Over twenty years ago I read ‘The Painted Bird’, by the Polish-born author Jerzy Kosinski and, as I was reading it, I knew the images, the emotional impact, would be indelible. Last night, I watched the 2019 film version, and now I hope this blog introduces the work to a new audience.
The book cover succinctly simmarises the tale. The setting is an unspecified area of eastern Europe during World War II. The Nazis are invading, bringing with them their ideology of racial superiority. The Communists are pushing back from the east, while brigands of bandits are attacking hamlets. Destruction, torture and violence. Mankind without the humanity, a return or regression to barbarity. There is – almost – no right or wrong, merely who is the strongest.
The film opens with a boy, Joska, running through some woods, clutching a pet stoat. We can tell he is being chased, although we do not see by whom. Inevitably, he is out-run and out-numbered and Joska is beaten by boys his own age, who take the animal. This is war time, maybe the animal will serve as food for starving villagers … but, no … the animal is gruesomely tortured. This scene encapsulates the theme: brutal violence for the sake of brutal violence. This is the world Joska was born into. No compassion, no empathy, no mercy; kill or be killed.
The Nazis, foreshadowed early in the film by a solitary plane observed by Joska, are just one of many threats. This world, this mid-C20th Europe, is dominated by ignorance, superstition and cruelty, it is the Bible of the Old Testament, animated by Bruegel and Bosch.
Already we have seen boys, children, symbols of innocence and purity, torturing for pleasure. Joska moves from place to place, at the mercy of adults, and cannot comprehend the brutality that is done to him or in his presence. He witnesses a miller, obsessively jealous of his young wife, rip the eyes out of a young apprentice because he dared look at the mistress. While the miller is beating his wife, Joska runs away, looking for the apprentice. The boy tries to help by giving the apprentice some round objects to replace his eyes, then continues his flight realising he has, inadvertently, caused more pain.
Each act of violence serves as an allegory of that world. Blindness, not knowing, not wanting to know. Genocide victims are numbered in hundreds of thousands, in millions. Such figures are beyond our comprehension, so the power of the story comes from seeing evil on an individual level. We become desensitised viewing death en masse. Watching a solitary act of brutality has a far more powerful effect. We feel the victim’s pain and fear, we abhor the evil personified by small groups of people. People who look the same as us.
The title is taken from an episode in which a seemingly pleasant older man collects small birds. He derives pleasure from painting one, then releasing it into the flock. The other birds sense something different and begin attacking. Just one of many incidents of cruelty, but a suitable metaphor, that justifies its prominence.
However, there are some glimpses of hope. A Nazi, expected to kill Joska because he is Jewish, allows him to run away, instead firing two shots into the air. Later a Russian sniper takes to Joska, protecting him. When four Russian soldiers are attacked by locals, the sniper calmly goes to the village and with a long-range rifle, kills four people. He teaches Joska the, “Eye for an eye,” policy.
Read as an allegory, we see all vices and perversions, the depravity that humans can sink to. Yet we also, fleetingly, see hope, warmth, friendship and compassion. We see how insidious intolerance and prejudice can be and what evils it can inspire.
‘The Painted Bird’ is intense in the extreme. For me, it is an unforgettable experience.
In a previous blog I tried, against my nature, to show a positive side to Zoom teaching. Teachers, TAs, admin staff are kept in employment, albeit with significant pay cuts, while the students are able to practise their English skills … should they choose.
I’m trying to keep this light-hearted, but all anecdotes are true, based on my experiences of Zoom. CUT TO last year, our first period of lockdown.
I can’t turn my light on, I’ve got no power
First up, back in the early days, teachers went to campus and used laptops to hold Zoom classes. The first five or ten minutes were spent waiting for late-comers, asking people to put their cameras on, then to KEEP their cameras on, ditto mics. One character, a teenage boy was sitting in darkness … this was a daytime class and Sai Gon in the day in bright, big time. Said teenager claimed that he had no electricity in his house, therefore could not put on the lights.
Do you sense a ‘however’ coming on ?
However … his laptop was working (sure, maybe it was running on battery). His wifi was working, but, the smoking gun … a slither of bright light from the corner of the room. Yes, said young gentleman had drawn his curtain and was ‘claiming’ he had no power.
Do you sense another ‘however’ coming on ?
However … I had an ace up my sleeve for, off-screen but next to me was my manager. I updated Mr No-Power on this development. A native teenager lying to an English teacher is not so unique. But would he lie to his Vietnamese manager. Damn right he would.
Just the tip of the iceberg. My camera’s not working
The teacher asks, politely requests, a student to put the camera on. This is after the class has seen a slide giving class rules AND a video in Vietnamese explaining what is expected. It is expected that students will put on their cameras. CUT TO a black screen, and yet another (here is where a teacher needs the patient of a whole temple of Buddhas) invitation to turn on the camera. Student claims camera is not working. Unfortunately, student had turned ON the camera and we could all see, in glorious Technicolor, the student, bold as brass (but thick as a brick). The mistake was then realised, and the student could be seen reaching for the lower corner of the laptop, and camera fades to black.
But that’s just one or two rotten apples, right ?
Are you kidding ? I teach IELTS which is the serious subject; a good grade here is a passport to a different country, to study, to live, maybe get exposed to different points of views, philosophies and outlooks. So you would think the students would be really motivated, right ?
Think again, pucko !
I had one IELTS class with about eight or nine students, including professional people and even a doctor. Guess what … despite the rules being reiterated, the Vietnamese-language video, I end up speaking to eight or nine black screens. Every lesson.
Doesn’t your campus kick ass ?
Kiss ass rather than kick ass. They go, half-heartedly through the motions, make rules but lack the balls to enforce them.
The reasons are clear. Firstly, this is not a state school, the students are CUSTOMERS … they generate revenue. It is a business axiom that the customer is always right. A business needs to keep and expand its customer base. My campus wants customers to return, to tell their friends, schoolmates, family members, each and everybody, they produce Disneyesque promotional films of photogenic children saying how they love learning here, and how they love their teachers (ya never see the fat ugly kids with buck teeth do ya).
Oh, man, you must be puttin’ me on ?
I wish ! You can look for yourself on YouTube, though not too soon after eating; there are stomach-churningly nauseating. Furthermore, the punters are locals, they are Vietnamese. I’ve seen some YouTube videos of a South African man explaining a similar situation in China. When push comes to shove, the natives support each other. Always. Teachers are a dime a dozen, they come ‘n’ go, and who can blame them ? Customers are more valued, they will always take precedence over a foreigner (that is how we are designated). Ready for one or two final delicacies ?
But teenagers are famous for their good behaviour
Haha, yeah good one. Just a brief entrance here. I had one class, back at campus, with some teens. I began saying hello to each student. Some would just stare at me, refusing to say a word. Then they initiated a new game; I would call a customer and rather than answer immediately, the teen would say, “Me ?” with terrible over-acting, faux surprise. This carried on with every subsequent teen. Finally, a teen, let’s called her Mary, copied her classmates, to wit:
Me: Mary, what’s number 3, please ?
Mary: Me ?
Cue the Beethoven
Me: Is your name Mary ?
Me: Then answer the question and stop wasting my time.
