Leaving Room for Miracles

German director Doris Dörrie makes the temporal political--and vice versa

Picture a not-insincere film about two German men chasing spiritual illumination in Japan. Then imagine that their Zen awakening is presented via a sardonic gender-role bait-and-switch. Under German director Doris Dörrie's light hand, the conflict between philosophies of detachment and social action falls apart, laughing ruefully. Beauty and ugliness, awe and accountability exist within people spontaneously, according to Enlightenment Guaranteed, the filmmaker's latest feature and one of seven screening this month during Walker Art Center's "Straight Through the Heart: A Doris Dörrie Retrospective" (which includes a dialogue with the filmmaker on July 15 at 8:00 p.m.). For 18 years the filmmaker and writer has made a practice of describing the absurd human heart, finding it always more comic and less unique than it wants to believe.

Which is not to say that Dörrie's comedies are neither unique nor serious. Or that they are "comedies" in the usual sense. Three of her first four features end with a death rather than a wedding. Her debut feature, released in 1983 when she was 28, follows a blue-haired young woman as she swoons for the aloof dentist who has purchased her companionship. Straight Through the Heart (screening Saturday at 7:00 p.m.) then observes the once-rebellious Anna (Beate Jensen) disappearing into a cultural fantasy of romance; love doesn't uplift here, it erases. The film, like those to follow, is a tightly focused chamber drama with sociological implications. "The private level always reflects the political situation," said the director in 1986. "That's why I'm interested in it."

So much beauty, so little time: Maria Schrader and Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss in Doris Dörrie's Nobody Loves Me
So much beauty, so little time: Maria Schrader and Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss in Doris Dörrie's Nobody Loves Me

If Dörrie's subjects have tended to be as domestic and relational as her contemporary Werner Herzog's have been expansive and isolate, she shouldn't be seen as any less interested in the public world; indeed, perhaps she has been more so. Dörrie began her career in film making documentaries for German television, and has continued to film them sporadically. There is a documentary feel to her fiction, as if she is looking for exemplary lives: people who represent more than themselves, and yet are themselves completely. Her blue-haired Anna is every girl who has ever clung so tight to romance that she loses herself; she's also a mouthy, working-class waif who draws police outlines around
her prone body and commits murder by hair dryer.

The comedy rises up from both the weirdness and the recognition. Dörrie's third and most popular feature, Men... (Thursday, July 27 at 7:00 p.m.), envisions a love triangle where the liveliest energy sparks between two heterosexual men competing for a woman. The same situation unfolds in plenty of American buddy movies, of course, but Dörrie piles on cheeky symbolism--including a knife intended as a murder weapon accidentally pressed by one man into the other's thigh--until the tradition becomes problematical. What's the prize in this contest? What's the contest? The phallic knife and a well-used gorilla mask aside, the most absurd part of Men... is that it doesn't matter who gets the girl. And that's the part, too, that feels the most familiar.

The 1985 film sets up a face-off between a prosperous advertising executive and an arty hippie holdout, and sniffs out--presciently--the same luxury-loving boomer beneath either set of clothes. The two men's arguments on corporate conformity versus creative freedom may sound from the Stone Age today (now that we all conform to corporate notions of creative freedom--an "advance" hinted at by Men...). And their (Dörrie's?) reductive generalizations of the sexes--"A man is what he does; a woman is what she is"--come off as less provocative than tired. But it's still startling to see these two men mirroring attitudes and behavior for each other in a kind of closed system, where a woman is more of a Lambourghini than she is
an actor.

Dörrie reconfigured Men...'s love triangle for two women and a man in her next movie, Paradise (Thursday, July 20 at 7:00 p.m.), which is more of a romantic tragicomedy (and a true romance?). The contested love object here, Viktor (Heiner Lauterbach, who played the ad exec in Men...), claims his own desires for a time, but he becomes a dollboy in the end. His wife Angelika (Sunnyi Melles) decides her faithful, boring husband needs an affair to perk him up, so she sends him to a newly rediscovered childhood friend, Lotte (Katharina Thalbach). Angelika, per her name, is blond, clean, and elevated (economically), while Lotte is short and dark, earthy and poor. Viktor falls deep. Lotte retreats, because she's used to being denied. Then she stops retreating.

A schematic film, Paradise can feel mulishly inevitable once the viewer catches onto its central vision: Angelika/Lotte as virgin/whore, light/dark, estranged halves of one self separated--by sexist custom and culture--at birth. Another product of its time, the movie is suffused with the sense of the returning female id prominent in late-Eighties music by Frightwig, Babes in Toyland, and L7. There's little celebratory rush here, though. This plodding Paradise would resemble a lesser PJ Harvey song if not for the excellent acting--and those disorienting Dörrie details: Lotte's backward walk therapy, Angelika's drunken attempt at a striptease, Viktor's pet lizards. Any leftover tedium is redeemed with one shot near the bloody finish: a closeup of Viktor's freaky confusion as he struggles to recognize his merging lovers.

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