When I sit down at the press screening for Chicago, the film opening the Berlinale tonight and the only one showing today, there are still 15 minutes to go and the woman beside me strikes up a conversation. Am I a reporter, she wants to know. Of sorts, I reply. Well, she isn't and she doesn't really know how she got in here. She's from Frankfurt, maybe in her mid-to-late fifties and she's accompanied her husband on a business trip to Berlin. She got to talking with the concierge at her hotel, one thing led to another and here she is.
A few minutes into all this and, given my accent when I speak German, the inevitable question is popped: Am I English. No, American. Oh. Well. What do I think of... well, just everything going on in the world right now. I tell her that I think we're on the verge of war and that, in my personal opinion, this is a catastrophe. That we may not see the region blow up in our faces immediately, but that we'll very likely spawn a whole new generation of dedicated anti-western terrorists.
Whew. She's relieved and starts spilling. Her grandfather was killed in World War I. Her father was killed in World War II. All the men in her family, in fact, were lost to one of those two wars and many of the women were persecuted for their opposition to the Nazis. "Germany has earned the right to speak out when it comes to war," she insists almost vehemently. I don't tell her that while I think Germany does have that right, I'm not actually sure Germany has "earned" it. Instead, I steer the conversation to Rummy's latest guffaw, the one everyone in the city is joking about today: His lumping of Germany into the same category as Libya and Cuba. Already I've received an email today that reads, "Fellow Cubans, Libyans and Irrelevants, demonstration on the 15th in Berlin protesting policies that lead to war, pass it on."
This is going to be a musical, isn't it, the woman asks. Oh, yes. Well, she's not sure she's in the mood. Too late. The lights go down.
Hours before the grand opening, the first TV crews are setting up
When I first heard about Chicago, I was supremely uninterested. Don't know why, exactly, since I do love the city and am usually a sucker for all things 1920s, but... a musical? Now? Why? Besides, there were so many other movies coming out at around the same time I was burning to see, that whole onslaught of films with intriguing concepts wrapped in even more intriguing packages that everyone in the US was getting to see at the end of last year. No, when that season's offerings finally made its way across the Atlantic, I'd skip Chicago and catch Adaptation, About Schmidt, The Quiet American, Gangs of New York and on and on.
Then the critics started praising it and the film started landing on several "best of 2002" lists. Well, maybe I'd catch it on DVD after all, later in the year. Don't get me wrong, Bob Fosse certainly did some fine work in his lifetime, but Rob Marshall kept insisting in interviews that he was doing his best not to direct Chicago as Fosse would.
So the first thing I notice is that Marshall is actually quite good. But wait a minute. Is he really good or is he covering with a lot of quick cuts, jettisoning cameras and out-of-focus grids and other business in the foreground through which we see the subject of the frame? Catherine Zeta-Jones's opening "All That Jazz" number is all it should be, but then it's time for the storytelling to kick in. And sure enough, Rob Marshall is very good indeed.
The story, in case you haven't heard, could have been a Valerie Solanas wish-fulfillment fantasy, but played for laughs. Several men are knocked off in this movie, two onscreen, the rest of them off, but in every case, as the women who've done the killing keep saying and singing, "He had it comin'." Roxie Hart may have the least justification of all these women for firing a round of bullets into her lover, but she is our protagonist, our window onto this world (Zeta-Jones may have the opening number, but we watch it through Roxie's eyes) and it's on her roller coaster that we're going for this ride.
Richard Gere, seen from afar, and the great jostling throng
Some argue that Renée Zellweger has little range as an actress, but I disagree. She all but leapt out at me in Jerry Maguire (admittedly, not the first time I'd seen her, but the first time she leapt) and I started looking for other performances. Her Nurse Betty is not unlike her Roxie in that both are a bit star-struck and reality-challenged, but in Chicago, Roxie's star is herself. Having landed in prison, she knows just enough to be scared but is also, well, dumb enough to forget why now and then and to start doing things counter to her own best interest. But it's when she admits that a looming death sentence does indeed terrify her that Zellweger shows there's more in her than the loopy pouting girl she was beginning to get typecast as.
Besides taking our eyes on fun rides, smartly intercutting narrative and song and displaying an ability to evoke the mood of a scene within an instant, Marshall has managed to get performers as varied as Zeta-Jones, Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly and even Lucy Liu in what practically amounts to a cameo, all on the same wavelength within the comic musical world inside Roxie's head.
The look-ma-no-hands novelty of the film, of course, is that, except for Zeta-Jones's dancing and Queen Latifah's singing, the whole cast is not known for its singing and dancing. Everyone comes off fine, though none of the voices are particularly strong - actually, I thought of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You more than once - and the dance numbers are cut so rapidly, no one has to be exactly Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, whose directors often filmed their numbers as if we were watching them perform within a proscenium arch, to come out looking spiffy. That said, in her solo numbers, Zegweller has a presence just standing there, a way of holding her hands that I, anyway, find very effective.
As the credits rolled, the hundreds of journalists from all over the world in the Berlinale Palast gave the film the sort of applause I thought was about right. It was a warm, smiling sort of applause but certainly not thundering or wildly enthusiastic. The woman and I (we never exchanged names) strolled out of the theater together and she asked what I'd write. I told her I'd probably say nice things about the movie, what about her. Yes, the film put her in a much better mood, thanks.
A few minutes on, we came across a crowd hopping up and down in the cold around some TV cameras aimed a long line of Mercedes and BMWs pulling up to the entrance of the Hyatt. I pulled out the little Cyber-shot camera I'd borrowed from my daughter, and since the woman didn't want to get involved with all this, we said our goodbyes, and for the first and probably the last time, I plunged into the crowd. Eventually, one of the black cars stopped and out stepped Richard Gere.
Shrieks and cries of "Richard! Richard!" and so on, and it was all I could do to simply hold the camera over my head and start snapping. With all the jostling, what you see is the only one that looks anything like Richard Gere might be standing there. None of the shots of Zeta-Jones actually have Zeta-Jones in them. When it comes to catching stars at the Berlinale, snapping shots from the safety of your own home is probably a wiser way to go. Or a real camera, of course.
Richard Gere, as seen on TV, and much better, too
In the subway on the way home, everyone's face has been replaced with that of Colin Powell, that is, with the front pages of all the German papers today. America is everywhere. At the Berlinale, too, and I can't help but think how odd it is that the two films (again, out of competition) opening and closing the festival portray an America that has so little to do with the one Powell has just presented to the world. Bush's America, setting out to patrol the world, knock off the bad guys, one by one, starting with an axis of evil and who knows where it'll all end. Making the world safe for democracy, liberating the oppressed.
And yet in Chicago, Billy Flynn, the defense lawyer played by Gere who knows neither how to lose a case nor scruples, says, first of the entire US judicial system, "It's a circus," and then adds, "The whole world." Underneath the laughs and the boisterous singing and dancing, there's a world where honesty does not pay (just ask the movie's Assistant DA), where whoever's the best liar and puts on the best show wins and reaps all the rewards.
Then, closing out the festival will be Gangs, whose very tagline reads, "America was born in the streets." For some time now, the movies have often seemed more real than CNN, but these days, the gap seems to be growing.