I went on to explain that I will do everything to help anyone who really wants to learn. However, those who just want to insult me and disturb my lesson … well, let’s Samuel L. explain:
Finally, (though you can guess this one could run and run), another IELTS class. I was given a real motley crew of unmotivated, unanimated, lifeless schlimels (if you don’t know what that means, look it up, I ain’t doing all the work for you). One schliemel was a teenage boy, a poster-boy for gormlessness. He informed me, by chat box, that his mic wasn’t working. Now, IELTS is all about speaking and practising, it ain’t just watching the teacher, it ain’t TV, dig ? You’ve gotta join in or you are wasting your (parents’) money.
Did you strike down upon him with great vengeance and furious anger ?
I farmed out that hit. Stopped the lesson and let everyone see that I was contacting Customer Care who, in turn, phoned gormless schliemel. Lo and behold, the mic miraculously started working. The guy would have been happy to sit and listen for an hour or two without contributing anything. After, he could go away and laugh that he hadn’t done any work.
If the job sucks, why d’you do it ?
Good question. I’ve spoken to many teachers, in various countries, and the answer is generally, ‘What else can I do ? It’s my profession’. And, at the moment, I don’t need to tell you, travel just ain’t as easy as it used to be.
Is there anything good about it ?
No. OK, I’m pulling your leg. A minority of students are sweet, respectful and polite. They really want to learn, and I can see the progress week by week. Occasionally, very occasionally, an adult student can become a friend, while the younger kids provoke avuncular feelings. Very rarely, one gets to meet a Princess. But these, as stated, are the minority.
Richard hadn’t really spent much time with either of Jake’s Russian flatmates, Sergei and Micha, so wasn’t sure what to expect when Chris told him that Serge wanted a meeting with them.
When they ran the Czar Bar, their choice of unlistenable music and uncharismatic service deterred all but the hardcore. They also closed very early, and often Richard would arrive after work, only to find Jake making an ad hoc bar to cater for the drinkers who were, in many cases, only just waking up. Squatting a squat bar, as Jake put it. Ad nauseam.
Yet they were both friendly and had a reasonable command of English, certainly not learnt from their Death Metal bands. Micha was small, tiny in fact, but was quite solid, with a rather unexpected quirk of suddenly breaking into a breakdance routine. Sergei was of a more serious demeanour, being something of a musician, classically trained on the clarinet, which he refused to play in front of anybody, but whose tones could occasionally be heard in the Hof of the squat house. He would also alternate between a bushy, almost religious zealot-like beard with curly locks, and a completely shaven head. At this moment, in the Berlin winter, he opted for the later, a decision that lead Richard to consider him crazy. But, they had something in common; after being alone for a long time, they both now had girlfriends.
Johanna was known, at least by sight, by a few people, though she had yet to return to the bar. Serge’s girlfriend, however, had made a more ostentatious arrival.
It had been mid week, Andrei making the bar alone, though Boris lent a hand when needed. Andrei also had a new girlfriend, German, and there seemed to be no animosity over the Olga situation. Richard arrived some time before two. There were only about fifteen people in the bar, all men, except one small dark-haired girl who was clearly drunk, or something. She began jumping onto the tables and dancing, enticing some of the men to tell her to strip. She didn’t understand the words, being, as Richard later learned, Spanish, but understood the meaning, and began to comply. Sergie rushed up and tried to stop her, making her put her clothes back on, and pleading with her to step down. No sooner had he succeeded in this, than she began again, different table, same routine, same applause from the clientele.
Eventually, Sergei managed to get her upstairs, to his flat, which impressed Richard. He naively believed Serge only wanted to get her out of the bar for her own protection.
The show over, Richard took a beer and began speaking to Boris about music and women. Boris was happy with Olga, and could see how happy Richard was, now he had met a German girl. They took another beer together, and a vodka, and Richard asked about Chris and Jake. They were off to another squat bar, checking out some band.
Then the back door opened and the Spanish girl rushed in, naked, and began running around the bar, jumping on the chairs and tables, dancing away to the music. When she tired of that, she began walking around the room, sitting on men’s laps, kissing them. Sergei appeared, looking very distraught, totally at a loss. She moved over to Boris, kissed him, then another man and then another, before dancing again. Richard felt uncomfortable and asked Andrei if he shouldn’t do something, but Andrei just shrugged. Suddenly, the girl began crying and making loud, high-pitched screams. A couple of the drunken men began imitating her and laughing but Richard and Boris told them to shut up, and, with Andrei backing them, their commands were heeded. Sergei came over, covered her with his long coat, and, putting his arm around her, led her away again.
Some time later, Chris and Jake arrived.
“Did we miss anything ?” asked Chris.
“No, usual night in the Czar Bar,” was the reply.
The next week, at Biberkopf, Josef came in to the kitchen, and with a scowl slammed the phone down. Richard didn’t care; he had friends and a girlfriend. Chris on the line,
“Hey, you ain’t got nothing on tomorrow, right ? Daytime ?”
“What’s on yer mind ?”
“Sergie wants a meeting with us ?”
“Sergei ? What about ?”
“Well, he’s kinda got this, idea, kinda . . . thing he wants us to, you know, like . . . “
“You don’t know, do ya ?”
“Yeah, but it’s . . . you’ll see.”
“What kinda meeting ? Do we need suits ? Should we take minutes ? Where is it ?“
“Your place. Around one, one-thirty ?”
Next morning, Richard went to to the local Spar, picked up some water, tea-bags, fruit juice, then went to the baker to get some Berliners, or doughnuts. Then he waited.
Sometime after two, there was a knock.
Sergie’s idea, which he expressed in a straightforward manner, was to stage a play in one of the spaces in Rigaer Strasse. Richard nodded, looking over at Chris, wondering how it affecting them, when Sergie delivered the punchline;
“And I want you to write it,” he said, pointing between the two of them, “as it is in English.”
Chris just held a wide grin, enjoying seeing Richard trying to hold a polite smile amidst his confusion, not to say utter panic. He managed to splurt out that he, they, had never written anything, had no idea how to write or what to write about about. They had studied Physics, Science, they wrote in equations.
“Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter,” said Sergei with a dismissive wave of his hand. Chris clarified;
“He has the idea, ideas, just needs us to put it into a script.”
“Yes, exactly, exactly.”
Richard made coffee and offered the cakes, to buy time, but there was no stopping Sergei, and in between mouthfuls of pastry, washed down by large gulps of burning coffee, he did his best to explain.
Every so often, Richard would look over at Chris, but most times Chris just shrugged his shoulders, or nodded encouragingly at the Russian.
It seemed to be a cross between a Shakespearean comedy and an American Indie film. Peter, the old squatter, who did indeed look like a classical actor gone to seed, would be some kind of Greek God, looking down on proceedings. Richard mentioned that with Peter’s alleged nautical background (no one really knew anything about him, but the received wisdom was that he had been a sailor of the ‘girl in every port’ variety), he could be Poseidon, complete with trident and conch shell. Chris already had a pad and pencil ready. Sergei rocked back and forth, slapping his thigh, crying out;
“Yes, write it down, write it down.”
He repeated this order, accompanied by laughs and slaps, every time he liked a suggestion, which seemed to happen every time a suggestion was made.
It was decided that Peter would be Poseidon, with a shirtless Robert of the, “Shit on a stick,” as a kind of cup-bearer, though a vodka bottle-bearer would be more apt. The idea of getting these two together, outside of the Czar Bar, for rehearsals was so far beyond the realms of possibility that it wasn’t even funny, but Richard went along with it, as Sergei described even more elaborate scenarios, with an apparently endless cast.
Chris made various suggestions about who could play what part, all of which elicited the same response of laughing and slapping.
