The 2007 BRM Fall Film Festival Preview #7: Julian Schnabel's <i>Lou Reed's Berlin</i>

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall September 3, 2007 at 3:55AM

The 2007 BRM Fall Film Festival Preview #7: Julian Schnabel's Lou Reed's Berlin
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This is the place where we used to live
I paid for it with love and blood
And these are the boxes that she kept on the shelf
Filled with her poetry and stuff

And this is the room where she took the razor
and cut her wrists that strange and fateful night
And I said, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, what a feeling
-- Lou Reed, The Bed, from his album Berlin

A few days ago, I wrote about Julian Schnabel's Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly) without a word of mention about his other film in the 2007 Toronto Film Festival; Lou Reed's Berlin. I did it for a reason; Although the film seems to fit directly into the great-man-and-the-creative-process themes that are Schnabel's formal inspiration, this film has a unique history that bears its own post. I mentioned yesterday that Joy Division "never got to sully their legacy with an unpopular record or a change of style," but the examples of rock-and-roll reinvention seem front and center this autumn, from Todd Haynes' decision to literally manifest Bob Dylan's constant reinterpretation of himself by having multiple actors portray him in I'm Not There to Schnabel's documentary showcasing a new, staged performance of Lou Reed's divisive, post-Velvet Underground album Berlin.

Again, some history for those who may like it; Berlin was Lou Reed's follow-up to his popular glam sensation Transformer (famous for featuring Walk On The Wild Side and other Reed classics Like Satellite Of Love and Perfect Day) but it was also a musical departure for Reed in many ways; The record featured lush orchestration (horns and strings) instead of the pared down sound of his past and, forsaking the road to pop-song success, Berlin was, heresy of all heresies, a concept album, telling a story of a couple breaking down and breaking apart in the German city's underclass; A city and a nation broken in half, two lives rendered the same. All of this may have been more palatable to 1970's-era rock and roll fans had Reed not plugged directly into the spirit and contradictions of his time by creating an emotionally devastating and overwhelmingly tragic record; Full of broken-hearted angst and chronicling a slow fade to back, Berlin was a lush, punishing free-love nervous breakdown.


Lou Reed performing The Kids and Caroline Says from the Berlin album, circa 1980.

And of course, the music was misunderstood and wildly unpopular in its time; channeling Brecht, layering the record with wild instrumentation, Reed delivered a knockout of theatricality that was more prog-rock than glam and was literally years ahead of his time. Its hard to hear Berlin today and not wonder why people were so freaked out, but context is context. I heard it in the 1980's when it felt like a heavy, stone age relic of baby-boom excess; But once I found my way in... wow. Never a generation willing to be taken to task, the "Me" crowd didn't buy the album and Reed's plans to tour with a full stage production of the record were scuppered until December 2006, when he and (surprise) Julian Schnabel (who directed the production and designed the sets) staged a concert version of Berlin at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn before taking their show on the road. Of course, tickets for the Brooklyn gigs sold out instantly and I was already in Florida, working, so like most great music in the past year, I missed the performance. Schnabel's film offers an opportunity to get caught up.

Schnabel's concert film of Berlin looks to be promising; A quick YouTube search offers plenty of footage from this tour (although most of it shot from a great distance by zoom-happy fans; I prefer the 1980 versions above), and you get the idea very quickly that this show was a very moving experience, if not the emotionally raw presentation I might have expected. Interestingly (to me anyway), I have always imagined Berlin as being like a Fassbinder film written by Raymond Chandler and the record, cinematic in its sound and approach, is so visceral and moving that you can't help but see the characters and situations as they dissolve behind your eyes. This one is going to be a treat for me; Something to see alone on a cool fall day, wrapped in a jacket in the back of a theater and thinking about the things and people that are gone.

Julian Schnabel's Lou Reed's Berlin is playing at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival in the festival's Real To Reel section.

Tomorrow: Michelange Quay's Eat, For This Is My Body

Previously:
Lee Issac Chung's Munyurangabo (Liberation Day)

Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret's Meduzot (Jellyfish)

Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely

Julian Schnabel's Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly)

Santosh Sivan's Before The Rains

Grant Gee's Joy Division