Film Scouts Diaries

1998 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Day 7 - July 9

by Henri Béhar

Day 7 - Thursday, July 9, 1998

Soccer time: France beat Croatia. Rah-rah. So the finals, this coming Sunday, will be France vs. Brazil. According to TV reports, the Champs-Elysées were festive and crowded from the Arch of Triumph to the Place de la Concorde. Here, people have started taking bets as to the outcome of the finals game, the attending Frogs (that's Brit slang for the French) begin to think that if France wins, what with Bastille Day happening on Tuesday, this will be one hell of a three-day long party. The Festival ending on Saturday night, the time is perfect.

Co-starring in Ramin Naimi's "Somewhere in the City" (US, Forum of Independents), Ornella Muti came into town. She looked like a million dollars with gams, she appeared everywhere, gave selected interviews, gave a press conference where she confessed she was a workaholic, she played golf in front of TV cameras, she posed for stills, in other words, did everything that was expected from a Visiting Star.

Also in town for a tribute-cum-retrospective, Paul Morrissey, attending a garden-party at the Golf Club, regaled friends and eavesdroppers with delightfully bitchy stories sparing no one, from the queens of Hollywood to state leaders -- none of which repeatable here. A majorly underrated director and a scholar of popular culture, Morrissey is also one of the savviest filmbuffs -- he can improvise the entire conversation at a (fictional) dinner given chez George Cukor with Garbo, Hepburn and Mae West, using lines from their respective movies. And if you twist his arm a (tiny little) bit, using lines from movies made THE SAME YEAR. Yes, he's that intellectually agile -- and why the hell do I begin to sound like Liz Smith?

Ever heard of the Comedian Harmonists? They were a German singing group that got together in Berlin in the late 1920s, became as incredibly famous as, say, the Andrews Sisters would later be, and fell in the late 1930s at the hands of the Nazi regime, for three of them were Jewish. Some of them emigrated to the United States, they never saw each other again, the one surviving member of the group lives in the US, he must be around 95.
Joseph Vilsmaier's film, a German-Austrian co-production simply titled "Comedian Harmonists" (in competition), recounts the gleeful coming-together of the band, the friendships, amours and internecine rivalries, then the group's sad fate as the socio-political situation deteriorates. It's a charming, affecting -- and authentic -- tale that manages (quite a feat, actually) to individualize every character in the film, weave their individual destinies with the socio-political texture of the time. The cast is a line-up of young German talents -- working beautifully as soloists and as an ensemble -- and what a joy to see a film in full-fledged CinemaScope! A box-office hit in Germany and Austria, "Comedian Harmonists" was snapped up by Miramax and might be released Stateside later this fall.

Later this evening, a grand party was thrown for the awarding of the 1998 Hartley-Merrill International Screenwriting Prize (the first of, hopefully, an annual affair). A bit of history here. In 1989, RKO Pictures chairman Ted Hartley and his wife (and RKO vice-chair), actress Dina Merrill founded and endowed the award in conjunction with the Writers Guild of America, Robert Redford, Nikita Mikhalkov and David Puttnam, among others. Originally designed for Soviet screenwriting, the prize saw its scope broadened after the fall of the Iron Curtain to encompass countries "with emerging economies" (don't you love the way it is phrased?); it now includes Russia, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Georgia. The First International Hartley-Merrill Prize went to Hungary's Eva Gardos for "American Rhapsody" (Variety's Managing Editor Steven Gaydos received it in her stead), with the Second Prize going to Poland's Henryk Dederko for "Fairytale Land" and the Third to the Czech Republic's Petr Nikolaev for "Cowboys and Indians".

But the event of the day, despite Lauren Bacall's arrival for a Life Achievement homage, was the Jiri-Jan War that erupted in full view of the public attending the evening gala at the main theatre. Jiri Menzel is one of the best known Czech directors. He got an Oscar in 1968 for "Closely Watched Trains", he was nominated in 1987 for "My Sweet Little Village", got the 1990 Golden Bear in Berlin for "Skylarks on a String"; on the Festival circuit he got awards up the wazoo. Generally a quiet, and quietly whimsical, man, apparently tonight he lost it and chased "Kolya" director Jan Sverak out of the theatre with a stick. Apparently -- and this, for the moment, is not substantiated by three different sources -- they were both interested in a Czech book called "The British King", the film rights to which were, apparently, sold more than once (again, unsubstantiated by the required three independent sources). Menzel had been working on it for quite a while, thought he was almost ready to go, when he discovered that Sverak had been working on the same project and was closer to production. Grabbing a stick, yelling "Traitor!" at the top of his lungs, Menzel beat Sverak with a stick out of the theatre.

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