It seemed to Richard that the plot went something like this: Peter, or Poseidon, would make an opening speech about the nature of love and life, maybe with a song (a sea-shanty, Richard offered, which caused Sergei to clutch his sides with mirth) before being lured back to sleep by the vodka bottle. He would be on a platform above the main stage, decorated with sea motifs.
On the main stage, which would resemble an American diner, a bunch of young characters would enter. They were all in relationships with each other and would talk about love. Already Richard was concerned, but politely listened.
It soon became apparent that there was no plot, and that Sergei had merely disconnected ideas, partly developed, at best. Not only would they have to write the dialogue, they would have to come up with the story as well.
Richard felt himself losing patience. He was listening to Chris mention people as possible actors, knowing that even if they did agree, they would never actually learn their parts, rehearse or even remember agreeing to it in the first place. He also found it hard to concentrate as he was thinking about Johanna. They were going out again on the weekend, and he felt, rather he hoped, that the relationship was about to turn more intimate. So far he had to be content with hand-holding and kisses on the cheek.
Still Sergei continued, but then a twist occurred that made Richard want to stop the meeting, which he could tell was a waste of time.
The idea for the second act was that a group of totally new actors come on stage, and pretty much repeat all that had happened in the first.
“And what about the other characters ?” asked Richard, “where are they ?”
“And they come back later ?”
“No, they gone. Now, we have the new people.”
“But . . . “ Richard was at a loss, and even Chris, who had been strangely enthusiastic was quiet.
Chris was hoping that Sergei would come up with a better explanation than just simply, ‘they gone’, but was losing hope, nor could he quickly think of a feasible solution. But he really wanted this to work, and had already planned to ignore all of Sergei’s half-arsed nonsense and make his own play. With help from Richard.
The catalyst was hearing that Daniel would be having a piece published in ‘Savage Revolt’, thanks to a suggestion from Chris, credit for which he was not shy in proclaiming.
Chris had enjoyed his spell as band manager, but was resentful that it had only brought him stress, while Daniel had lived the rock star life. At least for the few weeks of the band’s existence. Daniel had become a local star, impressing the women, while Chris remained just a barman, always to be in Jake’s yawing shadow. Sergei was offering Chris his chance to move centre stage. He had even thought about taking a part, as well as directing. But he was genuinely shocked at Richard’s reaction.
“You can’t introduce characters, get the audience interested in them, then never show or mention them again.”
“Yes,” corrected Sergei, “we have new characters, now the audience interest in them.”
Chris tried to smooth things over;
“We can talk about this later.”
Richard continued arguing with Sergei, neither giving in. Then Richard asked where would all the new actors come from.
“Inez knows people. She is actress.” Sergei told them about his girlfriend’s acting experience and Richard resisted the temptation to say that he had caught one of her performances. It was obvious Sergei was only doing this as a way to provide an opportunity for her, so Richard, in love himself, understood, and kept his thoughts private.
Chris took this as a good sign and was already thinking about ways to simplify the script, believing the play was going to happen as much as Richard new it never would.
And Richard was right. Inez left Sergei before the week was out. Rumour had it that Sergei caught her in bed, or sleeping bag on the floor, with Micha, and she, like the play, was never heard of or mentioned again.
Part One: “Always look on the bright side of life”
Eric Idle 1979
First, a thank you to a blogger friend in USA, Haoyan Do, who asked me about Zoom classes, and how they differed from the physical classroom or, in plain English, real life. I had already decided to put a positive spin (more neologisms) on the current situation but, in the interests of fairness, I shall also explore the other side of that metaphorical coin in a future blog.
Now, without further ado, the benefits of teaching on Zoom
“If the rain comes, they go and hide their heads …”
The Beatles ‘Rain’ 1966
Not easy to capture a monsoon on a cheap mobile (cellphone) but you can see the grey sky, the clouds and the mournful trees trying to shelter from the storm. So, advantage number 1 …
1: Avoid going out in the rainy season
My IELTS students, not to mention my Top Cats from younger classes, will know the idiom ‘it’s raining cats and dogs,’ and then some ! When it rains here, the heavens open and streets get flooded. I’ve had to wade, knee-high, in swampy rain water to get to my campus. I lost an iPhone in the rain, and nearly get my foot stuck in a pothole in the middle of the main road. Now, I can watch the rain from inside, safe and dry.
Moving on, I haven’t posted many teaching blogs recently, leading to advantage number 2 …
2: No lesson planning
I only have Young Learner classes, students aged from 7 – 11, which are two-hour classes. We work from the set text books, but my manager prepares all the warm up activities, games and vocabulary reviews on ppt slides. I present them and conduct the lesson.
Some students may be rather vocal, and twelve enthusiastic youngsters can be, as we say in London, GBH of the ear’ole, meaning pain from so much noise or excessive talking (GBH stands for grievous bodily harm in English criminal law). Thus, advantage number 3 …
3: MUTE & MUTE ALL buttons
I love these options, the teacher’s friend. A student who is sitting by a blaring TV, a mummy and daddy having a shouting match, someone who wants to disturb the lesson by humming into the mic … just hit the MUTE button … bliss. Furthermore, we have a Waiting Room facility. Any student who is disrespectful or does now meet my standards of behaviour can be kicked out of the class for five minutes. This action can be repeated. I also have the option to permanently remove them from the class (though I have yet to use that feature).
Thay Paul, can you give us an example ?
Can I ? Oh, yeah, in spades ! Just last weekend, I was going through the online class rules, one of which was not to play with the Zoom features, and not to use a Zoom filter background. No sooner said, then one student began playing with Zoom, flashing said background. In my class, that got him a BLACK STAR. Student, typically, denied the accusation, although everyone had seen, and thereafter was in a bad mood, not answering when the TA called and refusing to take part in a game. Therefore, I put the student in the Waiting Room. Upon return, the student began taking part very enthusiastically, even earning stars for good work.
Next advantage is more indirect but ultimately beneficial to us all
Schools closed, traffic greatly reduced leading to less pollution. Naturally people are using more electricity at home, but in many cases, lights, computers and A/C would be on anyway. Additionally, I spend more on electricity but this is offset by not spending money on petrol (gas) or Grabbike (similar to an Uber service).
So there you have it, four benefits although nothing of real pedagogic value. The Zoom classes are a way of providing some level of education during this lockdown period, to make sure students are exposed to English: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
Teachers need to be extra patient and calm, understanding and compassionate. However, we also have a job to do, and I endeavour to make sure all the students have had an opportunity to practice English, leaving the class having learnt something of lasting value.
Alan sat alone at the small desk, hunched over a tiny film viewer, watching and rewatching a section of film. The wall was covered with thin strips of film of varying length. The top of each one had a piece of white paper, giving information that anyone but Alan would find incomprehensible.
He turned the handle, watching magnified images pass through the tiny monitor. He consulted his notes and selected the best takes from each scene, then the exact frame to be cut. He marked the frame with the puncher on the monitor. Carefully, lovingly, he removed the film from the cog wheels and held it up to see the tiny indentation. He aligned this on the spokes of his film cutter and guillotined the end. The selected piece was then labelled and stuck on the wall, at a precise point, between the scenes coming immediately before and after it.
Alan picked up the film curled on the table, held it up against the light, squinting as he saw with his eye where the next scene began.
He ran this piece of film through the monitor to find the exact spot where it should begin.
So he spent the whole evening, editing his short film.
