Just Who Are You Calling a Bastard?
The verdict of every single person that I spoke to about Manila (2000) at the 51st Berlinale was negative. The film was described as boring, predictable, portraying stereotypical Germans and bringing nothing new. As a result, I wasn't exactly desperate to see it.
On the other hand, from past experience, I suspected that the general animosity towards the film may have been sparked by some uncomfortable content; my suspicions were further aroused when Karmakar virtually apologised for his film as he introduced it to the audience. He said that he did not know why it had been treated so disparagingly by everybody and that he had never intended to offend anyone. He had simply wanted to tell the story of all these individuals.
Karmakar's background lies predominantly in documentary filmmaking, and this is fairly evident. His latest film features various characters in a variety of different settings—all linked, however, by the general location and by a common thread: everyone is stuck at the airport, and most of them are German. There is nothing surprising about the camera work or the people; there are, however, some really strange character-led developments in the plot.
A man (who turns out to be one of the least likeable characters) tells a story about his wife and gets increasingly strained. Suddenly, we realise that the reason for his sweaty forehead and heavy breathing is that a Filipino prostitute is giving him a blowjob under the table: the tablecloth comes abruptly away and the entire airport lounge full of people can see what is happening. He storms off to the toilets and masturbates.
Another sub-plot involves an Austrian man who has planted himself next to the toilets and keeps an eye on the cleaner. It is never clear whether he wants to pimp her or have her for himself, or whether he is just plain weird. (One suspects all three.) The Austrian is very upset when the man in the incident above goes to the toilet and starts to masturbate: the toilet has essentially become the Austrian's territory, not to mention he also realises that he has missed out on his cut on the Filipino prostitute's blowjob. In his rage, he starts to smash up the toilets.
These events, although disconnected, do make sense within the context of a series of chance meetings between strangers. The passengers are stuck in a time warp and, therefore, the director does not have to explain their behaviour.
Other sub-plots are not quite as dramatic, but merely show a gradual wearing down of peoples' defences. Finally, the waiting passengers gradually get more and more drunk. Then one of them starts conducting the others and enticing them to sing a beer-hall song consisting of only four lines. They introduce increasingly complex choral structures. The effect is comic.
Although this is the epitome of what outsiders see as "German behaviour" abroad, there is something both funny and touching about this final sequence. The conducting and singing is done with such fervour and glee that you cannot help but smile. The young man sitting in front of me giggled, although he told me afterwards that he had hated the film. This reaction seems to epitomise the film: he did not like the bits that were unpleasant, but, despite himself, he became a part of the gang when they all sang and were happy together.
In the promotional pack for the Neue deutsche Filme at the Berlinale, Karmakar is quoted as saying: "I see this film as one great human orchestra. It was my task to write the score so that it didn't degenerate into a cacophony, but produced a melody in five bars or acts." In this he has succeeded, but in the process he has made a lot of Germans feel very uncomfortable about themselves or their compatriots.
Germans don't like to be seen as loud, brash and racist. Unfortunately, I have personally witnessed the behaviour portrayed in this film—but not only by Germans. The British, the French, the Italians and any other nationality you care to name display, in equal measure, this type of overt and (to other nationalities who may be present at the time) quite often tasteless national pride and pomposity when they find themselves in a large group. Or, as the tagline for the film expresses it, "No matter now far you'll travel, you'll always be a bastard."
It is the need to stick with the familiar when surrounded by the unfamiliar which automatically seems to exclude other nationalities. Watching this behaviour (even if it relates to your own nationality) through a filter, in this case on screen, is unsettling: the viewer becomes, to a point, "the other". Is this the reason why this film is disliked so much? I strongly suspect so.
Elke de Wit, 28 May 2001