Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Berlinale: Panelstory

Director Vera Chytilova, left, and her interpreter; photo by Val Phoenix
Full title: Panelstory aneb jak se rodi sidliste (Prefab Story). This astounding film was made by Vera Chytilova in 1979 and showed as part of the Berlinale strand Filme Vorboten der Wende, which includes Soviet, Bulgarian, Polish and East and West German films, as well as this Czechoslovak entry.

Chytilova was part of the Czech New Wave and endured her share of troubles with the authorities. A rare woman in a male scene, she had a distinctive vision that still seems fresh and modern.

The opening title sequence alone is mind-blowing, as a taxi driver tries to find an address on a giant housing estate in which all the buildings look the same, and he is told to find the number by the colourful laundry on the balcony. The estate is under construction and the cranes and rollers impede his progress. As various residents pick their way through the muddy paths, it becomes clear that the building of a socialist paradise has come unstuck, and that the project is crumbling as quickly as it is being built.

Chytilova's handling of the multitude of characters--an array of workers, housewives, errant children and corrupt officials--is as sure-footed as her eye for a shot. A series of absurd situations is intercut with shots of the cranes lifting the various panels of the building into place. Nothing works and everyone is on the make--a brilliant metaphor for society.

Earlier in the week, Chytilova sat on a panel (see pic; she's on the left) discussing the theme of films that appear to pre-sage the end of state socialism. She spoke of her run-ins with the government and the various strictures in place. Unfortunately, this panel, as with her remarks at the film screening, was not translated to English and I understood little. This is curious, as the subtitles for the film were in English. I asked the moderator about this oddity and he explained it was to do with "Grenzen" and "Logisten". Perhaps appropriate, considering the subject matter.

Happily, Chytilova, a small woman wearing Yoko-type glasses and clearly made of stern stuff, is still working. She has two films underway, one of them about men and women. So, still critiquing the state of things.

This year, Berlin is celebrating 20 years since the end of the Wall. On Potsdamer Platz, where the wall used to stand, is a strange-looking structure, a combination of viewing platform (to see what?) and exhibit about the peaceful revolution. Polls suggest that a large percentage of Germans remains unsatisfied with reunification and that easterners, in particular, feel let down. One wonders if in 10 years' time there will be a slew of films on 30 years of unfulfilled promises.

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