He loved everything about making films. He loved getting the initial idea, the casting and telling the actors about the story and the style he intended to use. He loved the filming, meeting up, drinking take-out coffee, preparing shots. Now he loved the end stage, the editing and splicing. He was alone, peaceful, and had complete control over the images.
He couldn’t wait to run the rough cut through the monitor, make the final micro cuts, then play it through the projector, and see his work on the cinemascope that was the bedroom wall.
He laughed to himself when he looked at the projector. He had told Vincent about needing a better quality one, and the actor had suggested the flea market by Tacheles.
Sure enough, on the muddy wasteland there were two or three tables that had old cine equipment. Alan asked one stall holder the price of an exquisite machine and was ignored. Vincent came over and winked at Alan. He picked up the projector and then put it down. He asked the price of a totally different item, appeared uninterested and seemed to wonder off. The Stall holder sat down, back to his wurst roll. Vincent walked away; clutching the projector. Alan saw and was shocked, but played along. He stayed looking at some bits, then slowly turned and walked away at a very casual pace, showing that his hands were clearly empty and that he had absolutely no connection whatsoever with that other gentleman.
This acting lark was really easy, he thought to himself. Procuring equipment apparently posed no problems. Now for presentation.
Vincent had said that the film could be shown in the bars all over east Berlin. It was no problem to organise movie nights, and he mentioned some bars in Friedrichshain where he was known. One named Kinski stood out.
Alan still couldn’t believe it; actors, equipment, a processing studio and venues in which to screen. An audience ready and open to new work.
Alan was spending a lot of time on the close-ups of Julie. He had deliberately shot more than was required. He slowly turned the handle, so that no individual frame would stay too long under the lamp and burn.
He told himself that he was just admiring her beauty. Looking for her best angles, and deciding that all angles were her best.
He had several new scripts ready. The money for film stock and processing could easily be earned and Vincent had introduced him to a number of actors, would-be actors and people who had agreed to take part in the no-budget films.
His plans began to get more elaborate, longer films, dialogue, screenings at festivals. All was possible. He simply had to make it happen, stay focused. Berlin was his.
He followed these thoughts with others of a more personal nature, until he remembered he was on a deadline. The film could get it’s premier next Friday, if it was ready.
Alan got back to work, passing over the image of Julie with a gentle sigh.
But Alan hadn’t been prepared for the nerves. He had always imagined this moment, the screening of his first film, showing his work, his ideas, to a public of strangers.
The experience was different.
The venue, an official bar, was run by a group of young people but looked and felt like some of the more organised squat bars.
Vincent enjoyed the attention, the hugs and slightly exaggerated greetings, and Alan tried to get some of his energy and confidence. More and more people were coming into the bar, a large cine screen already in place, the projector protected. When Alan made some tests for focus, there was always someone to make rabbit-ear shadows on the screen. It got a little tired after ten or eleven times.
The time approached, as far as bars like this kept to schedules, and Vincent looked at Alan and suggested they had better start soon, or everyone would be too drunk to care.
But no Julie.
“Ja, sometimes rehearsals go on longer, maybe they had to do some new scenes. It is next week, things need working on.” Vincent referred to a play that Julie was in, a radical reworking of Baal, as Julie had described it, with a hint that radical was a very polite and optimistic description.
“Come, we show it now, then later, if she comes.”
Vincent, without waiting for a response, whistled to the bar man, who turned off the music. He put in a tape that Alan had prepared. The lights went down, to sounds of claps, cheers and whoops.
Alan’s heart froze. He was almost paralysed with fear. He reached out for Vincent’s beer and took a swig that drained the bottle. Then he hit the switch. The sound of the motor turning, a beam of light hitting the large screen. He indicated to the bar man to play the cassette, and as the first image of Vincent, in Close-Up appeared, five foot tall on the screen, the melancholic notes of Debussy poured into the room.
There were immediate claps and wolf whistles, followed by a general hushing.
Julie was next up, but the sight of her, in a short dress, sitting on the grass, just caused more and more screams. But this was good. Alan felt Vincent put his arm around him. He kept it there for the entire film.
The entire film was little over five minutes and got a further two minutes of non-stop applause. Alan beamed. His nerves, totally gone, he knew he would never again be nervous, his ideas were good, his films would get better and better. He would be a film director. He was a film director.
By the next screening, demanded by the audience, Alan was too tipsy to gauge the reaction. He had been congratulated by friends and strangers. Others had come up and pleaded with him to be in his next film. Others asked where else he was screening, had he heard about certain festivals, other Berlin venues ? Until the beer hampered his senses, he made a note of everyone, very clear, with name and contact number or address.
When Julie finally appeared, very apologetic, he greeted her, and she was noticed and lauded by the drinkers, not allowed to pay for her Sekt.
She apologised for missing it, leading Alan to suggest that she come over tomorrow and have a private screening. To his amazement, she accepted the offer and they set a time.
Vincent asked about the play and they spoke about the director, who changed his mind scene to scene, demanded re-writes, re-casting, costume changes. The actors now came in holding out their hands for new instructions, an in-joke being, ‘what was wrong with the last re-write ?’
“Not like Alan,” she said, patting him on the shoulder and leaving her arm there. “So, tell me, how was the film, tonight ?”
Vincent spoke, but Julie was looking at Alan. They smiled at each other.
The following night, Julie appeared exactly on time, as if she had arrived early and was counting down to when she could knock on the door.
She really liked the film, the style and the camera work. She was a little shy about seeing herself, but viewed it professionally and made tiny criticisms, all of which Alan dismissed.
Over coffee, Julie was relaxed enough to speak openly about the play. She had considered it a breech of professional conduct to be critical of a production, but she felt it was going to be a disaster. When asked why, she took her time and chose her words carefully,
“For one thing, there are too many people. The cast should have been cut, and actors doubling up. We never have a rehearsal with everyone there, always someone having to stand-in, and it’s hard to work up an reaction to someone reading a script without emotion.
“Then the constant script changes. We learn a part overnight, and find it’s been cut. Most of the actors don’t accept this and half an hour gets wasted when everyone shouts out their opinion.
“And we all have to work as well, there is no way we will get anything out this, financially. Not that it matters. But most of us work and have to give up our spare time. Can’t bear to see it so un-productive. There, enough moaning.”
Alan told her it was OK, he liked to hear an actor’s perspective and asked for tips. Julie thought for a little while, then began, tentatively,
“If I can make one tiny suggestion, it would be . . . how ? OK, just to be more confident. You know what you want. The actors don’t. It is up to you to tell them, what to do, not to get their suggestions. Because most actors will just suggest endless Close-Ups of themselves.”
There was a slight pause before Alan and then Julie laughed
“So I should follow Mr Hitchcock’s advise and treat actors like cattle ?”
“I didn’t say that !”
The conversation continued effortlessly. Alan said that despite the weather getting colder, there was still enough light to film in October. Julie laughed and said,
“Not for much longer. You’ll have to start directing theatre, because you won’t be able to film outside until April or May.”
Alan had never thought of this, but, of course he had an immediate cinema reference point.
“Like Ingmar Bergman ?” he said referring to the Swedish film and theatre director. “He would keep the same group of actors for both. Must have helped to develop a close working experience. Well ? Would you like to do some theatre with me ?”
“You have something ?”
“Well . . . I just might.”
As autumn once again became winter, there were other changes over Berlin. Alan would start to study theatre from the books available to him. Julie would start to get more and more attention for her craft. Daniel would rethink what medium he should use for his artistic expression. Chris would be very careful about what women he would fall in love with. A lost music student would search for direction. A Philosophy student would find his first semester harder than he ever imagined and would consider changing courses. And Richard would fall in love with a German girl who would make him happier than he had ever been, until, that too, went horribly wrong.
