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Arts & Entertainment Preview - February 2000

B Y   E L L A   T A Y L O R

Walking Wounded

Walking Wounded
  Rosalind Ayres, Charlotte Coleman,
  Edin Dzandzanovic, Charles Kay

"We are all former," declares an addled protagonist in Beautiful People, Jasmin Dizdar's crowded, ambitious, engrossing first feature about a bunch of messed-up Londoners thrown together in disparate ways by the war in Bosnia. When the director, now twenty-eight years old, landed in London in 1989, he was a former Bosnian refugee and a former student at Prague's famous film school, where he clearly absorbed the absurdist, borderline slapstick sensibility of the Czech New Wave. Beautiful People opens with a street brawl between a Bosnian and a Croat on a London bus, and then fans out to a cast of characters, all walking wounded in one way or another, who will be forced to confront the sources of their fear and hatred in ways that transform them. A heroin-addicted soccer hooligan, accidentally airlifted to the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia, finds himself caring for an injured Bosnian boy. An overworked English doctor, his private life in ruins, invites a young Bosnian couple into his home with their newborn baby girl. An upper-crust intern outrages her snobby parents by taking up with a Bosnian former basketball star. Dizdar is smart enough not to level the field between Bosnia's civil war and the disorder that is multi-culti England in the nineties, with its frantic mixture of xenophobia, racism, class snobbery, unfocused urban rage, and reflexive kindness in the beleaguered front lines of a crippled welfare system. Dizdar's tone is sardonic, but he's no cynic. By the end of the movie a ragged peace prevails: a baby named Chaos has been welcomed into a world primed to resent her, and two former political enemies are playing cards.

Dogma in Action

Dogma in Action
Berthelsen attempts to cope   

To work under the aegis of the Danish film collective Dogma 95 one must take a "Vow of Chastity," among whose rules are that only hand-held cameras and natural light may be used, genre filmmaking is banned, and the director must "refrain from personal taste." Curiously, these stuffy strictures have fostered rather than stifled creative spontaneity. The collective's third movie, Mifune, is a black comedy whose antic subversion of propriety and pretension mirrors the strategies of its predecessors. Inspired by the 1997 death of Toshiro Mifune, who played a bogus warrior of peasant origins in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, the film stars Anders W. Berthelsen as Kresten, a young business whiz who fudges his poor farming background in order to marry the boss's daughter. When his father dies, Kresten piles on the lies to keep his snobbish bride at bay, returning to the dilapidated farm to make funeral arrangements and care for his mentally handicapped older brother, Rud (Jesper Asholt). Desperate to manage the situation, Kresten hires Liva (Iben Hjejle), a beautiful housekeeper who harbors her own unsavory secrets. Mifune appears to be making itself up as it goes along, which on the one hand frees the narrative from the banal motivational pointers that afflict most Hollywood movies -- but on the other encourages mere whimsy, culminating in a finale a touch too sweet for its own anarchic good.

The Executioner's Song

The Executioner's Song
  On the road again: Leuchter

Given his fascination with topiary gardeners, pet-cemetery operators, murderers, and other American nutballs, it's no surprise that the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris would take his usual obsessive interest in a self-styled humane executioner. In his new film, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Morris works, as always, with intensive interviews designed to plumb his subjects' fantasies without judging them. This time the stakes are higher -- Leuchter isn't just an efficiency expert with a compulsive interest in capital punishment. This owlish, naive, and largely self-taught engineer allowed himself to be used by Holocaust deniers, who hired him to illegally collect samples from Auschwitz's walls, thus "verifying" that the buildings were never used as gas chambers. The resulting "Leuchter Report" was his downfall, but not before millions of copies had been circulated. Morris's trademark expressionist style, with its glum score and fancy visuals, accompanies Leuchter's own videotaped journey around Auschwitz, tapping absurdly and, a disgusted Dutch historian observes, sacrilegiously at walls and floors to get his "evidence." Morris's masterstroke is to let Leuchter have his head. Gabbing endlessly and pedantically to the camera, he damns himself -- not, Morris persuades us, as an anti-Semite but as a lethal innocent whose hubris and naive scientism were corralled with frightening ease to the ends of radical evil.

Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.

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Photo Credits -- Beautiful People: Trimark Pictures. Mifune: Lars Hogsted. Leuchter: Nubar Alexanian.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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