A Russian Expatriate Adrift in Berlin
The most striking image in “Gorilla Bathes at Noon,” Dusan Makavejev’s whimsical cinematic collage set in present-day Berlin, is a gigantic statue of Lenin that stands as a ludicrous anachronism in the post-Communist era. In one of the film’s zanier scenes, Victor Borisovich (Svetozar Cvetkovic), an expatriate Russian soldier and the film’s main character, impulsively hoists himself on ropes to the statue’s head to wash its face. Moments later, the police arrive and ensnare him in a net from which he protests, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Not long afterward, workers begin detaching the head of the statue from its body. Lifted by crane, the severed head is lowered slowly onto a flatbed truck and carted off through the streets of Berlin. So much for Communism and kitsch monuments exalting its heroes.
“Gorilla Bathes at Noon,” which opens today at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, is a throwback by the director of “The Coca-Cola Kid” and “Montenegro” to the Godard-like style of his more experimental films of the 1960’s and 70’s. In playfully evoking Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, the film maker, who was born in Belgrade, interweaves surreal vignettes with documentary scenes and vintage film clips to create a vertiginous sense of political and social disorientation.
Victor is a soldier without a cause who finds himself adrift and homeless in Berlin. In an early scene, he is ousted from his rooftop perch by a friendly policeman who admires his uniform, even though that uniform has lost its political significance. Victor eventually ends up living in a grubby urban commune with other foraging expatriates. When he rescues a baby from a burning house and brings it back to the shelter to be brought up by him and a girlfriend, he is talked into selling it. In the absence of totalitarianism, the social fabric has unraveled into a cheery, makeshift anarchy.
The statue of Lenin isn’t the only Communist artifact that the film uses to comic effect. Woven into the film are several excerpts from a wretchedly acted 1949 Soviet epic, directed by Mikhail Chiaureli, called “The Fall of Berlin.” In one scene, thousands of victorious Russian soldiers swarm up the steps of the Reichstag and raise the Red Flag. In another, slavishly adoring throngs greet a godlike Stalin as he emerges from an airplane. Propaganda this grandiose and blatantly artificial must be seen to be believed.
“Gorilla Bathes at Noon” isn’t nearly so incisive when it is following Victor around the streets of Berlin. He regularly visits a zoo where he observes a Siberian tiger and feeds bananas to the monkeys. The analogies are clear enough. Without ideological programming, human beings are as selfish and aimless as these bored, hungry animals. Or as one character observes, a man without a uniform has no past and no future.
Stephen Holden, NY Times, March 29, 1995
Language(s):Russian / German / English
Subtitles:English, hard subs