Richard decided to go straight home after work, a rare event, as he usually took two night buses to get to Friedrichshain, to get to the Czar Bar, to get blind drunk.
As he entered the Hof, he looked up and saw his lights on. Chris was there.
He came in, expecting warm greetings, shouts of, “Hey, how ya doin’ ?” and such like. The odds were against Richard returning home early and sober, so it was quite an event.
But Chris was sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and looking nervous, even scared. Richard also noticed Chris’ bag in the room, full of clothes.
He didn’t wait for Richard to ask, but offered two words that explained everything,
It had begun at the Sawhead concert. Playing a different bar with different bands had created a festival feeling amongst the band members and their entourage.
Chris had been telling everyone about the concert. He had asked Arizona Al to appear, and to bring his own posse.
Another new person was Carla, Veronica’s friend, who had just arrived in Berlin.
Chris and Richard went to the Russian’s house mid afternoon on the Saturday to help them move the equipment. This time, it was only the drum kit and guitars, as the bar had their own P.A. System and amps.
The drinking began early, but it was controlled, just beers to maintain the natural high.
As they were setting up, they could sense that it was going to be special; a lot of people were milling around, either bar workers, their friends, other bands, their friends, other squatters, passers-by, those who were curious about the event, those who themselves were merely curious.
One such was a man who was very tall, slightly cross-eyed, and wore a suit of fluffy fabric with a pattern that resembled a Dalmatian dog. He had bits of coloured paper tied to strands of his hair, and wanted to play. Apparently, he was a one-man band named Necrophilia, and played Goth-Death-Experimental-Electronics.
The bill was a little light and he was told that if he could get his equipment here within an hour, he could go on, after Arizona Al and before Perry Coma. Chris had insisted that Sawhead The Bear close the show. They were the main event.
Daniel now dressed the part. He had a long black leather coat, more like a cloak, and wore large sunglasses, always. He had spent a lot of time with Arizona Al, gathering tips. Daniel appreciated that Arizona was the kind of guy who could throw on any old thing, and look so naturally cool. Daniel mentioned this to Richard,
“Undoubtedly, but you have heard him ?” came the uncharacteristically cynical reply.
The bar had a front room, long and deep, but the stage area, much larger and square, was reached by a corridor, guarded by two squatters acting as security. It was decided to charge 2 Marks entrance, to be split between the acts. The bar was expecting to make a killing.
Jake allowed Chris to go on the understanding that after Sawhead played, he would bring the entire audience back to the Czar Bar so they too could make a killing, in the name of vodka.
There was the usual controlled and semi-controlled and completely uncontrolled anarchy when it came to sound checking. The man on the controls was part of the Heidelberg contingent that had descended on east Berlin, a group of ten or so young men from that western university town. His name was Thomas, a sensible-looking young man with a real job and career, working as an audio engineer for a radio station.
Thomas approached this gig with the same level of professionalism as to his normal work. Unfortunately, the bands didn’t and it proved impossible to assemble all members of a band at the same time.
Daniel was too busy talking to some women who had arrived, and even suggested that Chris should stand in to test the mic level. Thomas said no to Pavel, who told Chris, who told Andrei who marched out to get Daniel to rehearse, to drag him by force, if necessary. Daniel tore himself away, predicting that tonight would be his first Berlin three-some.
The only one who matched Thomas for professionalism was Arizona Al, who turned up early, with just his acoustic guitar. He was told he’d only have time for two numbers, and he was happy with that.
Necrophilia appeared, a large keyboard under his arm and began setting up while Arizona played. The sounds he produced made everyone listening think that the mics were set too high and were feeding back, but Thomas nodded his head and understood that this was part of the act. Thomas also seemed to be the only one who appreciated it, as well.
Perry Coma swaggered in, acting as if they owned the place and, being the local band, they kind of did.
Boris listened to them for a while, checking out the guitarist, but soon walked away, seeing no competition there.
He conferred with Andrei and Sascha then asked Daniel if he could do an extended solo in one of the songs, but Daniel wasn’t too happy, and said that they can’t start messing around with the songs now. Boris knew that Daniel just didn’t want anyone else getting any attention, and was not going to be told how and when to play.
Both complained to Chris,
“Fucking hell,” he moaned to Richard, “all I get are problems. Not one fucking thank you for getting the gig, for bringing in people, making sure they get paid, go on last . . . Veronica ! Bella !”
Veronica and a friend walked in, nervously looking around. She saw Chris and walked over, taking a kiss on the cheek. She introduced Carla, and Richard ordered drinks. Suddenly the evening took an almighty upswing.
The concert began with Arizona Al, who commanded the stage, made two or three thumps on the floor for a time beat and launched into Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’. He had the crowd from the first strum. He followed it by an original number, but the good feeling initiated kept up. As he walked off, he was patted and cheered, and there were unanimous calls for an encore.
Chris and Richard were amazed. Why hadn’t he played like that before ? They were going to have to reassess their whole opinion of him. He was simply amazing, and to improve things further, Arizona came over to them, which raised the profile of Chris and Richard in the eyes of everyone. Especially two very beautiful Italian girls.
Necrophilia played next. And it was bad. So bad and so noisy that it was funny. Both girls laughed, charming the men.
Thankfully, the performance was over in ten minutes, as the entire room had cleared. The bar made good business.
Next up were Angry Black Men, an attempt at hip hop, some Germans dressed as they thought angry black men dressed in the hoods of New York. They got the crowd going, had some good beats, but the pretend accents caused laughter from the native English speakers.
After a small intermission, Perry Coma played and their fans marched down the front, and began jumping up and down, pogoing, throwing beer and spitting as the band played a distorted hybrid of punk and Death Metal.
A couple of singer-songwriters did an unplugged set that nobody pain much attention to, then it was time for Sawhead The Bear.
The Czar Bar contingent screamed and shouted out. Daniel made sure he entered the stage last, wanting the band to be playing, but they just stood around, lost, waiting for their singer.
Daniel stood, back to the audience, then thumped his foot, twice. Richard looked over at Chris and mouthed ‘Arizona Al !’ and Chris nodded.
They got a great reception and their set was getting tighter, but they played such a wide selection of music, it weakened their impact. One song was pure Indie Pop, the next, a country song, followed by Boris playing a funky guitar pattern. It was their covers that got the best response.
They played an encore which was a much looser version of a song played earlier. Now Boris wasn’t going to be restrained, and launched into a lengthy solo, turning his back to Daniel. But it was shit hot. He was on fire. He allowed himself one look into the audience and focused on Olga. Andrei finished the song early and unplugged his bass. He walked off the stage and took a fresh beer. Daniel stayed behind to get all the applause.
Chris pulled himself away from Veronica, saying he had to see to, “My band.” There was stress on, “My band.”
After their equipment was packed up, there was a little spat. Daniel wanted to go straight up to the bar, where he had two women waiting. The band said they needed help to get the drums and guitars home. Daniel said that they could do it without his help, it was their stuff, not his.
Chris didn’t want anything to spoil the evening. He found a solution. Everything could be stored upstairs, in Pavel’s room, where it would be safe. They could collect it tomorrow afternoon. All they had to do now was wait for the money, then go to the Czar Bar.
Agreement and fresh beers.
The reason Chris was so happy was a piece of news Veronica had let slip; Johan had left that day. He wasn’t in Berlin.
