J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wende Flicks: Latest from the Da-Da-R

A small school of late East German filmmakers came to embrace the anarchic surrealism of dada as the only logical artistic response to life under Communism. After the fall of the wall, the movement’s leading light was not about to go bourgeoisie. Produced in 1990, Jörg Foth’s Latest from the Da-Da-R puts East Germany (pre- and post-Wende) into an absurdist blender, invoking Beckett and Brecht in equal measure. Highly political but resolutely anti-ideological, Foth’s Da-Da-R screens next Monday as part 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.

The humor of Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel was always edgy. The poet-singer-actors had adopted the clown personae for their provocative stage shows. Their clear debt to Brecht might have been a reason the DDR authorities tolerated their act, but their friends in high places (with impeccable “anti-Fascist” credentials) surely did not hurt. Yet, their iconoclasm must have raised brows. In Foth’s film, they essentially reprise their stage roles, as Meh and Weh, two clowns recently released from prison, set loose on Wende-era Germany. Have white-face, will satirize.

Trying to impose an ideology on their lunacy will result in migraines, but it is fair to say the old regime takes its lumps. Particularly cutting is a send-up of an old style Soviet medal ceremony that degenerates into a scene worthy of the Three Stooges. There are also pointed references to the extreme shortages endured under Communism. Yet, the new reality is also highly problematic. Indeed, Da-Da-R unmistakably questions whether it is truly merciful to free them from their apparently benign prison. All the while, Foth and cinematographer Thomas Plenert capture the DDR’s blighted landscapes and dilapidated public housing in all their depressing glory.

There are indeed moments when Mensching and Wenzel’s physical comedy is legitimately funny and some of their songs are actually quite catchy (albeit bizarrely so). Yet, Da-Da-R is hardly light comedy. There is a profoundly dark edge to their antics, which are clearly intended to disturb more than amuse.

Some interpret Da-Da-R’s journey and ultimate conclusion in hopeful terms. However, the most optimistic aspect of the film was probably the mere fact that it was allowed to be produced. Uncompromising in its Dadaism, it is a pointed summing-up of the DDR experience. Like most of the Wende Flicks selections, it is a film of tremendous historical importance that ought to be more widely seen and debated by cineastes. It screens this Monday (11/1) at the Anthology Film Archives, with an introduction from Foth, the filmmaker, who will also be in attendance for the screening of Miraculi.

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