Showing posts with label Cold War Berlin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cold War Berlin. Show all posts

11 January 2017

MIDNIGHT COP

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.  

24 June 2015

The Past Is Prologue

David Edgerley Gates


My pal Michael Davidson, who's a thriller writer - and, as it happens, a 30-year career CIA vet - said one of the things he likes about my Cold War stories is that they take him back to another place and time.  Berlin, and the Wall.

It got me thinking about why we like historicals, and why I like writing them.

I'm not talking so much about Mary Renault, say, and the Peloponnesian War, or Bernard Cornwell and Waterloo, as much as I like those writers and their books, but more recent history. In my case, the Placido Geist bounty hunter stories take place in the years just before America's entry into the First World War, and the Mickey Counihan stories just after WWII, the late 1940's. These are turning points. It's not in dispute that the Great War changed both the world and our worldview. Everything that comes after, in the 20th century, is foreshadowed by it. Total mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, targeting civilian populations. Mass trauma, in other words. And the late 1940's see the atom bomb, jazz, Jackie Robinson in the Dodgers' dug-out, television, the Red Scare.

First off, we have the lure of historical irony. Major league baseball has been integrated for sixty years, the Soviet empire collapsed (sort of, anyway), and nobody smokes Chesterfields anymore. Back then, all of this was just around the corner. But the future, as John Crowley says, is at right angles to the present. In the moment, or at the time, none of it was even a glow on the horizon. 

Secondly, and related to the first, if you can immerse yourself in an era, not just the period detail, but a state of mind or a habit of thinking - because the past, in many ways, is a different country - it's liberating. This might seem counter-intuitive, since you can't avoid historical incident (the Titanic does, in fact, sink), but it actually gives you a lot of latitude. You have to work your way into it, you have to inhabit the landscape. It's like learning a foreign language. Once you've got the grammar down, you begin to pick up the idiom. And when it becomes familiar enough, you can think in that language, instead of stumbling through an awkward mental translation.

Third, and this comes back to Davidson's original remark, when I revisit Berlin, in that time, the landscape is entirely vivid, in my mind's eye. More importantly, I transport myself into an era - not simply a physical place, but a place with a specific density. Berlin, in the here and now, is only a template. I'm walking the streets of memory. But that place is so complete that I can stop worrying about the landmarks. I don't need to look at a map. It's all there in my peripheral vision, and the imagined city is more immediate to me than anywhere in the present day. You could call it my comfort zone. I'm not saying it was a simpler time, or that the world was any less dangerous, but it's almost like a parallel life, one I did in fact experience, only now I'm just a visitor.

We see the past through a lens, from the perspective of this day and age, and we think of it as a distant reflection of our own time, as if Beowulf, or Genghis Khan, had the same mindset we do, and accepted out agreed reality. Which is backwards. We're the reflection. We mirror the past, not the other way around. Beowulf is about as far removed from Shakespeare as he is from us, but the Elizabethan playwrights are still accessible to us, while Old English might as well be written in runes. (It more or less is, as I remember.) BEOWULF is still a rousing yarn, and so is
MACBETH. However. You can make out a shape, a continuity, in the literature, BEOWULF to Chaucer to Shakespeare, and it's a window into an older age of man. Of course, we see it with our own eyes. How not? The witches in MACBETH, for example, might in the modern reading be imagined as a projection of Macbeth's own ambition, preaching to the converted, but to an Elizabethan audience, they were simply evil spirits, manipulating a weak man, and they were real. Grendel's mom, to our mind, might be some earth-mother, the female principle made flesh, a threat to the male warrior mentality, just emerging into the Iron Age. But to a bunch of people in bearskins, sitting in a smoky room inside a stone barricade, somewhere up by Hadrian's Wall, she was a cannibal monster. The meta-drama doesn't play. The subtext is hindsight. These people understood a different reality. They were beset by genuine monsters, predators, Viking raiders, early death in childbirth, disease. To reduce their struggle, against a hostile environment, is to betray their trust, and our legacy.

History is just one damn thing after another. I forget who said that. Might have been Homer, for all I know.


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