The girls had another effect on them; they steadied the drinking. Despite being in a bar most of the evening, they were tipsy but no more. The walk in the cold air to the Czar Bar took fifteen minutes, and sobered them further. The girls walked slowly, but that wasn’t a problem.
The Czar Bar was in full swing and got renewed energy from the influx of new people. Chris had to work but spent every spare second looking at or talking to Veronica.
The girls finally got tired long before the night was anywhere close to ending. Richard held Carla’s hand and told her how happy he was to meet her, desperately playing up the polite Englishman angle. He gave her two kisses on the cheek, and their hands remained touching until she walked away, with a wave.
Chris also got an innocent kiss on the cheek, but there was a little whisper between them.
After the girls had gone, Chris smiled, shook Richard’s hand, and poured them and Jake a well-deserved vodka. Then the night began to fade to blackout.
The next night, with Carla sleeping, Veronica went to Chris’ room, to borrow a book. She stayed for an hour.
This was repeated several times over the next two weeks.
On the Wednesday following the gig, Richard got a call at work. Chris reminded him that he and Jake had the bar that night and that he should come over. Carla had been asking about him.
The worst of the Summer was over and although the garden was still open, it was quiet, the people there drinking rather than ordering food; less food, less washing up.
The new chef appeared to be much better, albeit very messy. He made Richard a special dinner every night, on a giant plate, and would return from the cellar with a glint in his eye. He carried a large bucket full of onions and packets of spice and milk and put this in a far corner of the kitchen. He then got two ice cream glasses. He went back to the corner and there was the unmistakable hiss of a bottle of gassy alcohol being opened. He made a ‘pssss’ sound to Richard and beckoned him over, handing him a glass of expensive Sekt. After they had drunk, the chef, Jürgen, hid the piccolo bottle deep in the trash bin.
But there was a delay in getting paid, as giving the Spüler his money was the lowest priority of the staff, so much so that he missed a connection and had to wait nearly half an hour for the next night bus.
When he got to the bar, he was in the mood for drinking and drinking hard. He took three vodkas in the first ten minutes. Carla joined him for one, looked surprised at his second and horrified at his third. Chris laughed, and jokingly mentioned that he should perhaps slow down.
So Richard asked Jake instead.
He next memory was waking up, semi-undressed at home. Half of his money was gone, spent in the bar. He couldn’t sleep but couldn’t move either. He stayed in bed, hoping to get some sleep. After this proved impossible, he made coffee after coffee and smoked the remainder of his cigarettes.
Tonight it was the east German chef. And the staff he hated. He felt like having a drink before going into work, but didn’t want a Nuremberg Part II. Then a blurred flashback; he had a vague recollection of Carla tapping him on the shoulder, telling him he drank too much.
Carla, witnessing Richard’s drunken transformation, was no longer interested in even seeing him again, let alone starting any kind of relationship.
Veronica was unhappy with Johan, had been for a long time, was sure he was seeing other women, but was still in love with him. She was fond of Chris, and tried convincing herself that he could be the new man. But she was unwilling to listen; she knew herself too well.
Chris was also having misgivings. He was in love with Veronica and now had her. He told himself that Johan would understand, and that he and Veronica could be together. But . . .
One Friday afternoon, going to visit Richard and bumping into him on Schönhauser Allee, as he was returning with two bottles of wine, he opened up.
Richard’s main priority was getting the wine open, and Chris knew better than to start his story before Richard had taken a drink.
“Just one or two, set me up for work,” Richard explained.
“Oh, I hear that,” replied Chris before speaking about Veronica,
“I just don’t know. I love her. Really, I’m crazy about her. Been wanting her for . . . ever. “
“I don’t know. Something’s not right.”
“The sex ?”
Chris was surprised by Richard’s bluntness, but saw that he was already well into his second glass. And he had got the point. Chris finished his wine, poured some more and began,
“I’m not even sure if I . . . I mean, if she . . . you know ?”
“Pop goes the weasel ?” Richard confused Chris further by launching into an exaggerated Bob Dylan voice and saying, “Ya mean she’s a slow train coming ?”
Chris laughed, then followed it up,
“She says she does, but . . . “
“You mean you asked her ?”
“Why ‘of course’ ? You got some kinda satisfaction guarantee ?”
“Well, yeah, pretty much. No complaints so far. I used to blow Monika’s mind. And she would blow my mind.”
“Well, come on, there’s a lot of pressure. You’re not able to be relaxed, right ? She’s your friend’s girl. Lucky you can get it up at all.”
“Hey, it’s up, man, I’m the fucking TV Tower, I’m the Siegessäule. Nothing wrong with . . . that end of things. No collapsing new building there.”
“Glad to hear it. But she must have a lot of stress. She obviously needs things to be sorted. Away from Rigaer Str . . . Oh, I get it. You want to borrow my flat.”
“I’ll wash the sheets.”
“Oh, fuck, man, I don’t want the details. Damn right you will though. So when do you want to . . . you want to tonight, don’t you ?”
“I want to right now, man !”
“Can’t help you there, Mush. Another drink, or will it interfere with your TV Tower reception ?”
Richard then got the giggles and went to work in a good mood. It lasted about twenty minutes in the nine circles of Biberkopf’s Kitchen.
Chris borrowed the flat twice more over the next week.
Richard had no idea what had deterred Carla. He was in the bar one night, Andrei working alone, when she came in, saw Richard, avoided eye contact and left. Richard kept drinking, asking, perhaps too much, where Olga was.
The next time Andrei saw him, the Russian was worried,
“Hey, Richard what happen to you ? You were . . . “ and he waved a hand in front of his face. “I don’t know if you get home.”
Sascha joined in,
“Yes, you got a taxi home.”
“You were there ?” he asked Sascha. “I got a taxi home ? No, that doesn’t sound right.”
“And you were trying to kiss that girl,” Sascha broke out into uncontrollable laughter.
But Richard had no idea what had happened in the bar, whom he had seen, or talked to, or tried to kiss, or anything.
But he was back the next night, drinking until he passed out on the bar. This time Chris and Jake were working. He woke up sometime after six and Jake gave him a lot of ice tea to drink.
After he had staggered out, refusing the offer of crashing over, Jake spoke to Chris, also very concerned, as to his mind, there was no question; Richard was an alcoholic and heading for a different sort of crash.
Chris thought he should do something, but had no idea what.
Two days later, Chris was going to work the bar again. He walked along Rigaer Str, thinking how to approach Richard, when a violent scream made his heart stop. It was Claude, shouting at him from across the street and pointing a finger like a loaded gun,
“You ! You fucking boy ! You fucking boy !”
Chris, totally pale and sweating, ran into Carla, outside of the street door to the squat. She told him. Johan was back and was having a serious talk with Veronica. It was nasty. Carla was afraid to go inside.
Jake walked past, on his way to the beer shop. Chris told him what had happened. Jake just nodded and said,
Chris ran upstairs and packed as much as he could, then ran out, ran all the way to the Storkower S-Bahn, looking back all the time.
Meanwhile, Richard, confronted with a never-ending pile of plates and work, accepted that getting drunk wasn’t helping the workload, it only made it infinitely worse. He was feeling truly awful, all the time.
If he carried on he would end up like the drunks prowling Berlin’s streets, looking in bins, smoking old dog ends, huddling around Imbisses to buy cheap grain alcohol and asking people, “Kleingeld, bitte.”
Not how he wanted to be.
