David Cronenberg in Hamburg, September 28th 2007
(first impressions, possibly extended sooner or later)

 

David Cronenberg in Hamburg 2007 David Cronenberg in Hamburg 2007 David Cronenberg in Hamburg 2007

David Cronenberg in Hamburg 2007 David Cronenberg in Hamburg 2007

The camera is great, I´m not... I´m so sorry.


During the week of the Hamburg Filmfestival, David Cronenberg visited the event to receive the Douglas Sirk prize. He was accompanied by one of his actors: Armin Müller-Stahl.

Apparently there wasn´t too much promotion or information in advance. Getting out of a black limousine, the two of them were mainly greeted by a crowd of photographers, while the fans were already seated inside one of the (sold-out) multiplex cinemas. "Who are these people?" an astonished young female festival-goer wonders.

Minutes before, a couple of other more or less prominent actors had already posed for the reporters on the red carpet. Generally, the festival wasn´t really packed with VIPs, as a German daily rightfully laments (taz.).

(I consider myself very lucky to have David Cronenberg sign a Dead Ringers lobby card for me...)

No less then three little speeches were held - in either English or German ("Herr Cronenberg") by the chief of the festival himself, a member of the Hamburg Senate and an editor of DER SPIEGEL, a well-respected German newsmagazine.
The speakers pointed out Cronenberg´s main themes and obsessions - well, you might have guessed it, the body - and his radical, non-compromising approach to filmmaking. One of them admitted that Cronenberg in person seems completely unlike the "Artist as Monster" (title of the study by the Toronto University) who literally shows people turned "inside out" in his films. Jokingly, it was reported that the Hamburg police was set on high alert when Cronenberg comes to down for the director´s love for the German Autobahn and fast cars.

David Cronenberg seemed relaxed and said a few words himself, remembering that he had been to Hamburg many years ago - and that it hadn´t changed much (possibly not a compliment). He was pleased to receive a prize named after Germanborn Douglas Sirk, although he unlike Sirk neither has worked in Germany nor for Hollywood.
With a smile, he wished the audience a nice evening with the "musical comedy" Eastern Promises, had the photographers take their pictures and left...

To be honest, my expectations for Eastern Promises were quite low. I can´t really relate at all to A History of Violence, not because it´s entirely awful, but because its themes have been dealt with better before, I believe - certainly by David Cronenberg himself.

On paper, Eastern Promises begins, where A History of Violence left off: being a "gangster" film with no fantastic elements, and more an actor- than a story-driven movie with two world colliding.

But in my opinion, Eastern Promises is lightyears ahead of its predecessor in just every possible way. (If you hold A History... in high esteem, in brief, Eastern Promises is a more emotional and personal version.)


It is first and foremost an actors´ film: Viggo Mortensen already delivered a fine performance in A History... but here he really shines. Portraying a driver for a Russian gangster family living in London, his appearances are well-nuanced and he seems perfectly believable as a character balancing between brutality and human qualities.

The plot centers around a diary written by a young (14years old) Russian girl who dies after giving birth to a baby girl, due to abuse and severe injuries. The midwife (played equally wonderful by Naomi Watts) has family roots in Russia, but she can´t read the foreign language so she encounters the head of the Russian family whose name is mentioned in the diary.

The normal meeting the dangerous / strange is the standard set-up for thrillers (and horror films), but here it is much more elaborate and less black-and-white than in the usual Hollywood fare. One reason for this is, that the focus lies on the Russian criminals who are depicted avoiding clichés.

I know that Cronenberg likes to be regarded as an atheist, so that might be just a metaphor, but the Russian part of "Eastern Promises" always has its echoes in the midwife´s world: in the Western / "Christmas" version of it so to speak - the film is set around the time of Christmas, the little baby girl is called Christine and the dramatic events of dying and giving birth are presented as close or even depending on one another.

There are moments of extreme violence in the film, but it´s the complete opposite of what is usually considered action: played out very slowly and with motivation.

The scene with a nude Viggo Mortensen in a bath being attacked by two gangsters is remarkable: the perfect antithesis to the usual cheap misogynist slasher violence which Cronenberg has gracefully never done - unlike Hitchcock ;)


Eastern Promises is nasty at times, but it is a joy to watch: great performances, multilayered themes developed with being artifical and rich texture - think of the Chinese restaurant in eXistenZ.