“Kilometre Zero,” “Lubitsch Musicals”

By Michael Atkinson The idea of a "national" cinema, expressive of a particular and coherent...

03032008_kilometrezero.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

The idea of a “national” cinema, expressive of a particular and coherent cultural esprit, is a standard of most cinematic intercourse — until you confront the real map, in which Kosovar cinema is now primed to forge an identity of its own (as the Serbs and Slovenians have done), the ex-Soviet nations of the Silk Road are struggling to differentiate themselves from Russian film and the nationless movies of the Basque, the Romany and the Palestinians still hunt for footing and voice. Add to this gray zone the films of Kurdistan, a non-country standing nevertheless with its own army, government and debatable borders, and a nascent cinema rising with the ascent of the Iranian new wave and from the crater of the American occupation. Even within this context, Hiner Saleem is filmmaker on the roam — an Iraqi Kurd long expatriated to France, Saleem has made seven features, two in France, two in Armenia and three, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in Iraqi Kurdistan. But he’s a Kurd first and only, and if Saleem and compatriot Bahman Ghobadi are any indication, Kurdish films exude a distinctive sort of mordant comedy, a rueful folky toughness and ardor for luckless absurdity born out of centuries of persecution and only a few years of reasonable hope for legit nationhood.

Saleem’s fifth film (the second to be seen here, after 2003′s superb and acidic Armenian farce “Vodka Lemon”), “Kilometre Zero” (2005) is his inaugural return to Iraq, and in 86 lean, sand-blasted minutes he takes on the memories of the Saddam regime as experienced by a luckless Kurd during the Iran-Iraq War of the ’80s. Ako (Nazmi Kirik) is a Kurdish husband with a luscious wife (Turkish-Kurd cover girl Belcim Bilgin, no hint of Sharia law here) who gets arrested and shanghaied into serving in the war with Iran on the other side of the country. Kirik is a gawky, googly-eyed nebbish, the perfect silent comedy foil for Saleem’s threadbare depiction of life at the front, comprised of random explosions, crazy Saddam propaganda, summary executions and disciplinary beatings. Eventually, during a siege, Ako takes to jutting his foot into the air out of his foxhole, hoping to have it shot off. His wish of disengagement comes true when he’s assigned to accompany a hired taxi driver back across Iraq with a KIA coffin strapped to the roof. The journey back is Saleem’s masterstroke — traversing a barren landscape with corpse, Ako and his irate Arab driver (Eyam Ekrem) are constantly being halted at checkpoints and told to park until nightfall, lest the civilians get upset at the sight of their flag-draped cargo. Along the way, as identically laden taxis proliferate to form a caravan on the highway, the two men face off and confront their ethnic animosities, but settle nothing. Saleem’s style is never wishy-washy, exhibiting visual confidence, subtle screwball rhythms and deadpan compositions, making “Kilometre Zero” a discombobulating jaunt for anyone expecting any kind of definitive Kurdish-state-of-mind movie, much less an “Iraqi” film made amidst an ongoing occupation and civil war. But belying expectations seems to be in the Kurdish DNA.

03032008_onehourwithyou.jpgExpatriation suited Hollywood legend Ernst Lubitsch well enough, when he came off a string of fiercely witty silent farces in Expressionism-era Germany and arrived in 1923 Hollywood to direct one lavishly praised and audience beloved hit after another. He even jumped to sound with uncanny ease a few years later, and virtually invented, in his own Teutonic-vaudeville way, the movie musical. Today, the new Criterion Eclipse set of early Lubitsch films for Paramount is not only a four-step lesson in how Hollywood was taught by Lubitsch to make a stiff and unforgiving technological handicap into a feather-light form of audio-visual confection; the four movies — “The Love Parade” (1929), “Monte Carlo” (1930), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931), and “One Hour With You” (1932) — are also entrancing gray heavens of impish élan, barely disguised sex talk and the toast-dry comic timing Lubitsch had already made famous back home. The goofy songs are secondary, though adorable for their antique joy, and the performers are front and center: In three out of four, Maurice Chevalier could be unctuously dopey when allowed to stage-leer, but watch him do chagrined and exasperated and you see Lubitsch’s fine-tuning at its most essential. (He is substituted rather adroitly by song-and-dance stalwart Jack Buchanan in “Monte Carlo.”)

Also in three out of four (Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins are required to replace her in “The Smiling Lieutenant”) is Lubitsch discovery Jeanette MacDonald, who’s still famous for the enervatingly pious and stuffy musicals she made in the ’30s with Nelson Eddy, but who is a discovery here, ridiculously sexy and game and saucer-eyed. Her bratty grin might’ve been the filthiest in Golden Age Hollywood. The films are variations on the Ruritanian royalty romance template (“One Hour With You” steers clear of fake peerage aristocracy, but it’s also, naturally, the most assured of the bunch), and all are, with their silk nighties and vaguely veiled innuendo, absolutely pre-Code. These were movies made not for some mythical dull-minded Depression-era innocents, but for sexually active grown-ups brimming with spunk and irony and attuned to Lubitsch’s approach, which could suggest entire unshowable scenarios with a shrug or a smirk or a raised eyebrow.

[Photos: "Kilometre Zero," First Run Features; "One Hour With You," Paramount Pictures, 1932]

“Kilometre Zero” (First Run Features) and “Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals” (Criterion Collection) are now available on DVD.

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