He decided to go straight home, waiting at Zoo Station for a later bus, destination Prenzlauer Berg, not Friedrichshain, sobriety not stupor.
That was when he saw the lights on in his flat, and hoped that Chris had brought some wine with him.
Russell and I met many years ago in London, when he was an aspiring actor. His career, in this notoriously fickle business, is really taking off but I’ll let Russell present himself, and share his journey.
Hi Russell. How’s it going ?
It’s a good day actually because I’ve just been cast in this feature film called ‘Witch’. I’m one of the leads. It’s probably going to the biggest movie that I’ve been in. We start shooting in the first two weeks of October, so that is very, very exciting.
Could you describe your hometown
I’m from Halifax in West Yorkshire. It’s a lovely place in the valleys, surrounded by countryside. Halifax is a small town near Leeds and Huddersfield, and about thirty miles from Manchester. It’s got a lovely place called the Peace Hall which is incredible … but the football team’s not doing too well.
At what point did you decide that you had to be an actor ?
There was no deciding. I was working as a welder at the time, doing sixty hours in a factory and I used to go home at Christmas to be with my mum and my sister and my brother. I was also going out with this girl who lived in London. I think her life, and being around her university friends, influenced me, how she was doing what she wanted to do.
I really struggled. At Christmas I would speak to my mum and ask, ‘What do I want to do ? I don’t want to do what I do anymore’. And she just said, ‘What did you like to do at school ?’ I mentioned acting, so we decided that I would get into performing arts, do a course in acting, just to find out what I wanted.
I did a two-year diploma at Arden school of acting in Manchester, and I ended up with six distinctions. I got in at Leicester and did four years in Performing Arts. I got a BA (Hons), ended up with a 2:2 for my dissertation.
For me, the real acting, the real work starts when you’re not in that bubble anymore, when you’re just out there, getting the experience, getting your showreel together, getting an Equity card, getting headshots. Getting your first professional credit. Finding out what you want to do; is it film, is it TV, is it musicals, is it theatre, is it commercials ? Is it music videos, murder mysteries ? I did them all !
There was a lot involved and I struggled a lot when I first started getting into acting, I was seeing a counsellor, one-to-one sessions, and I continued to do a lot of work by myself. I work on myself all the time, reading books. I’m a graduate in ‘More to Life’, I’m a graduate in ‘Landmark Worldwide’ which is all about how language creates your world and how the mind can run your life.
So, it’s not just a case of changing your career, it’s not easy. But I did it and I don’t give myself enough credit and I’m aware of that.
What were your influences ?
My mum and my sister. They said do what you want to do, what makes you happy. I had two cars and a motorbike when I was twenty-one but it wasn’t about the money, it was about what made me happy.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to work in the Arts ?
Believe in yourself and be aware there’s lots of negativity out there as well as positivity, and for people that haven’t had much success, it’s very easy for them to say that it’s really tough out there, and it’s this and it’s that. But if you listen to that, then you’re taking on their journey, not your own journey. For me, everybody’s journey is different, no matter where you are in life, in your career.
Be strong, always keep thinking outside the box. Develop your skill sets, keep getting the experience. Keep saying yes to opportunities and never stop learning. You’ll be learning for the rest of your life, there’s always something new to learn.
As an artist, one is inevitably going to face disappointment. How do you deal with this ?
One of the things I do, which fits into the Landmark Worldwide, is when you have a disappointment rather than say, ‘It’s me, I’m not good enough,’ what I say is that I wasn’t right for that particular part … but there will be a part that I am right for.
Always be amiable, go into everything with an open mind, like you’re learning for the first time. Don’t assume that you know everything.
Where can my readers see you ?
I have my own website, I’m on Spotlight, IMDb, Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’m also on YouTube, so I’m everywhere, really.
I also did an eight-part TV series for TV called ‘Unexplained: Caught on Camera’, which was incredible. Look out for a monologue called ‘Borys the Rottweiler’ on Sky Arts, in which I play a dog.
Additionally, you can also see me in the Arctic Monkey Video, ‘When the Sun Goes Down – Scummy Man’.
The biggest things have been ‘Adventure Boyz’ & ‘The Lockdown Hauntings’ but the biggest thing is going to be ‘Witch’.
I’ve done loads of radio and commercials including one for Halifax Banking, which is on TV still.
What does the future hold ? Any exciting news ?
Yes, I’ve just been cast for a commercial. It’s on hold for TV and cinema but, I’ve been told, it’s going to be out on the 14th July. It’s a commercial for National Rail, and I play a father who wants to take a shortcut home to be with his wife and child. I walk across a rail track … and get zapped ! It’s basically National Rail safety. My wife is played by Miranda Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s (‘Dunkirk’, ‘Inception’, ‘Batman Begins’) cousin, so I’m looking forward to that.
The exciting news for me is that ‘The Lockdown Hauntings’ is actually being shown in Singapore, right at this very moment, at the Shaw Theatre, which is really beautiful. I’m thinking it’s going to have an American release soon.
The other big thing for me, just confirmed yesterday, is that I’ve been confirmed as one of the leads in ‘Witch’, directed by Marc Zammit and written by Craig Hines.
The film will be coming out in 2022, and it’s getting a lot of exposure. Marc Zammit is connected with Universal, Lionsgate and Paramount, so it’s definitely going to be the biggest movie that I’ve been involved in. I play a character called Thomas. It’s a 16th Century supernatural horror film.
I’m also doing a Radio 4 play next week as well as a voice-over for Medtronic which will be heard all over Europe. I seem to be doing a lot of feature films. This year I’ve got ‘Six Years Gone’ in which I play a detective. That’s coming out end of September. I’m also in another film, a black comedy called ‘Psycho List’, and I’m also in a short film which we’re shooting next week.
So, that just about wraps it up. Believe in your dreams, believe in your own path. Stay away from any negativity. More than anything, believe in yourself.
Julie Retoré sat on the grass, looking into her small compact mirror, and adding some more lipstick.
She could feel Alan standing behind her, moving ever so slightly, so as to get the reflection of her mouth in the shot. He called out and she began the scene.
Julie smiled to herself as she heard the motor of the small Super 8 camera twirl. To her it didn’t matter. It was still cinema.
Alan was well organised and worked quickly, consulting a clipboard and telling the actors what to do next. He was shooting in sequence, so they could follow the action and change reactions more naturally.
Of her co-star, Julie wasn’t so sure. She knew about Vincent, had once seen him reciting the poems of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and was looking forward to working together. He was quite the local star in the bars and theatres of east Berlin. The only problem was that he knew it. He was good and he knew it. He was striking to look at and he knew it. Girls tended to stop and look at him and he really knew that.
Vincent was taking over the shoot, advising Alan how to set-up, what angle to use, even how Julie should act. Not wanting to cause a scene or to speak out of place, she kept her peace, but resented him for spoiling what otherwise had been a very pleasant day.
Alan shouted, ‘Cut’ and she relaxed, looked at her director and smiled, asking him how she was. He gave a very flattering answer, which she knew was exaggerated, but when Vincent joined in and appeared genuinely impressed, she blushed slightly, and looked away, hiding her embarrassed smile.
She liked the story and liked helping a new director. She sensed he was a little withdrawn, but once he got started on a subject close to him, he relaxed and actually there was a problem to stop him talking. She found it charming, and refreshing that he was speaking about other people’s work and ideas, not just his own.
Her need to act had already brought her into contact with many artists who began every sentence with either ‘I’, ‘Me’ or ‘My’.
