Leaving Room for Miracles

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

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."

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.  

So what does a director do after she has revealed masculinity and femininity as adjoining countries with no language in common but fatal clichés? She makes a movie about a talking penis, of course. Along with the Walker, I will graciously ignore Dörrie's sole American production, the 1988 Griffin Dunne "comedy" Me & Him (named for the Dunne character and his member). The director spent the next few years on two documentaries and the documentarylike Happy Birthday Turks (1990), a cutting portrait of German racism. She also began publishing short-story collections, which now number seven volumes and counting. When Dörrie returned to features in 1994, her filmmaking had changed--as had feminism. Both were becoming at once more inclusive and ambitious--informed by gay rights, cultures of color and class, and global economic critiques, along with those exhaustively unpacked primal sexual scenes starring the (white) female psyche. (And, yes, the latter were necessary.)

Dörrie's Nineties films are loose-limbed and droll, spiritual and sexy. I'm swimming against the critical tide, but I think they're her best. That opinion could be a function of gestalt, however: These movies ably capture and query the place where I am right now; and that's heady, a lot more so than looking back at where we were. What's absurd changes as the human heart does, and, despite all the Dr. Lauras, the heart does change. Nobody Loves Me (Saturday at 8:45 p.m.) begins with the video dating service taping of one Fanny Fink (Maria Schrader), a sad-eyed 29-year-old with a taste for skeleton earrings and basic black. After some shy demurrals, she faces the camera: "I wouldn't fall in love with me if I were you."

An airport security guard who lives in an apartment high-rise with not a few individualistic characters, Fanny is single and sorry about it. She buys self-esteem meditation tapes, but is also building a coffin in a "death appreciation" class. Then a chance meeting in her elevator with an African-German drag-queen psychic (who has less claim on one of those labels than the rest...probably) sends her chasing after the new building manager, an impotent yuppie misanthrope. That prediction fails (wonderfully), and so does Fanny's flickering will. The drag queen Orfeo (Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss) has his own problems, the least of which is money. Meanwhile, a dog lopes mysteriously through the high-rise halls, the residents face eviction, and the city is in Carnival.

Akin to a tender ass-kicking, Nobody Loves Me (1994) is the kind of romantic comedy Meg Ryan should make, where high romance is displaced in favor of compassion. Fanny is transformed by caring for Orfeo without considering the kickback; her coffin world breaks open and admits miracles--UFOs, a smidgen of faith, and a dancing community of like-minded misfits. Am I Beautiful? (Wednesday, July 12 at 7:00 p.m., screening along with a reading of Dörrie fiction introduced by the author) is sharper-edged and even better. As sprawling as Altman's Short Cuts, and likewise based on multiple short stories, the 1997 film shuffles from character to character: a vagabond woman playing at being mute and deaf, a man looping memory tapes of a finished affair, a widower carrying his wife's ashes, a woman in love with dieting. All of them lost.

Despite the constant flow, Dörrie tends a flame in each character, each scene. Two women--one grieving, one uncertain--wrestle a wedding dress in the back seat of a car. A cashmere sweater talks. A chef carves faces from potatoes and lets them shrivel. There is always the urgency of a clock ticking away--"How much time do you think you have to be happy?" cries a mother to her daughter. Then the film stops the clock with three striking and disparate rituals: a solitary burial, a wedding, and a penitents march in Spain. Each one looks silly and brave and awesomely bizarre: a step into the void. You don't need to know that Dörrie's husband and cinematographer Helge Weindler died during the filming (as recounted in the more prosaic 1996 doc One Last Glimpse, introduced by the director on Thursday, July 13 at 7:30 p.m.). The elegantly shot Am I Beautiful? plays like a prayer of love and loss.

It's not that these male characters do not mess up, or that the female ones are not loving what they should be. The old patterns continue, here and there--and change, here and there. Dörrie gives a quick boot where it's deserved: The piggy husband of Enlightenment Guaranteed (Friday, July 14 at 9:15 p.m.)--a man who fails to appreciate his wife's floor-scrubbing--is doomed to reach satori on his sudsy knees. But there's a sense in the current films that power hierarchies and gender-role idiocies are not all that right-thinking people should be concerned with. There is beauty in the world, these films say, and absurdly little time to open your heart to it. The funny thing--and the films know this, too--is that beauty's difficult to see when it's your job (and not a chosen spiritual practice) to keep the floor clean. Or when all you think about is accumulating possessions. What should take precedence: change (work) or beauty (love)? And the usual whimsical Dörrie answer: You can't have one without the other.  


"Straight Through the Heart: A Doris Dörrie Retrospective" starts Saturday at Walker Art Center and continues through July 27; (612) 375-7622.

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