Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 5:23 pm 
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Freedom, homeland, rock 'n roll

Documentary filmmaker Anca M. Lăzărescu's feature debut takes off from her own family's experience as Germans who lived in Romania during the Cold War. It all comes together when the brothers set out to drive their father to Dresden for brain surgery in 1968. The moment chosen is a tipping point: the new Czech leader Alexander Dubček has declared a period of "Communism with a Human Face," with increased democratic-style freedoms. Russia sends half a million troops in to stop this nonsense - and this is happening just when Emil, Mihai, and "Tata" are driving their yellow Skoda over the border to East Germany. Wife and mother isn't around anymore: she was run over by a drunken Russian soldier.

Mihai Reinholtz, the older son (Alexandru Margineanu), is a doctor. He nervously tries to tamp down the revolutionary enthusiasm of his 18-year-old brother Emil (Razvan Enciu), who paints anti-Stalin slogans on a wall and is writing fiery songs to sing with his guitar. With this, the movie shows us Romania's oppression as MIhai is forced by an iron-fist local official to finger his brother's collaborator in the slogan-painting to protect Emil, and they must pretend the trip is only a vacation, not an urgent mission to save the father (Ovidiu Schumacher) from water on the brain, with surgery that can't be done in Romania.

As Russian tanks rumble into Czechoslovakia, the men's trip is halted abruptly when Russians, Czechs, Romanians, even a German countess are rounded up off the road and put in holding areas to "protect" them from this situation till things cool down. This changes everything for the three men. At first it's chaos, and the Czechs and Russians are at each other's throats. Ceacescu, the Romanian leader, makes a pro-Dubček declaration that pleases - and deludes - the assembled Romanians (he will go on, of course, to be one of the worst dictators).

In the effort to keep order Mihai is useful to the German soldiers (who for the most part are nice, even these East German ones) because he (like father and brother) speaks German as well as he speaks Romanian - and because he's a doctor.But he's looking after himself and his father. He makes a phone call, and gets the Romanian embassy to send an emissary who gets the Romanians out of this limbo.

Meanshile Mihai has met Ulrike (Susanne Bormann), a countess from Munich. He covers that her "pregnancy" to get special treatment is only a pretence, and as they cozy up, she suggests his father could have the operation in West Germany, in Munich. The Romanians all go driving - not through Eastern lands, but through West Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia. As the brothers and depressed father squabble, Mihai, fed up, abandons his role as the responsible one and jumps into Ulrike's car, asking her to take him to Munich.

Ulrike turns out to have opened her luxurious digs to be a small commune of people who reject the consumerism of West Germany. This scene is almost as chaotic as the East German holding camp, and when Emil and their father are brought by the authorities, things come to a head.

What counts most in this madcap recap of the faux-Glasnost and disappointments of Eastern Europe at this time is: pop music. Not Emil's protest songs, though they go over well with the commune folks, but vinyl records, which carry with them the magic and wonderment of another world, another planet, really, where the Beatles were making their own pop revolution. (At a checkpoint, Emil tells a guard "Strawberry Fields Forever" is about collective farming. Back at home, coming and going, the little kids are always on the ground floor of the apartment building, ardently playing at dictatorship and execution. Like a lot of this movie, it'd be hilarious if it weren't terribly sad.)

Lăzărescu's film is by turns giddy, scary, sardonic, and rueful. It all somehow works, even though the plotting squeaks sometimes, manipulating events conveniently to show off the history. Phones seem to work extraordinarily easily and people are easy to find, so the action comes off more as pageantry than event sometimes. But this is a lively and appealing film that adeptly brings home the stark contrast between the "Free World" and the Communist world in the Sixties. Both the young male actors, Margineanu and Enciu, have star quality.

That Trip We Took with Dad/Die Reise mit Vater, 111 mins., in Romanian and German, debuted at Munich in June 2016, and has been in at least seven other international festivals, opening theatrically in Hungary and Romania in early 2017. Reviewed as part of the Berlin and Beyond festival of the Goethe-Institut of San Francisco Feb. 2018.

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