Alan had the whole film planned out, from the location (even noting where the nearest public toilets were and the cafes with good coffee) the position of the sun, for light, the style of clothing and the music.
She found all this very impressive and told him so when they had met to discuss the film.
Étude No 1 opens with a Close-Up of The Man. He sits, thinking, uncertainty on his face. It cuts to The Woman, arranging her hair. The Man now appears in Medium shot, sitting on the grass. He looks over, then back, and down. The next shot is from behind The Woman, applying make-up.
The Man is thinking over his relationship, wondering if it is working, what he is doing, having an existential crises. The Woman goes behind him, ruffles his hair and tries to cheer her up. He gets up and walks away, carrying her shoes, as if to get her follow him.
There are some fast, inter-cut scenes, showing their faces, until finally, The Woman puts her arm around The Man’s waist and he puts his around her shoulders and they walk away.
This would be accompanied by Debussy’s ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’.
“That sounds lovely,” she said, a mere hint of German in her English.
She also asked if it would be in Black & White. He said he would like to, but only had colour film and didn’t even know if he could even get Black & White film for Super 8.
“Of course you can. And you can get it processed here, in Berlin.”
“Yes, my friend made a short film. Very quick. Same week, I think. I’ll phone him and ask, but I am sure.”
“Oh, yes, so much better. As Fellini said, ‘Cinema has two colours: black and white.’”
Julie laughed and Alan just took it as a sign that he was in the right place, the only city in Europe that had a studio to develop that film stock. And that here he was, in a café, discussing films with a beautiful intelligent young woman who loved cinema as much as he did.
During the filming, there was some discussion over the ending. Vincent suggested a whole new climax, totally against the spirit.
“Not only does this man have a giant ego”, she thought, “he’s proud of it, and thinks his ego is bigger than anybody else’s.”
Vincent’s idea was nonsensical, clearly just thought up. She spoke up, siding with Alan and saying that they should keep to the script that they had all decided upon and agreed to.
“I’m just trying to make it better, otherwise the audience won’t know what happens,” he said back, more than a hint of malice in the voice.
“That’s why it works,” she answered, calmly, “the power comes from the open ending. The audience will have to think for themselves. And they will, they will ask each other ‘what do you think happens ?’ No, I like it and we should do it that way.”
Despite making a gesture indicating that he no longer cared, Vincent went along with it, but made a poor first take. Julie whispered something to him, and the second take was much better. Alan only had enough money and film for a maximum of two takes.
After being thanked and told how good he was, Vincent relaxed, and began laughing and dominating the conversation. As they walked back to the S-Bahn station, he put his arm around Julie.
Although she couldn’t see him, Julie could sense that Alan wanted to shout, “Cut !”
Pfefferberg on Schönhauser Allee, Prenzlauer Berg. Google Images
Berlin. August 1995
Life, thought Alan, is incredible. Degree attained, a prestigious job in the City, networking with the movers and shakers, the future investors and producers. A year of being, a year of nothingness. No script, no contacts, no cast of characters, no crew, no shakers, but at least a move.
Now, thought Alan, I am a Putzfrau (cleaning woman), but I have more disposable income. No exorbitant London rents, travel passes, food, the NFT membership, however, had been essential. And I’ve found my cast of characters; I am surrounded by actors and artists. My dreams are no longer abstract plans, but actual possibilities.
Berlin; he loved Berlin. Immediately. Here was a city with real atmosphere, a city to be lived in, to feel alive, every inch a film set
People spoke to you. Neighbours, shop keepers, people on the street. You could go up to anyone in a bar and start talking.
He had been in the city less than a month but was already planning on extending his stay and finding another room, or even his own flat. Such plans were ludicrous in London; a cleaner having his own flat.
Alan was not going to let anything go to waste. Every experience would be stored for reference. Every time he rode the S-Bahn, or an elevated U-Bahn, he took in all the sights, mentally framing them, he took in all the beautiful women in their summer dresses, tilting his inner lens, Dutch angles capturing German angels. He listened to the symphony of this city, he was a man with a movie camera.
Alan tried articulating these thoughts, and many others, writing to his sister. He decided to use the letters as a writing exercises, to make his views lucid. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded.
Where to start ? You were right about Berlin – why didn’t I come last year ? All that time wasted, nothing to show for it. Not anymore – I have seen a camera I like (and can afford !) and will buy it tomorrow.
Kelly is so sweet – she’s really looked after me. I’ve met so many new people. You were right about Vincent – girls love him – what a great actor he’ll be (in my films, I mean !) so charismatic.
The room is big and light – not too girly, with a computer and even some books in English (Nasti – the girl whose room I’m subletting, is a geography student and has to study in English, no text-books in German, apparently).
Kelly got me the first job. I’m up at 5:30 and go to an Irish bar near Tacheles, the arts centre, and clean for about 2 hours. The bar owner is a splendid Irish man called Patrick (no, I’m not making this up). He set me up with another bar where I work for the next two hours. I can walk from one bar to the other.
I get home around noon, in time for lunch – coffee, rolls with jam or honey, some fruit, and start planing my films !
I saw Vincent perform – all in German, so I couldn’t understand it – but he held the stage well and kept the audience’s attention, quite an achievement ! Yes – bars here are very different – any space can open, stock up with crates and sell beer. As you would eloquently say, “It’s bonkers !”
Yes – I have been a little tipsy, sometimes – everyone buys me beers, even when I tell them I don’t want one – they think it’s English politeness !!
Have meet lots of girls ! All very nice. Kelly will take me to somewhere nearby – the Pepperberg (????) – something like Pepper Mountain (???)
I hear there are some second hand bookshops around – really need to find them – read my collection over and over. Went to a special English bookshop but it is SO EXPENSIVE !!!! Books at twice the cover price. Located in a horrid area as well, very bleak, drab, overwhelmingly depressing, decades of failed dreams etched in the brickwork.
Could you save my life and send over my ‘Bazin’ ??? I have two slim volumes (not too much postage – OH, and my ‘Godard on Godard’ – how could I have forgotten THAT !!!)
Brilliant idea of yours – maybe you can pop over at some point ? How is the job ? Won’t ask about London because I don’t care !!!
Lots of love
Next evening, a Friday, Kelly, along with some friends, took Alan from their flat near the Wasserturm and walked to the Pfefferberg.
This was a huge arts complex, whose classical façade dominated the southern stretch of Schönhauser Allee. Paying the entrance at street level, Kelly took Alan up the steps to a wide, open beer garden. People sat on the walls and looked down to the street below, or danced in the centre. Buildings arranged around the courtyard were opened and housed temporary exhibitions of paintings, or were hosting poetry slams.
Alan looked around, so tempted to lift his fingers to his eyes and make a camera shape and pan left to right. What a location, he thought. He couldn’t resist; he made the camera shape and paned left to right.
Through his fingers he spotted Vincent, with some girls, and they came over, Vincent very tall and flamboyant, dwarfing Alan who was under average height.
“So Herr Direktor, did you buy the camera today ?” he asked.
Alan smiled and slowly nodded,
“And projector and three film cartridges.”
“You’re still on your first beer ?” Kelly asked him, concerned that he wasn’t having a good time.
Alan lifted it up and showed that if was over half full. Also, he didn’t smoke, and was starting to believe that he may be the only person in Berlin who didn’t. Then he met another non-smoker who came up and introduced herself.
“They told me I shouldn’t speak to you, because you only talk about cinema. Well, I love cinema too. Hello. My name’s Julie.”