in making this a better world but what comes across is that they were desperate just to survive at a time that the job situation was tight, they had no money, and they simply did not want to live the bourgeois lives of their parents. Time has a way of changing people's minds, though: as the expression goes, "When I was sixteen, my father knew nothing. I'm surprised at how much he's learned in the last ten years."
But not all the people of an anarchist bunch called Group 36 became embourgeoisfied. Tim (Til Schweiger), Hotte (Martin Feifel), Maik (Sebastian Bloomberg), Nele (Nadja Uhl), Terror (Matthias Matschke) and Flo (Doris Schretzmayer) were all anarchists during the Berlin eighties, living as squatters in abandoned buildings and being regularly pursued by police who wanted to evict them and perhaps send these squatters to work camps. A decade or so later, only the handsome and charismatic Tim and the now wheelchair-bound Hotte remain true to their beliefs, still living as squatters while evading attempts by their landlord to get them evicted. Their friends joined regular society; one as a public prosecutor, another as the prosperous owner of an ad agency, one woman as a single mother of two, another woman engaged to an upcoming yup. The routine of their lives changed when a bomb they planted in an abandoned mansion in 1987 exploded not at the time they planted it but fifteen years later (something like the lost nuclear weapon in "The Sum of All Fears") almost killing a real estate agent and a German undersecretary of state. Since there is no statute of limitations for attempted murder, the gang is pursued principally by a Javert-style, old-fashioned, determined cop, Manowksy (Klaus Kowitsch). The incriminating evidence? The amateur tape made by the anarchists as they planted the bomb now captured by the police and housed in the storage room of a fortress-like station for evidence. The goal of the newly united Group 36? To recover the film and destroy it.
The script, written by Stefan Dahnert and Anne Wild, is directed with such frenetic energy that director Schnitzler evokes the fury, the high spirits, the camaraderie of these anarchists for us in the audience. Schnitzler also succeeds in showing us what we have lost, even if we were not in the forefront of some political cause with our buddies years back. In return for our relative prosperity, we've lost our souls, this film appears to say. Laughter, genuine in youth's age, is now forced. Pleasure, such as that taken by Flo at her engagement party , is anything but spontaneous. We not only root for the gang of six to get away with their fifteen-year-old impulsive act: we root for Flo to throw over her bourgeois fianc‚ in favor of the virile Tim. We hope even that the bull of a cop, Manowsky who believes in the old-time rules of no press and zing-'em-with- warrants even if 350 such orders had to be ground out would be converted to the side of the anarchists.
German movies are no longer the heavy, humorless albeit wonderfully made--sagas of, say, a Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose "Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven" is also about exploitation and the impact of an industrialized society on the individual. Fassbinder's film is cynical, and the murder by a factory worker of the title character's husband is deadly serious. "What To Do in Case of Fire" is really marginal in its political statement, but more of an action-packed, funny, highly spirited buddy movie. What to do in case of fire? Let it burn, of course.

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