Thanks to the reunification process, the former DDR was spared most of the “Wild East” lawlessness that some former Soviet satellites had to work through (and has since been institutionalized in Russia). Despite the orderliness of Germany’s transition, two East German women bandits could still be embraced as cult heroes in Peter Welz’s Burning Life, which screens next Wednesday during the final night of the Wende Flicks retrospective of post-Fall of the Wall films from the East German DEFA studio at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.
Anna Broder is the outgoing one. A could’ve been jazz singer, she is seriously scuffling, with only a vintage Soviet Chaika sedan to her name. Always the quiet type, Lisa Herzog hardly reacts to her father’s suicide. Instead, she decides to take her pains and frustrations out on a bank. When Broder just happened to be there to provide a timely assist, it starts something bigger. Suddenly, they are on the lam with Herzog’s pet rat (named Nikita in honor of old Khrushchev), playing Robin Hood after each bank job. Of course, it is all rather embarrassing for the reconstituted post-Wende local authorities striving to re-assert their legitimacy.
Considering Burning’s unambiguous riffs on Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, it is difficult not to draw parallels between the two films. However, Welz keeps the tone lighter, down-playing the feminist victimization themes that defined its American predecessor. By Hollywood standards, it is a decidedly apolitical film, aside from its cynical regard for authority.
Rather than document the still lingering decay of the East, Welz does his best to mask it, primarily going for humor instead, using Nikita in several gags and staging some musical numbers that stretch the boundaries of credible verisimilitude. If seen in conjunction with some of the other Wende Flicks that combine gritty naturalism with surreal absurdity, Burning will feel like an easygoing respite.
In fact, it is pleasantly amusing, in large measure due to the chemistry between leads Anna Thalbach (not playing her namesake) and Maria Schrader (who is an appropriately okay but not great vocalist). Though deliberately intended as a commercial road movie, Welz twists the genre enough to be interesting to American audiences. While it might be one of the slighter films of the Wende Flicks series, it was one of the more popular of its day. A likable diversion, Burning screens this Wednesday (11/3) at Anthology Film Archives.