Thursday, March 10, 2011

EUFF ’11: The Invisible Frame & Rabbit a la Berlin

For most mere mortals, the non-narrative experimental film and the travelogue rank amongst the least engaging of film genres. Yet, unlikely enough, a film that combined elements of both spawned a sequel of sorts. In the waning days of the Cold War, filmmaker Cynthia Beatt followed Tilda Swinton as she biked around the Berlin Wall in Cycling the Frame. With the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany, it made a certain amount of sense to revisit their trip twenty-one years later in The Invisible Frame (trailer here), with screens with the superior Oscar nominated documentary Rabbit á la Berlin at the 2011 European Union Film Festival.

Beginning and ending at the Brandenburg Gate, Swinton does indeed peddle around the Wall, or at least its remnants. We see the few odd standing fragments and looming watchtowers, decaying ghosts of a tragic period of German history. She frequently stops to examine the many monuments to the victims of the GDR regime, such as Günter Litfin, the first reported escapee killed by his Communist captors. In her voice-overs, Swinton occasionally offers some navel-gazing ruminations and recites some poetry (the most appropriate being some untitled verse by Soviet dissident Anna Akhmatova).

Frame shows viewers a whole lot of peaceful countryside, which might be pleasant, but also gets repetitive. Still, it is quite the contrast to our general mental picture of the Wall and its environs. At her most insightful, Swinton muses on the clarity with which one can see how dramatically the Wall divided people and neighborhoods, through its absence. Unfortunately, Frame makes a wholly inappropriate analogy in its final dedication to the people of so-called “Palestine.” For shame.

The Berlin Wall never saved a single life (quite the contrary), whereas Israel’s security barrier has saved hundreds, perhaps thousands. Relatively unobtrusive over most of its length, with regular established crossing points, it is protective rather than imprisoning, bearing no comparison to the Wall. Indeed, those committing acts of terror in Israel are much closer akin to the Communist guards, firing at fellow Germans like Chris Gueffroy, the final victim of the Wall, whose memorial is also found along Frame’s route.

Unquestionably, directors Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosolowski’s truly original Rabbit á la Berlin (trailer here) is the main event of the double bill. During the immediate post-war years, a hearty band of rabbits survived by raiding the garden patches on Potsdamer Platz. Much to their supposed surprise, sheltering walls were suddenly erected around the bunnies in 1961. With a nice grassy run, plenty of shade, and precious little human contact, the whiskered critters made like rabbits and multiplied. The East German guards even began adopting them to help pass the time.

However, for many West Berliners, especially artists, the rabbits’ ability to burrow beneath the walls made them symbols of something greater—coyote tricksters for their divided age. Then, as escape attempts became more frequent and daring, the rabbits’ peaceful lives were upturned. Their lush grass was destroyed so that fugitive footsteps would be more easily tracked in the exposed dirt. Formerly their protectors, the guards declared open season on the rabbits, like a red army of Elmer Fudds.

One of Rabbit’s many surprises is the extent and quality of the archival film capturing the Berlin rabbits in their former environment. Credible simply as a wildlife film (even featuring the smoothly placid narration of Krystyna Czubówna, a well-known Polish voice-over artist for nature docs), it also has a slyly subversive sensibility, particularly when it incorporates news footage of the likes of Fidel Castro and Yassir Arafat (take note Beatt) gawking approvingly at the Wall. Wistful without being nostalgic, it was one of the more inventive and entertaining documentaries to play in New York last year. Highly recommended (but Frame not so much), Rabbit screens Sunday (3/20) and Wednesday (3/23) as part of the EUFF at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago.