David Edgerley Gates
We all have guilty pleasures we harbor unwavering affection for, in spite of their weaknesses. One of my favorite movies, for example, is RED DAWN - the 1984 release, written and directed by John Milius, not the gratuitous remake. Another is Danny Kaye's sublimely ridiculous THE COURT JESTER, which is quite possibly genius. And further down the list is MIDNIGHT COP, a German noir that gleefully peddles its own exploitive trashiness, but then through some inner alchemy finds transcendence. Not that I pretend to understand how this works, mind. It's flax into gold.
Couple of curiosities about the movie. The original title was KILLING BLUE, a literal translation of the German. When it came out on DVD, somebody in marketing obviously decided that was too enigmatic. And the DVD jacket headlines Morgan Fairchild, along with Michael York and Frank Stallone, which is somewhat misleading. The guy with the most screen time, the star of the picture, is Armin Mueller-Stahl, followed by Julia Kent. But back when, Armin wasn't a known quantity. Julia, a German actress with an Anglicized stage name, wrote the screenplay as well as co-starring. The director is Peter Patzak, with a list of credits going back thirty-five years. Let's just say that MIDNIGHT COP probably isn't a career personal best for any of them.
The plot's full of holes. The movie seems, even, to add up to less than the sum of its parts. The script sets up moments that work by themselves, but don't connect. The set pieces are well-managed, effectively blocked and shot, and then they evaporate. One thing doesn't lead to another. The character tropes are derivative, and annoying. Why does Armin Mueller-Stahl's cop, Inspector Glass, have to be so dismissive of his newly-assigned partner, because she's a girl? Yeah, the movie was made in 1988, but seriously. This was worn out then. And the whore with the heart of gold, Morgan Fairchild's part. She does okay with it, although it doesn't require Shakespearean chops, and of course Glass can't keep his hands off her, but SHARKY'S MACHINE it ain't. Oh, and lest I forget, it's a running joke that Glass has loose bowels. You get the idea. Too much that amounts to laziness. The real problem is that it's unconvincing.
The most promising relationship, dramatically, is between the two main guys, Armin's cop and Michael York's prosecutor, Karstens. They open the picture together, the two of them a little drunk, playing jazz in their underwear, Glass on trumpet and Karstens on sax, hazy early morning sunlight filtering through the windows, a train going by on the elevated tracks outside. It establishes a comfort zone. We expect it to be subverted, but the plot mechanics require Michael York's character to disintegrate, and by the time we get to the finish line, it's utterly laughable. We don't believe it for a second. (The climactic scene also involves smearing Morgan Fairchild in lard, or maybe Vicks VapoRub, which tells you something.) I think this is a missed opportunity. One of several, yes, but insult to injury. It's a critical failure of nerve. Reversing our expectations is fair enough, playing us false isn't. Aliens might as well have dropped out of the sky.
And yet. What is it that I find so compelling about this movie? Drugs, sex, blackmail. There's a certain sameness to it. It's not all that original. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a big plus. He makes Glass consistently interesting, even if the character isn't written. Doesn't seem like much, damning with faint praise. There's a feel to the picture, though. Shot on location, with four - count 'em, four - cinematographers credited, the visuals are surprisingly consistent. A lot of medium and long shots. Very little moving camera or zoom. Static set-ups, where figures enter and exit the existing frame. When they do use close-ups, it has a claustrophobic effect. But there's nothing flashy or self-conscious about the technique. It doesn't call attention to itself. By and large, interiors are lit bright and hard, so the surfaces are shiny, and exteriors are gauzier, or shot at greater distances. It always seems damp, outside. Fog, rainy streets, wet windshields. I don't remember it raining so much in Berlin. Here's another thing. There isn't a single shot of a landmark in the whole movie. There's no Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, no Memorial Church or Funkturm or the Wall. They have no bearing on the story. It's all back streets and nightclubs and industrial parks and subway stops, high-rent places off the Ku-damm, working-class neighborhoods like Steglitz. If you were a stranger to the town, you wouldn't know you were in Berlin. You're in on a secret.
I'm guessing that's it, or a big piece. Being in on the secret. Which could mean it's only me, or a select group. Not an elite, just people with a working knowledge of Berlin at a definite point in time. MIDNIGHT COP was made a year before the Wall came down. That makes it an artifact. The last shot of the picture, which lasts three or four minutes behind the closing credits, is a slow pan across the city skyline at dusk, with an aircraft on the horizon, coming in to land at Tempelhof or Tegel. You can perhaps make out the Europa-Center in the distance, the Mercedes logo at the top. It begins with with Armin playing the mouthpiece of his trumpet like a kazoo, and then segues into a tenor sax solo of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which for the Cold War generation is entirely emblematic of Berlin. I actually get teary watching that sequence. It's transporting, and transformative.